Wednesday, March 17, 2010
After I started regularly taking the Megabus to Chicago from St. Louis, people inexperienced with bus travel often volleyed concerned questions my way: Is it really that cheap? Are they ever on time? Should I ever be concerned about safety?
I'd usually answer honestly, of course. But as a budget-minded student, I started looking at friends as competition. Do I tell everyone about how I landed $5 Megabus tickets and pulled in 20 minutes ahead of schedule, or do I forward them articles like this? (Warning: Disturbing news story about man being attacked gruesomely on bus.)
So yes, I wanted Megabus all to myself. At the time, it was like a members-only luxury cruise through the cornfields that didn't know how to market to anyone.
Now that the secret's out -- and I've taken the blue double-decker countless times -- "luxury cruise" is probably an overstatement, and $5 tickets maybe aren't as realistic. Regardless, I've found it a cheap and convenient way to travel, and since they've expanded their reach to our nation's capital and reside in most of the Midwest, Northeast, some of Canada and the U.K., I figure it's as good of a time as any to share my experiences, tips and perhaps dispel a few myths.
1. Pricing breakdown: $1 seats are real, and pretty hard to get.
This is one of the eye-popping facts that arouse excitement and skepticism in equal measure: How can a business thrive selling seats for $1 and a $0.50 booking fee? The answer lies in its low-overhead practices, like no brick-and-mortar terminals and strictly computer-operated ticket sales. But just as you pondered that question, some hack miles away will probably have snatched away that last dollar ticket to Toledo. Blast! How do you get it?
If you really want that dollar ticket -- which is, admittedly, quite the badge of pride -- you'll typically need to know about that trip months in advance; my wild guess is that four to eight seats carry the $1 price tag per trip. And while some people may mark off their calendar daily in insatiable excitement for their magical mystery tour to Toledo in five months, chances are the bulk of buyers will be getting their Megabus tickets within 30 days or so of their travel date. That said, Megabus often adds times to their schedule, and with some luck you can score $1 seats earlier than you imagined, so stay vigilant and flexible where possible.
So you're booking a month or less in advance; is Megabus well-priced beyond the $1 seats? This all depends on your travel days and your options, of course, but in my experience it still has turned out to be the best-priced out of all budget travel options, whether you're considering Amtrak or Greyhound Bus tickets instead. A month in advance, I can head to St. Louis one-way on a Thursday afternoon for $10; on Easter Sunday, a one-way trip jumps to $28. But against a tank of gas or airfare, that is pretty darn good.
One more tip: Regularly google for for Megabus promotional codes, which can slash your prices to almost nil -- or even free. You can keep on top of them by subscribing to the company newsletter, too.
2. What is service like? Is Megabus ever on time? What's the bus like?
Naturally, when a company sacrifices price, they have to sacrifice service, right?
In a word, yes. But it's never been an extreme obstacle.
Megabus picks up at key spots in most cities, often near the city's largest train station, usually right off the street; there is no formal hub or ticket taking. Many people just write their confirmation numbers on notepads or display them on their iPhones to the driver, who marks it off on a clipboard. There's a one-bag limit on luggage in the carrier with a personal bag allowed on board, but it's not strictly enforced.
If there's any confusion with your ticket or anything else housekeeping related, do not expect the driver to go out of his way to help you. You can try -- they're usually congenial people -- but they're not paid to go above and beyond. Keep this in mind.
Megabus has been on time or ahead of schedule about 90% of the time I've taken it. I've heard a number of nightmare stories regarding cancellations or delays, but Megabus is generally no-frills and efficient with their set times. Usually there is a 20-minute rest stop on longer trips -- make sure you don't take too long to pick out your snacks, because your driver may not wait for you (I've had a close call).
3. Is Megabus safe?
I've never felt threatened on a Megabus, either by a creepy fellow passenger or by a driver playing demolition-derby. That said, there is no bag scan, no pat-down, no on-board security. So in that sense, it's like riding your average city bus. Take precautions like you would in any similar situation -- keep your valuables close by and stay wary of weirdos. If you're driving overnight, maybe suggest a periodic game of slug-bug with the driver (maybe not a great idea). Stay calm and be aware and you'll make it out okay, just like you always do.
4. So, should I use Megabus?
It comes down to this: With lowered prices should come lower expectations. As a method of getting from one place to another place that is hours away for cheap, my belief is that Megabus is the best of its ilk. I've rarely been late. Free wireless Internet is a huge perk, even if it's spotty at times. It's easy to book online, and you can change reservations for a small fee. Its informal nature can be off-putting, but that's how they keep it cheap.
From what I've gathered, Midwestern buses don't face the congestion and troubles that some services through places like New York or Boston might (Anyone with experience up there should dish on their experiences in the comments).
So if you're faced with unsettling budget travel options, I recommend Megabus. It's not a luxury cruise, but it's not like re-living Speed either.
Other recommendation: Don't steam Speed from Netflix while using Megabus's wireless Internet. You and the guy behind you will regret it.
(image credits: Megabus.com, LA Wad)