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Bus and Coach Travel in Europe: Understanding the difference

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London Eurolines coach
A Eurolines coach in London. Photo: Andrew HA

Okay, most folk at EuroCheapo HQ just love trains. And so do we. Exploring Europe by rail is generally civilized and convenient, but there are occasions when it just makes sense to hop on a bus or a coach.

Several coaches each day speed from Riga to Tallinn in less than five hours. Just once a day there is the option of doing the journey by train. You change trains at the Estonia / Latvia border and the whole rail journey takes over eight hours. You can see why coaches have cornered the market in traffic between the two Baltic capitals.

“Bus” versus “coach”

Yet we stumble already. Bus or coach? In American English, the word “bus” tends to prevail and may refer to any form of public transport by road, be it a short ride through New York City or a coast-to-coast marathon with Greyhound Lines.

Things are a little different in European English. A “bus route” is essentially a local service, geared to local traffic. You cannot normally reserve seats in advance. A “coach service,” by contrast, is usually a longer-distance service, often one where advance booking is recommended (even if often not absolutely necessary) and usually operated by a vehicle that has more comfortable seating than you would find on a local bus service.

Buses stop often, express coaches less so

Buses stop frequently: usually at every bus stop along their route. But coaches stop infrequently, often only once in any particular city and then more commonly at the central coach station (or near the train station). Note that in some European cities the “central coach station” may not be particularly central.

This distinction between buses and coaches (as defined above) must be something in English genes. When an Englishman says “I took the Oxford to Cambridge bus” he means he took the X5 Stagecoach which is not a whole lot faster than the horse-drawn carriages that once plied between the two university cities. Okay, slightly faster, but the X5 still takes 3 hours 20 minutes for the 80-mile ride.

And he means a bus, not a coach, even though the vehicles used by Stagecoach on their X5 service are pretty comfortable single-deckers with leather seats, free Wi-Fi and air conditioning. This is luxury stuff for what is essentially a limited-stop local bus service, albeit one that plies a longish route – and, a little improbably for a “bus,” it does not actually stop at every stop along the way. So, yes, the X5 is a little unusual. It’s frequent (half-hourly, every day of the week), you don’t need to pre-book, but it has coach-like qualities with its propensity to skip stops.

Linguistic subtleties

Shift to other European languages and the fine distinction made by Brits between bus and coach may not be sustained. Germans refer to a bus to allude to the short ride to the shops or the 24-hour journey from the Rhineland to a Mediterranean sunspot.

Horses for courses

Local bus services come into their own for shortish journeys within cities or into the rural hinterland of a city. They serve small villages and rural areas that are often well beyond the nerve ends of the rail network. Many routes are done and dusted in just an hour or two. That Oxford to Cambridge run is unusually long for a bus service.

Many buses are short on creature comforts. Don’t hop on a London omnibus and ask the way to the rest room. There isn’t one. Yet these local bus services fill a niche in the market, and there is even a new travel guide for Britain that celebrates the merits of such local journeys. (Yes, yes, we have to come clean here and admit that we edited the book. It is published by Bradt Travel Guides).

By contrast, long-distance coaches can be very comfortable indeed. Reclining seats are the norm. Some offer the chance to buy coffee or snacks. On some premium services, such as the new Eurolines Business Class network, you’ll find a level of comfort that begins to match first class on a train. But of course you just don’t have quite the chance to move around. That’s the big plus of rail.

We shall return to the question of long-distance coach travel in Europe in further posts over the winter. Sometimes it’s a credible alternative to rail travel and it is often great value. In the next post on this theme (in December), we’ll look at those areas of Europe where canny travelers know that the express coach is the top choice.

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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2 thoughts on “Bus and Coach Travel in Europe: Understanding the difference”

  1. This article is good but raises more questions for me. How can I find out about buses and coaches in different countries in Europe? For trains it seems there are a small number of reliable sources. Is there for road transport a book equivalent to the European Rail Timetable from Thos Cook? Are there websites like bahn.de which has express coaches. I don’t even know for my native France how to access reliable timetable and route information for buses.

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  2. The Sensible Traveler

    What an excellent explanation. I always thought a bus was a double-deck vehicle (or three tiers high in the Harry Potter books) but a coach is just a single deck. But now I see that a bus journey (eg. a short hop) may be operated by a vehicle that looks like a coach, and I suppose one could even have a bus-like vehicle operating a longer distance coach service.

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