How to Rack Up Mega-Savings on the Megabus

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Can you really travel for $1? There has to be a catch, right? Not really...

Last week, I traveled from New York City to Philadelphia for $1. Yes. One buck.

Well, $1.50 with the booking fee. But did I mention the free Wi-Fi? When I travel by plane, the airlines want to charge me for Internet.

I keep telling people about the Megabus, which provides cheap bus travel as far west as Missouri, as far north as Boston, and as far south as North Carolina – and also serves Ontario and Quebec. It can be hard to convince them that I’ve paid so little to travel.

Forget what you think you know about bus trips. I’ve taken half a dozen rides on these double-decker buses. It’s not just frugal, it’s comfortable: The seats are plush vs. the molded-plastic seats on city buses.

How can it be that cheap?

It’s the overhead, stupid. Or rather, the lack of overhead: The company doesn’t have terminals that it has to buy, insure, clean, heat, cool, and staff.

Instead, pickups and drop-offs take place on city streets or at existing facilities like 30th Street Station in Philly or Victoria Station in London. (I took the Megabus from London to Cardiff, Wales, last year for a little more than $10 round-trip.)

You make a reservation online, pay for it with a credit card, and print your own ticket (actually just a confirmation number). If you prefer, you can just display the confirmation on your smartphone. The site has a pretty comprehensive FAQ section, but you can call a toll-free number if you need help.

Not every ticket is a dollar, mind you. Prices fluctuate depending on when you buy and how many seats are available. Fares gradually rise as the buses fill and/or departure dates approach.

For example, I procrastinated until about a week before my trip and paid $15 for the Philly-NYC leg. The return trip, scheduled a week after that, was the one that cost me a buck.

A long, long trip?

Think you don’t have time to ride a bus? It might not take as long as you think. The train from Philly to New York takes 75 to 98 minutes. The bus takes just over two hours. (The last time I checked, it would cost between $49 and $150.)

If I were to fly from Philly to New York I’d have to factor in:

  • Travel to the airport
  • Allowing at least an hour and a half  to get through security
  • Getting myself from one of New York’s airports to Manhattan, the site of my house-sitting job (and a bit of business)

Full disclosure: The trip to New York took longer because the bus broke down just before we hit the Lincoln Tunnel. It was almost an hour before Megabus sent a replacement vehicle.

However, I can’t even remember how many times air travel has been delayed or outright canceled due to weather, equipment problems, etc. Of my six trips on Megabus, only the breakdown one was significantly late – and none of those trips were canceled.

Stretching travel dollars

Here’s how I look at travel: The cheaper I do it, the more of it I can do. That’s why I favor hostels and house-sitting vs. hotels. And that’s why I use the Megabus when I can.

There’s another cheap-seat line that I have yet to try: Bolt Bus. A partnership between Greyhound and Peter Pan Bus Lines, it mostly serves cities on the East Coast but recently added a Seattle-to-Portland run. Bolt Bus sells at least one $1 ticket per trip. You might luck out.

Your mileage may vary. Maybe you’ll take the bus and sit next to an obnoxious rider. (Like that never happens on planes.) Maybe your job/vacation plans are really split-second. Or maybe you think riding the bus is low-rent.

Well, yeah. A dollar is about as low as the rent could go. But the destination is the same, no matter how you get there.

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Stacy Johnson

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