The search for the best budget bus line.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
June 17 2009 6:58 AM

Get on the Bus

What's the best discount line? Fung Wah? Bolt? Mega? Or good old Greyhound?

While riding a bus to a graduation event my senior year of college, I distinctly remember thinking, "This is my last bus trip ever." In the brave new world of adulthood, I would, naturally, have no need for long-haul public transportation. If the fancy struck for travel, I'd just toss on my driving scarf and hop into an adorable little car. (That is, of course, if I wasn't headed to glamorous foreign locales on private jets.)

To my continuing surprise and disappointment, however, my bus riding days did not come to a close along with my college days. I can't afford a driving scarf, let alone a car. So when I need to visit friends or family, I turn to cheap bus services, which have exploded in the past decade (literally, on occasion).

People who take Amtrak or prefer flying might think one cheapo coach is the same as the next, but these are the same undiscriminating individuals who think a Bud Light is interchangeable with a Busch Light. Not only are these train or plane types spending more money than is strictly necessary—a sure sign of moral inferiority—but they have failed to learn the supremely useful, difficult-to-master art of distinguishing among the baser things in life. Herewith, a snob's guide to bus travel.

Fung Wah

Fung Wah Fung Wah is the original Chinatown bus service, started in 1998 as a dramatically cheaper alternative to Greyhound. At the time, a Greyhound ride between New York and Boston might've cost you $50; Fung Wah acquired a following for its $25 fare, which was knocked down to $10 during the fabled bus wars of the early aughts. (Think of Fung Wah as the Crips, Lucky Star as the Bloods. Seriously, there was a death toll.) Now, prices have settled to $15 each way for a pre-bought Internet ticket, still astonishingly cheap. The original clientele was mainly Chinese—as the nickname indicates, these buses usually traverse between the Chinatown neighborhoods of large Northeastern cities. But word spread among those in the know, and these days, the crowd is decidedly diverse.

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The Fung Wah has a reliable schedule, departing from New York every hour from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., with service on the half-hour during peak afternoon times. And if you really need to get out of town in an untraceable hurry, there's a 2 a.m. ride for a slightly higher premium.

I took the Fung Wah out for a test ride on a recent Sunday afternoon, returning to New York from Boston. The interior of the bus is typical of a bargain coach—slightly scratchy upholstery with classic '80s patterns, all the better to hide mysterious stains. There were a few individual touches: hand-drawn maps of South Station taped up to the windows labeled in both Chinese and English, punch-colored personal trash bags affixed to the arm of each seat (a surprisingly efficient method of keeping the bus tidy). The bus was a little warm, and the air circulation wasn't top-notch, creating that familiar sickly, stale bus smell that makes even the most iron-stomached traveler worry she'll succumb to carsickness. Still, I slept like a baby for the first two hours of my trip—unconsciousness is key to enjoying bus travel—and woke only because the bus stopped for a rest break. Other bus services that also do a midpoint stop will inform riders that they have, say, 15 minutes. Our driver said nothing: He just exited the bus and smoked a cigarette while we filed silently out. Fearing abandonment, we hustled back within five minutes.

There are those who won't take the Chinatown bus because of its spotty safety record. Stories of buses tipping over or catching on fire are legendary, and I have a friend who maintains that their drivers do more meth per capita than Wassilans. True, Fung Wah is the only bus service I've ever used that prominently advertises the fact that it's legally allowed on the road. But it's also the only bus I've taken that left six minutes ahead of schedule, or made the trip between Boston and New York in less than four hours, or ventured into the fast lane. For my money, all $15 of it, that's worth the risk.

Megabus

Megabus I took the other leg of my Boston-New York journey on Megabus, one of the corporatized Chinatown bus competitors that have sprung up in recent years. Megabus' big selling point, emblazoned in yellow across the side of distinctive blue double-decker buses, is that fares are as low as $1 a ride. But to get those low fares, you have to book far in advance—a requirement somewhat antithetical to the spur-of-the-moment nature of bus travel. I booked on a Thursday for a trip the next day and got a ticket for $18.50—not bad at all for a last-minute trip at a peak travel time.

Unlike the punctual Fung Wah, Megabus departed 20 minutes behind schedule from outside Penn Station—not a pleasant place to be waiting during rush hour, in the rain, among confused and angry New Yorkers. When the bus finally arrived, I headed for the top rung of the double-decker, ready to be charmed by this British style of navigating the American highway system. But the experience doesn't translate. A closed double-decker is claustrophobia-inducing, and there is also the consideration of physics: A higher center of gravity creates a multiplicative effect for every jolt.

The interior of the coach followed the same classical school of bus design as the Fung Wah, with the notable Rococo addition of glowing, disco-green ceiling lights. It had the feel of a party bus following the yellow brick road. Despite a robust air conditioner, the stale bus perfume was inescapable. The set point of recline for the seats was overly recumbent. More than a smattering of trash was left over from the previous riders. And, insult to injury, as we pulled off, the driver came over the intercom to inform us, like a disembodied voice from the crushed dreams of an ambitious past, that "this bus is not stopping at Harvard. You are not going to Harvard if you are on this bus."

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