Monday, September 20, 2010

Tips for Traveling by Bus and Train

After trips to Portland, San Francisco, and Baja Mexico, I'm starting to get the hang of traveling by bus and train. Here's what I've learned.

Train in Canada -
Train (and bus) in the USA -
Bus in Canada -
Bus in the USA -
Bus in Baja -

One problem with living in Saskatoon, is that you can only get into the USA by bus or train by going West to Vancouver or East to Toronto. From Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba you can drive across the border many places, and you can fly across the border to various places, but you can't go by bus or train. (As far as I know - if there are other options, please let me know.)

I took Via Rail from Saskatoon to Vancouver (and back) on my first trip to Portland in the spring. I prefer the train over bus, but the other two trips I ended up taking the bus. The bus only takes 24 hours and goes every day (at multiple times), whereas the train takes 36 hours and only goes three times a week. But it's definitely worth taking the train at least once.

For Greyhound it definitely pays to book ahead. The three week advance fare is almost half the full fare. And you can still change the date of travel if you need to. WARNING: If you think you may need to change the date of your ticket, do NOT choose the print ticket at home option. These tickets are not changeable. Choose the "Will Call" option where you pick up your ticket at the station. Just make sure the ticket counter is open at the time you're leaving. You may need to specifically point out it's a "Will Call" ticket or they can get confused.

You can catch Amtrak directly from Vancouver (BC). This is the easiest way to cross the border - you don't have to get your luggage or get off the train - an official gets on the train and checks your passport while it's moving. On the bus you have to get off, pick up your luggage, go through customs, and then get back on the bus.

The Amtrak train only leaves Vancouver once a day at  6:40 am. There are later Amtrak departures, but they use a bus from Vancouver to Seattle. Both ways work fine. I like the Amtrak buses a little better than Greyhound - they seem to stop less and not be so crowded (at least between Vancouver and Seattle).

Amtrak on the west coast is split up into several routes. The Amtrak Cascades goes from Vancouver to Portland. The Coast Starlight goes from Seattle to Los Angeles. The Pacific Surfliner goes from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. This means you may need to switch trains depending on where you're traveling from and to, but the routes overlap so you have some choices where to stop.

For Amtrak, I mostly bought tickets online. The one time I tried to buy a ticket at the station they told me the train was sold out, but when I double checked online I was able to buy a ticket. I was told the trains are busiest on Friday and Sunday.

When I could I would take my overnight stops where I had to change trains anyway. This eliminated waiting around in stations, and also potential missed connections if the train was late. Both Seattle and Portland are great places to stop overnight. I avoided stopping overnight in Los Angeles because the idea didn't seem very attractive, but I'm sure there's nice things there too.

Note: The train doesn't actually go through San Francisco. You have to get off at Emeryville and take another bus or train from there. Or you can stop in Oakland like I did and take the ferry across to San Francisco.

I ended up deciding on a couple of rules of thumb - don't go more than 24 hours without stopping, and try to arrive at your destination before dark, preferably early enough to have supper. Stopping overnight is definitely appreciated after a night on the bus or train, but it does mean adding extra time and the cost of hotels. But if you're short of time, traveling by bus or train is not the best option anyway. Cost-wise, you'd probably do better stopping in some of the smaller towns rather than the big cities.

You have a couple of options getting from San Diego to the Tijuana central bus station. You can take the trolley to the border, cross on foot, and then take a bus or taxi. Or, you can take Greyhound from San Diego to the Tijuana bus station. That's what I did and I'd say it's the easiest option. Crossing from the USA to Mexico I didn't even have to get off the bus or even show my passport. Coming back you have to get off the bus and go through US customs, but you bypass the huge line of people crossing on foot. The part I found confusing is that when you get out of customs the bus is nowhere to be seen - you have to walk a block to the bus station and catch a new bus.

The Tijuana bus station is quite civilized, although don't expect to see any Americans or Canadians around. In Mexico (and most places in Central and South America) there are multiple bus companies, not like in Canada and the USA where Greyhound pretty much has a monopoly on buses. So the bus station will have counters for multiple countries. You have to decide which one to go to to buy your ticket.

However, for Baja there only appears to be one choice - Aguila. Their web site is in Spanish but it's not too hard to navigate even if you don't know much Spanish. (Note: I had problems using it with Chrome or Safari, try Internet Explorer or Firefox.) Also, the prices are in pesos. You can book your ticket online ahead of time, which is what I did going south, but on my return trip I just bought tickets either the day before, or immediately before traveling. I never had a problem with the bus being full, but potentially you could. (Greyhound will put on extra buses if required, but I don't think Aguila would.) Make sure you have enough cash (Mexican or US) to buy your tickets, don't expect to pay with a debit or credit card. (But ATM's are fairly common so you as long as you've got your bank card it's not hard to get cash.) Also, consider carrying something like Gravol for motion sickness. I don't normally have trouble with this, but even I got queasy on some of the bumping swaying bus rides in Mexico.

