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updated 4/11/2011 4:23:55 PM ET 2011-04-11T20:23:55

Why would you spend four and a half hours on a bus from Washington D.C. to New York City, watching trees pass by and using (gasp!) a bus bathroom when you could fly instead?

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With a reputation for being slow, unclean and uncomfortable, public buses are a transit option that's overlooked by most travelers (or at least by those old enough to have outgrown their backpacks). But if you haven't taken an inter-city bus in a while, you just might be surprised by how they've changed — especially here in the U.S.

The American Bus Association reports that in 2010, buses were the fastest growing mode of inter-city transportation, outpacing both air and rail travel for the third year in a row. With extremely affordable rates and new amenities — like free Wi-Fi and extra legroom — Greyhound and other companies are making bus travel more enticing than it's ever been. And buses are often a safe and inexpensive transit alternative overseas, too.

Get there for a buck
Buses are almost always the most affordable way to get from one place to another, short of using your own two feet. Several bus companies in the U.S., including BoltBus (owned by Greyhound) and MegaBus, offer special $1 fares on their services throughout the Northeast Corridor. While these ultra-low fares can be tough to find (for best results, book well in advance and choose a non-peak departure time), even the normal rates are surprisingly low; think $15-$25 each way between Washington D.C. and New York City. Compare that to $49 each way for an Amtrak ticket or more than $100 each way to fly. And taking the bus instead of driving yourself saves you money on gas, parking and tolls.

Overseas, New Zealand's InterCity bus service also touts $1 fares on many routes. In Scotland, you can travel between two major cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, for 3 pounds each way (about $4.88) on the Scottish CityLink bus, saving you a pretty penny over the ScotRail train (11.30-12.20 pounds each way, or $18.39-$19.85). In the Caribbean, the contrast is even more dramatic: you can drop $50 or more per day on a rental car and gas, or simply hop on the local minibuses for a buck or two.

More comfortable than you'd expect
OK, so it's not news that buses are cheap. But how much comfort do you have to sacrifice?

In the U.S., the debut of companies like the aforementioned BoltBus and MegaBus has spurred a fresh commitment to onboard amenities. Greyhound has rolled out new buses that feature electrical outlets, free Wi-Fi and more legroom — all of which are also offered by BoltBus and MegaBus. Buses from all three companies have seatbelts too. And with buses this new, you can expect them to be both modern and clean. (Note that Greyhound's new buses are not yet available on all of the company's routes; call ahead to check.)

Overseas, of course, the level of luxury can vary widely, ranging from cramped "chicken buses" in Central America to comfortable coach-style buses across Europe and Australia. But extravagance can be found in unexpected places; for example, Mexico's ETN buses have plasma TV screens, self-service cafeterias and reclining seats with footrests.

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A good guidebook will give you an honest idea of how comfortable — or not — the local bus options are.

Liquids and gels welcome
If you're not in a rush, a bus can be a great alternative to flying — and not just because it's cheaper. Instead of dumping your shampoo and hand lotion into three-ounce containers and arriving two hours early to allow time for pat-downs and check-ins, you can pack as you please and arrive 20 to 30 minutes before your bus leaves.

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Once on the road, you'll be able to see the scenery instead of flying over it — and you'll typically be dropped off right in the heart of your destination city, rather than at an airport 15 miles out of town.

An eco-friendly option
For travelers interested in minimizing their environmental impact, the bus is one of the best transportation options around. Airplanes are notorious for their hefty carbon footprint, and driving your own car isn't much better (particularly if there are only one or two people in it at the time).

Because they carry so many passengers, buses have lower emissions per person than planes or passenger cars — and many bus companies are making special efforts to become even more eco-friendly. According to Greyhound's Web site, the company's new fuel-efficient engines generate nearly three times less carbon dioxide per passenger, per mile than a hybrid vehicle. And Peter Pan Bus Lines, a company serving the Northeast Corridor of the U.S., uses ultra low sulfur diesel and biodiesel fuels in its buses, making them twice as energy efficient as Amtrak trains.

Meet the locals
Want to travel the way the locals do? In many destinations, the bus is the way to go. On past trips, I've shared brightly colored minibuses with Caribbean schoolgirls and struck up conversations with native New Yorkers on buses en route to the Big Apple. Particularly in countries where buses are the only form of public transportation available, there's no better way to live like the locals.

Bus travel tips
Read the terms and conditions of your ticket carefully. Where does the bus pick up and drop off? How early do you need to arrive at the departure point? Does your ticket entitle you to a seat reservation, or is it first come, first served? Will you be charged if you miss your scheduled bus?

Come prepared with your own food and drink. Rest stops aren't guaranteed, and they may only feature typical convenience store candy and junk food.

And speaking of being prepared ... bring your own hand sanitizer and tissues for the bathroom, just in case.

Allow plenty of wiggle room in your schedule so that a traffic jam or unexpected breakdown doesn't derail the rest of your itinerary. If you can, schedule your trip to avoid rush hour.

Pack light.
Bus companies vary in their baggage policies, but many will only permit one checked bag and one or two small personal items aboard the bus. Call ahead or check the company's Web site before you show up with three suitcases and a bag of golf clubs.

Check your bus company's safety record
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration maintains statistics on speeding violations, accidents and other safety measures for interstate carriers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Most bus lines have strong safety records, but there are exceptions — such as Fung Wah, one of the many "Chinatown buses" serving the Northeast Corridor. As of this writing, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration notes several recent safety violations for Fung Wah, and gives it only a "conditional" safety rating (Greyhound, in contrast, rates as "satisfactory"). Overseas, guidebooks and travel message boards can be very helpful in finding and evaluating local bus services.

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