What It Was Like to Take a Greyhound Bus From Atlanta to Birmingham, Alabama
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In our full-time travels around the world, Katie and I have experienced most forms of transportation. We have been aboard high-speed trains in Europe and Japan, a slow overnight train through Mongolia and Amtrak across the US. We have flown the best business-class service in the air and a low-cost airline within Pakistan. We have driven an RV around the US and taken tuk tuks through Thailand.
But we'd never tried Greyhound.
We are veterans of Flixbus (in Europe and the US) and Megabus, but we'd never considered Greyhound -- perhaps because most Americans have little positive to say about this decades-old, low-cost option for intercity travel.
So when Greyhound turned out to be our best option on paper between Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama over Memorial Day weekend, we decided to give it a try.
Why did we go Greyhound?
First, we checked our usual options. We quickly confirmed that airfare for the short hop was absurd -- both in miles and cash.
So we went to our go-to for one-way journeys: AutoSlash. The website for discount car rentals has revolutionized our travels while digital nomading around the world, and it's been especially helpful when we need one-way travel between family members in the Southeast. The trouble is, we were traveling on a holiday weekend and the rates were much higher than we expected -- although some might consider $144 reasonable for a one-way, one-day rental.
We checked the Megabus schedule between Atlanta and Birmingham but the schedule for the twice-daily buses didn't fit our schedule. How about Amtrak? The fare wasn't bad, but the departure was earlier than we wanted.
Finally, we checked Greyhound and found that both the schedule and the fare were just right. For $20 each we could get from Atlanta to Birmingham. With just one stop along the way, it was about as direct as we could get. And we could finally have the Greyhound experience.
We splurged an extra $8 per ticket to get EconomyExtra. This earns an extra Road Reward point and schedule flexibility, but we got it solely for priority boarding, which would allow us to take photos of the empty bus interior and have our choice of seats.
After the $5 "service fee," the total cost for our two one-way tickets was $61. Wary of extended delays, we made sure to put the purchase on a credit card that offers solid travel protection. Our Citi Prestige cards have been our go-to for flight bookings since the card added 5x points for airfare, but we used my Chase Sapphire Reserve instead for this booking to get 3x points for the general travel purchase.
We chose to get e-tickets, which require checking in on the website no more than two hours out. The smooth check-in process took under a minute, and we were issued digital boarding passes.
Sticking with the low-cost mentality, we took Atlanta's rail system, MARTA, to the bus station -- which is located right next to stop S1 Garnett. The MARTA signage pointed us right where we needed to go.
Approaching the Greyhound station from the MARTA station, the first thing you see is boarding and disembarking buses. It's unclear, but you need to go past them and turn right on the next street to find the bus station entrance.
Just inside the door, passengers were waiting around in clusters and there was no clear signage about where to check in. While we were trying to figure it out, the sole agent at "Tickets/Information" barked at us to get in line, so we asked her where we were supposed to go to check in our bags. She pointed to the Customer Service desk, where there was no clear line.
We waited near the Customer Service desk for a few minutes without results. Then one of the two agents directed us back to the Tickets and Information desk to check our bag. The agent there didn't seem happy to see us again. When we explained the situation, she grumbled for a while that the agents at the other desk should head home if they didn't want to work. Wanting to keep the peace, we nodded and agreed as she tagged our bags. Then she indicated that we should take them back, as we'd need to take them out to the bus when we boarded.
We asked for a printed boarding pass, but the agent refused, saying that we needed to use the e-tickets on our phone from our online check-in earlier that morning.
The bus station waiting area was guarded by a security agent sporting a bulletproof vest -- never comforting to see. The waiting area was about half-full when we arrived, mostly consisting of rows of metal seats.
The seats didn't have power, but there were two long power strips with 24 outlets each on one wall. Based on the number of passengers using one of the two, it seemed the other didn't work.
The station men's room only had a couple of urinals and a couple of stalls, but it wasn't as awful as I feared, equivalent to a lower-end gas station bathroom.
If you forgot to download entertainment for the bus, you could easily do so on the station Wi-Fi -- which was solid: 27.5 Mbps download, 6.74 Mbps upload, 10 ms ping, 2 ms jitter.
There were two boarding areas. The General Boarding area consists of one large open area with six zones labeled with letters overhead.
It's not clear, but these letters designate departure gates -- if a gate is listed for your bus:
Priority Boarding passengers have a separate waiting area right next to the only door we saw being used for boarding.
Remember how we splurged an extra $8 per person to get priority boarding? That didn't work out for us. About 10 minutes before our departure, the station agents boarded a general boarding line without making any announcement -- so we figured that must have been for another bus.
Five minutes later, the station agents announced a second boarding call -- despite there not being a first boarding call. With no one checking boarding passes at the door, we stepped through the boarding door and walked down the boarding ramp -- under an orange awning and past a banner declaring that "the future of bus travel has arrived" -- to our bus. Under the banner, you can see the MARTA station.
We headed out to the bus to find it was fully boarded. I confronted an agent outside about what happened to priority boarding. She ignored the inquiry, dismissively wished us a pleasant ride and walked away. So much for that extra $8 per person.
