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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bus Culture in America (Or a Lack Thereof)

I've lived in the United States my whole life, pretty much (a majority of the 2__ years of my existence, at least), and only this past Monday did I finally get on a bus as a means to travel between two distant cities.

By contrast, I've lived in three Latin American countries and traveled to a whole crapload of other countries, and the general rule in all of them is: get on the bus. Always.

How did this happen? How can this form of transportation be so familiar and snuggly and NORMAL to me in every country except my native land?

Before I go further, let me clarify: I'm not talking about inner-city bussing. I'm talking about multiple-hour, great-mountains-majesty-spanning BUS TRIPS. Ones where you need a meal at some point and part, if not all of, your body goes numb. If you would have asked me to get on a bus to travel anywhere in the US a year ago, I would have balked, looked at you funny, made a comment about Greyhound and asked why I couldn't just drive myself or fly? Yet since 2006 my preferred method of travel through Latin America has been the $1.30 ride on the chicken bus, where neither life nor luggage is strictly guaranteed.

That's a pretty weird double standard, don't you think?

Well, it finally came to an end. I recently visited Chicago for the second time since my American Whirlwind Tour of 2013 began, and I found myself without a ride back to Ohio. As in, I wasn't going to fork over the money to fly, and my own car was nestled comfortably 300 miles away. What does a vagabond do? GET ON THE BUS.

All Latin American Travel Preferences aside, Greyhound has a seedy reputation. Maybe it's changed since I last heard anyone comment honestly on it, but from what I remember, there tends to be shifty types lurking in bus terminals, questionable drug use and a whole lot of on-board harassment (unless that's the free entertainment in the ticket price?). And you could probably get chlamydia, or at LEAST Hep C, from the seat covers.

Enter Megabus, America's first ever low-cost express bus service and the natural choice over Greyhound. I can hear the Backpacker Angels singing from their hammocks in the hostel! The first time I heard about Megabus, I had a chilling flashback to Ryan Air, Europe's notorious discount airline that inspired this article for Vagabondish. But no, I was assured that Megabus not only was cheap AND respectable, it picked you up inside the city and dropped you off at the actual destination. None of that one-hour-away-from-where-you-thought-you-were-landing hullabaloo Ryan Air is famous for! Plus, wifi on board, and power outlets in every seat. What?! Megabus, am I dreaming? Or were you specially engineered to appeal to my budget backpacker, working holiday senses?

Your bold colors and low prices
inspire me to choose YOU, Megabus!

But there's always a catch, right? The first sign was when the bus wasn't there at the scheduled departure time of 4:15pm. A nearby lady muttered, once I had admitted it was my first foray with the company, "The thing about Megabus is, half the time, they're never on time."

The bus showed up around 4:40pm. We pulled away from the bus stop at 5:03pm.

Once I was comfortably nestled in my chair on the 2nd floor of the bus, excited about plugging something, ANYthing into the power outlet and hooking up to that wifi floating around our mobile oasis, I became aware of a nagging sensation in the back of my mind. As I looked around, took stock of my seat mates, listened to the overly detailed explanation about our intended route, I realized that we Americans are definitively and indisputably not a bus culture.

As I mentioned earlier, I have extensive experience with pretty much all forms of transportation apart from hot air balloons and drag cars. And my years of bus travel throughout Latin America have conditioned me to expect certain things from The General Long Distance Bus Experience, which MegaBus failed to provide. Here's why:

**Loading the luggage and passengers was lengthy and inefficient. What is an ongoing and flawless system for large, luxury bus companies between Mexico and Chile, took twice the time for Megabus. On the side of a street in downtown Chicago. In the searing sun. I've seen Chilean double-deckers arrive 8 minutes prior to departure time and load the whole damn thing, passengers and all, with 30 seconds to spare. BAM.

**There's no way to identify your luggage, apart from what might be the very same bus driver pulling pieces from the dark luggage doorway at night, holding it up with eager eyes for all to assess, and then putting it back inside if nobody claims it. Other companies give you luggage tags, which you present to the unloader so that you can at least have some way to really identify if that bag you're lugging home is actually yours -- or its lookalike.

**Being over 40 minutes late and then arriving over an hour and a half late to the destination doesn't bode well, especially in our time-conscious culture. Time is money, or so they say, and I don't think Megabus can get away with this for very long before people start to really complain and choose another service, at least when time is of the essence. Long-distance luxury buses in Latin America arrive and leave exactly on time, 99% of the time. I'm not actually sure how it works, but I suspect there are cleverly placed wormholes throughout the continent that allow for bus drivers to make up for lost time. I've never once taken a bus between cities in Chile that didn't arrive early. Come on, guys. It's possible to arrive AND leave on time.

Ummm, hello? Megabus? Can you come pick us up?

I guess when it comes to discount service providers like Megabus, Ryan Air and so many others, they find their shtick and stick to it. RyanAir's tagline is that they're the on-time airline; which is true, once you overlook things like their airports being in different postal codes and everything except the ticket costing 100 euro. And it seems like Megabus is no different: they promise a quasi-luxurious on-board experience, with wifi and power outlets; which is true, but you definitely won't be arriving on time, wherever it is you're going.

All that being said, will I take Megabus again?

Hell yeah I will.  And you bet your ass that when I go back to Europe, I'm first in line at the check-in kiosk for RyanAir, .01 kg under the weight limit for my backpack and with five layers of clothes on.

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