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Posted By Jim On 09/19/2012 @ 7:15 am In Personal Finance | 8 Comments
A few years ago, I booked a “Chinatown bus” from Baltimore to NYC that cost around $20. It wasn’t one of the major companies (Bolt Bus or Megabus) and the bus itself just looked like your typical coach bus – no frills, nothing fancy. Well, it turns out that no only did it not have any fanciness or frills, it had a broken oil cap and the driver, who spoke little English (which meant I acted as a translator), was trying to tie a rag over the broken cap. People were getting upset at the delays and ultimately I decided to skip the trip home. Fortunately I was just going back for a visit, nothing special was planned, and canceling was just a disappointment. Fast forward a few years, I’ve never taken a bus since but I know plenty of people who have. The ones that had the best experiences typically stuck with Megabus (though I suspect Bolt is just as good).
I asked a few of them for their experiences because I wanted to learn more about the service, which turns out to be pretty good (especially considering the prices).
You might have seen them on the road, big blue buses with the fat pink-faced driver in a yellow uniform, and the constant reminder that rides started at $1 a pop. It sounds almost too good to be true and it makes you wonder if they are able to save money on the tickets by cutting back on maintenance! (like the bus I was on that had a cracked oil cap) It turns out that the $1 tickets are just for the first one and the prices go up as the bus fills up. As the date of the trip draws closer, the price also goes up.
I did a check of a bus from Baltimore, MD to New York, NY for a weekend trip. If I chose this weekend (Fri-Sun), the roundtrip price varied between $40 and $50 depending on the time of day. If I opted for a month from now, the pricing was still around $40 to $50 for the same times but some trips were as low as $8. If I chose a mid-week trip, the pricing was better still by a dollar or two each way. I didn’t find any $1 tickets though. I suspect those go as soon as the scheduling opens up for that date (I went out as far as I could and there were no tickets cheaper than $8).
How does the pricing compare with Greyhound? Good question but the Greyhound website is horrible. I tried to do a price comparison but couldn’t even pull up any tickets available on Greyhound. I must have checked half a dozen dates and each one had “n/a” for the pricing.
As for Amtrak, it wasn’t even close. I know, and have taken, the Northeast Regional several times and so pricing is usually anywhere from $65 to $120 depending on when you book it and what times you select. Whereas the train takes about three hours to get to NYC, Megabus takes an hour or so longer. The price difference is significant though, with Megas saving you a good $70-80 and giving you the option of booking a late ticket. If you book in advance on Amtrak, you can usually snag a $39-$49 ticket for the lower demand times.
For kicks, I checked Southwest even though I know flying wouldn’t come close. If you wanted to get into NYC, flying is probably the worst way because you still need to catch a cab from either LGA or JFK and that costs about as much as the Megabus trip one-way. That said, a flight for this weekend will cost you around $500 (last minute flights are horrible!) but one in a month will only put you back $200 depending on the time you choose. Southwest’s non-stop only takes an hour and twenty minutes, though with airport time it’s still comparable to the train.
On the bus itself, the wi-fi is relatively speedy considering you’re on a bus and your ticket costs so little. This speed test report  is several years old but I suspect the speeds are comparable if you’re lucky. As is the case with technology on buses, it’s a matter of getting a good bus and good co-passengers. Another important difference to note is that the buses now have power outlets, which is a nice perk for those longer hauls.
The best perk of all is avoiding tolls!
Megabus typically releases promo codes specific to a origination/destination, so looking for codes online is probably going to yield very little. For example, the latest promotion is for this weekend  – Travel Friday to Sunday to/and from Morgantown, West Virginia. The two cities you can go to or leave from are Pittsburgh for $5 or Washington D.C. for $9. The sales themselves are this specific.
Have you taken the Megabus? Good? Bad? Ugly?
(Photo: paul_lowry )
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 report: http://blog.jangomail.com/2009/12/review-of-megabus-wifi-internet-access.html
 this weekend: http://megabus.tumblr.com/post/31461504996/morgantown-sale
 paul_lowry: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_lowry/2550437956/sizes/s/in/photostream/
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