If you’ve ever taken a long-term backpacking trip or just been a poor college student in the US, you’re probably familiar with the horror and suffering known as the Greyhound bus. And if you’re a regular rider, the only hope for maintaining your sanity may lie in finding a seat alone.
Somehow, despite having built up an all-consuming hatred for Greyhound over my years wandering around the States, I always seem to end up sitting in one of these rolling deathtraps a couple times a year. Megabus wasn’t available in the city I was visiting, or my plans changed at the last minute, or the weather was no good for hitchhiking. Oh yeah, I’d much rather hitchhike than spend hours inhaling the days-old pee smell from the bathroom in the back of the bus, or getting stains of questionable origins on my clothes.
I’m a super outgoing person, as are most backpackers. I love meeting new people in random places and situations, people I would have never met within the comfort of my cozy domestic socio-cultural bubble. But that doesn’t mean I’m all social all the time — there’s a cycle. If I’ve been bussing it for three days in a row and without more than 45 consecutive minutes of uninterrupted sleep, sometimes I feel like I’m just going to growl and hiss at the next stranger that speaks to me. If I’ve been bouncing from hostel to Couchsurfing host to old friend, talking and catching up and non-stop socializing, I need a reprieve. My reserves of giveable fucks have been temporarily depleted, please leave a message.
If I’m feeling socially burnt out or exhausted or whatever, the most hellish scenario I can imagine is something like sharing a ten-hour Greyhound ride with a chatty old hippie who smells like he hasn’t showered since the 60s. Oh no, dear fellow Greyhound sufferers: I am not your friend this day. Leave me be.
Harrison Scott Key said it best in his travel essay, “Fifty Shades of Greyhound“:
Bus People are nothing like Airplane People, who are boring and have “luggage” and enjoy “skiing.” Bus People, on the other hand, enjoy “talking about grenades” and “screaming.”
It’s easy to hate on Greyhound passengers, with their various smells and mannerisms, but let’s not lose perspective: you’re sitting on that very same bus. A lot of the reasons Greyhound is associated with the creepiest of the creepy is because many of their customers in the US are also the poorest of the poor. Entire families traveling across the country for weddings or funerals, homeless people moving on to try a new city, and the mentally or physically handicaps are all among people I’ve met riding on Greyhounds. Your need for me-time is fine, but your superiority complex is not.
But you don’t have to be rude to score a little privacy on the Greyhound. There are many ways, some more tactful than others, to get a little space to spread out in solitude and enjoy your misery in peace. I’ve personally tested the effectiveness of each of the approaches over years of rigorous scientific study, and my research shows an astoundingly high correlation between doing these things and sitting alone on a bus (or anywhere else, for that matter).
I find the best approach combines two or three of these techniques to guarantee you’ll sit alone on the Greyhound:
Pick the right seat.
I call it bus seat psychology, a pseudo-science of which I am the proud father. See, when people board the bus and walk down the aisle, they, just like you, are praying to find a seat alone somewhere. At least that way, if they end up sharing, they have the high ground as the original claimant of the territory. If you sit in the first three rows or so, no one’s sitting down next to you. They see that empty seat next to you, and a tiny voice in their head is screaming to just grab the first piece of ass real estate they can find, but no. They push on, pioneering further into the depths of the bus in hopes of better opportunities.
Once you’ve gotten your front row seat, sit by the window, not the aisle. Sitting in the aisle and leaving the window seat open is about the most aggressive way of telling all the other riders “fuck you, you’re not sitting by me” there is. You run the risk of provoking that one guy who fancies himself the social norm police and will ask you to move over just to make a point.
There’s a better way.
Put your bag in the right spot.
Your bigger bag is probably under the bus by now if you have one, but you’ve still got that purse or day pack or smaller backpack, and you can use it as a subtle social weapon. Piling all of your things in the seat next to you is no better than blocking it with your body — it’s just rude and classless. Instead of showing everybody what a big antisocial jerk you are by constructing a conspicuous wall of luggage, just set your backpack casually to your right, maybe halfway in your lap. It should just spill enough into the seat next to you to prevent anyone from being able to sit down without asking you to move it. An honest, absent-minded mistake. “Oh, I’m sorry, was my bag in your way?” Cue shocked face.
Most other Greyhound riders are just as scared of you as you are of them, and requiring them to speak to you in order to sit down will weed out the weak ones. But you’ve still gotta do something to ward off the more assertive motormouths.
