Road-tested: The (Chinatown) Bus

by Chris on October 3, 2009

A test trip on the Chinatown bus between Washington DC and Philadelphia

Eastern bus

If you live in a major East Coast city and like to travel, it’s easy to be intrigued by all of the inexpensive bus lines that service the I-95 corridor. The trend started with the so-called “Chinatown” buses which run between Asian neighborhoods in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. While fares were cheap, those lines leaved much to be desired – I often heard of friends who were dropped off in unexpected locations or arrived on time, only to catch fumes as the bus pulled away. 

Recently, new bus lines such as Bolt and Megabus have entered the mix. Besides the advertised “$1 fares,” these buses are allegedly roomier and have amenities such as wi-fi. I’ve known several people who have taken them to New York from both Washington DC and Philly, and they sounded like a great alternative to Amtrak (which can get pricey, depending on the time you go).  

Despite the hype, I was still a bus virgin – until this weekend. Faced with an appointment in Philly, I checked Amtrak to see if I could get up there and back in one day, for a reasonable price. Round-trip ticket: $88 minimum, leaving at 6 a.m. Er, no. So I looked up Bolt, which had earned raves from some of my co-workers. Alas, while Bolt goes from Washington DC to New York and Philadelphia (and Cherry Hill!) to New York, there doesn’t seem to be a DC-Philly route. Bummer.

Google turned up a couple of other bus lines, several of the Chinatown variety. I went with Eastern, mostly because the times worked out and it cost a big $28 roundtrip – less than the cost of a tank of gas (not to mention the I-95 tolls). The website said that the bus had wi-fi, so I packed my computer and a big book that I had been dying to read along with me.

My husband Don took my to DC’s Chinatown, the area right near Gallery Place, around 8:30 a.m. for the 9 a.m. departure. We did have to do a little scouting, as the bus wasn’t exactly at the same address on my e-ticket. By the time I boarded, the bus was about half full. Once I sat down, I realized that this was not going to be the comfy experience I had imagined. The seats were extremely close together, with less legroom than you’d find on a plane. To make matters worse, the woman in front of me had leaned her seat back so far that her hair – a towering style – was almost in my face.

So I put my backpack on the seat next to me, along with my kness, and avoided eye contact with others boarding. My dodge worked, and when the bus pulled out, I had the two seats to myself. I was glad that Don wasn’t with me, however, as there’s no way that his 6’5 frame would be have been comfortable in those seats. And I didn’t pull out my laptop, as there wouldn’t have been nearly enough room to work.

I settled into my book (no need to watch the scenery – at this point, I know I-95 like the back of my hand). I don’t know what kind of mojo our driver had, but we arrived at Arch and 11th early. That almost never happens when I drive myself up. It was raining when we arrived, but I was just happy to get out and stretch my legs. Another 90 minutes in that position to NYC would have been extremely uncomfortable.

With a little trepidation, I came back to the bus at 6 p.m. for our 6:30 departure. When I boarded, I noticed that this bus had slightly less seats than the first – and that many of them were wobbly and broken. No matter. The disorder meant only one thing to me: Legroom! There were much fewer people returning to DC than on the ride up. Our driver seemed less adept than the one from the morning, as there was a weird point where he swerved, causing the bus to rock back and forth. We made it into DC just a few minutes behind schedule – and several blocks from the destination on the ticket. Ah well.

So would I do it again? Yes, if I am traveling solo. It’s just hard to beat the price and convenience. And I’m ready to try the Bolt bus to New York, as their website promises more legroom along with plugs for computers. Sorry, Amtrak. You’re out.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

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