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Traveling By Bus

By my own crude estimates, I’ve spent nearly 140 hours riding back and forth on busses between New York and Boston for the past four years. That’s almost six days, for those of you keeping score at home. Any way you cut it, I’ve spent some serious time glancing out of windows at blighted cities in Connecticut and at never-ending stretches of snow-covered Harlem boulevards.

I’ve seen a lot during my time on these “motorcoaches,” which the more professional, less “leave-me-the-fuck-alone” drivers call their noble steeds. I’ve been offered drugs and alcohol by seatmates (I accepted the whiskey, not the painkillers), been shown naked pictures of girlfriends (not-so-surprisingly by the same guy who offered me the pills and booze), and witnessed complete strangers strike up a conversation with one another and spend the latter half of the trip cuddling and making out.

I’ve also spent a miserable 4.5 hours acting as a human pillow for a girl I knew from school who was more into me than I was into her, and was unfortunately traveling to Boston the same day I was. On other trips, I’ve pissed all over my shorts in the gyrating rollercoaster bathroom (if you can pee straight in there, you deserve a gold medal), broken out in hives from eating fennel the day before, and drooled all over my cashmere sweater attempting to sleep.

In general, I make a habit of limiting conversations with my seatmates, unless they’re a drop dead gorgeous female. Seeing that this almost never happens, my rides are mostly silent. I like it this way. It’s warm and fuzzy to think you’re going to meet extraordinarily interesting people on the bus, but in actuality, the small talk consists of the same “where are you from”/ “where are you going” blabber that none of us really care for. It ends after five minutes, and then you’re left with the awkwardness of an aborted conversation for the remainder of the trip.

What I practice is not anti-social and miserly—it’s purposely restrictive, subduing my inquisitive, hospitable nature so both my seatmate and I can sit back and attempt to relax without the guilt and embarrassment that comes with exchanging platitudes, and then sitting next to each other for four more hours with nothing more to talk about. I don’t think either of us really cares what the other’s favorite vegetable is.

The ultimate transit awkwardness comes when one seat in every pair is filled. For the unlucky bloke who walks on the bus at this point, not only is the dream of a single row to himself gone, but he then has to endure the walk of shame down the aisle to locate a rider whose face doesn’t say, “YOU BETTER NOT SIT NEXT TO ME.”

No honest, veteran bus passenger will tell you they want a stranger to sit next to him or her. To avoid seatmates, I try to look as miserable and angry as possible. You won’t find too many people who willingly sit down next the guy who looks homicidal. I find that this strategy works around 75 percent of the time. The other 25 percent, my seatmates are pleased to discover that I’m not a serial killer.

I’m lucky, I admit. I’ve avoided most of the interstate transit horror stories common to newspapers and gabby, overbearing parents. I’ve never been the unfortunate rider whose bus is taken out of service mid-journey for repairs, leaving everyone to wait three hours for the next one to come and rescue them. Thankfully, I’ve also never been on the busses that spontaneously catch on fire and burn out on the side of the road.

If you’re young, live in the Northeast, and have friends in major cities, then interstate, low-cost busses have most likely become a necessary evil for you. Are they comfortable? Absolutely not. Affordable? You bet your ass they are.

Bolt Bus provides the more luxurious ride, with black leather seats and the promise of more legroom, though I’ve yet to notice a tangible difference in personal space. Then there’s Megabus, which first made waves by offering $1 fares and double-decker busses. The split-level busses are fun to ride on, for your first trip, or if you’re seven-years-old. The $1 fares, however, seem to be an illusion. Ostensibly, they’re available, but I’ve never been able to find one, and they seemingly only exist if you book a 3 a.m. trip two years in advance. Bolt and Mega sit in a similar price range, with most fares sitting at $12-$20 depending on time and day.

As Bolt and Mega have monopolized short-distance East Coast travel (Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. are popular hubs), interstate bus stalwarts like Greyhound—and its sister company Peter Pan—have been forced to revamp their bus fleet. The Hound has a slew of shiny new busses with Wi-Fi and the works, but they also still run plenty of coaches that look like they use to transport minor league baseball players from one depressed coal town to another. You don’t want to get stuck on one of these for five hours.

Price-wise, Greyhound can ring in at nearly double the rate of Bolt or Mega, with about half of the luxury. I pay nearly $60 for my round-trip ticket from Framingham, Mass. to New York City, and I’ve traveled on busses whose stained seats and grubby windows sills will make you want to get a Hep. C shot after disembarking.

For direct service from Boston to New York City, Greyhound has also been forced to slash its prices and add more express busses (I’m guessing young travelers weren’t fond of stops in Worcester, Danbury, and New Haven) to compete with the new low-cost carriers. Greyhound tickets, however, are non-guaranteed. While I’ve never been barred entry onto a bus with a non-guaranteed ticket, I fear for the day when I’m left stranded at Port Authority, $30 lighter.

