by Jerry Schonewille
Many bicyclist are familiar with Amtrak trains and some use them in their tours but few know about Amtrak buses. Buses serve as connectors between outlying cities and cities that have train service. They can get you to Reno or Lake Tahoe or Las Vegas but other than these excursions into Nevada they operate only within California.
For a solo bicyclist Amtrak buses can be the cheapest and fastest way to get around California. I emphasize solo because you place your bike in the cargo hold under the bus and there is room for only one or two bikes. You do not need to box your bike and that by itself is a time and money saver. Also, unlike trains, buses tend to run on time and they run more often.
There is just one problem. You can’t buy an Amtrak bus ticket. Well – you can – but you have to jump through a few hoops. California state law requires that you can only ride the bus if your trip also includes a segment on an Amtrak train. This is fair as Amtrak is subsidized by taxpayers and it would not be right for them to be in direct competition with Greyhound or other private bus companies. It might be that you will find a sympathetic ticket agent that will sell you a bus-only ticket but no way will you succeed if you book online.
To get around this requirement you need to tack on a train segment at the beginning or end of your bus trip. This is not unlike people booking a round trip airline ticket when all they want is one-way because it can be cheaper that way. It will take some research to find the best deal. For example, I recently took a bus trip from Martinez to Ukiah. Martinez is a major hub for Amtrak and there are several train options to tack onto your bus trip. I found the San Joaquin train from Stockton to be the cheapest. The San Joaquin, like the Capitols, is a commuter train. That means tickets are non-reserved and once you buy a ticket it is good for 1 year. So even though you won’t be using that ticket that you tacked on to the bus trip it is still good for a future train ride. At least that’s what they tell me – I haven’t put it to the test yet [UPDATE 11/10/2008: I have now used previously orphaned train tickets with no problem].
I try to schedule mid-week mid-day as these are the least used buses. Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday are best, Friday is worst. Holidays are always a problem. By problem I mean there is no place to store your bike and you won’t get on the bus. I’ve seen this happen but so far it has not happened to me. If it is absolutely 100% critical that you get to your destination NOW then the bus may not be for you.
Sometimes Amtrak uses their own fleet of buses, sometimes they contract to a private tour company, and sometimes they use a county bus. At one point I was looking into taking the bus from San Jose to Monterey but learned after a phone call that this uses a Monterey County bus with a rack for two bikes on the front of the bus and no place to store luggage (panniers in my case) [UPDATE 11/10/2008: some of these buses do in fact have luggage compartments that can hold panniers] . The bus I ended up booking is one that goes all the way to Santa Luis Obispo (maybe all the way to Santa Barbara?) with a stop in Salinas. I then rode my bike from Salinas to Monterrey, a nice trip including back roads of Ford Ord so this turned out to be a good thing.
Sometimes the driver is a smoker and will drive really fast to the next stop so that he or she can get off the bus for a cigarette break. Some passengers might join the driver.
Another feature about buses is that since they serve as train connectors they will not leave before the train arrives. That can be good if you’re on the train wanting to make the connection, or bad if you’re on the bus and want it to depart on time.
— jerry schonewille (aka vagabond jerry)