Sunday, July 1, 2007

One-way vs. Round-trip on the Chinatown Bus

The Chinatown Bus has become increasingly popular in the last few years. Tickets can be bought online or in person when the bus pulls up, and fares are amazingly low--around $20 for a typical one-way from New York to Washington, D.C. Safety records are hard to track, but the buses themselves are comparable in terms of comfort to what mainstream industry giant Greyhound offers, and GotoBus.com makes it easy to check schedules for all of the participating companies.

While each company provides similar service, however, the companies themselves are unrelated and do not accept one another's tickets. That introduces a bit of a dilemma for some travelers, because once you've got a ticket with a particular bus line, you're stuck waiting for that company's bus to arrive. On the other hand, the round-trip fare is about $5 cheaper than two one-way fares, money you might use to pick up dinner at a fast-food place before you leave.

Of course, there's no right or wrong answer here. If you'd like the flexibility to jump on whichever bus shows up first that's heading to your destination, the higher total fare is worthwhile. For those who want the best deal, buy round-trip and be prepared to wait a bit longer as other buses come and go. The important thing is that you're aware of your options.

4 comments:

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary said...

I ride the Chinatown bus frequently, usually NYC to D.C. I used to be a big fan of buying my ticket online, because I felt that it guaranteed me a spot on the bus. In retrospect, this is kind of silly. The Chinatown bus companies fill their buses, yes, but in two years, I have never seen a bus be oversold. And like Jamie said, buying your ticket online locks you into a particular company. This never seemed to be a problem to me until the last time I took the Chinatown bus: from Baltimore.

Baltimore is a special case among the Eastern Corridor bus stops, because Baltimore has no Chinatown. The stop is right off of I-95 at the edge of the city limits, in a gas station across from the Greyhound stop. Now there's a metro bus stop right there to take you into the city, but it looks and feels like the middle of nowhere. This was a fact made especially poignant to me as I waited for the Apex bus to New York to arrive at 8:45 pm on Sunday. There I sat on a dirty grass embankment, my e-ticket clutched in my hand. 8:45 rolled around and sure enough, a bus pulled in bound for New York. Only problem: it wasn't an Apex bus.

Bus after bus pulled into the gas station, many on their way to New York, but none of them Apex buses. New Century, Double Happiness, Dragon Couch, Eastern Travel. No Apex. And naturally, none of them would honor my Apex ticket. Most of the drivers just said, "No" when I showed them my ticket, professing to speak no other English. I tried asking drivers who were not headed to New York if they drove for Apex, but they all shook their heads at that.

Minutes slid by and the bus was 10, 15, and then 20 minutes late. I tried calling the phone number on my ticket. Guess what? No answer. Shocking, I know. Now its getting dark, and I became more and more aware that I was in a desolate parking lot on the edge of town. There was shelter in the form of the gas station welcome center, but that was too far away. If I stood in there, I might miss the bus whenever it decided to show up.

Finally, a bus pulled in headed for D.C. When I asked that driver who he drove for, he actually said that he didn't know.

"Do you drive for Apex?"

"I don't know. I just drive the bus and get paid. That's all I know."

Fortunately, a guy getting of the bus said, "Yeah, this is an Apex bus." So I asked the driver if he knew anything about the 8:45 Apex bus to New York. Perhaps he could contact his dispatcher and inquire...?

"Oh, no. I never talk to them. Because they make me crazy. Saying 'go here' 'go there' so I just turn my phone off."

Huh. Okay. But he did know about the bus to which I referred.

"That bus," he informed me, "is always late. Because it come from Philly, then go to D.C. get the people off, put the people on, that makes it late. Every time. At least 15 minutes. At least. Sometime half hour."

Okay, now I'm mad. See, its one thing to have an accident or some other issue. But to publish a schedule and sell tickets based on that schedule, when you know your drivers can't keep up with it, when it impossible for them to do so, is just fucked.

Shortly after my illuminating conversation with the driver of the D.C. bound bus, my bus, Apex bound for New York did in fact arrive, 35 minutes late. And you know what? It was the nicest bus on which I have ever ridden. New, clean, quiet, only half full. I had a whole row in the back to myself. And we had a smooth, peaceful ride to New York.

So, was it worth the wait? Hell, no! Next time, I'm paying cash, one way each way. A $5 savings does not cover the cost of such drama.

Mary said...

Update!

Never take the Chinatown bus from Baltimore. Ever. I'm super cereal, you guys. Just say 'no'.

