Usually when you purchase a ticket—whether it be an airplane ticket or a movie ticket—you expect to get a seat. The logical assumption is that once all of the seats are bought, the vehicle/event is “sold out”; consequently, you will have to purchase a ticket for another time or day to make your trip or see your movie. Buses should be no exception.
Usually, they aren’t. Over the past few years, I have ridden on a number of bus lines on a variety of trips: Boltbus, Megabus, Apex (i.e. Chinatown) bus, Beiber bus, and, of course, Greyhound. Of the companies I just mentioned, 4 of the 5 ticket the “normal” way: selling tickets for a particular day/time until the bus is full, and then forcing patrons to choose another day/time if they want to ride that bus line to a particular destination. Greyhound, however, sells tickets indefinitely. That is to say, they sell tickets all the way up until the bus departs, regardless of how many were bought or sold.
What does this mean? This means that if you are travelling on a remotely popular weekend (i.e. within two weekends of any conceivable holiday), or if you are travelling to an even potentially popular destination (e.g. any East Coast city with a population greater than 300,000), you had better get to the bus station well before your departure time. Because if you don’t, someone else will most certainly be there and ready to steal your seat.
Case in point: this past weekend, I travelled to Syracuse. I took New York Trailways, which is a bus line that operates in conjunction with Greyhound. In order to assure that I’d get a seat on the 1:30pm bus, I had to get to Penn Station by 12:00pm, meaning that I had to leave work at 11:30am—an hour before the office closes. Then, I had to wait for an hour and a half (note: behind ten people who had already arrived and were waiting in line in front of me) to get on the bus and sit for another five-and-a-half hours, making the total travel time for my bus trip seven hours.
Arriving an hour-and-a-half early for a flight makes sense: you have to check in, maybe check a bag, go through security, and find your gate in what probably is an unfamiliar airport. However, arriving an hour-and-a-half early for a bus is ludicrous unless you’re hoping to catch a standby seat on an earlier bus. Which brings me to the pinnacle of my infuriation at Greyhound’s stupid first-come first-serve policy: there are always people waiting standby to get on a bus. Or at least in New York City, there are. I have never once stood in line for Bolt or Megabus and not seen a separate line of at least seven people trying to buy their way into a seat someone didn’t show up for.
If you are a standby passenger and you get a seat on a bus you only fleetingly hoped to ride, you will be ecstatic. I have been this passenger a few times, and on the rare occasion I manage to catch an earlier bus, I immediately think “I am definitely riding this line again!” However, Greyhound’s policy inevitably makes for unhappy customers. If you buy a ticket for a certain time/date, stand in line, and are still in line when the bus is declared full, you will be infuriated at having planned ahead and bought a ticket for a bus you aren’t even going to ride. And chances are, the next bus will not show up for at least a few hours. I have lived in fear of this after almost missing my bus to Pittsburgh about a year ago.
Luckily, Greyhound is no longer the only bus line that goes anywhere. Upon arriving in Syracuse, I glimpsed a big blue-and-yellow double-decker Megabus pulling out of the lot. Next time I make that trip, I will most certainly be riding Megabus.