Riding the Megabus for micro bucks

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 24, 2011

Huge letters on the side of blue and yellow double decker buses shout “Express bus service from $1* (*plus 50 cent registration fee).” It sounds too good to be true. Can you really ride a bus between major cities for just $1.50?
Yes, you can. But you have to plan way ahead to get that price, since only a lucky few travel for a buck on the Megabus. As the bus fills with reservations, the cost of a seat steadily rises. But even the most expensive tickets are likely to cost less than what you might have to pay for gas if you were to drive the same distance.
Megabus seems to be the travel industry’s best-kept secret, its passengers largely digitally-connected young professionals and students. I learned about it from my daughter who works at the Library of Congress. She had taken Megabus from Washington, DC to New York City, and back, for only a few dollars. She said it was comfortable, and seated in the front of the upstairs area above the driver, she had a panoramic view. And the bus offers electrical outlets and Wi-Fi.
I did some research to find out how Megabus can offer such low fares. They keep the overhead low, and the low prices keep the volume high. There are no stations or storefronts to maintain; riders board from the side of the road next to the Megabus sign. Almost everyone books online. In fact, as they board, many passengers just show the driver the reservation texted to their phone.
They operate according to something called “yield-managed pricing.” The prices incrementally move up as the bus fills. With supply-demand, it works by timing the price when the booking occurs with how the bus is filling. When the bus has nobody on it, there’s a better chance you are going to get a $1 seat; then, as the $1 seats go away, the pricing tier changes gradually. The system takes into account that travel has peaks and valleys calendar-wise, and the prices are adjusted accordingly.
The British company Stagecoach Group started Megabus in the USA in 2006 with nonstop service from Chicago to seven Midwestern cities, all with populations of around one million. In 2010, Megabus launched hubs in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. It currently extends as far south as North Carolina, with boarding in Charlotte and Durham. The bus routes have few stops, only in major cities, so the trip is much faster than other bus lines that stop at every town in between.
With a free place to stay in Washington, DC (my daughter’s tiny apartment) and cheap transportation (Megabus) there seemed to be a wonderful opportunity to explore the vast number of museums and galleries within walking distance of my daughter’s doorstep. I convinced art teacher Cindy Morgan to accompany me on the adventure, so we planned to make the trip during her spring break.
I reserved tickets about a month in advance for the trip from Durham to DC. I had to pay $20 each for the tickets up, but the return tickets were only $3 each. I assumed the first pair of tickets cost a lot more due to holiday travelers right after Easter. But after adding the 50 cent reservation fee, the cost of the round-trip for two was only $46.50. Not bad.
I didn’t start reading online reviews until after I had made the reservation. Websites were filled with complaints of lack of leg room, non-working Wi-Fi, late buses, no-show buses, sleepy drivers. And there were a couple news accounts of fiery Megabus crashes. But I’m an optimist. And I don’t usually take online comments too seriously, because I maintain that unhappy people are more likely to comment than happy people. And so for every complaint, there are probably dozens of satisfied customers.
The Megabus doesn’t load at Durham’s Transportation Center with the other buses, but instead, near it, one street over. The spot is marked by a single sign with a picture of the Megabus mascot: a rotund, rosy-cheeked, cartoon driver in a yellow uniform and bow tie. We arrived early, along with a few other paranoid initiates afraid of missing the bus’s 11 a.m. loading time. But about 5 minutes before the bus arrived, passengers seemed to be coming from everywhere, dropped from passing cars and taxis.
At 11 on the dot, a blue and yellow bus came around the corner. It wasn’t the promised double decker, but instead, just a regular coach bus. I guess ridership down South hasn’t yet warranted the bigger bus. There would be no upper deck panoramic vistas for us.
The bus pulled up to the curb, and the first person off was a slender young woman with fashionably coiffed hair and sparkly manicure, talking on a cell phone. I thought she was a passenger, but as she opened the cargo bays and returned to her phone conversation, I noticed a name tag on her blue shirt identifying her as the driver. I suppose I expected more the Ralph Kramden type, or the chubby driver on the sign.
