A report on the MEGABUS!

If you like. People have been asking me about this ever since I planned my SF trip around testing out this company, so I figured I would post a bit about it.

I first heard about Megabus some months back when I stumbled across this story at the LA Times talking about their service between LA and San Francisco for a low price. A very low price — $1. As the story mentions and the official site also indicates, this isn’t the price for every ticket, merely the initial starting ones, but overall the point is — we’re talking cheap.

In reading the story and noting the possibilities, I realized that I should give it a whirl one of these days, simply because I do love SF, and have someone to stay with thanks to my sis and her boyfriend and their place together is even more of a bonus. I’d initially thought over a late February trip but since late March provided a three day weekend and a chance to get away from OC for a bit in between academic quarters I sprung for a ticket in early February at $10, a mighty fine thing. I planned on only taking the trip up that way while flying back, since that way in case the whole thing turned out to be a washout that way I didn’t have to worry about problems on the return journey.

Having booked, I started talking to a lot of others about this all and needless to say there was a lot of interest. The advantage of Megabus’s service as described is not only a matter of price, but convenience and simplicity. Its two routes to SF involve only one brief rest stop around Coalinga, then otherwise you’re being put in at San Jose (which could be handy for anyone wanting to get to Santa Cruz from there, say), then Millbrae and finally SF’s main station at 4th Street, or the route I did, which went to Oakland and then the same SF station. The advantage of both routes, meanwhile, is that both Millbrae and West Oakland are major BART terminals, so if one wanted to switch from the bus to that, it’s even a handier situation than simply going into 4th Street.

However, the proof had to be in the pudding. Greyhound, the major US bus service, is somewhat notorious for its downmarket image on a variety of fronts, while friends of mine who have used it in the past always talked about problems with the drivers, creepy passengers and a generally bleh feeling. Clearly the folks behind Megabus know that and aren’t interested in gaining something similar — the company is an outgrowth of the original one in Europe, though, and there bus and coach services are a little more entrenched and of a higher reputation, at least in comparative terms. Meanwhile, the pricing reminded me of many European airlines that provide cheap flights like Ryanair and EasyJet, so I wasn’t surprised by the low cost.

In any event, I was booked for the trip and on Thursday night found myself waiting with fellow passengers for the late night trip. It should be said that Megabus runs three trips per day between LA and SF (and the same number back), so it’s not like one has to try a night trip or else. However, there’s an advantage in that if you can get some sleep on the way via the late night trip, then you can have the day to yourself once you’re in, and it just turned out to be more convenient for me that way anyway. As the service is all done online there’s no extra assistants or anyone waiting for you at the top — we all formed a general line, the bus pulled up and the driver, a garrulous but friendly fellow named Chada who is the same driver profiled in the Times piece, got everyone shipshape and loaded in as quickly as possible.

The bus itself was clearly still quite new — looked sleek both outside and in, and there’s plenty of space for both hand luggage inside and regular luggage down in storage bays below the seats. The seating was slightly cramped for someone of my height but not impossible; as I was fortunate enough to get two seats to myself (it’s first come first serve but nobody took the seat next to mine, so hey), this wasn’t so bad at all. A toilet in the back of the bus was there for anyone who needed it but I ended up not having to so nothing to report there.

Now I wish I could say that the trip from there was a dream — but there were a couple of initial problems that I have to report (and I’ll be sending a note to the company about this blog entry for their reference). First, shortly after we pulled out to head north, Chada noticed that the coolant had almost totally leaked out, which he found very surprising since the engineer had signed off on it before taking the bus out. Therefore, he pulled the bus off on Lankershim in the Valley after calling it in, as they’d have to send out a new bus as well as an engineer from their Long Beach depot. The engineer arrived in good time and started to work on it, but the replacement bus was delayed because the fellow driving it up for whatever reason didn’t know how to get to where the broken bus was at — completely on the wrong side of Dodger Stadium for a start. Chada noted a touch tartly on his call back to the depot that the GPS indicator should have been clear in terms of where they were at, so who knows? After some delay, the new bus arrived, everyone transferred over and we were on the road again after a delay of two hours.

What to take from all this as a traveller? Well, I’d definitely have to say that Chada did the right steps from what I could tell at each stage — safety was the prime consideration, and had the bus shut down in the middle of nowhere or on the Grapevine or the like, who knows where things could have gone? So while he was obviously a bit frustrated with the delays — he clearly prides himself on running a punctual service and made mention about how he always aims to be in SF before the morning rush hour ties up traffic on the bridges — he was following correct procedure, and I certainly thank him for that as well as his can-do attitude and professional attitude for the whole trip. But the combination of learning that a mechanic had apparently made a mistake of some sort in checking on the bus equipment (apparently this same bus had had an initial problem on a Vegas run just previous to this one — and without sounding flippant, I did have to wonder what the equivalent for a plane’s engineer making this mistake would be; at least all we had to do was pull off on a highway exit) and the error on the part of the driver bringing up the replacement bus made me think that Megabus might want to strongly consider reviewing these areas for the future. These may well have been both isolated situations; nonetheless they’re the ones I experienced, so there you go.

