So it only took me 2 years to figure this out but there is another way to get around on buses that can be cheaper than buying a ‘return’ ticket. In my understanding of buses there are basic tickets (single=1-way; return=2-way) and long term passes for commuters. But it turns out that you can get a day pass that gives you unlimited travel either within a zone or within a bus company’s area, depending what kind and which company’s bus you are on. Passes for one company don’t work for others’ buses.
In Durham there are two major bus companies–Go North East and Arriva. With GNE they have different zones for the different towns and villages. When I go to Bishop Auckland, a Red+Turquoise zone day pass is cheaper than buying a return ticket–£4.60 vs £5.50 or so. With Arriva an individual day pass is £6 for an all day pass anywhere they go. Particularly economical is the family pass with Arriva at £10, especially if you have to make connections.
Even better for students is GNE’s Get Around Card. As a university student you don’t have to pay for different zones, you just pay £2.50 for a day pass and you can go anywhere they go–south of Durham up to the Scottish border. So, this is a bit cheaper than Arriva’s £6.