Let that resting bitch face shine.
It’s about looking as unapproachable as possible. There are a few ways to do this, but my favorite is just to look like a really, really unpleasant way to spend a couple hours. Stare vacantly in the general direction of the door and the other boarding passengers, eyes out of focus, and make a face like you smell something bad (which you probably do). If another passenger makes eye contact, as if preparing to speak, let the corners of your mouth just sink down a little further.
“I am unimpressed with your existence. Move along.”
Skip a shower.
I don’t know about other backpackers, but when I’m in the midst of a trip, I very, very frequently get mistaken for homeless. Random acts of aggression and visible contempt have made me a lot more sympathetic to those who live their lives on the street, but it’s also taught me to use society’s weirdly accepted aversion to homeless people to get people to just leave me alone.
Especially if I’m on a longer bus trip, there’s a good chance I’ve missed a recent shower anyways, but you can take it a step further. Skip the deodorant, put those hands behind your head, spread out your elbows, and relax. If you’re a man, some scruffy facial hair helps, and for women some obviously smeared makeup adds a nice touch. I always ride the bus in my most comfortable hole-plagued sweater and a ratty beanie that I’ve been wearing (and seldom washing) for years. All of this will set up a good game of ‘homeless or hipster’ that should encourage the other bus passengers to find a more socially acceptable and better-smelling seat mate.
Talk to yourself (in another language).
This one is obviously my favorite. Talking to yourself in public is both a habit many of us can’t seem to break free of (#cantstopwontstop) and a great way to let everyone around you know that you’ve completely lost your shit and are to be avoided at all costs.
But you reach a whole new level if you can do this in another language. Ditch the familiar Spanishes and Frenches — we’ve all heard it before, and nobody’s afraid of that. Try something more ominous like Russian, or a string of Dutch words with some good hard g‘s in them. Talk to yourself about the people around you, and then giggle at your own jokes. If someone for some ridiculous reason addresses you in any way, you could answer them in the foreign language of your choice, or abruptly return to resting bitch face.
Chew on the non-food item of your choice.
Most of the things in your backpack (including your backpack itself) are not meant to be sources of nourishment, but you don’t live by society’s rules. I usually go with a deodorant stick — it’s easily accesible in the front of my backpack, and it’s just kind of a semi-awkward object to start with, right? I don’t take the cap off, but I do shove it far enough in my mouth that you can’t tell. This same general strategy can be applied to a lot of things. Pro tip: grunting and drooling can make the difference between just having the seat next to you empty and having a whole row to yourself.
Another great spectacle is chewing on one of your shoes, preferably while you’re still wearing it. Or you could just take them off.
Take your shoes off and stay a while.
There are few things one can do to make strangers uncomfortable than to cry in public. Open, ugly, raw. No one knows what to do with you — do you need space? Someone to talk to? Are you hungry? Is that just how your face looks always?
Simply because I suck majorly at goodbyes, I often find myself teary-eyed on a Greyhound or other form of mass transit. Now of course, normally I can keep it to one dramatic tear rolling slowly down my cheek, but that just sounds so unfulfilling. You are a performer and the Greyhound is your theatre.
Sit there in the front of that bus, brilliant in your unbathed and shoeless glory, mumbling to yourself while you chew on a leather belt, and ugly cry your heart out. Ugly cry like you’ve had two bottles of wine and someone dropped a pen or the cable cut out for two and a half seconds or something else sort of mildly upsetting happened, reminding you how lonely you are in this miserable, Greyhound-ridden world. Would you sit down next to a wreck like you?
My favorite for bus travel in the US is Megabus, for a few reasons. The biggest one is of course price — every single Megabus ticket starts out at $1 for the first purchaser, and prices gradually increase as more people book. I’ve taken buses of 8 hours or more through the US with these guys and paid a total of $1.50 with the reservation fee. But aside from that, the buses are more modern and have wifi and electrical outlets (which, to be fair, Greyhounds are also getting in the last few years, almost certainly in order to keep competing with Megabus).
To explore your bus travel options, one of my favorite sites is Wanderu, essentially a bus ticket aggregator that scans Megabus, Greyhound, and the other big and small names. And for even more budget travel options, from trains and planes and automobiles to thumb and cardboard sign, check my earlier post on budget backpacking tips.
If you follow just a few of the steps above, it’ll be the difference between riding like a burnt-out, socially exhausted, hung over wretch, and riding like a boss.