Goodbye, Greyhound - but there are still plenty of cheap long-distance travel options in SA
- After 37 years in service, South Africa’s most popular bus service, Greyhound, will stop operating.
- But travellers still have many other options for intercity travel, including other buses which offer cheaper fares than Greyhound.
- Low-cost airline, FlySafair, is only a bit more expensive on popular routes but shaves hours off the travel time.
- Long-distance taxis service isolated communities and, although more expensive than buses on major intercity routes, offer an affordable intraprovincial option.
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Greyhound buses, which have spent the past 37 years criss-crossing South Africa, will stop transporting passengers on 14 February 2021. Greyhound’s closure, the result of waning revenue in recent years with pandemic-related travel restrictions being the final straw, is a blow to South Africa’s intercity transport. But it's unlikely to leave travellers stranded.
Workers’ unions are currently locked in a bitter battle with Unitrans Passenger – the transport company which owns Greyhound and Citliner – in a bid to halt the bus service’s closure, and save almost 700 Unitrans workers' jobs. The unions say the retrenchment process has been flawed, and the matter has been referred to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). But Gary Chaplin, the CEO of KAP, which owns Unitrans, says that after suffering financial losses for “several years”, Greyhound is no longer financially sustainable and has come to the end of the road.
“Greyhound is an iconic brand [and] has been around since 1984, however, the business has been making a loss for several years,” explained Chaplin. “We’ve been through various restructures and a sales process which collapsed, and we’ve reached an inevitable outcome… which has been exacerbated through Covid.”
Greyhound buses transported more than 1.4 million passengers across South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique every year. But other long-distance buses, taxis, trains, and domestic airlines stand primed to fill the void.
Intercape and other long-distance buses
Unitrans’ fiercest rival, founded five years before Greyhound, is Intercape. Both bus services transport roughly the same number of passengers on an annual basis and have similar fleet sizes. Greyhound and Intercape have competed for the same market: luxury long-haul intercity travel using single and double-decker coaches.
Where Greyhound has deployed its premium “Dreamliner” buses, Intercape has answered with its “Sleepliner” fleet. Both service the same routes, using the same bus stops and charge similar rates.
Intercape offers three flexible package pricing options which afford refunds to travellers who cancel prior to boarding. The “full-flexi” option is the most expensive fare but allows for a full refund minus a 10% handling fee if travellers decided to cancel their bookings up to 12 hours before departure. Other options include refunds up to 24 and 48 hours prior to departure.
Intercape’s baseline fare is almost identical to Greyhound’s, with slight variations according to the type of coach used and the time of departure.
One-way travel between Johannesburg and Cape Town with Greyhound costs between R400 and R500. Intercape’s prices for the same route range from R380 to R520. Another popular route between Johannesburg and Durban (direct) costs from R180 to R270 through Intercape and around R230 by Greyhound.
A trip between Cape Town and East London will cost around R380 on Greyhound and between R300 and R400 on Intercape.
Similar price ranges are held across most routes, with both bus services competing for travel between the big cities and smaller towns.
Unitrans’ Citiliner service, touted as a simpler, more cost-effective long-haul solution, competes better against Intercape’s “saver” service but performs poorly against other basic bus services like Eldo Coaches, City-to-City and Eagle Liner.
Across all major routes – including Cape Town, Johannesburg, East London, and Durban – Eldo Coaches comes in between 15% and 25% cheaper than both Intercape and Citiliner.
Long-distance minibus taxis
Approximately 15 million South Africans rely on minibus taxis as their primary mode of transport. Long-distance taxis, operating between most of the country’s metropolitan hubs and smaller towns offer an affordable alternative to bus services.
Thabisho Molelekwa, the chief strategic officer of South African National Taxi Council, says that long-distance taxis provide a consistent and vital intercity link, reaching isolated villages which are often inaccessible to the major bus services.
Major routes are managed by taxi associations which determine their route fares independently. Travel between Cape Town and Johannesburg costs around R800, while the Johannesburg-Durban route comes in at around R320. The one-way fare between Cape Town and East London is around R500, Molelekwa says.
While they may be more expensive than buses, taxis have the distinct advantage in the medium-haul routes servicing intraprovincial passengers.
The legal capacity of a minibus taxi is ten passengers, which limits the profit of long-haul trips. Instead, operators favour deploying several taxis to popular medium-haul routes – between 200km and 500km – to maximise the number of trips which can be completed during a day, thereby maximising profits.
In addition to servicing niche routes efficiently, taxis on direct routes will often get to their destinations quicker than buses will, with the latter having to stop at every pick-up point along the way.
On the downside, conditions in a taxi are often cramped and passengers are limited in the amount of luggage they can take onboard or stow in a trailer.
Flying between cities has one distinct advantage over road-based travel: it’s much quicker. Where a bus trip between Johannesburg and Cape Town can take up to 19 hours, the same distance is covered in just two hours via aircraft. Additionally, air travel is becoming more accessible, with prices decreasing due to more competitors in the domestic market and the frequency of flights increasing for the same reason.
South Africa’s popular low-cost carrier, FlySafair, consistently offers the lowest fares between major cities. The airline services seven airports: OR Tambo International and Lanseria in Johannesburg, King Shaka in Durban, Cape Town, East London, Port Elizabeth, and George.
One-way tickets for FlySafair’s most popular route, between Cape Town and Johannesburg, start at around R621 and range up to R1,300 depending on the date and time of the flight. On this route, depending on the ticket, flying can be more than double the cost of a bus ticket. Importantly, it does not include additional costs associated with optional check-in luggage. Additionally, unless passengers live in a major city, connecting transport – whether via taxi or bus – to the final destination, will come at an extra cost.
The cost of a FlySafair flight from Johannesburg to Durban ranges between R422 and R721. The Cape Town-East London fare starts at R920 and ranges to R1,112. The difference in prices, between bus and airline fares, grows when considering less-used routes.
A bus trip from Durban to East London costs around R300. That same route covered by FlySafair costs upwards of R1,000.
There are airlines with more niche route options, like Cemair and Airlink, but these fares still cost at least three times more than bus prices.
"Tourist Class" long-distance sleeper trains, like the iconic Shosholoza Meyl, have been impacted by both the travel restrictions owing to the pandemic and a crumbling railway infrastructure. Although the Shosholoza Meyl was relaunched in November 2020, following a deadly collision early that year which resulted in its operating licence being revoked, the carriages remain stationed “because of our inability to promise a consistent service due to Corona sicknesses”, the company says.
The trains which have been able to operate in recent months have only travelled along the Cape Town-Johannesburg line. Previously, the train has serviced stops in Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, and Limpopo.
An economy class ticket from Cape Town to Johannesburg costs around R690 and the journey takes approximately 26 hours to complete.