By now most people have been touched by the media frenzy surrounding the phenomenon of so-called Chinatown buses. While awareness of these low-cost intercity coach lines has gone mainstream, many folks have yet to actually venture aboard a Chinatown bus, often because they don't know how to go about it.
IT to the rescue! While we can't claim to have been onboard since the trend's beginning, IT has been taking non-Greyhound buses up and down the East Coast for years, and has frequently initiated neophytes into the mysteries of the practice. We thought it was about time we shared those secrets with you.
First, for complete novices, a brief explanation. The original Chinatown buses started running between the Chinatowns of Boston and New York during the late '90s, and were primarily used by Chinese restaurant workers. Community members and cheapskate students quickly caught on, however, and companies offering cut-price service between Chinatowns sprang up throughout the eastern seaboard. Today, any company offering low-cost, nonstop bus service between major cities is typically termed a "Chinatown bus," even if its buses don't actually pick up in a Chinatown. The lines keep costs down by not maintaining stations (pick-ups and drop-offs are generally at designated street corners or parking lots) and running schedules so tight that delays have a ripple effect.
To actually take a Chinatown bus yourself, the first thing to establish is whether a bus company serves your city. A helpful (if incomplete) list of routes is maintained here. Another excellent source of info is GotoBus.com, aka IvyMedia, an online ticket-booking clearinghouse for most Chinatown buses on both coasts. Some holdouts don't sell tickets through IvyMedia, though, so it's always worthwhile to do a quick Google search as well.
Before buying your ticket and boarding your bus, remember the following, and you will be sure (as most onboard garbage bags instruct) to "Have a Nice Day":
1. Not all Chinatown buses are created equal: Traveler staffers like Eastern Shuttle for its frequent departures, and Vamoose and Washington Deluxe for their timeliness, cheesy movies, and convenient pick-up locations (caveat: neither of the latter offer Saturday service, as their owners are Orthodox Jews). We try to steer clear of Today's Bus and New Century based on prior less-than-ideal experiences (self-dismantling overhead bins proved particularly memorable). Ask bus-savvy buddies for their local recommendations.
2. Arrive half an hour before departure: Even if you buy your ticket in advance, seating isn't always guaranteed, and some buses leave when they're full, regardless of the schedule. While you may be allowed to use your ticket on another departure if you don't make your intended bus, it's generally preferable to snag a spot early.
3. Carry cash: If you haven't paid for your ticket online, you may be expected to purchase your ticket with genuine green; most buses don't have onboard credit-card readers.
4. Wear layers: Temperature control on the buses can be highly erratic. Board prepared for all possible climates.
5. Bring a snack: Some buses will break up long journeys at a rest stop to give passengers a chance to get food, but many do not. It can be a long and hungry ride.
6. Sit near the front: Just as not all buses are created equal, not all bus bathrooms are equally well-maintained. 'Nuff said.