My first Megabus trip

The single-digit prices Megabus offers can’t possibly cover gas, let alone drivers’ salaries. Sure, their no-refund policy means they can keep the money from tickets people buy on impulse and never use. But still . . .

Maybe moving people from city to city for practically nothing is just to introduce the service, and Megabus will reap big rewards someday when their fares inevitably rise. Whatever their business model, I am just excited that for now, I can visit my friends and family (and hopefully have them visit me) by spending essentially nothing but time. And if that time involves hours I’d normally be sleeping anyway, so much the better.

Not that people can sleep normally on Megabus. But a few come close. Last week, a girl in front of me wore fuzzy blue bedroom slippers and came prepared with a sleep mask. A tiny thing, she curled up and snoozed deeply for over 500 miles. The mask was overkill, since the bus was dark and very subdued (compared to those Atlantic City casino specials, anyway).

For individuals of normal size, a neck pillow is mandatory. And if they’re at all seasonable, down parkas make great padding (if you don’t need them for warmth). The rows are offset, so stretching out across the aisle is impossible, and the back row isn’t a three-seater (bus bathrooms are bigger now). The seats recline only imperceptibly (though the bear-like man behind me probably didn’t think so), and on some buses the footrests, which I couldn’t locate at first, retract if you move your feet away.

Raising the aisle armrest is an impossible task if its raised symbols aren’t visible and no Megabus veterans are around to demonstrate. The trick is to push the thing forward, then twist it toward the window.

In other words, napping through the night, as most passengers did, is far from impossible. While you won’t arrive well-rested, you’ll be in better shape than if you’d spent a super-alert night behind the wheel. Still, like I told one driver, I’d pay $20 for a berth. (Now that’s an idea: sleeper buses.)

All the drivers I encountered were friendly and helpful. The two on my outbound trip swapped places halfway through. But on my return, Richard (as he introduced himself) drove straight through without relief.

Screens with speakers are regularly spaced throughout the bus, and sometimes the drivers will play (or let passengers play) DVDs. Richard provided "The Day The Earth Stood Still" (the remake), suggesting in advance that "the one person on the bus who does not want to watch" refrain from asking him to turn it off, and telling anyone who found it too loud to "move to the aisle seat".

In fact, Richard was a bit of a performer, listing himself as the first "safety feature". He noted that in an emergency, he could only ask that we follow his instructions, not compel us to. "If I tell you to move to that stand of trees by the side of the roadway, and you choose to stick your head out from behind one and get hit by a deer, that’s on you."

He requested that male passengers remember ladies were present and mind their bathroom manners. "I’m sure you wouldn’t want them having to go on top of your business, the same as you wouldn’t want your mothers, sisters, wives, or girlfriends to. So please don’t forget to lift the white ring. Oh, and you may want to hold it up, because buses sometimes encounter bumps in the road."

And yes, the trip was a little bumpy, bumpier than I remember from the Greyhounds and Trailways buses of the last century. (Didn’t some used to have "the quiet ride" or "smooth and silent" or some similar slogan painted on their back?) Or maybe that’s just me getting old.

I didn’t try the electrical outlets available on every row ("row" meaning two seats), nor the wi-fi, which I’m sure dropped out near the mountains, about where I lose my cell signal every time. The tiny grips on the back of each seat are perfect for hanging lightweight items like gear or purses. In fact, for all I know they’re meant for iPods.

An extra bag back did come back with me. Though Megabus does not check luggage, it does make its sizeable hold available for passengers to stow what won’t fit into the overhead, though space is not guaranteed.

All-in-all, Megabus is an unbelievable bargain, one I’m telling everyone I know to take advantage of while they still can. And if I end up on one of the double-deckers (apparently new to DC, judging from a driver’s remark I overheard), I’ll heed my family’s advice and sit in the lower sections. Yep, it’s true, some unfortunate souls got decapitated when a driver failed to see the maximum clearance signs before a railroad underpass. I looked that one up.

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