Everyone’s talking about it lately: the Megabus. A member of the Stagecoach Group (the international public transport company behind Coach USA and a number of European bus and rail services), Megabus.com offers low cost, express bus service through the internet.
On June 19, Megabus began servicing much of the southern US, including Texas and most important, San Antonio. Boasting fares as low as $1, Megabus has understandably garnered a bit of attention (here in the Business Journal, on MySA, and on blogs, for example).
Between rising gas prices, calls for a reliable, easy mode of transportation between San Antonio and Austin, carbon footprint considerations, and the low price of a ticket, it sounds like Megabus may have struck gold by expanding their operations to San Antonio. But in practice, is this service as tremendous as its name and reputation imply? Last weekend, my mission was to find out.
On Saturday, I made my way to a downtown parking lot on the south corner of Broadway and Fourth (an easy ride for me on VIA bus 42, or a reasonably convenient drop-off or park-and-ride point for a car). When I arrived just before 12:15pm, passengers waited to board another Megabus to Houston. Fortunately, each bus carries a tent in their luggage compartment to relieve customers from the brutal midday sun. Other travelers waiting to board my bus, headed first to Austin and then Dallas, lurked nearby in the shade awaiting its arrival.
Some 20 minutes after the advertised departure time of 12:15, my bus arrived. We all quickly boarded, first showing our purchase confirmation numbers to the Megabus staff. Those with luggage handed their bags (one per person allowed) to the bus operators as they climbed aboard.
I climbed the narrow staircase to the top deck. About eight other passengers had already chosen their seats on the second floor of the coach, but to my delight, the first row seats with an almost-panoramic view of the road were empty. By the time we got rolling, about a dozen people were seated on my level of the bus and 10 more populated the lower deck. Enough seats remained empty for passenger to have his or her own row.
We hit the road by 12:40pm. The scheduled arrival-in-Austin time of 1:45 began to look unrealistic. Unconcerned, I plugged in my iPhone charger and connected to the wireless internet. Each seat has access to an outlet and free WiFi, so while we rolled toward Austin I emailed, Facebook-ed, and listened to Pandora to my heart’s content. My connection was solid throughout the entire trip.
The ride was smooth and, though we encountered a bit of traffic on 35, essentially as quick as driving myself. We pulled into a parking lot by Dobie Mall at Whitis and 21st in the heart of West Campus at 2:20pm, a block away from two city bus stops and from Guadalupe, the Drag, with its numerous food and shopping options.
I played around in Austin for a few hours and at 9pm returned to Whitis and the waiting Megabus. This time, we left promptly at 9:05 and arrived in San Antonio ahead of schedule at 10:20. The spotty internet connection on this leg of the trip hampered my Pandora listening, but after an afternoon of heavy eating and a couple Hefes, closing my eyes on the air conditioned, quiet, and uncrowded bus while someone else drove me home was a more-than-desirable alternative.
The creepiest passenger during my two trips was the woman asking strangers to take her picture in front of the Megabus logo (me). Otherwise, I talked with a seasoned Megabus traveler, Jerry, an enthusiastic high school graduate from Houston bound for UT Austin in the fall, and, as I found out later through Twitter, a few fans of The Rivard Report who overheard me chatting with Jerry about his Megabus experiences.
With about half a dozen rides under his belt including two-round trips from Minneapolis to Chicago, Jerry rode this time from San Antonio to Dallas. In his experience, he’s dealt with one bus that was late because of low tires, a restroom-related foul odor on board, one delayed by a passenger irate at the tardiness of the bus (the police were eventually called to remove said traveller from the vehicle), and one that experienced an engine problem causing the fire extinguisher in the engine compartment to activate. “We spent probably an hour or two waiting next to the freeway until they got another bus,” said Jerry. “But eventually we got to Chicago, probably three or four hours late.”
All said, Jerry’s more colorful experiences haven’t kept him from patronizing Megabus again: “The price makes it’s pretty reasonable to accept a few of those things….The other trips have been pretty uneventful,” he said, “with the bus being about half an hour late.”
Jerry indicated that passengers with small children usually sit on the lower level, and that the upper deck is often quieter. Regarding seating and his satisfaction with Megabus drivers, he noted: “They’re pretty comfortable, and the drivers seem to be competent and cautious when there’s traffic up ahead. I’m pretty impressed with the driving.” Sitting in the front row with a bird’s eye view of the road and traffic on 35, I would agree. Jerry pointed out one other advantage of a double-decker bus like ours: “On a trip from Indianapolis to Chicago, which I’ve driven many, many times, there were things that being up higher I was able to see; ‘Oh, there’s a lake over there.’ Things that I never saw any other way, and wouldn’t any other way.”
My bus fare (purchased less than 24 hours in advance) cost $5 one direction and $6 the other, plus a $0.50 online reservation fee. Booking just two weeks out, a one-way ticket to Austin would cost a paltry $3. Weekday and weekend schedules for San Antonio and Austin are similar, with the first of nine buses departing at 5:30am and the last around 10pm, plus or minus half an hour.
Broadway and Fourth in San Antonio and Whitis and 21st in Austin are 79.9 miles apart. When you think about that in terms of the IRS reimbursement rate of 55.5 cents a mile, one trip to and from Austin in your own car would run you more than $88, versus the $11.50 I paid for Megabus. A comparable round-trip ride on the Greyhound bus (also purchased online less than 24 hours in advance) would total about $14.
If only considering the cost, the case for riding a bus over driving makes itself. While furry friends (with the exception of service animals) and unaccompanied children under the age of 17 are not allowed and some trips require having your own car, I suspect that for many in San Antonio, Megabus presents a viable and competitive option for transportation to Austin, Houston, and Dallas.
Miriam Sitz works for Accion Texas Inc., the nation’s largest non-profit microlender. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com and sells handmade goods on TinderboxGoods.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. [Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.]