ROAD TRIP: Intercity Bus Travel Tips
EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- WHERE DO I START? As I mentioned in an earlier post, getting to the Midwest from Washington, D.C., late last week proved to be a bit of a challenge. My plan to take Amtrak's Capital Limited to Chicago (relaxing, reading and writing on an overnight train) was foiled by forces out of anyone's control, so the only alternative for a last second switch was to take Greyhound.
While I have taken bus services between New York and Washington (Chinatown services, Greyhound, Vamoose and Washington Deluxe), besides orchestra enrichment trips and Latin Club excursions to Toronto and Chicago in high school, I've never done a long-haul bus trip.
I GUESS I SHOULD BE A LITTLE MORE CLEAR. It wasn't a trip, but a series of trips that was supposed to start at 4:50 p.m. There are no direct bus routes between Washington and Chicago, so there are 2-3 transfers awaiting you depending on when you leave. I had hoped to reach Pittsburgh by 11:15 p.m. to catch a connecting bus to Chicago. But as it turned out, I didn't leave Washington until nearly 9 p.m. and because of the mounting backup throughout the Greyhound bus network on Thursday night and into Friday morning, I had to battle my fellow bus riders for spaces on various connecting buses in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
From this experience, I've developed a series of rules for anyone who might attempt a similar cross-country bus journey.
1.) If you know you'll be traveling during a heavy travel period such as the holidays, arrive early. Seriously. Greyhound is first-come, first-served. So if there's a long line (see cameraphone photo above) for your bus, be prepared to wait for the next bus, whenever that may be.
2.) Don't expect any announcements from Greyhound, at least at the Washington bus terminal at First and K streets NE if your bus is running late, or is at risk of filling to capacity, with scores and scores of extra people queued up at the gate.
3.) Don't expect any Greyhound ticket personnel to be helpful in extracting information as to the possibility of alternative travel plans. In fact, they can be quite testy, and don't appreciate it when you inform them that the 40 people in line have no idea what's going on and are in search of some guidance from a dispatcher or other bus company personnel. Expect to be told: "Ask the bus driver." Expect to then wonder: "Yeah, so what if the bus driver drove away?"
4.) In these situations when you're waiting in line for the next bus, expect to stake out your territorial claim in line. You may end up sitting on the floor for three hours or more, but you have secured your place in line. This is where you get to know your fellow queue partners -- in my case, a Pitt undergrad named Eli, studying anthropology and Japanese. Deals are brokered to where if you want to leave line for any reason, one's spot will be reserved.
5.) Expect the unexpected. After more than three hours waiting for the next scheduled bus, a second one may show up to handle added capacity. So while you may get on the originally scheduled bus, you still have to go through Baltimore as is planned. But the people behind you might board an unannounced express bus to Pittsburgh. Those passengers will arrive earlier than expected in Pittsburgh and therefore be in front of you in the line for the next transfer bus.
6.) Be aware that MARC has a commuter train that goes directly to Frederick, Md., from Washington, D.C., that's probably cheaper than Greyhound. So really, if your destination is Frederick, there's no need to arrive on a bus at the city's train station well after 11 p.m. when you've been waiting around Washington since 4 p.m. That hour 45-minute layover in Baltimore, plus all the other delays, seem to be unnecessary if you can skip it. But tell that to the one Frederick-bound lady with the numerous plastic bags who was likely unaware of the commuter train option to her destination.
7.) Be sure to leave your cell phone on vibrate. Any annoying Nokia ring tones might bother your fellow passengers, or your driver, especially if it is Operator Bryant, who will not hesitate to raise his voice over the public address system by saying: "Pick up the phone! Pick it up! ... What's wrong with you?!?"
7a.) If you're going to sleep, be sure to set your cell phone on vibrate before slumber takes full effect. Operator Bryant cares little about your sleep, only about silence.
