|EVERYBODY FUNG WAH TONIGHT! FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE CHINATOWN BUS.|
|By Eric Gillin||
The $20 round trip bus ticket from Boston to New York City may seem like an urban legend, but ask anyone who has actually taken a rock-bottom round-trip from Chinatown and they'll confirm that it's for real. But is this really the best travel deal since bumming a ride -- or just a painful reminder that you get what you pay for?
It's some of both, really. The mythical Chinatown bus is really cheap, really convenient and an excellent option for adults who have the ability to sit still for four hours, without needing food, constant entertainment or tons of legroom. Indeed, the Chinatown bus puts
the no back into no frills, is prone to inconsistencies and can be downright mystifying to those poor folks who like some hand holding when traveling.
Fear not, weary traveler. With The Black Table's little guide to taking the Chinatown bus, you can get answers to all those little questions you've been too afraid to ask.
A: Yep. Depending on the carrier, prices can be as low as $20. We have the receipts to prove it.
Q: What companies run these Chinatown buses? Do they only run between New York and Boston?
A: There are lots of Chinatown bus companies serving destinations all over the East Coast, but Fung Wah Bus company seems to be the leader in the space, with an online reservations system and more than eight years of experience running buses and vans between Boston and New York. But while it's the best known, Fung Wah isn't alone. Below, we break down some of the larger operators and their offerings. For more information, plus the ability to buy tickets from a number of these bus lines, try hitting up IvyMedia.com.
Q: So, these companies are legit?
A: Yes. No. Maaaybe. Fung Wah's eight year track record and claims of approval from the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation were enough to convince us that they were legit. Travel Pack USA, and the others we list, appear to be solid, as well. On a surface level, these operators seem to be owned by local entrepreneurs who have set up bus companies to meet the need for low-cost travel between ethnic areas where recent immigrants have pooled. (There are similar buses for Orthodox Jews and Haitians.) That said, a story in the July 16 edition of the New York Daily News suggested that some of bus companies may be in cahoots with organized crime, which isn't shocking when you consider interstate bus travel is a largely cash business with limited regulation. Competition between rivals can be fierce, and after De Jian Chen, a partner in the Today Travel bus company, was found riddled with bullets, the Daily News reported that Manhattan D.A.'s office was looking at a racketeering case. There have been incidents of buses being set on fire and bus accidents and improper insurance. If all of this is true, depending on which line you choose, then you could very well be supporting organized crime by taking a Chinatown bus. At $21 a round-trip, we'll look the other way and stick with the online sites until the Manhattan D.A. starts pressing charges.
Q: Okay, so how do I do this?
A: You buy a ticket, preferably online, and then check in with a ticket agent at the office of the company you bought the ticket from,
The Fung Wah ticket booth is under the red arrow at left. The Manhattan Bridge Arch is on the right.
showing ID to ensure that you're actually you. If the agent doesn't speak English, they will then direct you to the bus by gesturing wildly. There won't be any signs, really, and there may or may not be a bus waiting around where you're supposed to be. It's not an exact science, this Chinatown bus.
Q: Huh. That's confusing. Where do they drop you off and pick you up?
A: The Chinatown buses, as the name would suggest, drop you off and pick you up in the Chinatown of the city you want to go to. (Some bus lines offer service from other places in Manhattan, so it could be worth your while to comparison shop.) Because bus terminals don't exist in Chinatown, you are quite literally picked up and dropped off on street corners in a completely foreign part of the city. In New York, this means braving the Canal Street area, where English is limited and business transactions can feel like a bazaar in Marrakech at high noon. In Boston, this means navigating narrow streets that twist around each other, causing you to walk in circles for hours. Often times, you'll be picked up and dropped off at different locations every time you take the bus, so either go with someone who's taken the bus before, get a good map or scout the area beforehand for places to hail cabs or take the subway.
Q: Wait. So, like, you're just picked up alongside a road?
A: Yeah. It can be confusing, especially since many of the people running the bus companies speak limited English, operate out of other people's storefronts and don't pick you up from their office locations. In Boston, Fung Wah's ticket "office" is really a table inside an Asian bakery where the ticket agent checks you off, then tells you to walk a few blocks away to get the bus. Other bus companies are even less stable than Fung Wah, which has used that bakery for years, so keep your wits about you and don't fret if it's not immediately apparent where the Chinatown bus ticket agents are -- they could be in the back corner of that cell phone store you've passed 13 times already. Also, make sure you have the address of the place you need to find, since some of these places don't have signs, and if they do they're written in Chinese.
Q: How will I know where the bus picks me up if no one speaks English?