On Via Rail or Amtrak trains, don't bother checking your bags, there is plenty of space either in the overhead racks or in the luggage space at the end of the cars. The only advantage to checking your bags would be if you had connections where you had to switch trains and you didn't want to have to deal with your luggage. But if you're going to travel by bus and train, I'd strongly recommend traveling with just a backpack, it makes life a whole lot easier. And it's often cheaper because you can walk from the bus or train station instead of having to take a taxi. One advantage to bus and train is that most of the stations are within walking distance of downtown as opposed to airports that are often miles away.

Even (especially) if it's the heat of summer, be prepared for cold trains and buses. The air conditioning often seems to have only one setting - full blast. You'll at least want a sweater, and if you're traveling overnight, I'd recommend carrying a blanket. I have an Eagle Creek fleece travel blanket that stuffs into its own pocket, and when it's not cold, it makes a good pillow.

Although the trains have snack bars and dining cars, and the buses make meal stops, I prefer to take some food with me so I don't end up eating junk food.

The Vancouver train station conveniently serves Via Rail, Amtrak, and Greyhound. Note: The Amtrak buses do not operate out of the Greyhound part of the station. They arrive and depart from the front of the station - look for a small sign. 

The Seattle train station doesn't have anything to eat but there are several places close by. For coffee, my favorite was Zeitgeist. If you have time, check out the aquarium - it's a good one.

The Portland train station is within walking distance of downtown, but if it's late or you're tired, it's within the free transit area - just walk around the corner and catch the MAX light rail to downtown (get used to the homeless people, there are lots of them). The Portland train station is also one of the few with free wifi. There's a snack bar in the station and a fancier restaurant attached to the station, but apart from that there's not much really close. For more coffee shops and restaurants (and the Patagonia store) head west from the train station on Hoyt to 10th to Jamison Square in the Pearl district. To get to or from downtown from the Jamison Square area you can take the Streetcar (but be aware that it's outside the free zone). If you have time in Portland, don't miss the huge Powell's bookstore. The zoo and Japanese gardens are also nice.

There's not much around the Oakland train station. The Jack London Square shopping area is a few blocks away but otherwise it's a somewhat seedy area.

San Diego's train station is close to downtown and the Greyhound station is just a few blocks away. If you've got time, the San Diego zoo is a good one.

Unfortunately, bus and train are not a lot cheaper than flying, especially if you get a cheap flight. (Flying, like many things in our oil based economy, is amazingly cheap, at least until the oil runs out.) But bus and train are more environmentally friendly, potentially if not actually. And because you have to actually experience the distance you're traveling, you're a lot less likely to flit across the continent for a meeting or to go shopping. And to me, experiencing the ground you're traveling over is one of the best parts of this kind of travel.

For more details on restaurants and coffee shops and places to stay, check out my previous blog posts from my trips.


  1. All the tips that you have shared over here are really nice and very useful to most of all people. This tips will be useful to many people as there are many people who are still travelling by bus or train.

  2. I admire you for taking the time to do this kind of travelling. How do you think it compares to two people travelling in a car, re: carbon impact? I love land travel, too, but as yet, I'm not willing to give up the convenience of the car. Thanks for writing my current favourite blog!


  3. I think two (or more) people travelling by car compares pretty well. Obviously, the more efficient the car, the better. And, as with bus and train, there is at least the potential to have much more efficient cars, and even cars that don't rely on oil.

  4. There are a lot of bus companies that operate in Baja California. Most don't maintain websites.

    Just as you cross the border you will find one bus station (there are two others) to take you all the way down the peninsula or over to the mainland.

    We have maps and descriptions on our blog.

  5. See, I knew that flying wasn't good. All this time I was right :o) I get to experience the ground travel every day! Even if it's over the same ground all the time there's still lots to see! I'm definitely with Catherine, I'm a car person. I don't particularly like people so the bus is a no-go and I'm too poor for the train. Plus you can fold the seats down and sleep in your car so you don't have to pay for a hotel room. And you can bring a cooler with food so you don't have to always eat at restaurants.

  6. Hey, you can actually cross the border south of Winnipeg - Jefferson Lines will take you to Fargo, ND.

  7. That's great, thanks for the info!

  8. Thanks for the knowledge about the traveling with buses and train.These tips really help me during my next visit.these will be helpful to other travelers also which prefer public transport rather than personal during overseas travel.