The bus driver checked our boarding passes and told us to drop our bags next to the bus -- since the luggage doors had already been closed for departure. We were a bit wary of leaving them there unattended, but we got our bags back in Birmingham, where the bus driver went through all of the bags to find the ones tagged for Birmingham and handed them out to waiting passengers without checking claim tags.
Right before pulling out of the station in Atlanta, the bus driver performed a brief safety and rules briefing from the front aisle of the bus. Speaking in a voice barely audible in the back, he reminded passengers not to smoke, vape or drink alcohol on board, including in the toilet. And he pointed out the emergency exits on the roof of the bus.
The bus left the station a couple of minutes late, but we were on the interstate within five minutes after scheduled departure. Despite no obvious delays along the way, we arrived at the intermediate stop of Anniston, Alabama about 10 minutes late and in Birmingham about 15 minutes late.
Seat and Cabin
Our Greyhound bus was fitted with 55 numbered seats in rows of 2-2 seating -- except the last row which consisted of one row of three seats next to the bathroom. But those seat numbers don't matter as it's open seating.
There were no seat belts or tray tables on this bus.
We recorded a solid-but-not-spacious 35 inches of pitch. Both the seat bottom and the space between armrests measured 18.5 inches -- which would be on the spacious side for an airplane seat.
If you need to delineate the space between you and your seatmate, an armrest folded down between seats. More important, the armrests folded completely up -- making the pair of seats even more comfortable when you have a row to yourself.
The aisle seats had an outside armrest that folded out of the way or could be extended to keep you or your stuff from sliding into the aisle when the bus turned.
There was a rope water-bottle holder on the seatback in front of you as well as two elastic straps that were the closest thing that you'll get to a seatback pocket. Each seat had a flimsy plastic footrest. The footrest didn't lock in place, so you'd have to re-extend it if you took your foot off of it.
Seats reclined approximately seven inches -- which greatly reduced the amount of space for the passenger behind you, but it was not an issue on his half-full ride.
For storage, you could put a small bag under the seat in front of you or in an overhead storage area, which was a large open area with two elastic bands to help keep bags in place. One downside of this set-up -- especially with few passengers opting to use it -- is that there's nothing keeping your bag from sliding forward or back a few rows.
Under the overhead storage area, each row had two individual and adjustable reading lights and air vents.
Unfortunately, the bus' air-conditioning was no match for the 90°+ heat outside and it got warm where we were sitting in the back of the bus. I didn't have my thermometer out for the whole ride, but it reached 85° as we neared Birmingham.
There was a toilet in the back of the bus, consisting of a toilet seat and lid with a long drop to a blue-liquid chemical base.
There were two rolls of toilet paper in a dispenser mounted to the door. There was no sink in the bathroom but hand sanitizer was available in an unmarked bag of liquid mounted on the wall.
Entertainment and Amenities
There was free Wi-Fi on the bus, but the cell-based connection was certainly not speedy. The sign-in page notes that:
Our FREE mobile Wi-Fi lets you connect to the internet to check e-mails and surf the Web. Because the service uses ground-based cellular towers you may experience areas where service is slow or unavailable. Downloading large files is discouraged and will degrade the experience of your fellow riders.
Although the Greyhound website references "premium internet access" options, we never had the opportunity to elect to pay for speedier internet. Our only option was the free internet access.
My first speed test from Atlanta measured just 0.17 Mbps download and 0.01 Mbps upload. When I tried to connect other times through the journey, the sign-in portal got stuck in a loop and I wasn't able to log in. While this could've been because I already hit the 100 MB limit, it seemed doubtful that I'd hit my allotment so quickly based on the slow speeds. Either way, you'll probably just want to rely on your cell connection instead of the bus Wi-Fi.
Each row had two three-prong outlets just under the window. The voltage was enough to fast-charge my cell phone and laptop. I disembarked in Birmingham with full batteries.
Food and Drink
Passengers who don't bring their own food and drink must buy it at bus stations; there was nothing available onboard.
In Atlanta, there was a row of Coke vending machines offering overpriced snacks ($1.75 for a bag of chips) and drinks ($2.50 for a 20-ounce drink).
There was also a full grill offering hot food at fairly reasonable prices, including coffee for $2 with 50-cent refills.
To-go cold items included a decent-sized salad for $5 or Lunchables for $3. If you needed to heat up food, there was a microwave off to the side of the cafe area that was seemingly open to all passengers.
The only stop along the way from Atlanta to Birmingham was Anniston, Alabama -- a joint Greyhound and Amtrak station. The schedule noted a 15-minute break, but when we arrived a few minutes late, we were told that we only had five minutes. The cafe in the station was closed -- no food or drink for us.
Because of all of the horror stories I'd heard from friends and family, we were prepared for our Greyhound experience to be awful. Yes, the discombobulated situation in the Atlanta station wasn't great. Overall, however, it wasn't a bad experience.
In our experience, Greyhound is just what it promises to be: cheap intercity bus transportation for travelers who focus on cost rather than comfort. We were able to get ourselves and a checked bag from Atlanta to Birmingham close to on time and could have paid just $20 each for the trip.
I figured that this would likely be my one and only experience on Greyhound. But, now I'm not so sure. I'm not going to make any long-distance plans on Greyhound, but I'll consider it in the future for one-way travel between nearby cities when other options don't work.
All photos by the author.