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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 the holidays here, 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.
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.
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.
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.
This story originally ran November 19, 2008.
Edward A. Brown can be reached at email@example.com.