Traveling by Megabus wasn't too good to be true


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By next year, it may be cheaper to travel round-trip from Pittsburgh to New York than to get from Downtown Pittsburgh to a Zone 2 suburb.

As Allegheny County Port Authority faces the need for more fare increases, service cuts and layoffs, Megabus, the discount bus service that returned to Pittsburgh in May, has announced that it will be expanding Pittsburgh offerings to Philadelphia and Harrisburg beginning July 21. With fares starting at $1 each way based on availability, the service seems almost too good to be true.

Last weekend, I took the Megabus to and from New York, testing whether the savings were worth the extra time, whether there were any hidden expenses and whether a bus could conceivably become Pittsburgh's favorite new mode of regional transportation.

I booked my ticket about a month in advance. The Pittsburgh to New York trip cost $3, the New York to Pittsburgh trip, $10, for a total -- with the 50-cent reservation fee -- of $13.50.

PITTSBURGH TO NEW YORK
4:25 p.m. -- Downtown Pittsburgh
Web sales, advance purchases help keep costs low

Megabus keeps costs low by forgoing bus terminals and emphasizing Web ticket sales. Tickets can be purchased at www.megabus.com or by phone at 1-877-GO2-MEGA (1-877-462-6342). Reservations made by phone will include a $3 fee, rather than the 50-cent online fee. While $1 tickets can be found, prices, like plane fares, are calculated on availability, so purchase as far in advance as possible for the best deal. Changing a reservation will incur a $1 fee. Right now, Pittsburgh-to-New York tickets seem to top out at about $30 for last-minute trips.

Passengers may each place one piece of luggage (no more than 50 pounds) underneath the bus and carry on another small bag to place under a seat. Minors (17 or younger) must travel with someone 18 or older. Children under 2 can ride for free but will not be guaranteed a seat.

Pittsburgh routes include Pittsburgh-State College-New York. A Pittsburgh-State College-Harrisburg-Philadelphia line will be added starting July 21. Both routes will run twice a day, seven days a week.

The Megabus departs from 10th Street and Penn Avenue. Most of the other passengers have already boarded by the time I arrive. The bus, which seats about 80 people, is only a quarter full. Almost all of the passengers are traveling alone and look as if they are somewhere between ages 18 and 30.

The bus driver checks me in and places my bag underneath the bus. I head up to the bus's second story (all megabuses are double-deckers) and easily find a row to myself.

While there are outlets in each row, there are no tray tables, so working on my laptop isn't as easy as I'd imagined.

4:40 p.m. -- Departure

As we pull out of the stop on time, the driver goes over a few rules for riding: Keep the volume low on personal listening devices and watch your fingers when closing the lavatory door (he claims fingers have gotten stuck in the door).

We will head straight to State College in Centre County, stop only long enough to drop off and pick up passengers, then take a break about two hours later at a rest stop.

The benefits of this and air travel? No security line and no bag fee (passengers are limited to one bag of fewer than 50 pounds under the bus, and a second small bag that can fit under the seat). I can take all the gels and liquids I want. There are seat belts on the bus, but the driver doesn't mention them, and there are certainly no lights indicating when it's safe to use the restroom. (The driver does emphasize that we should use the handrail at all times when going up and down the stairs between levels.)

5:27 p.m. -- Squirrel Hill tunnel traffic

The bus gets caught in Squirrel Hill tunnel traffic like every other vehicle. A number of passengers take this opportunity to remind me of one of the things I do like about air travel -- no cell phones. The phone problem may well be worse on the Megabus because outlets allow people to chat for the whole bus ride without fearing that their phones will die.

I check the bus's WiFi. It works, but it's slow and a touch unreliable.

8:10 p.m. -- State College

Our numbers swell a bit, but most of the aisle seats are still free. As the sun begins to set and we head out into farm country, I'm surprised by the beauty of the scenery. Pink, white and purple wildflowers blanket green banks that line the highway. A few minutes outside of State College there's a pasture of sheep, then an expanse of rolling hills, with more and more wildflowers.

10:15 p.m. -- Rest stop

The bus stops at a rest stop with a Subway sandwich shop and a convenience store. There's the usual array of candy and convenience food, and I am glad that I packed a picnic dinner. There are a handful of books (romance novels and thrillers) but almost no magazines. I contemplate buying a DVD (there is an impressive selection) but then realize it would cost as much as my ticket.

12:40 a.m. -- New York

The megabus drops off at Seventh Avenue and 28th Street, a few blocks from Penn Station and an easy spot to catch the subway or a cab. Despite the late hour, the street is very busy, so I don't feel uneasy. Within minutes the bus is unloaded and passengers are grabbing their bags, heading off in different directions.

NEW YORK TO PITTSBURGH
6:50 a.m. -- Departure

Megabuses depart from 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue, just outside Penn Station -- much busier than the Pittsburgh equivalent. The buses line up and depart every 10 minutes or so, with a few shouting men directing passengers to different lines and double-checking that people get on the right bus.

We board on time but don't drive away until about 7 a.m. This bus is much fuller, a bit more than half the seats are taken, and the crowd is also more diverse, young professionals dressed to go straight to work, student types in sweats and sandals, and some older couples.

There is far less conversation on the Megabus than I've observed on trains or planes, and passengers seem even less disposed to conversation this early in the morning.

7:23 a.m. -- Unexpected interruption

A few minutes after we leave the Lincoln Tunnel, the bus pulls off the road into a gas station. We stop for a couple of minutes and then the driver appears at the front staircase. "I got a little dyslexic this morning, and I took the wrong bus," he announces. For a minute we all wait for the punch line, but the driver is serious. All he means is that he doesn't have the right insurance paperwork, and we need to wait for a few minutes until it arrives. We are back on the road by 7:41 a.m.

9:55 a.m. -- Rest stop
12:16 p.m. -- State College

About half of the passengers depart. We stop only for a few minutes and then head for Pittsburgh.

1:30 p.m.

Bus driver announces that Pittsburgh arrival will probably be 3:15 p.m. at the earliest, about 45 minutes late, depending on Squirrel Hill tunnel traffic.

3:15 p.m. -- Downtown Pittsburgh

Had I flown, between the plane ticket and transportation into the city, my trip would have cost at least $120, and easily more. My travel time, without delays, is usually about six hours door-to-door each way.

On the Megabus, my total cost was about $28 (including two taxis in New York), the time door-to-door was about nine hours to New York and just less than nine hours on the return.

The biggest surprise? How much I enjoyed the ride. Bus travel doesn't seem as romantic as travel by train, and when things go well, flying is faster. But at least on this trip (with working air conditioning and plenty of room) it was comfortable, uncomplicated and definitely reliable.

As the road rolled by, I found it easy to read, work, nap or simply gaze out the window. And I'm not alone in appreciating the new service. "Ever since we extended the line from New York to State College and Pittsburgh, we've had a tremendous response from people," said Dale Moser, president and COO of Megabus.com. The company is getting close to hitting 6 million passengers, said Mr. Moser. "They're finding it convenient, they're finding it reliable and they're certainly finding it affordable. In these economic times, [coach travel is] something people are turning to rather quickly as an alternative."


China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .


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