Greyhound is a palace compared to what I’ve heard about Fung Wah—the ultra, ultra low-cost carrier. Distracted drivers, unpleasant smells, a third world environment—these are things to consider while your Fung Wah coach is smoldering on the side of I-95.

Bus trips, by nature, are undesirable. Many of the same reasons why you hated the school bus also apply to coach busses. They’re cramped, rickety, and noisy due to the constant clatter of the bus hitting divots at 65 mph. If you can fall asleep, God bless you. Most of us are incapable of comfortably cramming our head against a Plexiglass window that shakes every 15 seconds.

My strategy to pass the time, for the 140 hours I’ve traveled by bus? Since I can’t read or write onboard (chronic motion sickness), and own only one DVD (Layer Cake, which I got from a friend for my 19th birthday), I spend most of my time staring out the window. I’d be lying if I said I was looking at the dropping leaves of a New England autumn or the sun setting over the Manhattan horizon.

No, I tend to look at road signs and rest stop McDonald’s. “When the fuck are we going to be there?” I usually ask myself.


Eli Epstein is a recent graduate of NYU and a freelance writer in New York City. His work has appeared online at The Atlantic, Fortune, and Esquire. Among other things, he enjoys cereal, Alice in Chains, and corgis. He’s a sworn Bostonian. Photo: dpstyles


29 Comments / Post A Comment

Megano! (#124)

I traveled back and forth between Toronto and Ottawa once a month for a year and a half (so about 180 hours, NOT EVEN COUNTING the time the bus broke and I got waylaid in Peterborough for 2 hours), and it’s way worse getting around by bus in Canada. I have no choice but to take Greyhound (we have Megabus but it only does Toronto-Montreal), and at minimum, by buying a month in advance and with student price, it costs $90. I would SHIT if it cost $60. Nonstudent fare from Ottawa to Montreal alone (which is only a 2 hour trip) is around $100!!!

megsy@twitter (#2,192)

@Megano! it’s all about the train. I will pay the premium for the train, especially if you get the 50% off deals.

wearitcounts (#772)

@megsy@twitter agreed. also: THE QUIET CAR. best.

@Megano! I can’t believe how expensive traveling around Canada is! I couchsurfed in Vancouver awhile ago, and my host kept asking me how much it cost to fly to different cities in America – she was so jealous we could (relatively) inexpensively spend long weekends in other American cities.

You may have healthcare but we – we have inexpensive cross-country travel!

Megano! (#124)

@megsy@twitter where do the 50% off deals live because the train is still really expensive. Also the Toronto-Ottawa is always breaking down, I am not even exaggerating.

megsy@twitter (#2,192)

@Megano! sign up for Via emails. The 50% off comes up every month or so. It’s about $140 round trip Ottawa-Toronto I think.
I just really really really hate the bus. Although greyhound terminal is more convenient then Via terminal in Ottawa.

theotherginger (#1,304)

@megsy@twitter I have taken that bus so often. When I started grad school I graduated to the train, and took advantage of their (former) student discounts. Now I keep my eyes peeled for deals. They also have points, so at least you feel like all your money is going somewhere… in like a decade I’ll have a free return trip.

Fig. 1 (#632)

@Megano! [Saskatchewan resident gazes enviously at Eastern train-having cousins] Seriously, it’s $85 round trip for the bus between Saskatoon and Regina…approximately 280 km. No rail option. Eventually I’d love to take a train trip out to Montreal or the East Coast. I love trains, and my husband is physiologically incapable of flying or driving long distances.

cmcm (#267)

Oooooh the hours and days I have spent on Greyhound buses. “Highlights” include:
- Stopping at a prison to pick up recently released prisoners, one of whom violently threatened someone through the bus window about an hour later.
- The Amish family of 10 who smelled delightful and spent the entire journey going back and forth between the bathroom.
- Every single time crossing the Canadian border when they made every passenger get out, line up with their luggage and go through airport style security (this does not happen when you drive your own car… I guess people on buses are more likely to be dangerous?)
- Getting stuck in the world’s longest queue at the Port Authority for one single bus to Montreal and having to wait until 3:00 AM as they slowly brought in more buses.

emilies (#956)

I have been wanting to write about this! I have a nearly fool-proof strategy to always get a row to yourself: pretend to be asleep at each stop and either have stuff on the other seat or be “sleeping” across the two. Headphones in make people even less likely to bother you. And when the bus is loading, AVOID EYE CONTACT. A fleeting meeting of the eyes is all anyone needs to take that precious extra seat.

