Budget Travel: Hop on a bus

Depending upon the time frame you have to go from one point to the next, bus travel is a worthy option when looking for a bargain. Last summer, I opted for Greyhound as a way to get back from New York City to Columbus with my son. It was a perfect trip with few kinks. At the time, the bus fare was much cheaper than a flight, and I didn’t want to drive myself.

A few years back, I made a similar trip (from Cleveland to New York City) with my daughter when she was five with equally favorable results. And, well before that, I traveled with a friend for three months across the United States, criss-crossing from Kentucky to California–mostly by bus.

Here is a look at bus options in addition to Greyhound as a way to save money. Plus, a bus gives you the opportunity to watch the scenery glide by and hear songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” playing in your head. [The photo posted by bobster1985 is of the Greyhound bus terminal circa 1936.]

First up, Greyhound: With a network that stretches across the United States to 2,300 different destinations, Greyhound is more likely to get you closer to the places you might want to go. If you’re heading to a major city, golden. If you have a small town in mind or a national park, lots of luck.

When my friend and I were mapping out our trip, we nixed several places because getting there was impossible, or too inconvenient. We also found out that the further west we went, the later a bus departed–or the earlier it arrived. However, we spent a whole day Salt Lake City and Denver without staying overnight by arriving early in the morning and leaving after midnight. Granted, it’s not a picnic at a bus stop in the middle of the night, but it’s not awful.

Because a Greyhound bus tickets can be purchased the day of a trip at the station, you can build flexibility into a vacation. When we bought our tickets, we figured out the route we wanted to take and the stops we could make in order to maximize our tickets. One leg went between Lexington, Kentucky to Racine, Wisconsin with stops in Louisville and Chicago.

For bigger savings, Greyhound has several budget options. Book ahead and on-line for up to a 20% discount. Right now, you can purchase a ticket 14-days in advance and get anywhere in the U.S. for no more than $99 one-way if you’re traveling on Monday through Thursday. At other times, a 14-days in advance purchase can get you a 35 % discount, and 7-days in advance can save 20%.

Unlike air travel, children, senior citizens and students also get discounts. Children under 2 can travel for free. Children ages 2-11 can get a ticket for 40% an adult rate. Seniors can get a 5 % discount. If you’re a student, with a Student Advantage Discount Card, you can save 15%.

Find out if you can get a Family & Friends companion fare. It’s still listed on the Greyhound website. If you’re traveling with another person, one person pays full fare, and the other person pays 50%. For a parent traveling with two children, each child pays 50%.

About Trailways and Peter Pan: Trailways is included in the Greyhound network. In many cases, you may be on Trailways bus for part of the trip and then switch to Greyhound. Greyhound specializes in coast to coast travel, while Trailways service is focused within distinct regions. A Trailways issued ticket is good on a Greyhound bus.

Peter Pan bus line operates in New England and is one way to get to smaller cities and towns. I’ve taken Peter Pan to Wooster, MA. Booking on-line offers cheaper ticket options. Like Trailways, Peter Pan dovetails with Greyhound.

Megabus: When Josh wrote about Megabus last October, a couple of people left comments giving a thumbs up to their experience. Touted as having bus fares as low as $1, bus fares go up as seats sell. As of last May, the company had served 1,000,000 passengers. The company now offers service to seventeen Midwest cities, seven West Coast cities, eight East Coast cities, and into Canada, however buses have very specific routes, so the reach may not be as wide as you need. You can also hop on a Megabus in Great Britain.

The map on the website shows the bus routes, and a drop down menu lets you know which destinations are connected to each other. For example, from Columbus, I can only go to Chicago, Cincinnati or Indianapolis on one ticket. From Chicago I can head to Minneapolis. In order to get to Memphis or Kansas City, other destinations, I’d have to go to Chicago first. If the price is right, why not? Otherwise take Greyhound.

When booking a Megabus ticket, you can block out several return date options if you want flexibility. As a point to be aware of, you can only bring one checked bag that doesn’t exceed 50 pounds, and one small carry-on bag. Greyhound allows for more.

Unlike Greyhound that operates out of bus stations, Megabus has specific bus stops that may or may not be near a bus station, but stops are clearly marked. Although most of Megabus’s business is done on-line, you can make reservations by calling their telephone reservation line.

I’ve never ridden a Megabus, but from the the description, they remind me of the more deluxe buses that went between Hsinchu, Taiwan where I used to live and Taipei–roomier than Greyhound and quicker because there are less pick-up points in between.

