Six hours on a bus to Las Vegas (and back): The good, the bad and the annoying

The jokes begin as soon as you tell people you’re taking a bus to Las Vegas.

“With a bunch of seniors? Have fun with that.”

“A bus? OMG.”

My favorite response came from the Uber driver who dropped me off near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport at 7:40 a.m. on a Friday in early August.  He was so stunned when I told him a) I was taking a bus, not flying, to Vegas; and b) that tickets are as low as 99 cents one way, he called his wife and put her on speakerphone so I could confirm it.

Bus service between Phoenix and Las Vegas isn’t new — Greyhound has long served the route, if circuitously — but two new entrants with cheap fares, non-stop routes and big followings in other cities are building buzz.

Meet FlixBus and Megabus

FlixBus and Megabus began service in late May. FlixBus is a 5-year-old German intercity bus company making its first push into the United States; 12-year-old Megabus bills itself as the first low-cost express intercity bus service. Megabus offered service between Phoenix and Los Angeles a decade ago.

Both contract with regional bus companies for the Phoenix service — Arrow Stage LInes for FlixBus and Windstar Lines for Megabus. FlixBus serves several other cities from Phoenix, including Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Tucson and Flagstaff, while Megabus only offers the Phoenix-Las Vegas route.

The companies tout ticket prices as low as 99 cents each way plus a $2 or $2.50 transaction fee, though prices to Las Vegas on peak days and times can reach $24.99 one way, especially last minute.

Even at $25, the bus is the cheapest way to make the 300-mile journey from Phoenix to Las Vegas given high gas prices and hefty Las Vegas hotel parking charges. One-way flights regularly top $89 from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and soar to nearly $250 last minute. Allegiant Air offers cheap fares from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in east Mesa but only has one flight a few days a week.

We took a ride on each to answer all your questions

Are the savings worth it for a Vegas jaunt? Are the buses comfortable and reliable? Is the ride interminable? Who are your seatmates going to be? Is it a rowdy party bus? What’s the bathroom situation? 

The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com put the companies to the test, plunking down $24.99 for a FlixBus ticket from Phoenix to Las Vegas and $9.99 for a Megabus ticket from Las Vegas to Phoenix in early August.

It was a quick trip, with just 26 hours in Las Vegas. I left Phoenix at 8 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 3, arriving in downtown Las Vegas at 1:45 p.m. I left Las Vegas the next day at 4 p.m., arriving in Phoenix just after 9 p.m.

Spoiler alert: I would do it again, especially if a cheap bus ticket was the only way to afford a trip. (I feel the same way about airlines’ basic economy tickets.)

My bus adventure wasn’t seamless, especially on a squeaky FlixBus to Las Vegas, and I spent too much money on Ubers ($77) getting to and from the bus stations. (To save money, use public transportation and/or have friends drop you off and pick you up at the bus stations.)

And I’ll still take flying over driving any day.

But the buses on my trip were on time or early, comfortable, relatively quiet, and the time passed more quickly than expected, especially the trip home when Megabus showed two free movies. 

BOARDING THE FLIXBUS FROM PHOENIX TO LAS VEGAS

The 8 a.m. FlixBus departure from Phoenix to Las Vegas leaves from the Phoenix Sky Train Station near the airport. 

My daughter overslept so I took an Uber ($18) to the station because the FlixBus website says to arrive at least 15 minutes before departure. Cars cannot be left at the station. 

There were about a dozen other passengers waiting, most with luggage for a weekend getaway. Kristina Galvan, a 42-year-old respite care provider from Phoenix, carried a purple and white Las Vegas duffel, a souvenir from her first FlixBus trip to Vegas in June. Passengers are allowed one carry on and one bag up to 50 lbs for free. An extra bag is $10. 

Galvan thought the 99-cent offer was a scam when she heard about it from her daughter ,but found the cheap fares online and paid $4.98 round trip including fees. 

“I loved it,” she said of the bus trip to see friends.

Galvan liked that the Vegas trip was direct with just two relatively quick pit stops, unlike a long bus trip to Washington, D.C., with her mother in April, where they lost a couple days of vacation due to lengthy delays.

This FlixBus trip was $16.99 one way but she had a $10 thank you voucher FlixBus sent after her first trip.

