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How to Get Home for the Holidays

Comparing the new $1 rides to NYC

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For years, one of the first BU insider secrets shared with out-of-state students has been the Chinatown bus to New York City. With $15 fares, no need to book in advance, and buses running every hour on the hour, companies like Fung Wah and Lucky Star have become student favorites over the past decade.

But the arrival of two new bus lines offering $1 seats and wireless access has shaken up the BOS-NYC bus route. With Thanksgiving only a week away, students have more travel options than ever. BU Today traveled to the Big Apple and back on the new lines, Boltbus and Megabus. Here’s the skinny.

Boltbus
Owned by Greyhound, Boltbus launched in April, promising on-board wireless access, power outlets, and more legroom than regular bus lines.

Booking a ticket through its Web site was a snap, and I was pleased to find the bus would be leaving from South Station. My ticket, booked on a Wednesday afternoon for a Friday trip, cost $18.50. Boltbus uses a lottery system, offering a limited number of $1 seats on each bus; the price increases the closer you book to the departure date.

Boltbus appears to have a complicated boarding system, with lettered groups, much like air travel. None of it seemed to mean anything. My boarding pass had an assigned group and seat, but we were seated on a first-come, first-served basis.

The bus itself was new, with flat-panel television screens, working outlets (two of them directly in front of each aisle seat), comfortable air conditioning, and a clean bathroom. I had no trouble connecting to the free wireless network with my MacBook, and although the connection was not the fastest (videos on YouTube would occasionally lag), it was consistent throughout the trip.

The driver was a cheerful and likable character, although he didn’t endear himself to passengers when he announced that our arrival at Penn Station would be closer to 5:30 than 4:30, as was listed on our tickets. Despite the fancy television screens, there was no movie, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone — most were busy at work on Facebook.

Finally, legroom. Boltbus may advertise more legroom than other bus lines, but at 5-foot-10, I didn’t notice much difference. Then again, I was much more focused on my Office reruns, fantasy football picks, and e-mail correspondence.

Megabus
On the way back, I thought I’d give Megabus a shot. Owned by the U.K. company Stagecoach, Megabus started running between Boston and New York in May.

My ticket for a Sunday afternoon trip set me back $17. I booked it on Friday (using the Boltbus wireless connection, incidentally) and found the Megabus Web site pretty straightforward. Like its rivals, Megabus uses a lottery system and offers $1 tickets for those able to act in advance. The slower you are, the more you pay.

And like Boltbus, Megabus has a gate at Boston’s South Station, but in New York, the coach drops you off on the street, near Penn Station. While there was no sign to mark the stop, the three Megabuses lined up at the curb gave it away — this company is not shy about painting its buses bright colors.

My enduring impression of the Megabus boarding experience — mass chaos. After 20 minutes of wondering if I was in the right queue, an agent appeared, sped down the line frantically checking passenger names off his list, spun around, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Everyone going to Boston, that bus right there!” Orderly and civilized it was not. If I hadn’t fine-tuned my shoving skills through years of Chinatown bus travel, I might have been trampled.

Happily, I did manage to secure a seat near the front. The bus looked new and clean, with working A/C, television screens, and a bathroom. Our driver was not the most socially skilled, but he left on time and got us back in four and half hours flat, as promised, so no complaints there.

The wireless connection was just as easy as it was on Boltbus; if anything, it was a little faster. I enjoyed it immensely until my battery died two and half hours into the trip. I had underestimated the importance of power outlets.

While overall I had a pleasant trip with Megabus, I’ve one last gripe — no eating allowed on board. On a trip that is going to last from four to six hours, that’s bad news. More irritating was that I’d been holding two slices of pizza in a to-go box when the agent checked my ticket — and he neglected to mention that I wouldn’t be allowed to eat them on board. The driver did that for him, in no uncertain way.

The Others
Lucky Star, one of the Chinatown bus companies, has started offering $1 fares on its Web site. Fung Wah’s cheapest seats are still $15, as are those on Greyhound and Peter Pan (different name, same company) when you book online with certain promotions.

Thus far, none of the Chinatown or regular Greyhound and Peter Pan lines offers wireless access on board.

Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.

7 Comments

7 Comments on How to Get Home for the Holidays

  • Cherie on 11.19.2008 at 11:23 am

    Bolt Bus

    I gave Bolt Bus a try last August. I bought early enough to get an “A” boarding pass out of NYC to Boston. Of course, when the driver opened the doors, people started climbing on board. The driver stopped them, went inside, and made all the “B” and “C” boarding pass people get off until the “A”s were on. I got a front seat. Had a great trip. Didn’t know about the wireless and electrical outlets. No outlets in the front row. Unless the people in the second row seats are willing to share the outlet, the front row does have this disadvantage. Point is, this driver was my hero for the day!

  • Anonymous on 11.19.2008 at 12:18 pm

    Great article

    I have been curious what the low-down was on these new buses. This article helped out a lot, I think I’ll give Boltbus a try next time. Thanks!

  • Anonymous on 11.19.2008 at 12:18 pm

    Thanks for the info. Very informative and helpful. You’re a peach!

  • Anonymous on 11.19.2008 at 4:41 pm

    There are very very very few $1 seats on these buses. Forget it during busy-travel time.

  • Anonymous on 11.19.2008 at 4:42 pm

    Greyhound went up the last time I checked – used to be $15 with a code, but turned into $20 or $25. Plus, my Greyhounds have broken down twice. And they force you to watch a movie at high volume.

  • Matt on 11.21.2008 at 12:17 am

    Mixed reviews with BoltBus

    I’ve taken two round-trip trips with BoltBus. The first one was during the first week of June, 2008 from New York to Boston. The bus was 30 minutes late arriving (likely due to rush hour traffic; it was scheduled to leave at 8:30am) I wasn’t in a rush so I didn’t care much. After years of South Station, boarding on the street was definitely strange, but it worked out well. The bus was barely a third full, so internet was blazing fast on the way up. Coming home from Boston a few days later, the bus was full and the internet was obviously slower.

    My second trip was from New York to Philadelphia in late August, and it went off without a hitch. The street boarding in both cities was smooth, and the bus was on time for both departures. I booked the Philly trip early, so my total round trip cost was $8 ($7 south, $1 north). I had an A class ticket and was allowed to board first.

    All in all, BoltBus is a good service. If you’re hard pressed for time and need to get to your destination exactly on time, I’d say avoid bus travel altogether and take Amtrak. But for college breaks and the occasional fun trip, BoltBus is the way to go.

  • Anonymous on 11.24.2008 at 4:52 pm

    The Megabus drivers have been, by far, much more pleasant than anyone I ever encountered on Greyhound. On one of my trips, I sat up front and the driver was incredibly friendly and often checked in with the passengers around him about air temperature and the volume of his personal radio (not bothersome at all). It was great. We were delayed, but it was the traffic’s fault, not his – unlike drivers of certain other companies, he made a point to tell us what was going on and what the estimated arrival time had changed to.

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