Give Bus Passengers Free Hotel Stays for Long-Distance Trips

Long-distance bus travel is far less carbon-intensive than plane travel, not to mention an incredible way to see the country. But the trips often aren’t pleasant. One easy way to change that: publicly subsidize overnight lodging for bus travelers.

Long-distance bus travel doesn't have to leave us tired, stiff, and uncomfortable.

There’s something strangely peaceful about nightfall on a Greyhound. I felt this on a December 2018 trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, as we passed through New Mexico. The dark and quiet enveloped me, seeming to calm the whole bus. The sun was down before 5 p.m., and within minutes, it might as well have been midnight. Soon I slid headphones in, closed my eyes, and leaned my head against the window, drifting off.

Unfortunately, nothing about the next twelve hours was set up to provide a good night’s sleep. At every stop — and there were several — the lights blazed on, and the driver droned into the microphone. In Albuquerque, we were asked to disembark while the bus was cleaned or the driver took some (much-deserved) rest. I stumbled into the night, bleary-eyed and foggy-headed, steeling myself to keep awake for an hour because I was afraid to snooze through my boarding call. Thankfully, there was a documentary about monkeys playing in the station — a rare luxury on these trips. But I couldn’t finish it before I was herded back on the bus.

A few more hours of patchy shut-eye end in a spectacular Arizona sunrise, and it’s suddenly too bright to sleep — another night survived on a Greyhound. I’m tired, stiff, and still worried about whether the monkey from the documentary survived the winter. But this is about the best you can hope for, from what seems almost designed to be a miserable experience.

These miseries are made worse by a simple fact: bus travel doesn’t have to be this way.

Bed and Breakfast for All

Bill McKibben recently called for a “new aesthetic” in which we “could learn to travel slowly” in an effort to reduce aviation emissions. While he emphasizes the exciting possibilities of blimps and solar-powered ships — sign me up for the first cross-country blimp tour — the greenest practical options for long-distance travel remain buses and trains. But this new aesthetic will never take off if it means spending the night in the bus to get from New York to Chicago or Phoenix to Seattle.

Even Amtrak, with more legroom and far gentler interruptions, is hardly ideal unless you get a sleeper car — which can be over $1,000 one-way, several times more than a regular ticket. The climate movement cannot ask the old, the disabled, those with back problems, parents with young kids, or frankly anyone else to sign up for an overnight bus or train and expect widespread enthusiasm.

A ticket on an Amtrak sleeper car can cost more than $1,000.

But this is why the onus for greening the travel industry should not be placed solely on individuals. Where there is a need, particularly in the climate transition, the government should step up and provide it. And the need here is obvious: overnight lodging for bus and train travelers. The new aesthetic will be a lot more attractive if it includes a free bed and a free breakfast.

The simplest way to implement this would be through vouchers, funded by the federal government to anyone who purchases a bus or train ticket for a trip of more than twelve hours (with two vouchers for trips over twenty-four hours, and so on), that can be used to pay for lodging and meals anywhere along that route. Congress could put them in the next climate bill, and Greyhound could be handing them out before the end of summer vacation season.

Over the longer term, a more transformational approach is possible: publicly owned hotels within easy walking or public transit distance from most major Greyhound and Amtrak stations, with publicly owned restaurants inside — something that would be made easier with Greyhound under public ownership and control, as Bhaskar Sunkara recently suggested.

Just think of free hotel stays as another way to reduce aviation emissions — a strategy that, unlike electric planes or even high-speed trains, could be scaled up immediately.

Travel Slowly, Legislate Quickly

Instituting such green travel measures matters, because time is of the essence. To keep temperature increases to around 1.5°C, the world must roughly halve its emissions by 2030 and zero them out completely by 2050. This means wealthy industrialized countries such as the United States — the ones that have emitted the most for the longest — should slash their greenhouse gas output even faster, to buy time for the rest of the world.

Aviation contributes 3 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gases, though the overall effect on warming is larger due to other atmospheric effects. While this may sound small, every little bit counts — and in this sector, the United States plays an outsize role. We currently emit more from commercial aviation (passenger and freight) than the next ten countries combined, and the example set here could be pivotal in shaping demand abroad, which is expected to grow threefold by 2050.

If the United States hopes to rapidly reduce aviation emissions, new technology will not save us anytime soon. As a recent New York Times article lays out, alternative fuels are unlikely to be viable at scale for decades; electric- and hydrogen-powered airplanes also pose technical challenges.

Most buses and trains today run on fossil fuels, too. But they are far more efficient modes of transport. And electric buses are more feasible than electric planes in the short term.

What’s not feasible are the social, cultural, economic, and basic logistical elements of longer bus and train trips. While some routes are quite cheap, others are overpriced; people don’t have the time to take slower trips; and sleeping onboard just isn’t for everyone.

The good news is, these hurdles are easier to overcome. Government subsidies can keep prices reasonable; guaranteed paid vacation time and shifting norms around remote work can free up time for longer trips away from the workplace. And free food and lodging make a long trip suddenly that much more comfortable — even luxurious.

This sort of climate policy is likely to send conservatives into conniptions and earn a dismissive eye roll from moderates. Pay for vacationers’ hotel stays, and even feed them on the way out? It sounds frivolous, tangential at best to the faux meat and potatoes of real climate policy.

But under the status quo, high-emission vacations are already subsidized. Plane ticket prices benefit from jet fuel subsidies, and the US government has spent billions bailing out the airlines during the pandemic. Free public hotels would subsidize travel that’s actually green.

The Future of Travel

McKibben also asks us to “rethink what travel means,” and free travelers’ lodgings open the door to do just that. Imagine a journey from Los Angeles to Denver — about 850 miles by plane and currently about twenty-three hours by Greyhound (though a more direct route would be shorter). A given passenger might choose to sleep on the bus, but others will seize the opportunity to explore parts of the country they might not normally get to.

Some might get off at Las Vegas after a six-hour first day, then sleep off their hangover on a fifteen-hour bus ride on day two. A different type of person might go nine hours to St. George, Utah, spend the night, and in the morning take a shuttle to Zion National Park. Here, they’d go on a morning hike, or even stay and camp the night before shuttling back for the remaining twelve hours of their trip to Colorado.

Still others would opt to visit family or friends scattered across the country. You might not normally make the effort to visit your old college roommate or a second cousin, even if you vaguely miss them. But would you stop by and grab drinks on your way somewhere else if the government paid for your hotel?

It’s not just about where passengers choose to sleep. The journey itself becomes part of the destination; as philosopher Kate Soper puts it, “The environmentally preferable alternative is also more pleasant and interesting.”

On buses and trains, you can ride along lush forests, desert rock-scapes, snow-capped mountains. You may see up close the blight of a Rust Belt town, or realize just how vast is the Midwest’s crop acreage. Soper and Martin Ryle write that the sights associated with slower paced travel “restore something of the visual and existential delight long associated with travel.” What once might have seemed like “flyover” country becomes something more sprawling, connected, and alive, a strange fusion of people, land, and culture.

Amtrak’s Coastal Starlight train. (Photo courtesy Amtrak)

I genuinely enjoy traveling by bus and train more than traveling by plane. I wish I could, in good conscience, recommend such travel to others, free of caveats. But the nights are holding me back.

Bed-and-breakfast vouchers would allow more people to experiment with low-carbon travel, encouraging conversations about what works and what doesn’t. We could discover which new infrastructures and technologies should be prioritized to improve or supplement the experience, and which ones don’t seem urgent after all. We would meet people from towns we’ve never heard of, and perhaps build a deeper sense of interdependence and solidarity. At the very least, we’d save some carbon and give travelers much more fun.