There was confusion when the Arrow Stage Line bus pulled up at 8 a.m. because it wasn’t bright green like the buses in FlixBus’ ads. There was no sign that says FlixBus stop, no announcement that the 8 a.m. bus to Phoenix is now boarding. The only clue was the bright green tie worn by the driver.

I was surprised to find more than a dozen passengers already on the bus. The bus originated in Tucson. It left at 5:30 a.m. and was slightly delayed into Phoenix because of a detour due to an accident.

I sunk into an aisle seat one row in front of two 20-somethings from Tucson on their way to bachelorette parties.

Lisdye Garcia-Gonzalez, 24, was thrilled to see FlixBus buses around Tucson this summer because she had taken them in Europe. She spent $40 round-trip instead of flying because she’s moving to Lyon, France, to teach English at the end of August.

“I’m trying not to spend money,” she said.

Taking the bus had another plus: no ban on liquids. Garcia-Gonzalez packed four bottles of champagne, vodka and other alcohol for festivities at The Venetian resort.

Marissa Selby, 28, booked a $14 one-way bus ticket to Vegas to save money because the bachelorette’s wedding is in Hawaii in a couple weeks. She passed on a return bus ticket, paying $260 to fly home on Southwest Airlines.

“Who wants to drive back after a bachelorette party?” she said.

WELCOME ABOARD, OR NOT 

The boarding confusion continued when a few passengers who paid a fee for assigned seats notice the bus didn’t have assigned seats. The 54-seat bus wasn’t full (there were 35 passengers), so it wasn’t a problem. 

As the driver pulled out of the Sky Train station at 8:08 a.m., he didn’t say a word about seats, our destination, stops or anything.

All was forgiven at 8:20 a.m. Gabriel shouted good morning, introduced himself and went over the itinerary, which included a 20-minute stop in Wickenburg and 10-minute stop in Kingman. After a brief stop in Henderson, just short of the final destination, the bus would pull into downtown Las Vegas.  Those details were surprisingly hard to find during booking.  

“If traffic’s good, we’re going to arrive in Vegas at 1:45 p.m.,” he said to small cheers.

NO WI-FI, NO WORK

FlixBus and Megabus brag about free Wi-Fi and power outlets at each seat.

Our FlixBus to Vegas had outlets but no Wi-Fi. Passengers were told there was a last-minute bus switch (hence no green FlixBus wrap on the bus, either).  A FlixBus spokesman blamed it on a last-minute operational issue and such switches are rare and are designed to prevent a cancellation.

No Wi-Fi put a major wrinkle in Selby’s plans to count Friday as a work day. 

“It seemed like a good plan to me,” the 28-year-old copywriter said. “The advertisements didn’t make it seem like this was an optional thing.”

Selby had to take a vacation day, but brushed off no Wi-Fi as a minor annoyance. She listened to podcasts and music instead.

“I’m disappointed we didn’t get to ride on a (branded) FlixBus, but for what I paid, it’s great,” she said.

McDONALD’S FRENCH FRIES AND A NEW PASSENGER IN WICKENBURG

We pulled into the McDonald’s in Wickenburg at 9:18 a.m. 

Passengers filed off to use the restroom (the bus bathroom was fine but tiny), as well as pick up french fries, hash browns and sodas. 

Leon Prata of Sion, Switzerland, waited to board his second FlixBus in as many days. He was staying in Las Vegas as part of a weeks-long U.S. vacation before joining the military and made a quick trip to see friends and Phoenix. He thought about flying but was sold on the bus when he saw the fare: “One buck.”

“At first I thought it was a joke,” Prata said.

The trip back to Vegas from Wickenburg cost him $10.

THINGS GET (MILDLY) ROWDY IN KINGMAN

The FlixBus arrived at the Good 2 Go convenience store/76 gas station at 11:41 a.m.

As passengers headed down the aisle, the driver noticed a woman drinking a beer at her seat. 

“No drinking!” he said.

The passenger said she brought her own, and he told her that’s not allowed.

The woman and her friends, first-time FlixBus riders on their way to see Godsmack and Shinedown in concert in Las Vegas, improvised. One bought a fountain cup of Coke to mix with the bourbon he had on board, another emptied a Bud Light Lime into a coffee cup. Another chugged a beer before they got back on.