So, its one week since I last sat on the Grass Embankment of Fear in the Baltimore Travel Plaza waiting for the very late Apex bus to New York. Once again, I found myself on that same embankment watching the sun set behind the I-95 overpass. This time, I was prepared by not being prepared. Or so I thought. I had not bought a ticket in advance and so was able to nimbly leap onto the first bus that came along. The only problem was there were about fifty people standing right next to me with the same idea.

The Chinatown bus co.'s in the Northeast corridor fill their buses in NYC and DC, and occasionally Philly. They drive through Baltimore if they have room for other passengers. Yesterday, they did not have room. So, me and my fifty new friends were all shit out of luck, especially those of us who had bought tickets in advance.

I spoke to one poor slob who had been waiting for two hours by the time I showed up at 7:30.

(Someone else told me a lovely story of how she rode Eastern Travel with a driver who had an outstanding warrant. The bus was stopped at the EZ Pass. They arrested the driver, and the bus wsa held there for three hours while they waited for a new driver.)

The few buses that actually showed up at the Travel Plaza either only took e-ticket passengers for their particular company or else they only had room for a few people. As the sun dipped below the horizon, things got decidedly ugly. People crowded around arriving buses and tried to push on board. I had to hand it to the drivers: they held their own against our nasty band as we tried to push on to their buses or yelled out questions that they couldn't answer: namely, where the fuck was the bus that was going to get us all to New York? No matter how ugly we got, these guys made it clear that were not about to be pushed around by people too cheap to ride Greyhound.

Oh, yes. Greyhound. Greyhound turns out to be the hero of my sad little tale. The Greyhound station is right across the road from the Embankment of Fear and when it got too dark to read my book, I despaired of riding an uninsured bus with expired tags to Grand St. and I marched up the hill to the Greyhound station. Here was my thinking: if Greyhound has enough people waiting in a station for a bus to take them to New York, then however eventually they go about it, they will send an empty bus to collect said passengers. The Chinatown companies clearly lack either the means or maybe just the interest in sending an empty bus to Baltimore. So, I hiked it up the hill, humbly paid $37 with my debit card and waited patiently for the 10:20 bus to New York. It arrived on time and we all got on and we all got home.

The problem is, the Chinatown bus has simply become too popular. It might make an occasional cheaper alternative to the Greyhound/Peter Pan/Trailways behemoth, but it is no permenant substitute. As far as this ST is concerned, it might be alright if you're going between two Chinatowns, but for Baltimore, just buy a Greyhound e-ticket, or show up and pay cash. Remember, something can only be called "cheap" if it actually works. If it doesn't work, then its a rip-off.

Stoney said...

So funny, so true, I stand and smile as I see first timers ponder "where's the bus?", or vets who've sworn "this is ridiculous, I'm never taking them again!" eagerly crowding around arriving bus after bus hoping to get on. Young or old it's wonderful to see man's genetic makeup on full display as women and men UFC it out to be 1st to the door of these arriving buses only to be told "DC!!! No New York!!!" Sadly, I'm waiting for the day that one of our lot gets hit by one of the arriving tractor trailers in a mad dash for said buses. Thankfully the drivers are very aware of our impulsive dashes across the blacktop and exercise caution when entering the arena.
I took Greyhound last week trying to be responsible and to my surprise as I confirmed my e-ticket and picked up my hard copy they hit me with the "if ya don't get on the 6:30 (oh, you mean the one I bought a fukkkkin ticket online for 6:30 since you guys are supposed to be so much more professional 6:30 bus), then you'll definitely get on the 6:50 (oh you mean the one that came at 7:10 6:50?!?) Soooo not only did the Greyhound bus suck balls, but their stupid billing system took so long to post to my bank account that the assholes at wachovia took great pleasure in billing me $175 in overdraft fees for 5 one dollar purchases that occurred the same day Greyhound decided to post my charges. If only I had gotten that refund like I thought about while waiting in the Greyhound line and hopping on the Chinatown bus, I'da gotten to work on time and saved $175 bucks. So yeah I'm googling a nice Chinatown bus that leaves early Monday mornings from the Baltimore Travel Plaza which I love. I guess it's the New York in me since I'm from Jerz but I love the "is this the day I'm gonna have to kill someone standing on this hill" adrenaline rush that you get standing there, tho' ya can run 15ft towards the gas station and someone will see you and maybe offer to help. I know I would, but does anyone know about a bus that early to NY???