Sigh. I’m a jerk. Who travels a lot by bus. But if the bus is full, OBVIOUSLY I will stop pulling these moves.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@emilies The last time I took Amtrak at least 5-6 dudes on the car I got on on the nearly-full train were pulling this “sleeping across both seats/crap splayed all over empty seat” move. I was not amused. It’s a full train, brats, move your stuff. (It was all guys doing this, too, I might add.) Look, I don’t want to sit next to you either but I’m not going to stand in the aisle because you need to have two seats all to yourself, even though you only paid for one.

Megano! (#124)

@emilies My bus was always full, also I got on at the only other stop, so usually there was no choice. I do pull the cranky face though.

maemae (#2,287)

I travel frequently between NY and DC and find bolt bus much more comfortable space-wise (more overhead storage, which is nice if you’re just traveling with a small bag). But both mega and bolt have left me stranded by the side of the road for hours. No trust.

sockhopbop (#764)

In general, I make a habit of limiting conversations with my fellow hot air balloon riders, unless they’re, like, really, really ridiculously good-looking male models. Even then, I like to have them do a walk-off around the little basket.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@sockhopbop Are less than drop dead gorgeous people even really “people” anyway?

wearitcounts (#772)

@WaityKatie yeah, seriously, who even let them ride the bus, anyway?

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@wearitcounts It’s very hard to imagine that any bus passenger could be less than radiantly attractive, actually.

sockhopbop (#764)

@WaityKatie Not on board my hot air balloon, they’re not.

probs (#296)

I’m the sort of spoiled person who hasn’t had to ride the bus much at all (mostly because I have a very small group of friends, most of us wound up around DC, and I have a [beater] car).

But two friends of mine rode the (local) bus last year with a lady who had a liter-sized plastic container of unseasoned jumbo lump crab meat. She ate it all with a fork, then DRANK the remaining crab juice, set the container on the floor, and then fell asleep with the fork in her hand and an unlit cigarette hanging out of her mouth, snoring. Bus adventures!

Has anyone ever had wifi the entire ride on a megabus? I don’t actually believe it exists.

jane lane (#281)

@Jake Reinhardt I did, on my first and only bus trip between Boston and New York.

deepomega (#22)

Bus stories? Bus stories!

I used to do two greyhound routes – for two years I would go between Baltimore and Philadelphia about once every month or two to visit a long distance lady friend, and for a year I would go from Baltimore to Silver Spring every friday to do an unpaid internship (!). So I had a cell phone story, and also was once late getting to the internship because my bus hit a fire truck and knocked off the truck’s mirrors, and also once when I got into Philly a dude tried really hard to sell me lots of coke “to party with [my] girlfriend.” Buses!

cherrispryte (#19)

I do DC to NY all the damn time, and while I used to take Bolt Bus and only Bolt Bus, I find now that Megabus sells out far less frequently, so it’s easier to score an empty seat next to you.
Which, related, if not having anyone sit next to you is really a huge deal, BUY TWO SEATS. This is something you can do, and then they can’t make anyone else sit next to you. I mean, be prepared for people to hate you, but definitely do it. It is very much worth it, especially if you absolutely hate having strangers touch you.

Also one of the two times in my life I’ve taken Greyhound was over last labor day weekend, to go hang out in Atlantic City. On the bus back, the man that sat next to me was 1) already drunk 2) drinking beer out of a Popeye’s cup 3) talkative as fuck and 4) told me he sat next to me “because I have a beautiful body.” I told him not to be like that, put my headphones on, and ignored him the rest of the trip. So UGH, and also, “drop dead gorgeous females” (which I am not AT ALL saying I am! But apparently this old drunk dude thought I was!) don’t want to have to talk to you, just like normal people.

Oh also, not that it matters, but referring to women as “females” is some misogynistic bullshit.

megsy@twitter (#2,192)

@cherrispryte I never thought of buying two tickets but this is genius. Especially when I get a cheap deal.

r&rkd (#1,657)

You only have one DVD? You poor thing! I have, like, 20 laying around my house that I don’t even know where they came from. Give me your address, I’ll mail some to you.

fyi – Bolt Bus is owned by Greyhound

kellyography (#250)

The worst experience (but best story) of my entire life took place on a Greyhound from Colby, Kansas to St. Louis, Missouri, when my car broke down on Highway 70 just over the Colorado border. Took about 17 hours, which is about 8 hours longer than it takes by car. For more than half the time, I had to sit between an actual mental patient and the bathroom. TRAINS FOREVER.

Jennifer@twitter (#2,308)

I actually rode a bus from Atlanta -> DC -> NY -> Boston -> NY -> Atlanta. Not as awful as I thought it might be, but the wifi truly did suck most of the way and I got back into Atlanta at 5am on a Monday. I was not happy when I got into work two hours later.

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