The bus left Kingman just before noon. Vegas was 100 miles away.

LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED

The concert-going crowd started to get antsy.

“Are we there yet?” one woman playfully asked the driver.

The group got into concert  mode by playing songs on a portable speaker and singing along to the lyrics.  

First up: “How Did You Love?” by Shinedown, one of the bands they were going to see that night.

WILL THAT SQUEAKING SOUND EVER END?

 Anita Gonzalez was getting annoyed. The Tucson woman and her wife, Alma, were testing the bus as an option for guests headed to  Anita’s son’s bachelor party in Las Vegas later this year.

“We’re guinea pigs,” she said.

The substitute FlixBus had been squeaking nonstop since it left Phoenix, and Gonzalez, who was in a window seat, tried to find the source.

By 12:50 p.m., she’d narrowed it down to a panel above the window, pressing it to see if the noise would temporarily stop. (It didn’t.)

Another passenger thought it was a loose luggage rack, a third the unused TV screens. (My notes simply said: That squeaking is AWFUL.)

Gonzalez also was getting cramped. The passengers in front of the couple reclined their seats so she was sitting sideways in her window seat for more room.

I never felt like I was stuffed into my aisle seat, though there was no one sitting next to me and the passenger in the row in front of me didn’t recline her seat. (FlixBus passengers can buy two seats if they want a guaranteed row to themselves.) The seat was more comfortable than some airplane seats 

(Gonzalez took a regular FlixBus back to Phoenix and raved about the roominess, tray table and Wi-Fi. Her happiness ended when she switched buses in Phoenix for the final leg to Tucson and there was no air conditioning for the first 60 miles of the trip on one of the hottest days of the summer. Flixbus issued an apology and a voucher for the $40 cost of the couple’s roundtrip tickets from Tucson.)

33 MILES TO VEGAS: HOOVER DAM DRIVE BY

Since Flixbus isn’t a tour bus, driver Gabriel didn’t point out the Hoover Dam or Lake Mead as we passed, so most passengers missed them. 

At 1:13 p.m., the Las Vegas Strip was in sight from Interstate 215. I spied the towering Stratosphere hotel and casino in the distance.

Ten minutes later, the Flixbus made the first of two stops in metro Las Vegas, a WalMart shopping center in Henderson. Anita and Alma Gonzalez hopped off because they were staying with her brother and visiting The Strip from there. The highlight: a Shania Twain concert. 

The FlixBus parked in downtown Las Vegas, at a bus stop near Las Vegas City Hall, at 1:44 p.m. It was about 15 minutes early and precisely when the driver projected we would arrive if traffic cooperated.

Brian and Dana Millard of Peoria, two of those headed to the Godsmack/Shinedown concert, rated the trip a success. They paid $15 a piece for round trip tickets.

“I’d do it for 30 bucks,” Brian Millard joked.

The couple and their friends usually drive to Vegas but are already plotting a return bus trip.

I ordered (another) Uber and headed for the Las Vegas Strip.

26 HOURS LATER: MEGABUS FROM LAS VEGAS TO PHOENIX

I was dreading the return trip, not because it was another bus ride but because the scheduled travel time was seven hours, according to the Megabus website.

The bus was due to leave the transit station near McCarran International Airport at the south end of The Las Vegas Strip at 4 p.m. and arrive at 11 p.m., the website said.

I couldn’t imagine how many stops were en route for a 300-mile trip to take seven hours, booking it because the later 4 p.m. departure gave me the most time in Las Vegas. Megabus’ other departure from Las Vegas to Phoenix is at 8 a.m. 

I walked the Strip, took a free behind-the-scenes tour of Cirque du Soleil show “Ka,” stopped at the (overpriced) M&Ms store, lost money at roulette and ate lunch at the new Spago overlooking the Bellagio Fountains.

I took an Uber from Bellagio to the bus station. Signs pointed the way to Bay 9 at the Regional Transportation Commission station. As with my Flixbus, the white Windstar motorcoach had no Megabus branding inside or out.

A few minutes before departure our driver, Billy, welcomed us aboard.

“Everybody donate money?!” he said, a common refrain in the gambling capital.

Billy said there would be two rest stops before arriving in metro Phoenix.

And he announced free entertainment, which is not standard on Megabus trips.