BoltBus: Grant took a BoltBus from Washington, D.C. to New York City last March and was generally pleased. Similar to Megabus, BoltBus offers an inexpensive option for going between Boston, NYC, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Ticket prices start as low as $1. Like Megabus, Boltbus also offers Wi-Fi access and plug-ins. Grant, though said that the Wi-Fi wasn’t working for him.

To buy a ticket, go to www.boltbus.com to purchase on-line. For the best deal, it’s recommended that you purchase tickets a couple weeks in advance. You can buy a ticket buy showing up the day of departure, but you’ll pay more and may not get a seat.

If you do buy a BoltBus ticket, be sure of your travel date because tickets are non-refundable. (Megabus allows you to change for a fee) Like on Greyhound and Megabus, children under the age of two can travel for free with an adult.

Chinatown Bus: Last year I found out about the “Chinese Bus” that leaves Columbus for New York City, every night (I think). Since then, I’ve discovered a vast network of buses that connect various cities to Chinatown. If you choose this option, book early on-line to make sure you get a seat, but be prepared that you may have to wait for another bus since buses fill up.

Like Boltbus, you can only buy a ticket on-line. Unlike Megabus, you must have a printed out boarding pass in order to get on the bus. Also, like Boltbus, tickets are non-refundable. (For more answers to questions you might have, click here.)

Departure cities range from Mobile, Alabama to Syracuse, New York and Spartanburg, South Carolina. This company also offers vacation package tours. There’s a three-day tour from NYC to Toronto that takes in Niagara Falls and Thousand Islands, for example. Excluding meals and admission fees, the tour costs $190 per person for a double occupancy room. If you buy two, the third person goes for free.

For a look at what traveling on a Chinatown Bus may be like, click here. One detail to know beforehand is that before you hop on one of these buses, make sure you are getting on the right one. Several leave from the same stop. Now, that really does sound like Taiwan.

An advantage of this bus over Greyhound is that it makes less stops so you can arrive at your destination more quickly. However, like Greyhound, departure times are hit and miss. The schedule, in a way, is a suggestion of when a bus might leave. Still, don’t arrive late or you might be out of luck.

Within the Chinatown bus offerings, The Fung-Wah Bus only travels between New York and Boston. You can either buy a ticket on-line or at the ticket office at 138 Canal Street.

Another company with the same service is Lucky Star. Currently, there is a promotion where you can pay $1 for a one-way fare, but this is first come, first serve.

For other bus company options, check out RK Chin, a journey through Chinatown. There are a few more you may want to consider.

Taking Greyhound: a Gadling bloggers experience in the Twighlight Zone

As much as I liked being on a Greyhound bus riding the open highway with my son, who stretched and balled up Silly Putty between new York City and Columbus, Ohio, finding out how to actually take the bus was not the easiest.
Mind you, I’m a seriously traveled traveler. The process that led to our bus ride almost did me in.

Here’s how you play the game, “Getting on a Greyhound, and Welcome to the Twighlight Zone.”

Round One: Who is On First and What your Ticket Says Doesn’t Matter: At the Adirondack Trailways bus station in Kingston, New York after searching out bus schedules online.

Me: “I’d like to buy one adult one way bus ticket and one child’s ticket from New Paltz, New York to Columbus, Ohio. I think there is a bus that leaves New Paltz at 8:20 a.m. It arrives in Columbus about 11:30 p.m.”

Ticket Person, clicking away with her snazzy polished fake nails at the computer keyboard. Cheerful: “Sure. But, I’d take a later bus so you’re not in New York City as long.

Me, happy that she’s on the ball: “That sounds fine.”

Ticket Person, handing me tickets-still perky: “You’ll go through Cleveland and get to Columbus at 3:00 a.m.” (This is a paraphrase.)

Me, now, a bit irate: “Three in the morning?! No. I don’t want to go through Cleveland. I want to go through Pittsburgh. There’s a direct bus that leaves New York City at 11:30 a.m. I saw the schedule online.”

Ticket Person: “The online schedule is wrong.”

Me, attempting to hand back the tickets: “But, I don’t want this schedule. I want a direct route. I don’t want to go through Cleveland.”

Ticket Person, clicking away again: “There’s a 5:50 a.m. bus from New Paltz that gets you to the city in time to take a bus to Pittsburgh.”

Me: “But, I don’t want to leave that early. And what do I do now that our tickets say we are going through Cleveland and not Pittsburgh?”

