Thinking of Taking the Bus? A Comparison of International Bus Companies in Europe
Hit the Road!
International Bus Travel
Many people will not travel by long distance coach. It takes a long time and can be uncomfortable. However I have done it a number of times and generally I have found it a useful way to catch up on my sleep, while travelling. It is always less expensive than the train and you get to see more of the countries that you are travelling through.
If you normally travel by train, you will probably be used to a certain level of customer care on and around your journey. You may be surprised to find this missing on your bus journey. The best companies may provide a high level of personal service, but others treat your international journey as if you were just catching the local bus to go shopping downtown.
Interior of a Typical Coach
Who is Good and Gives Good Value?
I have travelled with Sète, Flibco, Eurolines, Alsa, Megabus, Ouibus, Monbus and Flixbus, of these, I would say that Flibco was the best and second most expensive, while Flixbus was the worst and most expensive.It does not seem at first glance that Flixbus is expensive: I am always receiving emails from them, like the following, which arrived in my inbox last week:
“Visit Europe's most beautiful capitals from €5!”
Invariably, when I click on their link, the “special offer" is nowhere to be found. The only Flixbus discount voucher I have ever been successful in obtaining was the Interflix voucher but the small print and unreliable customer care has ended up with me over fifty euros out of pocket!
I have also been unable to get any advertised discount by Alsa.
When Flixbus took over budget international travel from Megabus, the fares tripled overnight. It is a little worrying to see that Flixbus seems to be taking over quite a few of the smaller bus companies which may have the effect of eliminating the benefits of competition between companies.
As well as promotional discounts, many companies give automatic discounts for youngsters, students and people on retirement pensions. For the vast majority of companies the discount is obtained simply by ticking a box when you make your booking, but in Great Britain the National Express company requires you to apply for a Young Persons Coach Card, or the equivalent for students or older people. As far as I know, Flixbus does not give this type of discount.
Smaller Bus Companies
Iberocoach offers a service between France, Spain and Portugal. Most journeys start or end in Lisbon, Portugal. Although not particularly inexpensive, the service is haphazard, the coaches cramped and uncomfortable. However they do make stops along the way to stretch your legs and take refreshment.
Socibus is excellent for travel within Spain. Although they do not speak much English, I have found the drivers to be patient and helpful.
Comes serves the South of Spain. When traveling with Comes, you are likely to save money on your ticket by buying it in person at the bus station, rather than online.
When travelling to Eastern Europe, Sindbad is the go to agency. Flixbus and Eurolines also operate services to Eastern Europe. Stay away from RegioJet, their prices are cheap and their service correspondingly abysmal.
There are distinct differences in the approach of the various companies, and this seems to go along regional lines. Those originating in the South of Europe, for example, typically will prefer to arrive a little later, in order that the passengers can stop to make a good dinner on the way, whereas a Northern European company will often place a speedy journey as its number one consideration, sometimes not stopping at all for up to twenty-four hours, apart from to pick up or set down passengers.
Passengers Like to Enjoy a Good Meal
More Than a Search Engine
GOEURO is a search engine well known to many travelers in Europe. However bus travelers may now find that the booking process is also made easier when they use GO EURO, as the search engine now allows us to book direct through them without going through to the bus company, in many cases.
I have mentioned GO EURO, as a search engine that will help you find and book a bus journey in Europe. Rome2rio is a more wide ranging search engine. It appears to take in the whole world and is useful if you wish to mix the forms of transport you take: for example, if you wish to go part of the way by train.
General Travel Tips
Matters of Convenience
On-board toilet facilities vary a great deal from company to company. Things have improved a lot in recent times as the bus companies modernize and update their coaches. However, it helps to have some idea what to expect. Northern European companies will generally field coaches with working toilets, although these will often be so small that using them presents something of a logistical problem.You cannot be certain that the hand-basins will produce adequate water, so travel with wet wipes. Drivers from Southern Europe tend to hate cleaning toilets so much that they keep the the toilet locked though-out the journey. Do not panic at the locked toilet, the driver will normally stop at regular stages in the trip, a twenty to thirty minute comfort break at a well equipped roadside inn, where you may be able to grab a cup of coffee and a snack before you hit the road again.
