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."

Despite my initial grumpiness, I settled pleasantly enough into a novel. And since the trip stretched to a long five-plus hours, I was able to finish it. I've since discovered that Megabus supposedly offers Wi-Fi on its New York-based service, but there was no evidence of Internet use among my fellow riders, and the driver didn't mention it in his announcements. Perhaps it's an amenity mentioned only to the Harvard-bound clientele, not to us plebeians.

Bolt Bus

Bolt Bus Bolt Bus, a Greyhound-owned, more recent entry to the cheapo market, is the Google to Megabus' AOL: It makes connectedness—Wi-Fi and electrical outlets—central to its vaguely hip branding. Like Fung Wah, its clientele has grown more mixed as its reputation has grown. But especially at peak travel times, the core Bolt customer is a member of the Gchattering classes: a twentysomething professional-ish type who can't be parted from technology. On a recent trip from New York to D.C., an older woman who arrived just before departure stared down the aisle and muttered, "I feel like the teacher." There's a sort of reconstructed Bobo, ADD-addled vibe—the girl in front of me on a recent trip to D.C., for instance, was clad in a fur-lined hoodie and sipped from a bottle of Perrier whilst toggling from Special Topics in Calamity Physics, to GOOD magazine, to The Daily Show on Hulu, to Sudoku on her iPhone. The guy next to me, ostentatiously talking shop on his BlackBerry, was an overripe frat boy type familiar to me from college—and when he asked to borrow my phone charger, I realized that we had indeed gone to college together.

That's the Bolt Bus niche: familiarity. Riders can forget that they're traveling, since they can do virtually any activity they might while sitting at the desk where they spend their days. Of course, there are the same inherent discomforts as on any bus. It's always freezing onboard, it tends to be less than reliable in terms of punctuality and speed, and the pricing system is quite similar to that of Megabus (I got an $18 ticket two weeks in advance). Yet, on the strength of its Wi-Fi signal, Bolt is my top choice.

Greyhound

Greyhound I returned from D.C. on a Greyhound—my maiden voyage on the storied bus line. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, since the brand has acquired a reputation for seediness in recent years, and my mother has always spoken nervously about Greyhound. But plenty of other things she's warned me against over the years have turned out to be lots of fun.

The terminal was in an out-of-the way part of town, as it is in most cities, and I thought it had an air of poetic despair. Or at least I did until I caught a whiff of the bathroom, which removed all poetry from the picture. The bus itself, however, was brand-new, with comfortable leather seats, a perfectly calibrated air-conditioning system, a clean bathroom, and even electrical outlets. No wireless, although Greyhound has announced plans to equip its entire fleet with the service.

Other buses tend to attract people traveling alone or in pairs, while this one was full of families. I doubt anyone on the bus had a trust fund, but there was also no one who seemed deserving of maternal warnings. I bought my ticket online for $20, but many purchased on the spot, and the bus wasn't full. Greyhound, at least in the saturated New York market, seems to be catering to people who haven't figured out that there are cheaper options. But the upgraded bus—physically, the nicest one I took—was a sign that the ante has been upped and that Greyhound is adapting to compete.

It's easy to dwell on the minor discomforts of bus travel—and, over several hours, you certainly will. It might also be an experience whose appeal suffers a sharp decline after you turn 30. (Or maybe even before then? Margaret Thatcher allegedly said, "A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.") But beyond sheer affordability, bus travel also offers certain underappreciated perks. There are no officials to hassle you, no security or bag checks. And although there are also no minor luxuries, like beverage service, to perk up your spirits, you can probably sneak a Bud Light onboard. A good rule of thumb: If you can still appreciate the charm of cracking open a $2 beer, you will find much to appreciate about budget bus lines.

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.

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