To reiterate some info from the first part:
- Get an EasyCard. Called a 悠遊卡, yōuyóu kǎ
in Chinese, the web site will have you thinking that these are only
useful in Taipei. Don't be fooled! The EasyCard has been accepted on literally every bus I have ever set foot on in Taiwan, along with the HSR and TRA systems as previously mentioned. Every 7-11 and most other
convenience stores and western-style fast-food places also take them,
although there appears to be a 30NT or so minimum at 7-11.
When I go to Taiwan, the first thing I do after I land is plunk NT$1,000 on my EasyCard (around US$30), because I know I'll use it. On my last trip, I was able to skip a room-spanning line for HSR shuttle tickets at the airport and walk straight on to the bus.
- If you're ever unsure if your EasyCard will work, just ask the bus driver or ticket counter "悠遊卡好嗎?" (yōuyóu kǎ hǎo ma, Is EasyCard OK?) They'll generally point you to the card reader.
Pretty much all buses, even local city buses, are operated by coaches with comfy, high-backed reclining seats and fringed curtains. Even the tiny "twinkie buses" (my term, but my wife knew exactly what I was talking about) will have full reclining seats. A caveat is that, especially if you're a gentleman of average US height or better, you may find yourself wanting more legroom.
Another commonality among Taiwanese buses is the intimidation factor: the Taiwanese bus system is not as tourist-friendly as the railways. (There are some exceptions, such as the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle.) Most buses will have electronic headsigns listing the route number and destinations both in English and Chinese, but it's difficult to find route maps, and when you do find them they're typically in Chinese only. Most buses will have next stop announcements, both audio and visual, in Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English, but English is invariably last, and is often cut off by subsequent announcements. Furthermore, if the announcements are broken, the driver will almost certainly not speak English. (Some have only a moderate grasp of Mandarin, as Taiwanese or Hakka is their first language. This is also common among cab drivers.) Given that, it's always a good idea to know the name of your destination in Mandarin, both spoken and written. Generally, if you can communicate to the driver where you're going, they'll make sure that you get there, but it's always a good idea to be self-reliant.
Types of Taiwanese buses
Long-distance BusesThere are a good number of long-distance buses connecting the major cities along the freeway network. I haven't used them much, what with the railway system being both so awesome and so cheap, but other bloggers have suggested that these buses are a good option for overnight travel. The trains get pretty scarce after midnight, but some bus lines run 24 hours. The fares are said to be comparable to rail fares, with the exception that overnight buses are sometimes heavily discounted. The major companies are FreeGo Bus, GuoGuang Motor Transport (sometimes written KuoKuang, 國光 in Chinese), HowTai, and UBus. (UBus also operates the shuttle from the airport to the HSR.)
All long-distance buses have four-digit route numbers, and you can get information about them from a government web site, in Chinese and English.
City BusesNot every city in Taiwan runs city buses in the sense that American cities do, with routes designed and administered by the local government. Kaohsiung, Taipei, and Tainan all have such systems, with Taipei's being by far the largest. There are extensive bus-only lanes throughout Taipei as well, providing quick travel through this traffic-choked city. (Not as quick as the MRT, but the MRT isn't everywhere.) City buses tend to run on a zone-fare basis. You will pay either when boarding, when alighting, or both, depending on how the bus route travels through fare zones-- check for a sign near the farebox. If it says "上", pay when boarding. If it says "下" pay when alighting. If it says "上下" you may have to do both.
City buses take EasyCard, which you may have to tap when boarding and tap again when alighting. When in doubt, do what the locals do, and if you forget, the driver will likely remind you.
City buses tend to have decent information available, both in English and in general. I found Tainan's system in particular to be very well-signed, with bilingual maps and next-bus LED signs at major stops. I don't have any experience with Kaohsiung's system, but Taipei's has good information at each bus stop-- in Chinese. You can also find usable map and timetable information in English on the web for Taipei, Tainan, and Kaohsiung.
Ordinary busesI'm not sure what to call these buses, but they serve the functions of local buses in cities where there isn't a city-run network, and they are also the main inter-city buses in smaller towns off the freeways and railway network. They are also assigned four-digit route numbers, and are usually operated by a company associated with the county, eg. Hsinchu County Bus Company, Miaoli County Bus Company, etc. etc. Most of these buses have LED headsigns with their origin, destination, and route number displayed in Chinese and Pinyin, but some have old paper rollsigns, which may or may not be bilingual. On-board announcements are typically made in Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English, and LED signs have Chinese and English stop announcements, with one major caveat: these systems typically announce every single stop, and in areas where stops are closely-spaced, often don't finish announcing one stop in English before it comes time to announce the next. For this reason, the LED signs are often the better bet, and it's not a bad idea to check your smartphone GPS for information about your location.
These buses also vary the most in terms of quality. Most of them are comfortable, with reclining seats, air conditioning, and modern signage. I have, however, encountered hard plastic seats, no A/C (in Taiwan in July...), and a driver calling out stops only in Taiwanese. I recommend that, before getting too far off the beaten path on ordinary Taiwanese buses, you learn how to say your destination in Chinese or get it written down for you in Chinese characters (or both!). That way, you can enlist your bus driver in ensuring you get to your destination.
Taiwan Tourist Shuttle
The Taiwan Tourist Shuttle is a relatively new system, having launched early this decade. (I can't quite put a date on it.) Nevertheless, it is fantastic. The system covers the entire island, linking scenic points of interest with railway stations (both TRA and HSR). While you can totally use it to get to the main tourist destinations-- Taroko Gorge, Alishan, Kenting, etc.-- I encourage you to explore the other destinations available. Because of the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle, I went to such odd and enriching places as the Qigu Salt Mountain (which, itself, is kind of lame, but which has a museum of salt sculpture around it worth the visit, along with a cool wetlands park along the route), the kinda-creepy-yet-fascinating Cihu Sculpture Park (filled with dozens of unwanted statues of Chaing Kai-Shek, the island's former dictator), Yehliu Geopark and Baishawan Beach north of Taipei. Taking ordinary Taiwanese transport to any of these sites would have been a pain, but the Tourist Shuttle made it easy and convenient.
The one downside to this system, however, is frequency. When the Tourist Shuttle is its own bus, it can be extraordinarily infrequent. Some shuttles, like the Lion's Head-Nanzhuang route, run every few hours. Some only run a few times a day, like the direct bus from THSR Chiayi to Alishan. (There is a more frequent TRA Chiayi-Alishan route, and a bus from the TRA to the THSR.) More commonly, the bus will run hourly, or possibly hourly on week days and half-hourly on weekends. They also often stop earlier in the evening than other forms of transit, with last runs usually happening around sundown. In most cases, missing the last Tourist Shuttle doesn't mean you're stranded, but it often means that you're going to have to figure out the conventional bus system, and may possibly require inconvenient or poorly-advertised transfers. And, yes, sometimes missing the last bus really does mean you're stuck.
I love the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle, but using it does take a little planning. It's totally worth it, though.