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How to Travel Cheap by Using Public Transportation (Bus & Train)

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Do you take public transportation to work or school? If not, you might want to consider it.

We’re a nation that loves to drive. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey, 76% of Americans commuted alone by car in 2013 and almost 10% carpooled. However, there are many benefits to using bus or rail service. For starters, it’s less stressful and often far cheaper than driving, especially with gas prices on the rise again.

Let’s take a look at the perks of using public transit, as well as how it can save you money.

Benefits of Using Public Transportation

Are you sick of dealing with rush-hour traffic? Or are you looking for ways to save money on your vacation this summer? Public transportation can help you do both.

People are increasingly turning to public transportation to make their lives a little easier. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) reports that since 1995, use of public transportation has increased by 30%. In 2017 alone, Americans took over 10 billion trips on public transportation.

We’re hopping on buses and trains a lot more than we used to. But why?

It’s Safer

Public transportation is much safer than traveling by car. APTA reports that you can reduce your chance of being in an accident by 90% if you switch to public transit. They also state that public transportation is 10 times safer per mile than automobiles.

It’s Better for the Environment

Public transportation helps reduce the amount of carbon monoxide and other pollutants released into the atmosphere. According to National Express Transit, buses emit 20% less carbon monoxide than single-occupancy vehicles.

Trains are also more environmentally friendly than cars. Research conducted by CER, a policy-making group for European railways, found that rail travel emits three to 10 times less carbon dioxide than air or road travel.

It Saves You Money

It’s cheaper to take public transportation than it is to drive a car. APTA states that the average household would save $10,000 yearly by owning one less car and taking public transit instead. That’s around $833 per month.

Of course, how much you save depends on where you live. In some cities, you can cut your commuting costs by even more by switching to public transit. In 2016, APTA calculated the savings in 20 major metropolitan areas, taking into account factors such as commute time, cost of gas, maintenance, and parking. The five cities where you can reap the biggest savings by switching are:

  • New York – save $1,208 monthly ($14,501 yearly)
  • San Francisco – save $1,071 monthly ($12,849 yearly)
  • Boston – save $1,050 monthly ($12,596 yearly)
  • Philadelphia – save $973 monthly ($11,671 yearly)
  • Seattle – save $965 monthly ($11,583 yearly)

These savings will only increase as gas prices continue to rise.

It’s Less Stressful

What sounds more relaxing: sitting a train listening to music while you zoom past rush-hour traffic, or sitting in the midst of that rush hour traffic, gripping the steering wheel and hyperventilating over the river of tail lights ahead of you?

A study published in the journal Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour found that driving is the most stressful way to commute. Drivers in the study added an extra 21 minutes to their expected commute time to account for the inevitable “unexpected delays” of rush-hour traffic. In the cities with the worst commutes, drivers often have to add an hour or more. In comparison, rail travel takes the same amount of time each day, no matter how busy the highways are.

Public transportation also enables you to use your commute time productively, which can, in turn, improve your quality of life. While sitting on a bus or train, you can listen to an educational podcast, make plans to start your own business, read books to improve your career skills, or just relax or sleep.

It’s Healthier

Another way public transportation can improve your quality of life is that it’s often better for your health than driving.

The Census Bureau reports that the average commute time in the United States is 26 minutes each way. That’s close to an hour of sitting per day. Taking public transit, however, means walking to and from the transit hub and potentially standing during some or all of your commute, depending on how packed your train or bus is. Standing burns more calories, and works more muscles, than sitting. You can increase your health benefits further by getting off a stop or two early and walking the rest of the way to your destination.

Olga Lucia Sarmiento of the University of the Andes School of Medicine conducted a study of transit riders in Bogotá, Colombia, where only 20% of the population owns a car. In an interview with Public Radio International (PRI), she reported that transit riders walked an average of 12 minutes to get to their bus stops. While that might not sound like much, it adds up to an hour of extra exercise per week.

Sarmiento also found that in Colombia, 34% of men and 35% of women are overweight. Compare that to the U.S., where the majority of commuters drive to work; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 70% of men and women in the U.S. are overweight or obese.

new york city subway train

How to Save Money on Bus & Train Travel

The thousands of dollars you can save each year by switching to public transportation make it worth the effort. And with a little research, there are several ways to save even more.

Buy a Monthly Pass

Most public transit systems sell monthly passes for riders who use the system frequently. These tickets, which are now primarily sold on a swipeable smart card, often cost less per ride than buying individual rides as you need them.

For example, you can purchase a monthly pass on New York’s MTA for $121; this equals 44 rides at the standard $2.75 per ride. If you plan to ride more than 44 times in a month – a reasonable amount if you commute twice a day during the week and occasionally ride on weekends – a monthly pass will save you money.

Other metro areas aren’t quite as expensive. Portland’s TriMet pass, for instance, is based on your frequency of use. Each ride costs the standard $2.50, but with a monthly pass, all rides are free after you’ve spent $100 that month. So if you use any public mode of transportation in Portland, you’ll save money after your 40th ride each month.

Research Potential Discounts

Many public transportation systems offer discounts for people based on factors such as income, age, or disability status.

For example, the MTA in New York City offers reduced fares for people aged 65 and older, as well as for those with a qualifying disability. The average cost per ride on the subway, bus, or train is normally $2.75. With the reduced fare card, you pay only $1.35.

