Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Relying on the Chinatown Bus

The various bus companies whose routes connect the Chinatowns across the East and West Coasts of America--Apex, Today Bus, Dragon Coach, and others--operate reasonably clean, modern buses. When it comes to scheduling, however, taking the Chinatown Bus is practically a hands-on lesson in third-world bus travel.

Last weekend, I walked my girlfriend to 610 I St. in D.C., the location where she was to pick up the return portion of her Chinatown Bus ticket to New York City. We arrived at the bus stop and joined a crowd of perhaps fifty people waiting for the bus, which was scheduled to depart at 8:00 p.m. More people arrived steadily, and there may have been 100 or more when the departure time came. And went. With no bus.

Now, this isn't the first time that she's taken the Chinatown Bus; she does it often. We try to see each other most weekends, and bus travel is by far the cheapest way to get between D.C. and New York. And within the realm of bus travel, Chinatown Bus companies like Apex are even cheaper than Greyhound's e-tickets (though not by much; a D.C.-NYC e-ticket is $40 RT, versus a $35 RT on Today Bus).

Of course, for many travelers, including my girlfriend, what put them off Greyhound was less a matter of price than customer service. Greyhound employees can be quite belligerent, even when responding to simple questions. The Chinatown Bus companies don't have that problem; many of their employees speak no English whatsoever, so arguments are rare. (Actually, some of the contracted bus drivers don't even know which "company" they work for on a given route... but I digress.)

That same inability to argue, unfortunately, came back to bite us on Sunday. By 8:45, there was still no bus, and no sign that there ever would be one. She recounted a previous experience waiting on a hillside in Baltimore as bus after bus came by that was contracted by a different line and wouldn't honor her ticket. On that occasion, she ended up buying a Greyhound ticket after a four-hour wait. Not this time.

With her shift starting at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, we headed to Union Station and got her on the 9:30 Amtrak regional train. She arrived in New York at 1:30 a.m., later than she'd planned but in plenty of time work work.

And all of the others who were waiting for that bus? Well, they didn't take the train. Maybe they were still waiting there the next morning. That's the price of low fares.

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