Traveling along America’s East coast at the drop of a hat can be pretty easy and cheap, as long as there is a Chinatown nearby with Chinatown Buses…. So wrote student reporter Mary Kearl back in 2005, in the veritable Dark Ages of cheap, long distance bus travel.
Today, the sky (or the highway) is the limit. What's new since our reporter rode Chinatown buses to visit her college friends is that the major bus companies now challenge their non-union, low-cost competitors with their own low-cost brands.
With Megabus, Bolt Bus and others, options for budget-conscious travelers have expanded considerably over the years. And what used to be a somewhat informal, unregulated industry is now seeing a transformation as the government and larger businesses move in.
Major Federal Bust Closes Chinatown Bus Companies
In May of 2012, the U.S. Transportation Department ordered three popular Chinatown bus companies to cease operations, effectively shutting down a network of 26 popular lines that provided inexpensive travel along the east coast. The bust came after a year-long investigation prompted by complaints of safety violations, unlicensed drivers, and numerous accidents ending in fatalities.
According to the Department of Transportation, measures have been taken to ensure the culprit lines cannot reopen under “new incarnations”. It is unclear whether or not similar operations that remain open were subject to investigation, but there are still a handful of Chinatown-based companies operating for passengers favoring this mode of travel.
Big Bus Companies Offer Small Fares
For better or for worse, the bust has thinned out budget bus travel, but options are still available for passengers looking for a great deal minus the potential risk. Families can opt for the Greyhound offspring known as BoltBus or a subsidiary of Coach USA, Megabus, which has UK and Canada service, too.
Both low-cost lines were set up to compete with the Chinatown-based companies, and both mercilessly use marketing gimmicks like $1 fares, which are available for a few seats far in advance of departure dates. Fares are always cheap though, and both have big companies behind them to provide trained drivers, strictly controlled driver schedules to prevent driver fatigue, and a more transparent customer insurance policy.
Megabus is a Low Cost Option that began in Europe
Megabus claims to have served more than 9 million travelers since 2006, with routes today that extend to 50 cities in North America from hubs in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington DC and Toronto. In addition to low fares, Megabus offers customers environmentally-friendly buses, free Wi-Fi, power outlets and restrooms.
Megabus, with more routes, also is more likely to be cheaper for last minute ticket buys, runs more frequently, and has four-seaters facing a table so you can play cards.
Greyhound Runs BoltBus, a Low Cost Option
In 2008, Greyhound partnered with Peter Pan Lines to start Boltbus and worked with Trailways to launch NeOn, serving Canada from the Northeast. These companies, and newer lines like Vamoose, also offer free cool perks — WiFi, power outlets, sometimes movies while cruising — to their largely student audience.
Having a featured role as a discreet getaway vehicle for Angelina Jolie in the spy caper Salt also gives Boltbus an added credibility with many. In my experience, Bolt is more likely to be on time, have working WiFi, and have seats with cup holders.
DC2NY and Beyond
Travelers running up and down the east coast — especially major hubs and destinations such as NYC and DC — should look into these low cost options to not only explore other cities, but other tourist destinations. The DC2NY service, for example, will not only shuttle customers between these two cities but also offers bus routes to some of Delaware's many beaches, as well as several towns in Virginia. Summer beach destinations include Rehoboth Beach, famous for its soft white sand and its nostalgic charm.
Like many companies, DC2NY offers the perks of WiFi, power outlets, a movie based on a "democratic vote," as well as a voting option for express service or a stop in Delaware. DC2NY also offers a website with a full schedule and the option of buying tickets online; membership is free and rewards customers with perks such as discounted rides. It's a much-loved choice by the student audience, but with destinations geared specifically towards beaches and towns–a bus ride may also serve as an economical way of getting out of the city to somewhere fun, or to visit loved ones without breaking budget.
Searching for Discount Bus Routes & Schedules
In a recent development that mimics airfares, a few metasearch engines have sprung up to organize bus fare searches and make price and route comparisons easier.
GoToBus.com is one that chronicles hundreds of routes in the East, the West, South and in Florida, where many bus lines end up. GoToBus also offers packaged vacation options for those who wouldn't consider it a busman's holiday.
GoToBus also offers packaged vacation options for those who wouldn't consider it a busman's holiday. In fact, at press time, they had an "LA to Las Vegas, Grand Canyon South Rim 3-Day Tour" from LA to Las Vegas plus the Grand Canyon, with two nights hotel in Vegas, for only $99 per person.
BusJunction.com is another search engine, with a simple user tool that allows travelers to easily search the inventory on Megabus, Bolt, Greyhound, Peter Pan, Vamoose, and smaller companies.
Try it, it's actually fun to see how cheaply you can take the family touring across the US. And with prices like that, why not leave the driving to them?
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.