A Guide to Chinatown Bus
The word is out – the cheapest way to get from a big US city to another is on the "Chinatown Bus". In recent years, this has become a transport option for choice for budget travelers in New York, Washington DC and Boston, and recently on the west coast. Students, backpackers and a number of other savvy travelers have long loved the base prices offered by these bus companies. Despite the popularity of these bus lines, it can still be difficult to find information about Chinatown bus service.
What's just a "Chinatown Bus"? Read on and you will have the inner track on this great budget travel opportunity.
Chinatown Bus History
The phenomenon Chinatown Bus began in the late 1990s when an entrepreneur in New York Chinatown began to run daily bus service from Chinatown in New York to Chinatown in Boston. The service was aimed at Asian immigrants who wanted to shop or visit relatives in each city and needed cheap and convenient transportation. The service was just bones – no advertising, customer service or bus stations. The customers simply went to the bus stop, waited for the bus (or van) and paid the driver upon boarding. For those willing to do without frills, they offered the same service as traditional bus companies at a significantly lower price. Soon the word began to spread and all kinds of people began to use the service. It became especially popular with students, budget travelers or people for what the service was simply more convenient.
Soon more bus companies duplicated this model and began to offer service in other cities. Now you can find this type of bus service in Philadelphia, Virginia, Baltimore, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco. At this point, the term "Chinatown bus" is more solved to describe this type of low-cost / low-fruited service. Many, if not most, of companies do not have Chinatown as their main place and can not accommodate the immigrant population at all. These operators are sometimes called as "curbside" operators.
How can tickets be so cheap?
$ 15 between New York and Boston? $ 25 from Las Vegas to Los Angeles? It seems difficult to understand. Chinatown bus companies are able to keep prices low because they operate in a fundamentally different way than traditional airlines. First, the service is very basic. There is little in the way of customer service or facilities. Most of these operators do not have formal stations, instead of picking up passengers at bus stops. They divert traditional advertising in favor of mouth to mouth. In addition, many of the operators play a very important role in the operation – you will not see inactive executables at a small independent bus company. Finally, these operators make sure they fill their buses. Therefore, Chinatown bus operators usually only operate on highly-trafficked routes. In fact, some companies only run buses at peak times.
Are they safe?
As these companies first began operating, concerns about safety standards were raised. There are still controversies in the bus industry about whether these settlers comply with the same rules as traditional companies. However, a task force created by the federal government to look at security issues showed that Chinatown bus companies did not perform better or worse than other types of bus companies (ie charter, coaches). All bus companies operating in the United States must comply with the same inspection standards and comply with the same rules. Realistically there is probably a number of quality among Chinatown bus companies. Some are fly-by-night operators trying to make a quick buck while others are legitimate entrepreneurs who plan to grow and run a long-term business.
What to Expect
- No frills service – the driver may be the ticket collector; There will not be much customer service.
- Comfortable buses. Since the low cost buses are normal, they are quite good. Most buses are comparable to Greyhound and many are actually more deluxe.
- Communication challenges. Drivers are legally required to speak enough English to help passengers in emergency situations. In reality, it is often overcome. At least, your driver expects to have an accent.
- Possible delays. Many of these bus routes are on heavily congested roads. When the roads are busy, expect delays.
- Rest Stop. Buses will have a toilet on board, but there is usually a 10 or 15 minute bathroom break on trips over 4 hours. Do not get back late to the bus, the driver does not count his head before leaving at the scheduled time.
- Full buses. Buses definitely sell in peak times (weekends and evenings). Book ahead or come early to secure a seat.
- Plastic bags. A strange little quirk on Chinatown buses is that every time the seat usually has a plastic merchant bag bound to the arm. I think they think this is the best way to keep the buses clean.
How do I find Chinatown Bus?
Again, the "Chinatown bus" is an expression used to describe a type of operator and not an individual bus company. Many unlisted bus companies fall under this category. As most Chinatown buses do not spend money on advertising, it can be difficult to find out about schedules and bus stops. Many airlines are getting savvy about the internet, and many have sites with information. Normally, an internet search will provide links to the bus connection to your destination. There are also more directories like chinatown-bus.org, which contains links to most Chinatown bus companies, and the author's employer, GotoBus.com, is a centralized booking site that has schedules and sells tickets online for most Chinatown bus companies.
The Chinatown bus is not for everyone. If you want an ordering system with American-style customer service, you'll need to stick to traditional carriers. But if you know what to expect and get prepared with a sense of adventure and humor, you should just enjoy the ride. You will also enjoy the money you save!