A Post on the Chinatown Bus

Getting around outside of New York without possessing a car or knowing any drivers is not as complicated as it may seem at first.

For one, transportation close to the City has deemed itself pretty reliable, even in parts of New Jersey (I would, however, not recommend living too far out in the Garden State without a car; this is, after all, still Henry-Ford-country!). Second, you have a few nice options to choose from: Train, bus, and even plane (there is something called a “shuttle” from Boston do New York and I had the chance to check it out while heading back from Vegas). Third, some means of travel are pretty cost-effective and don’t necessarily take much of your time. On my quest to look for affordable transportation to Boston, Philly, and DC I stumbled across this thing called the “Chinatown Bus.” A former roommate had recommended it as she was heading out to Boston quite frequently. I, however, was still a bit averse to it, for I still have in mind how unpleasurable of an experience the Grayhound buses can be and how bad their reputation is. In the end, I cannot really compare these two companies, but I think the Chinatown buses are worth trying out if you are broke but still want to see the cities surrounding New York. They are not the most luxurious devices to get around with, but they get you from A to B and sometimes even C. I first took it while heading out to the cousin in Philly. Philadelphia is about 2 hours from the Big Apple and my trip during the winter was pretty much ok. The price was what really got me: 20 Dollars for a round-trip ticket from here to Philly and back, and all of this in a decent amount of time. During December the coach was well-heated and enjoying the ride didn’t pose a problem. I was even lucky enough to make friends with an American-Indian girl and to get to know her life story a bit more. This was the only real conversation I had on the Chinatown bus from then on, though.

Chinatown in Boston

When I took it to Boston in March, it ended up getting stuck in a traffic jam for one hour straight, so the trip took me almost 5 instead of the proposed 4 hours. Still not too bad. And a round-trip to Beantown cost only 30 bucks, who would have thought? My ride back was better, as it took me 3 and a half hours. And not to forget the crazy, homeless guy, who sat two rows behind me and was interchanging in between mad bellowing, cursing, or just whining. Eventually he fell asleep and everyone was grateful to have a relatively normal ride after all. I still wonder until now who paid for his return ticket back to New York and why on earth he would decide on coming back here, because Boston seems like a more peaceful city to be homeless in and I am sure the shelters aren’t nearly as dangerous as they are over here… O well, I was too intimidated to ask him about this. Maybe the next time!

After this came DC, and boy, what an experience. First of all, the owners could not decide whether or not they would coop us up with the people driving to Philly. Supposedly the bus stops half way and then goes directly towards the capital from there. They decided that, after all, we were way too many, and took two buses – our luck?! It had already made some weird sounds on our way, but when we stopped in Philadelphia, some more people got on, and then it went via the highway directly to DC. All of a sudden, after only 20 mins of being on the road again, the driver pulls into a dead end bus cemetery and everyone exchanges nervous glances. Are we going to be robbed? Will we ever see DC alive? The driver says something in his incomprehensible Chinese-English before he exits the bus. Twenty minutes later we are shooed out of the mobile and into another one. This one smells very badly and has every right to still be a part of the cemetery. But to our advantage, it seems to work well and might get us safe to DC. So we continue our trip. One “joke,” as I like to call it, is that the drivers pull over fairly well past half-time (on a 4 hour trip this would be after 2 hours) and let us “eat” or use the restroom at a well-known-fast food chain. So just 30 mins before we are entering the capital, he has the guts to stop close to Wendy’s and asks us if we are hungry. This almost topped everything, especially the people’s overstrained nerves, and some passengers almost yelled at him to bring them the heck out of here. No stop at Wendy’s! Not this time! Too bad!

And the trip back was an experience, too, of course, for some passengers had forgotten to pre-register their name on their online printout. So they had to jump out of the bus, which had its engines running, and drop by the ticket vending office, to clear away this “necessary” formality. Gee, and you think German bureaucracy is strict? Don’t mess with the Chinese! *cough*

I think the language barrier is the number one problem on most of these trips, though. I still cannot get this imagine out of my head of the Chinese collector woman who was literally yelling at me for showing her the “wrong” ticket (I showed her the return instead of the departure ticket). My, we all have to learn to calm down here in New York!

And where to find these lovely means of travel? As the name already suggests, in Chinatown, of course! They are close to the F, B,D, and Q train (East Broadway, Delancey Essex, Grand St, and Canal St stop). At least the ones I had taken, but I am sure they are all over. Their Web Site says that you should show up 30 mins ahead of time, but I have arrived 5 mins prior to departure on occasion and still gotten a round-trip ticket. You don’t have to book it online, but can just head into their office and pay directly (which I think is more convenient, as I rarely know the exact time of my departures). Don’t try to haggle them down, though, as they tend to get angry with you. They typically run every hour, which makes the opportunity to take them very convenient. The best part about this, though, is that they truly run from Chinatown to Chinatown.

Chi-Town in Philly

And I consider Chi-town in Philly a lot more authentic than in New York. Even Boston has a very representative city side of its Chinese immigrants. Maybe it’s just a fascination of mine, hard to tell.

Please do not let some of the points in this post discourage you from taking the Chinatown bus. It is really an adventure sometimes, but I would always prefer it over a plane ride, and price-wise it is hard to beat. There were some incidents in which one passenger had her throat slit open, but I consider those unnecessary horror stories and hardly representable of the general statistics. So a big “yay” for Chinatown buses and just go from here!