8.) When you arrive in Pittsburgh around 3 a.m., you might begin to lose your faith in humanity when you realize that you might not be able to leave western Pennsylvania before sunrise. In a crowded waiting room, you might be shocked that the layout of the seating area (where people are watching late-night Spike TV programming, are obstructions, forcing the gate queues to devolve into a sea of humanity: Moody soldiers fresh back from Iraq heading in the direction of St. Louis, evacuees from New Orleans carrying their life's belongings begging for Christmas money, and an agitated Germantown, Md., resident/suburban Detroit native (at right) who will symbolically ruin Christmas for all those being manipulated like Marionettes by Greyhound's lackadaisical puppetmasters. (See No. 9)
9.) After you've been bumped from three buses in a 12-hour time period, courtesy and kindness will be simply tossed out the window, especially when Greyhound’s overlords nor passengers, fail to take any initiative to create a semi-structured gate queue. It is these situations where predatory line-cutters will -- claiming ignorance -- simply walk up to the front of a badly formed queue of about 25-35 people and stake their claim. In this case, the woman pictured above -- let's call her Ms. Celaeno -- will be seen as a clever master of the art form, despite claiming that she's a Greyhound virgin. Like Celaeno of Greek mythology, Ms. Celaeno of the Pittsburgh Greyhound terminal is indeed a Harpy in love with Zephyrus, that pleasant but elusive wind that will carry her away from the bus terminal beneath Interstate 376. But to get the wind at her back and a seat on any westward bus, she will use her dark-hearted nature to jump to the front.
But if you call out Ms. Celaeno as a nasty trickster (like an older man behind me attempted ... "Hey, little lady, there's a line ...") expect some attitude. There might be phrases like: "You better shut your trap." "There is no line." "What are you going to do about it, old man." "I'm with her, so shut up. ... She's my mama."
In reality, Ms. Celaeno will be traveling alone, but has made friends among the smokers who congregate from time to time outside. So she may not have her mother with her on her journey, but she does have her mama -- a twentysomething professional who was moving back to Detroit after she became worn out by her stressful Washington, D.C./Sterling, Va., lifestyle. Smokers stick together, and Ms. Celaeno will claim that her new friends will stick up for her.
At this point, you might be tired, hungry and depressed. You might have thoughts about trying to find the Amtrak station on the other side of downtown after there are rumors that there are seats available on the next Capital Limited. You might consider buying a bus ticket back to Washington for $53. You might be convinced that you are going to have to confront Ms. Celaeno and her mama in Cleveland, where you'll be forced to battle for a space on the next leg of the journey that might come the morning, or perhaps in the afternoon. You might become convinced that Ms. Celaeno will simply ruin Christmas and you'll be stuck in Pittsburgh with nothing to eat but Primanti Bros. sandwiches -- and not the beef tenderloin with wild mushroom ragout you've been promised. Despair sets in.
Then you'll turn around toward the seating area where numerous folks with glazed-over eyes are watching a Spike TV program (where there's gross footage of a man pulling a string out through his nose that originated in his ear) and you'll look over at the Katrina evacuees you encountered earlier sitting on a bench, asking someone for money. You can't hear the displaced Crescent City residents because Ms. Celaeno is yapping away about why she hates Washington, D.C. (because of stuck up Georgetowners, expensive alcohol and bad clubbing experiences at Platinum). But you realize at that point that no matter how horrible your bus trip has been, it can't possibly measure up to the purgatory the transient evacuated Louisianans over on the bench have endured over the past four months or so. Dragging all of your belongings with you on America’s intercity bus network will seem mind-boggling. You sigh, and become quite content with waiting some more in the bus terminal. Ms. Celaeno will seem incapable of being quiet.
10.) Eventually, you'll get on a bus, destination Cleveland. No matter how long you think you can remain awake (at this point, you'll be for sure seated next to a twentysomething guy headed to Pontiac, Mich., who will tell you he’s been recently released from Pittsburgh's jail ... which is next to the bus station) you will fall asleep. The sun will rise and you will have racked up about two hours of sleep since leaving Washington. Your jailbird friend is quietly sleeping too. But it's a new day, and you're in Cleveland! Interstate 77 is like the Yellow Brick Road, and the spires of Cleveland look as inviting as the Emerald City ...
But you're supposed to be in Chicago in less than four hours to meet up with your friend who supposed to drive you into Michigan. At this rate, that will never happen. So you call your parents, and your mom tells you that your father is driving to Toledo to pick you up. You get to another bus and end up in Toledo, home of minor league baseball's Mud Hens.
You will eventually make it home for Christmas, because that's what's supposed to happen. But then you feel sorry for the Jamaican immigrants who were trying to get to Phoenix from Washington. They're likely to be stuck someplace in Texas, caught up in the post-Christmas travel period.