About me, the traveler
Trip 1 - India, Nepal, and China
Trip 2 - Southeast Asia
Trip 3 - Mongolia to Eastern Europe
Trip 4 - Middle South America
Trip 5 - Southern Africa
Trip 6 - Scandinavia, the Baltics, and Greenland
Trip 7 - The Balkans
Trip 8 - Morocco and Southern Spain
Trip 9 - Western India
Trip 10 - Outer Indochina
Trip 11 - Ethiopia and Dubai
Trip 12 - Iceland
Trip 13 - Japan
Trip 14 - Caucasus
Tales From the Tour (a running travelogue)
New York City excursions
Cheap East Coast bus alternatives
Cheap East Coast Bus Services
(formerly "Between New York and Boston")
Increasingly outrageous prices on Greyhound and Peter Pan have spawned a proliferation of new van and bus services between New York City and Boston, mostly between the two cities' Chinatowns. One Chinatown-based company also operates between New York City and Philadelphia and between New York City and Washington, D.C.
Three companies shuttle between Chinatown in New York and Chinatown in Boston, for $10 to $25 each way (or $20 same-day-round-trip starting in Boston):
Tickets for all of the above services can be purchased on-line with MasterCard or Visa at www.gotobus.com, with a booking fee of 5% or 10%. The GotoBus site also shows schedules and departure locations; visit the bus companies' sites themselves for in-person sales agents.
Entertainment Tours (www.coachne.com) runs between New York's Penn Station and Boston's South Station a few times daily. The price is $20 each way, or $30 round-trip if the Boston departure is on a Sunday. (Thanks to Avi Argaman for notifying me about this new service.)
Dragon Coach operates buses between New York City and Philadelphia for $10 each way, and between New York City and Washington, D.C., for $15 or $20 each way. The company's Web sites (www.dragoncoach.com in Chinese, www.dragonexpressway.com in English) don't have the schedules readily available, so you're better off visiting www.gotobus.com, where you can view schedules and purchase tickets on-line for a 5% booking fee.
Since I moved to New York, I've tried to find the best way to get to Boston (more specifically, Newton) to visit my parents, brother, and dog. For the first year (around 1997), it was the Peter Pan bus. The round-trip fare was $48.95, the trip was quick, and there were often buses that stopped in Newton (a slightly more convenient getting-off point than Boston's South Station). Peter Pan sometimes showed a movie, which wasn't necessarily a benefit: Most of the time I wanted to sleep.
Mind you, I took Peter Pan buses. Greyhound offered the same service, for a nickel more (Greyhound's buses were on the hour; Peter Pan's were at half past the hour). But the driver of the 13:00 Greyhound bus on 18 October 1996 yelled at me and insulted me, and the company's customer-service department never responded to my complaint. The conversation went something like this:
Driver: "The bus is full."
Me: "The lady upstairs said -"
Driver (angrily losing patience at my excessive and insolent four-word persistence): "Go back inside! You'll have to wait for the next one!"
Me: "How come the lady told me there was space available if the bus is full?" (One thing that always irked me was that you couldn't make a reservation for a particular bus - all tickets were open. If I wanted to take the 13:00 on a Friday, I had to get there at least a half-hour early and queue up with everyone else.)
Driver: "Do you understand English?" Then, to his coworker: "Is he on drugs?"
I went back inside the terminal, had my ticket refunded, bought a ticket for the 13:30 on Peter Pan, and had a comfortable ride, and I avoided Greyhound for several years after that.
Sometime around 1998, Peter Pan and Greyhound merged schedules, so that a ticket for one company was valid for the other. Peter Pan's smaller-company feel was never quite the same, though the service was still good. Prices skyrocketed. The round-trip fare was up to $70 in April 2002, and $85 during holiday periods.
The bus fares became so high that flying seemed cheap, but it was still too expensive (at least $115 for an April 2002 weekend jaunt, according to Orbitz) - and if you factored in getting to the airport, you didn't save much time.
So what about the train? It didn't take me long to rule that out: Whenever I'm at New York's Penn Station and check the departure sign (or scoreboard), I notice that a startling percentage of Amtrak trains are delayed. And as for the fares, well, that same weekend jaunt that was $115 by air cost $150 by train, $219 on the Acela Express.
Anyone want to rent a car? That's also about $150 for a weekend, plus gas and tolls and taxes, which put the cost in the vicinity of about $40000. You can rent from New Jersey companies for less, but then you have to get to New Jersey.
One day, whilst exploring Chinatown, I noticed a sign next to the Mahayana Buddhist Temple near the corner of the Bowery and Canal Street. The sign had "Boston" and "New York" in English and a bunch of Chinese characters. There was a small information window above the sign, and I inquired whether it was in fact transportation. A lady smiled and handed me a schedule for the Fung Wah Transport Vans shuttle service.