“I do show movies on my trip,” he said.

NOW SHOWING: “THE GOONIES”

“This is awesome,” a guy in the back of the bus said as the movie started.

There were only 17 passengers on the Megabus, probably because it was a Saturday afternoon and most people on a weekend getaway to Vegas stay until Sunday or Monday. This was no hangover express, no bachelorette bus. There were a few families, including one with a baby.

I had seats 23 and 24 to myself, and there was no one in front, behind or across the aisle.

My closest neighbor was 27-year-old Rickita Compton. She had been in Las Vegas visiting family for a few weeks and was relocating to Phoenix. Her one-way ticket was $17.

She heard about Megabus from a cousin in the Midwest. She was thrilled to find Wi-Fi, power outlets and free movies.

“You don’t have access to too much on the airplane,” she said.

FIRST STOP: CHEVRON FOOD MART IN WHITE HILLS

An hour into the trip, the Megabus pulled into a gas station/convenience store in White Hills.

Compton bought a convenience store sandwich. I bought a Mega Millions ticket (so many lottery winners seem to have bought their tickets at a remote gas station, I reasoned)  and a Diet Mountain Dew, which I put in the handy seatback cupholder. Our substitute FlixBus didn’t have those. 

By 5:20 p.m., the movie was back on with sound delivered by speakers (no headsets needed). I didn’t mind, but passengers hoping to sleep might have.

“Goonies never die!”

By 6 p.m, we passed through Kingman.

Megabus isn’t a tour bus, either, but the drive from Las Vegas to Phoenix was more scenic than I recalled or appreciated, especially in the evening light. 

NOW SHOWING ON THE (NOT SO) BIG SCREEN: “THE GREATEST SHOWMAN”

Bryanna Ornelas was thrilled to find Wi-Fi and movies on board.

The Megabus she took from Phoenix to Las Vegas with her 6-year-old son and 14-year-old nephew a day earlier had no Wi-Fi, power or movies.

“The kids were bored,” she said.

Still, she said Megabus was better than traditional bus services, including Greyhound, which stops in Flagstaff on the way to Las Vegas. She rated the bus “comfy.”

The Wi-Fi  on the Megabus wasn’t speedy. Photo attachments on texts and Twitter videos took a lot of time to load on my iPhone. And cell service is spotty on sections of the trip. 

The outlets to and from Vegas were a treat, with no worries about running out of power before I could order an Uber. (Something that has happened to me after a long flight.)

SECOND STOP: WIKIEUP AND ANOTHER CHEVRON FOOD MART

The bus pulled into another Chevron at 6:48 p.m.

“OK, everybody, our half-way rest stop. Be back on the bus by 7:05 p.m.”

I quickly did the math and was excited: If this was halfway, we’d be back in Phoenix by 10, not 11.

Compton bought a hot dog. I stayed on the bus.

8 P.M.: NOW PLAYING: BEBE REXHA AND FLORIDA GEORGE LINE

After the second movie ended, Billy put on the radio for the rest of the trip. First song up: “Meant to Be,” by Bebe Rexha, featuring Florida Georgia Line.

One of the next songs was a rap song and my notes say, “I don’t need rap nearly five hours into this drive.”

The radio station wasn’t ad-free and it was hard to unhear an ad for organic feminine hygiene products (50 percent off your first order!) as we rolled into Sun City Grand at 8:43 p.m. But it didn’t ruin my trip or anyone’s trip that I noticed.

MUSIC TO MY EARS: WE’RE ALMOST THERE 

At 9 p.m., Billy announced that we were nearing the first stop in metro Phoenix, a park-and-ride lot in Glendale. I planned to get off there rather than riding it to downtown Phoenix, since the stop was slightly closer to  home. 

“We should be there by 9:10,” he said.

9:10, as in nearly TWO HOURS earlier than expected based on the schedule. 

I ordered (another) Uber and he was there shortly after I got off the bus.

By 11 p.m., the time I was scheduled to arrive in Phoenix, I was asleep in my own bed. 

SO, WOULD I TAKE A BUS TO VEGAS ON MY OWN DIME? 

Would I hop on another FlixBus or Megabus?

Not this weekend or next, but FlixBus sent me a couple of sale alerts this week, and I didn’t hit delete.

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