We all put our own bags under the bus (riders are permitted to bring a suitcase of up to 50 pounds and one carry-on). There were already a lot of holiday travelers on board who had boarded in Charlotte, but they were spread out, one person per each set of two seats, so Cindy and I didn’t have much hope of getting a seat together. As I crept down the aisle, I felt like an uncool kid on a school bus as passengers averted their gaze or put items in the seat next to them. I could see one last pair of seats together near the back, but before we could get there, a young guy got that window seat. I sat next to him. Cindy crawled over a man across the aisle from me and sat in the window seat next to him.
In a voice loud enough to be heard by all around us, I said, “Maybe somebody will trade seats so we can sit together.” Nobody moved.
I turned to Cindy’s seatmate and asked if he would be willing to trade with me, and he said he would like to, but that he had a hip condition, as if that explained everything. I didn’t want to be rude, so I didn’t ask him why that precluded him from shifting three feet to his right after he had obviously been able to walk all the way to the back of a long bus.
I figured that since I wouldn’t be yacking to Cindy, and since the kid next to me had nothing to say, I could get a lot of work done. I pulled out my laptop, but was unable to get the Wi-Fi to work.
I realized I had left my water bottle in my car in a Durham parking deck, and I hadn’t bothered to pack food. There are no stewardesses on the Megabus. So it would be a five-hour, 40-minute ride with nothing to eat or drink.
So all I could do was people watch. Yes, there were a lot of young adults, the demographic that Megabus articles say make up the bulk of its ridership. But there were people of all ages and many nationalities. A lady in front of me was traveling with five small children whom she entertained with books and games between threats to throw them off the bus if they didn’t be quiet. Another lady was accompanied by a large guide dog. She said she and her dog travel together on the Megabus weekly.
We had only one stop, in Richmond for about 15 minutes. Some people got off there, which enabled Cindy and me to change seats and get together for the rest of the trip.
Since Washington, DC, is a Megabus hub, instead of just a sign by the side of the road there was a parking lot with buses coming and going and a small tent to shade a few people. The buses headed to points North and West were the big double deckers.
After a two-day whirlwind visit in the city, we returned to the parking lot in the rain to catch our ride back. Some signs showing names of cities, orange cones, and ropes indicated there was a system, but we couldn’t tell what it was. I think we may have accidentally broken in line. I’m not sure because nobody yelled at us. Everyone seemed content to let us stand near the Richmond-Durham-Charlotte sign. The driver (this time a man) helped with our luggage, and we got a seat together, near the front.
A young woman in the very front seat sat alone, and when people asked to sit there, she would say “no.” She explained to us that she had paid for both seats. She rides frequently, and always reserves two seats because she has work to do and also likes room to sleep. I suppose that’s good strategy when you are only paying a couple bucks per seat. But I’m not sure I would have the gall to sit in the very front, telling people to keep moving.
The Wi-Fi was working, so I got on Facebook to brag about riding from DC to Durham for only $3. But after gloating, I lost the connection, and never got it back. I texted my husband to whine about not having Internet access and he texted back “you get what you pay for.”
We got caught in a traffic jam in Northern Virginia, so we were late pulling in to Richmond. The driver announced that since we were running late, we would leave soon, and for people not to wander away. He got out to unload and load luggage, then we saw him speaking to an angry man who, after yelling at the the driver, whipped out his cellphone and started cursing into it.
When the driver came back on the bus, he explained that the man’s ticket was for the next day, so he didn’t let him on. A rider pointed out that the seat next to him was empty. But the driver said that didn’t matter, because the bus could fill up in Durham, and there had to be a seat for everyone. Miss Two-Tickets in front of me didn’t offer to give the poor man one of her seats. But she did tell us a story about a trip she made where nobody had looked at tickets in Charlotte, and when they got to Durham there weren’t enough seats for the boarding passengers. So then the driver checked, and found a couple whose tickets were dated for the following week. They had to get off the bus, and so were left stranded two and a half hours from home.
In spite of the traffic jam early in the trip, we arrived back in Durham exactly on time, Wi-Fi deprived, but otherwise unscathed. And not out much money.
Sarah Hall lives in Salisbury.