A: Good rule of thumb: If you're wondering where the bus is, just follow any random white people you see toting big bags and confused looks on their faces. Once you're there, get in line and be prepared for some jostling. The biggest problem people seem to encounter comes when the attendant yells for everyone to get on the bus and a mob 60 people deep pushes forward all at once. To ensure you have
a seat, cut everyone in the line or try buying tickets online, which reserves you seats at a set time.
Q: Will I be the only white person on the bus?
A: No, not at all. Chinatown may be densely packed with Chinese folks, but the outlying areas in both Boston and New York are filled with budget-conscious college students. Ergo, the buses are a reflection of the neighborhoods where they
originate from, with people of all colors on board. All in all, your fellow travelers will have washed more recently than the people emanating from the Port Authority. Some may even be reading books. That said, the passenger list on the bus veers towards the eclectic, with elderly Chinese men rubbing elbows with skinny hipsters who dress exactly like them, from the blue New Balance sneakers with taupe socks to the Member's Only jackets and vintage ski caps. In a perfect world without language barriers, they'd shower each other with props and fashion tips, but we've yet to see this happen. Sigh.
Q: Does the bus smell like Chinatown?
A: Not really. Given that Chinatown can smell like Staten Island's armpit on especially hot days, there may be reason for some concern in the odor department. But fear not, the Chinatown bus is nothing like one of those Tijuana buses with chicken wire on the windows, children packed 15 to a seat and livestock running up and down the aisles. As the photo above shows, it's just a charter bus packed with people who like a good deal. Besides, all of the goats, chickens and children travel under the bus, in the luggage bin.
Q: You can bring luggage?
A: Yeah. You can bring pretty much anything, provided it fits under the bus. It's not like there's a flight attendant there ensuring that your carry on luggage can fit in the overhead compartment, so use common sense. Rent a truck if you plan on moving your parent's old couch from Boston to Brooklyn.
Q: How often do they run? How long are these trips?
A: The buses leave just about every hour on the hour. And depending on the traffic, we've gone from Boston to New York in three-and-a-half hours. Four to four-and-a-half hours is the average, but we've heard horror stories about the things that happen when a Chinatown bus breaks down. Evidently, the Donner Party didn't have anything on these people.
Q: What kind of amenities are offered?
A: Very few, unless you consider things like "light" and "air" amenities. The larger buses offer reading lights, TV sets, air vents and a bathroom that's something out of a Verne Troyer Cribs episode. The smaller Chinatown buses, which are used primarily during off-peak weekdays, don't even have night lights or vents or bathrooms or TVs, so it's probably a good idea to do your numbers one and two before you board the bus. Also, you should wear layers and plan on adding and subtracting them throughout the trip, since the heating and cooling systems on the buses can be suspect.
Q: What kind of movies do they show?
A: Actually, we have yet to see any movies, but in our research we've learned that travelers have been treated to Cantonese versions of films like Dirty Dancing and Ghost. Apparently, Patrick Swayze is still quite the draw in Asia. Billions of people can't be wrong.
Q: Are the seats comfortable?
A: Not at all. For $20, your seat is cheap in more ways than one. For starters, you can feel the metal tubing in the seat through the Kleenex-thin padding that passes as a seat cover. The seats aren't easily adjusted even if they are adjustable, so there's a good chance the person in front of you will be leaning back into your lap for hours. As with Democratic Socialism, "lumbar support" is more of a theory than a practice, so bring a pillow or Vicodin if you feel like your back is gonna be a problem.
Q: Do they stop the bus?
A: Yes. No. Maybe. Sometimes. There's no way of knowing for sure, not until the bus slows down and the driver yells "ten minutes" in an interesting accent. If you're lucky, you'll get a McDonald's someplace in Connecticut to gawk at the freeway or perhaps a Sbarro and cigarettes combo along the turnpike. But some stops, well. Um. You could end up in Providence for no real reason.
Q: Okay, so is it *really* $20 to go roundtrip between New York and Boston?
A: Yes. As insane as it sounds, it really is $10 each way between the two cities, with a 50-cent service fee tacked on each way if you buy online.
Q: Is it worth the money?
A: Yes. If you taken the bus before and didn't hate it, then you probably won't mind spending $21 to do it again. For those who have never had a long bus ride, while it may seem like a substantial commitment, if you do the math, the Chinatown bus is the pound-for-pound value leader heading to and from Boston. After all, consider the time and money and aggravation you'd spend to fly. By the time you spend $25 and 45 minutes to get to the airport, 30 minutes negotiating security, $150 and an hour up in the sky in a seat that's not exactly an Aeron, then another 15 minutes tooling around for your bags... Adds up fast, no?