Since then, Fung Wah has added departures, and I've found a couple of other Chinatown-based companies that provide similar services. There are now more than 30 departures each way, with round-trip fares from $30 to $50.
The first time I took the Fung Wah shuttle, it was on a Friday afternoon during rush hour, the van left a half-hour late, and the trip took six hours. The second time, I left New York at 13:00 on a Friday and the trip took seven hours.
The trick is to leave early in the morning or late at night: The 7:00 got in to Boston at around 10:40, and the 23:30 back from Boston got in just after 3:00.
People caught on. The Chinatown companies took so much service away from Greyhound that it was forced to lower fares. While the standard one-way fare on Greyhound is still an exorbitant $35, the "eSaver" ticket gets it down to $20, and you can print your ticket at home. At only $5 more than the Chinatown companies, it's a good deal for everyone because it cuts out the Chinatown companies' stupid rest stop, and it's a good deal for me because I live only eight blocks from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. Still, Greyhound has one major drawback: There's no reserved seating, so the time you save by not stopping at McDonald's you give back by having to queue a half-hour in advance.
You should be able to buy a ticket for a specific seat on a specific departure, and just show up one or two minutes early and claim said seat. Why hasn't anyone figured that out?
Enough tickets were sold to require two vans (from the same company) departing Boston for New York at 22:00 on Sunday, 25 August 2002. According to the information painted on the vans, they each held 25A people - I puzzled over that mathematical peculiarity for a while.
My father dropped me off at 21:39 in his sleek, silver Audi TT. As I was the 25Ath person to board the first van, I took the only seat available: in the last (five-person) row, against the left wall. It would have been a window seat if the windows had gone back that far. For sleeping purposes, it fulfilled the requirements of a window seat.
Getting into this seat seemed dubious with my large backpack; I didn't want to leave it in the aisle along with everyone else's luggage. (The vans have no separate compartment for luggage, so it all goes in the aisle.) Fortunately, my bag is an amazing Eagle Creek giant (the one I take on my six-week trips) that separates into two pieces, so I was able to get the larger piece on the floor in front of me and keep the smaller piece on my lap. Both pieces and I were jammed in pretty tightly, due to the acerebral dolt in front of me, who had his seat reclined (see "The Fed-Up New Yorker's Guide to Transportation Etiquette").
My van, full ahead of schedule, departed at 21:40, and we were soon on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Not quite ready to sleep, I tried to make out some of the Hebrew spoken by the thirty-ish woman next to me, who spent the first half-hour engrossed in her mobile-phone conversation. She had a habit of brushing against me every time she talked, moved, or, it seemed, breathed - a charade she got away with only because she was exceptionally gorgeous, though she was more attached to the man on her right. An hour and a half into the ride, the man in front of me, also a Hebrew speaker, finally returned his seat to its fully upright and locked position, and when I said, "Todah rabah," everyone laughed.
I spent some time thinking about the demographics of the people on board. When I first took the van service, in 2000, it was about 80% Chinese; the rest were young people who somehow had heard about the service. But by 2002, word had gotten out, and this van had about 30% Asians, 30% blacks, 10% Israelis (well, Hebrew speakers), 15% young people, and 15% people who were not so young.
When the van reached exit 25 on I-91, just south of Hartford, we pulled into the breakdown lane, and after a few minutes the driver announced that the "transmitter" was broken. We tried to move forward a few times but never succeeded in covering more than a couple yards, and when I looked through the back window (with its large sign proclaiming it to be an "EMERGECY EXIT") and saw the van's warning triangle behind us, I figured we weren't going anywhere soon.
A couple of people got off for a breath of fresh air, or perhaps for a cigarette. I followed them, taking my bag with me. Only about six people departed in total - perhaps the others didn't realize there was another van 20 minutes behind us. I prepared for a major scramble for seats on this second van, and when it arrived, I parked myself at its entrance behind two other people. In a delightfully surprising violation of Murphy's Law, this van had exactly three empty seats. The few behind me in the queue - and the others on board the first van - had to wait for the next, an hour away! One person asked whether he could sit on the floor, and it seemed they would have let him, but he eventually decided an hour's delay was better than two hours' discomfort.
We sailed through the rest of the trip at a comfortable 83 miles per hour, pausing at the obligatory rest stop at the McDonald's somewhere around Bridgeport - at least people kept the stop to ten minutes as instructed by our driver. (Sometimes the stops drag on for 20 minutes and the drivers don't have the good sense to leave stragglers behind.) The driver let people off directly in front of the Grand Street subway station in Chinatown at 1:43, and after a rather long wait for the Grand Street shuttle (they're working on the Manhattan Bridge, and somehow this renders the Grand Street station useless except for a shuttle to West 4th) and a rather short wait for the surprisingly crowded A, I was home at 2:20.
I won't say which company's van broke down, because it's a company I've usually had good experiences with (heck, I still got in at the expected arrival time), and it's a problem that could happen to any company. Even Peter Pan breaks down sometimes.