In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system provides a 50% discount for youths aged 5 to 18. They also give a 62% discount to seniors aged 65 and older, people with disabilities, and Medicare cardholders. Low- to moderate-income residents get free rides on the Muni system. The public transit system in your area likely provides similar discounts.

Save on Greyhound Bus Trips

Traveling across the country by bus can be a great way to save money on vacation, come home from college, or visit family on the cheap. And there are plenty of ways to save if you decide to travel by Greyhound, the undisputed leader in cross-country trips.

First, book your ticket at least two weeks in advance; you’ll often save 40% off the ticket price simply by planning ahead. If you can travel during the week instead of on the weekend, you’ll save even more. Greyhound states that you can save up to 40% if you travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and you can save even more if you leave early in the morning.

For example, a trip from Asheville, North Carolina to Denver, Colorado will cost $244 if you travel on Saturday, June 9, 2018 with only a week’s notice. The same trip on Tuesday, June 12th would only cost $162. If you extend the departure date by a month, to July 12th, the fare drops to $155. Extend it by another month, to August 13th, and it drops down to $147.

Do everything you can to avoid traveling on a holiday as fares are higher then. Consider what happens if you book the same Asheville-to-Denver trip on July 4th. If you travel on Tuesday, July 3, 2018, the ticket price will be $192. For Labor Day, Monday, September 3, 2018, the price is $189.

Greyhound also offers discounts to certain riders. Students and active or retired military veterans save 10% on tickets, and seniors aged 62 and older receive a 5% discount. You can also save 10% off the price of your ticket by joining Greyhound Road Rewards. This program enables you to earn points for every mile you travel, which you can then redeem for future ticket discounts.

In addition, before you book, take a minute to search for Greyhound discount codes. The bus line will occasionally release these codes, so it’s worth a quick look to see if any are available.

Finally, visit the Greyhound website or use their app to get the best fares. You’ll usually pay more if you buy your ticket at the station.

Check Other Bus Lines

Although Greyhound is one of the oldest and most well-known long-distance bus lines, many other companies offer local and regional services, and each one wants you to buy a seat on its route. That means you can score some great deals if you shop around.

An easy way to compare fares is to visit CheckMyBus, where, according to the site, you can save an average of 70% on bus fare. Let’s look at how fares compare on other bus lines for our summer travel dates from Asheville to Denver.

On Tuesday, June 12, 2018, the cheapest fare from Asheville to Denver is $162 on CheckMyBus – the same price as Greyhound. However, this route is not highly traveled, and Greyhound is the only company offering service from Asheville to Denver. For highly traveled routes (such as Albany, New York to New York City or Tampa, Florida to Miami, Florida), the savings can be significant. You can also check Wanderu, which compares both bus and rail fares from different companies.

Keep in mind that many carriers offer a wide variety of amenities that were unheard-of just 10 years ago. For example, BoltBus (which serves the Northeast and West Coast) offers free WiFi, extra leg room, individual screens for movies, games, and TV shows, and $1 fares. Greyhound provides free WiFi and electrical sockets for each seat, but their buses don’t have individual screens.

If you’re interested in splurging a bit, you could choose to ride on a luxury bus line such as RedCoach (servicing Florida), Lux Bus America (servicing California), or LimoLiner (traveling between Boston and New York City). These luxury carriers offer amenities like leather seats, blankets and pillows, extra-spacious leg room, snacks and hot meals, satellite TV, hot towels, a personal attendant, and even wine service. Again, you’ll pay more for a luxury carrier compared to Greyhound or BoltBus, but it’s still cheaper than flying.

Save on Amtrak Tickets

Traveling across the country by rail is a unique and fun experience, and it can become a part of your vacation instead of just a way to get from Point A to Point B. Rail is also an affordable way to travel, though you’ll need to do some research to find the best deals.

The Washington Post reports that Amtrak recently ended some of their long-standing discounts for students and AAA members. Instead, the company is increasing the number of fare sales they offer, as well as conducting “flash sales” that offer certain routes at a deep discount for a short amount of time. Due to this shift in strategy, Amtrak now changes their deals fairly often, so check their deals page for the latest discounts before you book a trip.

If you use Amtrak regularly, it might pay to sign up for the Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard. This credit card offers an appealing sign-up bonus of 20,000 points if you spend $1,000 in the first three months, plus a complimentary companion ticket, a class upgrade, and more. It also allows you to earn 3 travel points for every $1 you spend with Amtrak and 1 point for every $1 you spend everywhere else. You can redeem these points for free travel starting at only 800 points, so if you use this card exclusively, you can quickly accrue enough points for a free trip.

If you’re looking for a unique vacation idea, consider buying an Amtrak USA Rail Pass, which gives you a set number of rides anywhere Amtrak services over a specified period (15 to 45 days) for one flat fee. Depending on your destinations, this pass can be much less expensive than buying tickets for individual routes.

Find Local Public Transit Options

You don’t have to live in a major city to enjoy public transportation. Many smaller towns and cities provide local bus service for residents. If you’re not sure if there’s public transportation near you, you can use the Google Maps app on your phone to find local routes and stops, as well as get real-time updates on transit delays. The app is available on iTunes and Google Play.

Final Word

Using public transportation can take a lot of the stress out of your commute, and it can even be relaxing. While you’ll still need to do some research to find the best deals, bus and train travel is cheaper than driving and flying and comes with plenty of other perks that make it worth considering.

Do you take public transportation to work or school? How much are you saving by taking public transit?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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