Why I Took the Bus Instead of Flying

I recently spent two nights traveling from Berlin to Dublin by bus. When I tell people this, they usually react with shock and surprise, even suggesting that I must be crazy. I know that most people who ride buses over long distances probably are crazy, at least in the States, where the only people who ride the bus are either too poor to fly or too disabled or too crazy to be allowed to drive, but not me. That’s why I want to tell you why I took the bus.

Let’s start things right off by admitting that I can be a cheap bastard from time to time. I buy off-brand items in the shop just to save a few cents and I have taken the Chinatown buses up and down the East Coast in the US many times for the reason that they are horrendously cheap (and fast!) despite their usually miserable hours of operation (e.g. depart Richmond at midnight, arrive NYC at 6am). However, saving money was not my main reason for taking the bus this time.

Here’s the breakdown on what I paid: The Eurolines bus from Berlin to London (which left Berlin on the 16th at 7pm and arrived in London on the 17th at 1pm) cost €44 and the National Express bus from London to Dublin (which left London on the 17th at 6pm and arrived in Dublin a little after 6am on the 18th) was £76, and that was actually meant to take me all the way to Galway and then back to London on a round trip ticket. On the other hand, a Ryanair or AerLingus or perhaps EasyJet flight could possibly be a bit cheaper. Flights from Berlin to Dublin are quite regular and of course take much less time. So why would I take the bus if not to save money?

Flying is probably the one activity in which most of us regularly engage that puts more carbon emissions into the atmosphere than any other. I’m not backing this up with any research of my own here but the last I heard (I think from the film Planet Stupid, or perhaps it was An Inconvenient Truth) was that a round trip flight from New York to Los Angeles puts roughly the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere as the average American’s year of driving. I was surprised to hear this because I never thought flying could be so bad. I thought I was a good global citizen, not owning a car, living in a city and taking public transport and biking everywhere (or even walking!). But the truth is that I fly a lot and so do most of my friends, and the huge amount of emissions from a plane is much more harmful to the atmosphere than car emissions because they are emitted so much higher up in the air. (If I were writing for a real publication or if I were a real blogger I’d probably do some fact-checking and referencing, but I don’t have an editor and global climate change is just a theory anyway, right? Like evolution, funny science theories.) Basically, I recently got something of a wake up call and felt like I should really make an effort to fly less for the sake of having a planet to comfortably call home when I’m in my eighties, if I live that long. Or if not for me, then for all the children who are new to the world or yet to be born, who might not have much left here in only a few more decades if we don’t change our nonrenewable-resources-consuming and toxic-waste-producing habits.

The other reason I chose not to fly is that flying is stressful, especially when you travel with musical instruments on discount airlines. There’s always the chance they will take one look at your instrument and say, “You can’t take that on.” No friendly chat about what sort of music you play or anything like that. And then you say you’ve read the policies and yes, you can take it on. But they always have the right to change their policies whenever they want, and it has happened to me before where I’ve been forced to either check my precious fiddle with the rest of the luggage under the plane or not get on the plane at all. I wanted to cry. Asking a musician to put their instrument under the plane is like asking a mother to put her child under the plane. Impossible.

Aside from the difficulty of flying with instruments, the whole atmosphere of the airport is pretty unpleasant to me. The waiting in lines, the fluorescent lighting, the attitudes of the people whose help you rely on, and the constant threat of being stranded by a cloud of volcanic ash, these things perhaps can’t be changed. The way I usually get throught it is by concentrating on how excited I am to go where I’m going. And sudoku, usually a lot of sudoku. A bus station, on the other hand, feels much more relaxed to me. You wait at the gate, you see the bus pull up, you put your bags underneath and get on the bus. Simple, straightforward and usually pretty uncomplicated, even in a foreign country. (I should write another piece on buses in the States because that is an entirely different story.) And then when I’m on the bus, sure it takes a lot longer to get where I’m going, but I can relax in a big comfy seat, drift in and out of dozing and daydreaming and basically have a solid stretch of time to myself without anyone telling me what to do or me having to tell anyone else what to do. I find this feeling of a respite to be the main attraction for me to travel by bus. It’s a bit of a mental vacation. The seats are generally uncomfortable enough to keep me from falling dead asleep so I drift in and out of wakefulness in a state that is almost delicious. And although I do occasionally meet a friendly and interesting fellow traveler, I generally have my own space and plenty of time to let my thoughts wander, and I do find this altogether pleasant.

However, bus travel is not all friendly strangers and reverie. I would be amiss to paint a purely pleasant picture here. The worst part about bus travel over long distances in Europe is that you will cross a national border at some point and the bus will stop, you will have to show your passport and sometimes you’ll have to get off the bus with your luggage, and yes, wait in line in a fluorescent-lit room and wait for approval from the people in uniform. But somehow I’m okay with that. In fact, I feel like it’s quite nice to arrive at the actual border of a country and have to stop. It’s not so abstract as in the airport, like when you have a connecting flight to catch but first you have to go through passport control for a country you’re not even in at the moment. That always felt a little strange. And inasmuch as national borders are themselves worthy of respect I find it somewhat satisfying to stand in the actual, physical border zone and watch the customs guards scrutinize my passport.

There’s something about resting my head against the window and seeing the road pass by that I find soothing, and when I finally arrive at my destination I have a great sense of the distance I’ve covered. I recently compared flying vs. bus travel to elevators vs. escalators to someone. When you fly you get inside a metal box, the doors close, you’re in there for however long, the doors open again and you’re somewhere else, kind of like an elevator. On a bus you have time to look around and feel a little more connected to your actual journey and even take pleasure in the sensation of traveling, like an escalator. I’ve always preferred escalators, loved them since I was young in fact, and I love taking the bus for the freedom it allows me to relax and look around.

You might still be thinking, “He’s crazy — I would never want to sit on a bus for 36 hours!” and I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but I can tell you that it’s quite satisfying, even pleasant, to have this space because I chose it for myself. It’s a very different story when you’re detained at Heathrow in a room for eight hours, fingerprinted and photographed and put on a watch list for trying to get into the country with the idea of playing a tour with your band and not having the necessary permits, and then sent back to the US on the next available flight. This happened to me, and it’s another story of its own, but I can tell you that those hours in the detention room and on the plane back to the US were not relaxing or empowering in the least. Of course, something similar could happen on a bus but my point is that I’ve been through some involuntary detention as well as what you might call voluntary detention, and I find the latter to be not only enjoyable but somehow therapeutic. The monotony of the trip gives me space in my mind and allows me time to leave my point of origin behind and prepare for what lies ahead, and the knowledge that I chose this for myself gives me strength for the journey and energy for when I arrive.