Ticket Person, off-handedly.: “What the ticket says doesn’t really matter. Your ticket is from New Paltz to Columbus, so you can take any bus there. You don’t have to go through Cleveland.”

I leave the bus station, tickets in hand, confused, not sure at all which bus to take.

Round Two: Someone Knows What’s What.

Later at my dad’s standing in his kitchen. I call Adirondack Trailways to see what’s what. I don’t trust the ticket person in Kingston at all.

Me: “I’m calling to check on a bus schedule between New Paltz, New York and Columbus, Ohio. I just bought tickets in Kingston and they are not what I wanted. Is there a bus that leaves New Paltz at 8:20 in the morning with a change in NYC and a direct route to Columbus that stops in Pittsburgh for an hour? We would get to Columbus about 11:30 at night.”

Phone Ticket Person, after checking the schedule: “Yes, there is.”

Me: “The person in Kingston told me that bus didn’t exist and the online schedule is wrong. She said it’s often wrong.”

Phone Ticket Person: “The schedule is updated regularly.”

Me: “Here’s the problem. The tickets I have say we’re going through Cleveland and leaving New Paltz after 9 a.m. Plus, I have Trailways tickets. What about the switch to Greyhound?”

Phone Ticket Person: “That doesn’t matter. The tickets are good for any time and Trailways is the same company as Greyhound. The bus driver will let you on the bus to Pittsburgh. Ignore the Cleveland portion.”

Me: “Great!” Not one hundred percent confident, but willing to go with it.

We took the 8:00 a.m. bus out of New Paltz without a hitch. Problems not over yet. New Paltz busses to the city are frequent in the morning.

Round Three: At the Port Authority information booth you get misinformation.

Me, after snaking around through throngs of people and a stop to two separate bathrooms on two different floors. That’s another story:

“Where is the gate for the bus to Columbus, Ohio?”

Information Person: “Which city are you going through?”

Me: “My ticket says Cleveland, but I want to go through Pittsburgh.”

Information Person: “You need to change your ticket, otherwise you need to go through Cleveland.” (She directs me to the Greyhound ticket office.)

Round Four: When You Eventually Get Ahead

Me, trying not to get frustrated: “I have a ticket to Columbus that goes through Cleveland but I want the bus that goes through Pittsburgh. I was told I need to change tickets.

Counter Ticket Person: “No. That ticket is fine.”

Me, relieved, but not confident: “Great! Where do I catch the bus?”

Counter Ticket Person: Gate 70

Me: “Great! I want to purchase preboarding passes.” (Preboarding passes allow you to get on a bus before others.)

Counter Ticket Person: “I don’t sell those. I just give information. You need to stand in the next line. “(She is sitting next to the person who can sell me the preboarding passes.)

I move over two steps to the next line.

Me, showing my tickets: “I’d like to buy two preboarding passes for the bus to Columbus.”

Other Counter Person: “I can’t sell you preboarding for Trailways tickets. Those aren’t our tickets.”

The first Counter Person, leaning over: “Yes, you can. Trailways is Greyhound.”

Other Counter Person: “Oh. It is?” She’s stumped and really doesn’t know how to sell the prebarding passes so the other person shows her what to do and then hands me two of them.

Round Five: When Signage is Clear as Mud
The sign above the door to Gate 70 doesn’t list Columbus as a destination. Cleveland is on the sign, but Pittsburgh is not. None of the other signs say Columbus either.

Panicked, thinking that we are destined for travel hell after all, I quiz passengers waiting in line to find out the scoop. After deductive reasoning, and after chatting with a woman standing in line who works for Greyhound, I decided that the bus would be going through Pittsburgh and the people going to Cleveland would change buses in Pittsburgh. Why the sign didn’t say Columbus since that was where the bus was heading, I have no idea.

Also, there isn’t a special place to stand for passengers with preboarding passes. We hang near the front, but not in line. When the driver opens the gate doors to take our tickets, I tell him about the preboarding passes and we cut to the front. There is only one other woman with children in line with preboarding passes.

Because there isn’t a designated spot for preboarders, I feel as if we look like we are cutting in line, but once we are on the bus with our pick of seats, I don’t care. I earned them.

*Sure enough, the Cleveland portion of the ticket was ignored. We were allowed to go to Pittsburgh and arrived in Columbus at 11:40, about 20 minutes late. (see post on how the trip went.)

Jebb’s shot is of the Trailways bus to New Paltz.