For years Greyhound bus lines and its affiliates offered the only alternative to the thrice-daily Amtrak service from Syracuse to New York City, other than driving. Amtrak was always considered more comfortable, but its schedule was inconvenient, and its reliability suspect. Greyhound was usually cheaper and quicker, and the bus company had the advantage of offering as many as nine round trips daily—a departure time for all reasons to go to New York.
Two years ago a so-called “Chinatown Bus” line entered the fray, offering lower-rate services along the East Coast, including fares as low as $30 from Syracuse to New York. This bus, now operated by Ocean Travel, leaves Liverpool at 2:30 a.m. and drops passengers on Canal Street in Chinatown at approximately 7 a.m. The cruiser operates out of a parking lot at 441 Beechwood Ave.
Magic bus: Each Megabus has one ticket to New York City that you can purchase for $1; if you miss out on that, you can still get there pretty cheaply, and in style. MICHAEL DAVIS
The Chinatown bus phenomenon, which began earlier this decade, includes a number of routes that cover Boston, Toronto, New York City, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. They originally emerged in the Chinatown areas of each of these East Coast cities, hence the name. The sometimes controversial service began as a niche alternative used mostly by Chinese-American residents until word spread and college students began taking advantage; competition among the carriers at one point drove fares down as low as $10 for the Boston-New York route.
But nothing can beat the claims of Megabus, a subsidiary of Coach USA charter bus company, which began servicing Syracuse in May 2008. You can easily spot the Megabus coaches parked on the curbside outside the William Walsh Regional Transportation Center in the shadow of Carousel Center. They are big and blue and emblazoned with plastic-wrap billboards advertising fares to New York for as little as $1. Truth be told, if you want the $1 fare you’d better book very far in advance, likely weeks, and not be very picky about the hours you travel.
Typically, Megabus reserves one seat for $1 on each run (a 50-cent booking fee applies to all transactions). Although the $1 fares are hard to come by, all other fares, most of them cheaper than Greyhound, are not. All Megabus booking is done online at www.megabus.com, and there are no paper tickets. In fact, there are no company employees at the terminal, only a tiny metal sign on a metal post telling you where to wait for the bus. The sign is easy to miss; the bus is not.
New Jersey-based Megabus saves money by avoiding the Thruway when possible, and, if one recent experience counts for much, hiring drivers with minimal experience. On a recent trip to the Big Apple (which cost $18.66), the Megabus left Syracuse, or tried to leave Syracuse, 45 minutes behind its scheduled 6:15 p.m. departure. The driver, it turns out, had gotten lost trying to find the bus station on the way in from Rochester. As the journey continued on to New York, things got worse. The driver made two U-turns on snowy North Side side streets seeking the Court Street entrance to Interstate 81 south. Armed only with a MapQuest printout, she finally was led through the city by a passenger to find an on-ramp that was open.
The return trip was a whole different experience. Lining up in the cold on the sidewalk outside Penn Station in Manhattan proved to be the only inconvenience. Passengers were amazed to see a brand new 79-seat double-decker bus pull up, on time, to take us to Syracuse, Rochester or Buffalo. The plush double-decker is one of a new fleet of British style Van Hool coaches purchased by Megabus since December. The trip from Manhattan took 4½ hours (including a Thruway rest area lunch break), and featured two possibly bootlegged movies (Taken and Body of Lies) showing on nine screens projected throughout the twin cabins.
On a recent Sunday evening, Manhattan-based writer Koren Temple waited for the Megabus outside the terminal. She was returning to Manhattan after a weekend visit and it was her first trip on Megabus. She had booked her trip two weeks in advance and it cost her $35 each way. A Greyhound bus leaving that same evening was charging $55 for last-minute ticket purchasers. Temple pronounced herself satisfied with the service and said she would take Megabus again. “It wasn’t crowded like Greyhound,” she said, “and it didn’t make any stops.”
For those seeking a higher end experience, Cazenovia Limo has entered the market, touting a fast and comfortable executive coach as a means to get business people to New York and back the same day. The limo company introduced the service in December with a $99 fare, and is planning to set the standard fare at $130 beginning April 1.
According to Mugsy McGraw, a retired detective with the Syracuse Police Department who answers the phones at the company’s Syracuse office, the Caz Limo experience includes an executive coach bus, complete with wireless Internet, coffee, tea and hot cocoa. (Muffins are available for a fee.) The bus takes travelers from Syracuse at 7 a.m., transports them down I-81, through the Poconos, and leaves them off in Weehawken, N.J., by 11 a.m. They then hop the ferry for an eight-minute ride across the Hudson River (those are the fabled ferries that rushed out to rescue the passengers standing atop the floating wings of a US Airways flight after it ditched in the river on Jan. 15) where a bus meets them to take them to various destinations in midtown Manhattan. Both the ferry and the bus fare are included in the price of the trip.
A return trip leaving Weehawken at 6 p.m. will get passengers back to Syracuse before 11 p.m. According to McGraw, the company will be adding a second bus to accommodate Orange fans heading to Madison Square Garden for the Big East men’s basketball tournament.
“We get an assortment of people,” said McGraw. “Doctors, lawyers, politicians, judges, SU people. You wouldn’t believe the comments we get. People love the WiFi. I’ve had people tell me that by the time they get there they’ve got all their tasks done for the day.”
On March 9, Gov. David Paterson held a press conference at the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station to announce how New York state would use its share of the $8 billion federal stimulus plan, which includes funding a light rail track from Buffalo to the capital. No word on the fares for the service, which in any case won’t be ready to roll for at least three years. If and when light rail comes to Central New York, it may have a hard time competing with these fares and service. Bootleg movies and muffins are hard to beat.