While Europe has had buses for well over a century, and intercity lines had their share in some countries, on the continent as a whole, intercity buses were long overshadowed by railways. This has started to change in the 2010s, when several intercity bus companies have expanded services across the continent.
Today, bus travel is often the cheapest mode of transportation between cities. Comfort has improved greatly on 21st century buses, with air conditioning and wifi on board. However, buses mostly compete on price as they can't even hope to begin to compete on speed with high-speed rail or air travel, and legroom is usually rather limited compared to trains. Thus far, no operator has tried for the "luxury bus" segment that can be seen for example in Mexico.
For a long time buses in Europe were subject mostly to national regulation and an international market didn't exist or only as a small niche. Apart from local and city buses run by or on behalf of local government, there were "railway buses" or "rail replacement" bus in many places that duplicated former rail lines. Postal services also ran some buses, and in the Nordic countries there are still places that get their mail on the same vehicle that serves as the bus link to the outside world. Spain, the United Kingdom, and the former Yugoslavia have had extensive intercity coach networks for decades, but the situation was different across much of the rest of the continent. For logical reasons there was no desire for those state-run enterprises who held a monopoly or something close to it on bus travel to compete with the – similarly state run – railways along lines where rail service existed. Thus only secondary routes – if that – were served in many countries. However, in the 2010s, France, Germany, Italy and the EU deregulated the market, allowing private entrants to compete with railways on international routes. Other countries have similarly taken first steps in this direction or have announced plans to that effect.
- Alsa International is a company centred on Spain with services to 14 other European countries and Morocco
- Eurolines predates the opening of the French and German domestic markets and as such has a presence in many countries, though distances between stops tend to be longer and few small and mid-size cities are served
- Flixbus is a German company which dominates the domestic market and has a strong presence in most of Germany's neighbours.
- Ouibus is operated by French rail company SNCF, with lines to most of France's neighbours.
- Regiojet, also operating under the name Student Agency is a Czech company that operates an extensive network of buses and some trains in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and is expanding its bus service into most of Europe
There are also many regional companies.
Countries and regions
The market looks quite different in different parts of the continent. While intercity services were nearly non-existent in France and Germany until 2010, due to the regulation, coaches were and still are the main mode of transport e.g. in the Balkans and in the north of the Nordic countries.
- See also: Intercity buses in France
The French intercity bus market was only opened after the German market and Flixbus despite also being a big player in France has not yet reached a near monopoly-position. Other players include Ouibus, a subsidiary of SNCF, the national railway. Do compare train and bus prices and travel times as sometimes the TGV is considerably faster while only costing marginally more.
- See also: Intercity buses in Germany
The Long Distance Bus (German: Fernbus) market in Germany was tightly regulated and in effect limited to a handful of routes to and from Berlin dating to the period of German partition prior to the 2010s. There were a few international lines serving the Yugoslav and Turkish diaspora as well as some operators to countries east of the former Iron Curtain, but overall buses played a niche role at best and were clearly subservient to the railways. A change in laws dramatically changed this situation and while initially several domestic and foreign bus companies, some of them with potent parent companies like the German railways or postal service or the British operators Megabus (Stagecoach) and National Express vied for the new market, a fierce competition on price and a few mergers soon whittled down the market to one where Flixbus offers well north of 90% of the route km. The "pioneers" of DeinBus who started out as a bus-based ride sharing service before the law was changed are still around, but other than that the only competition Flixbus faces is on international routes (and sometimes domestic parts of international routes) where foreign operators exist.
Bus stations in general were overwhelmed by the rapid growth of the market and even major cities still have buses departing from little more than a curbside with all the traffic problems that entails. Berlin, Hamburg and Munich have dedicated bus stations and more cities are in the process of building them, but overall you shouldn't expect too much.
Despite buses often stopping at or near train stations, there is no cooperation between bus and train operators, except for IC Bus which is operated by Deutsche Bahn as part of its train ticketing system. Flixbus also integrated the one train it runs into its bus ticketing system.
Intercity coaches in the Nordic countries are comfortable and reliable (although cheap alternatives, such as Onnibus, may use older buses and offer little legroom). Coaches and buses have a long history, also on intercity routes, even on some very long ones with or without train competition. Deregulation in the last twenty years has caused changes on the market and brought some important new players, especially between big cities in Denmark, Finland and southern Norway and Sweden, and some old companies, big and small, have left the market. In some parts of the countries the changes have been small from the travellers' perspective. The systems vary somewhat between the countries.
Bus stations are usually centrally located, sometimes in connection with the railway station. In Finland many bus stations have been abandoned even in big cities, with what is left of the service moved to a nearby shop or café.
In Denmark long distance services between Jutland and Copenhagen used to be a matter of preference rather than cost, but a number of low cost bus lines have begun crossing the country at much lower prices, albeit also at a much more limited schedule. Abildskou is the established long distance operator with up to 9 departures each day to various cities in Jutland. Rød Billet is a cheaper player, with departures limited to 1–4 per day. There are also coach connections to Oslo and Stockholm, and to and through Germany.
In Finland there are many companies, large and small, mostly on routes coordinated by the public sector. Although there is regulation, such as maximum prices, the companies are independent. The intercity coaches are mostly express services. There is a private company, Matkahuolto, with offices (or cooperating businesses) at most bus stations, providing centralized services such as timetables, ticket sale and freight, although the individual companies may offer services also at their own terms (such as discounts for advance bookings on the net). There is one company, Onnibus, that is not part of the cooperation, as it tries to compete on its own terms (check resent development!).
As the Gulf of Bothnia separates Finland from the rest of the countries, there are no intercity coaches across the borders, except in the far north (there are routes e.g. from Rovaniemi to Tromsø, Alta and Tana, by Eskelisen Lapin linjat). There are also a few intercity services to Russia, mostly by Russian companies.
Iceland has no railways, so intercity travel is mostly by bus, car or plane.
There is an extensive network of express buses in Norway, with NOR-WAY Bussekspress, Timekspressen and Boreal Transport being the biggest operators. Nettbuss also runs some express routes. Lavprisekspressen aims at providing a cheap alternative on some routes. Schedules and frequencies vary greatly, and seating may be limited. Rutebok.no offers a centralized connection search. There are international connections in the far north to Finland and Russia, from some cities to Sweden and to several destinations from Oslo.
In Sweden traffic operated by the counties (län) dominate in most of the country, but in the busy southern third there are also independent actors. Some of these routes cross the borders to Denmark (including lines going much farther) and Norway.
- See also: United Kingdom#By bus and coach
The intercity bus market in the United Kingdom was one of the first in Europe to be deregulated, which – in addition to the "Beeching Axe" of railways in the 1960s (which greatly reduced the available route miles in the motherland of rail travel) – created one of the most competitive markets for intercity buses (known as coaches) in the world. While new entrants to certain markets still try to undercut the established players through loss-leading prices, the market has mostly consolidated with a handful of players controlling most routes. Stations are often somewhat at the outskirts of town to enable faster publicised travel times, but correspondingly longer journeys for passengers wanting to reach a city centre. Operators include:
While many European countries are within the Schengen area, some borders are subject to passport checks. In many cases, the bus company is liable for passengers without proper documentation. Therefore, the carrier might request papers at boarding. Without passport or ID, passengers might be refused, even with a valid ticket. In some countries international buses may be stopped on the road by police for spot-checks of identity or luggage.