Big Apple Buses

Many locals choose wheels over wings or rails to hit New York

As locals continue to make the trek to New York in droves, bus lines appear to be grabbing an ever-larger portion of the pilgrimage.

In the years since the Chinatown bus company Eastern Travel began offering a cheaper alternative to Amtrak and Greyhound, multiple bus companies have popped up to shuttle a diverse crowd from one metropolis to another. The competing lines, such as DC2NY, Megabus and Bolt Bus, offer various amenities like free drinks and wireless Internet in addition to low prices to woo customers.

Courtney Caldwell, a graduate student with an internship in New York and family in Fairfax, takes the bus home at least every few weeks. “It’s definitely the most economical option,” says Caldwell. And while she prefers Amtrak, she’s turned off by the fares, which can run around $100 one-way during the week. “I can get a bus ticket for around $30 round trip. There’s really just no comparison.”

Local college sophomore Rachel Lauchenauer, president of American University Queers and Allies, warns that the low price comes at a cost. On one ride, she says, the driver took an early exit off the highway and wound up circling Elizabeth, N.J., for an hour until another passenger took control of the bus.

“We were all these New Yorkers and we knew where we were going, so we were yelling at the bus driver,” she says. “Then the bus stopped and a woman’s voice came on the intercom and said, ‘I’m taking this bus to New York, and if you don’t like it you can get off.’”

There are other horror stories — poorly maintained vehicles catching fire or losing tires in transit, irresponsible drivers going so fast their buses roll over, or a summertime drive to New York with no air conditioning — but devotees say part of purchasing a ticket is throwing caution to the wind.

“You have no idea if it’ll show up, or if you’ll make it there on time, or if you’ll get there alive,” Caldwell jokes. “Every single time is an adventure.” She mentions a recent trip from New York to Hartford, Conn., which showed up three hours late.

“It was really more of a minivan than a bus. But we had a good time. You make friends immediately because when something goes wrong you can tell who has a sense of humor about it and who thought they were getting classy travel for $15.”

Travis Ballie, a local with family in the Bronx, says he’ll sometimes pay a few dollars more to ride his favorite line, Bolt Bus. “I always feel guilty not taking the Chinatown buses, because I’d be saving money,” he says. “But it’s just such a nicer ride.”

Bolt Bus offers amenities like more legroom and wireless Internet that, for Ballie, makes it worth the $5 over Eastern Travel. While you also find Wi-Fi on DC2NY, Tripper Bus and Megabus, be careful with the latter: Some Megabus trips are operated by Eastern Travel, which does not offer Wi-Fi.

Bolt Bus is very popular for its comparatively reliable Internet and wall sockets, but in terms of the best line, “It depends on what you want,” says Caldwell. With myriad options available, those looking for the best bus option to suit their needs will find an incredible ally in www.busjunction.com. This fare aggregator allows riders to see a list of pick-up and drop-off sites, ticket prices, and icons to indicate whether a ride offers a bathroom, Internet or electrical outlets.

The rise of comparison shopping for bus tickets accompanies the rise of bus travel: Buses are booming at rates not seen in 40 years, according to one DePaul University study. However, as Caldwell puts it, bus travelers make no bones about the reasons behind their means of conveyance.

“If you’re on a four-hour trip for $15, that’s quite a deal. If you need to be somewhere on time, pay more and take Amtrak.”

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