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Bus and Coach Stations
Most large coach stations have reasonably good security, however, many international routes go through Milan Lampugnano, in Northern Italy, which does not. If you have a connection after 9pm be aware that the underground station and all the offices close at that time. The later your connection, the more likely you are to find yourself at the mercy of opportunistic robbers and pickpockets.
When Things Go Wrong
Apart from Flixbus , only with Sète have I had an experience that needed to be dealt with by customer service. Sète answered their phone and dealt with my problem speedily, even though English was not the operator’s first language. In the case of Flixbus, however, things went wrong from the start and as soon as one problem had been brought to the attention of the customer care team, another problem reared its head. The reason may be that Flixbus has grown too far too fast.
As a passionate supporter of international bus travel, I would like to see Flixbus succeed, but that would entail a much greater understanding of passengers needs than is currently the case.
It used to be that, if you wanted entertainment on the bus, you had to bring your own and a good book is still an excellent thing to carry on your travels. However, nowadays, most coach companies at least claim to provide free WiFi while you travel. Some will even furnish you with a special app, which provides their own menu of games and videos for your amusement. The further you travel from urban areas, the less likely these provisions actually are to deliver what they promise.
Quite a few Spanish companies put on an airline style on-board movie on a long journey. It would be a good thing if other companies were to follow their example.
Bring Your Own Entertainment!
The journey by bus is a little longer. As well as my sleep I also take the time to catch up on my reading. Bill Bryden's adventures always have me in fits of laughter. They make my travel mishaps more bearable.
For looking after customers while they are actually on the road, Eurolines is the clear winner. They maintain numerous offices at every major stop along the way. You can go in there and sort out any problems you have quickly and efficiently. There will often be a small waiting room attached, sometimes, even with a free public toilet. Flixbus again comes out worst. They have one or two small kiosks here and there, but the staff in them can only sell tickets and are unable to help with any other problems you may have. In general, you will find neither an office nor a kiosk and you will have to try to solve your problems yourself, probably with an out of date timetable.
If you are travelling to Portugal or Luxembourg, have no hesitation in taking the bus. Flibco with look after you, provide you with frequent stops, friendly, helpful, polite drivers, including food and drink on board. If the destination of your choice is served only by Flixbus, think twice. Also, bear in mind that I have found Alsa impossible to book online and I am not alone in this. If you are travelling in or around Spain, try the lesser known carrier, Monbus.
- Check the schedules: It is well worth checking the schedules displayed around you, while you wait for your bus. Some companies do not advertise anywhere other than their home country, for example, Italian carrier, buscenter.it , so checking at the station will literally be the only way of finding out about what may well turn out to be a really useful connection.
- Compare ticket prices: You will often find that tickets booked online are cheaper. The most expensive ticket is the one you buy from your driver, immediately prior to departure.
Sadly, this Bus is No Longer Available!
Neither is the Ferry!
Many journeys in Europe will involve a connection via ferry. This should be relatively painless, as you are able to leave all your luggage on your vehicle, while you go on board to enjoy a meal, a drink, or a game in the casino. The most nerve wracking part may well be finding your way to your vehicle when the boat docks, as there will frequently be more than one coach from the same agency parked on the same deck.
The longest ferry crossings you are likely to experience are between the UK and Spain (up to 24 hours) or between the UK and Ireland (3 and a half hours). These will, correspondingly, be the more expensive tickets you will buy. I will deal with Ireland first. Typically, you will get a National Express bus (no:817) from the UK. It has stops all the way from Victoria in London, through Birmingham to Glasgow in Scotland. You will leave the bus at Holyhead, in Wales, where the ferry will be waiting to take you across the Irish Sea to Dublin.
Crossings between the UK and France will usually be made by Eurostar, a train which runs under the French/English Channel.
You drive on to the train at Dover or Calais and get off at Calais or Dover on the other side. The journey is fast and cheap. You may leave your vehicle to hang out on a narrow passageway or use the basic toilets. As the ferry trip tends to be the most expensive part of the journey, most coach companies will choose the Eurostar option, if it is available.
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When Things go Very Wrong
If you are stranded, you will need to buy your way out of trouble, so stash some euros in your shoe, enough to pay for an overnight stay or a long taxi ride.You will not necessarily lose this money. You can claim it from insurance (keep any proof of purchase). The company you booked with is liable for any failure in fulfilling your transport contract with them.