That said, and now dealing with the fact that we were quite behind, we hit the road and from there, everything went pretty much like I’d expected and hoped it would. I was near the front of the bus, and besides getting a nice clear view of the road ahead I also got to hear the conversations between Chada and a couple of passengers who clearly used this service a lot; turns out that at least one and maybe both used it not so much for pleasure but for jobs, a good cheap way to get between home and work, if an exhausting one still. As it was a night run, though, most of the conversation died down after a bit as we quietly chugged along the familiar reach of the Grapevine and then the flatness of the Central Valley, lights far off in the distance indicating other roads, towns, farms. As is often the case with night travel like this, I wasn’t able to fully nod off to sleep, but I catnapped well enough.

The stopover in Coalinga was brief but welcome, a chance to stretch legs and munch on a snack (I’d made sure to bring a little something with me — some water, an almond mix, an apple) before heading out again. Chada was able to make up some of the time; however, as we turned off from the 5 to head towards the Bay Area, traffic was already starting to pick up noticeably as the morning rush hour began to kick into gear. By the time we were over in Oakland itself I realized that rather than going all the way to 4th Street Station it would be handier for me to get off at the Oakland stop and take BART into the Embarcadero, where I could switch to the N-Judah MUNI line, which is all needed in order to get within a couple of blocks of my sis’s place. This line also runs from 4th Street Station, so by doing this — and since the Oakland stop is the West Oakland station, which is just opposite the Embarcadero station on the other side of the Bay, in essence — I ended up being able to get exactly to where I needed to go via a quick BART switch as opposed to waiting for the bus to try and force its way across the Bay Bridge in the rush hour crunch. It meant spending a couple of extra bucks for the BART trip, of course, but that’s nothing!

And so I got into the City, stopped off briefly at Arizmendi Bakery for some necessary refreshments (and hurrah for it being on a street the N-Judah line runs on) and from there have had a great ol’ time; as mentioned in the previous post yesterday was a lot of good fun out eating and drinking with folks (my friend Remy’s just finishing up a monthlong visit in town and so I got to introduce him to my sister and her crew; everyone got along great!), today’s been some relaxing and a bit of shopping indulgence (thanks to a birthday gift certificate from my sis and some store credit I had a hell of a blast today at Amoeba) and tonight will be more chat and a show (specifically the one listed here) and I fly back tomorrow — and I admit I will enjoy the quickness of that! (I’m going to be testing out the LAX Flyaway service upon arrival, since that provides a quick turn around between the airport and Union Station.)

So that all said, but final thoughts on Megabus? Well pretty much you’ve seen my take — yes, I would recommend it, but with caveats. Keep in mind that I wasn’t really following a set schedule, was only traveling with myself, was able to make a last minute change of plan on a dime — flexibility was key. If I had been with folks, if things were more incumbent on being in the city at a specific time, then maybe the inconvenience of the delays could have been worse. Meantime, I can’t say that I would totally be trusting in a bus now until we’re well on the road, and even then I’d have to wonder if another mechanic maybe made another mistake that isn’t immediately apparent. It’s unfortunate to have to say it but I can’t NOT say it! If the company is worth its salt, it’s already investigated this situation to try and figure out what’s wrong; if it hasn’t, hopefully my take on it (and possibly that of others on the trip) will help.

But yeah, I think I will do it again sometime. I think though my biggest change will be to make it a day or evening trip rather than a night one — not positive in the end, really, because eating up the time during the late night is handy, and it just took a little nap in the morning for me to get myself back in shape, whereas eating up the time during the day can feel a bit wasteful. I might do more combined trips, where I go up via the bus and fly down in return. But all in all, it was a good experience, I am glad I did it, and I think for a lot of folks who, like me, want to make the trip but don’t always have the easy funds to do so will jump at the chance to give it a whirl.

So in all, good on Megabus — but yeah, double check those coolant systems, would you?

5 Responses to “A report on the MEGABUS!”

  1. Eve Says:

    Remind me to tell you about an “experience” I had on Greyhound last winter taking the bus out to Detroit and their creepy passengers.

  2. Ned Raggett Says:

    Oh, I can imagine.

  3. Eve Says:

    Nothing like people who are not only random strangers to you, but also to each other going at it in the seat across the aisle from you.

  4. A Megabus update — alas, they’re not in LA anymore « Ned Raggett Ponders It All Says:

    […] A couple of months back I mentioned my trip from LA to SF to visit my sis using Megabus — you can find my full post on it here — and as I said at the time, while there were a couple of problems on the trip, overall my […]


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