Is the Chinatown bus worth it?

by Lauren on October 20, 2014

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My friends will tell you that I’m a sucker for a good deal. This goes for pencil skirts as well as airfare. When it comes to traveling from Boston to New York city, there is no better deal than the Chinatown bus. Not only is it less than $50 round-trip, but the bus drops you off right in downtown Manhattan.

By comparison, a round-trip flight to JFK can set you back $150+ and take roughly (all told) the same amount of time, when you account for the taxi ride from the airport to Manhattan proper, which can be an hour or more in traffic.

But let’s get down to business. What do you get for your $50? A round-trip seat (without seatbelt), next to a cute student/shady character/wicked cool jazz musician; on a 4-7+ hour ride, depending on traffic and whether your bus is stopped by the police; for a journey, half of which will smell like fast food after the requisite 15-minute rest stop.

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I’ve made a number of trips over the years, and have always arrived in NYC safely, and back to Boston in one piece. Not to say that it’s all been “pretty.” One notable incident occurred when a passenger vomited on a seat next to him (while the occupying passenger was in the loo). When the occupying passenger returned, he exclaimed, “I’m not sitting there!”

The bus in this moment was stopped. In response, the driver — speaking no English — covered the seat with a trash bag and continued driving. The poor passenger stood for a good hour, and then, very reluctantly, perched on the trash bag for the remainder of the journey.

On my most recent trip, I sat next to a smoker who was perpetually on her phone. There is no smoking allowed on the bus. But if you’ve sat next to a smoker, and you’re not one, you get what I mean.

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There are scarier stories related to Chinatown buses, involving crashes, fires, and worse. So Google at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you. There has also been egregious neglect of basic safety laws on the part of several bus lines. The Fung Wah bus has still not brought its services up to par after being kicked out of business in 2013.

Thinking about whether the Chinatown bus is still worth it, a story comes to mind: I once climbed a mountain with a guy on my team named “Sam.” He was a rockstar who had climbed much bigger mountains, including one named Everest. I asked how his perception of mountain climbing changed over time, and he responded, rubbing his white beard, “Well, it’s all about pain tolerance.” For the adventurous 20-something-year-old, riding a bus with a company having a shaky safety record is no cause for concern. And for many folks, this is the only affordable way to travel. But for Sam, the bone-chilling cold of Everest, coupled with the difficulty of breathing at high altitude, is just more palatable when you’re younger (daresay, innocent?).

I’m kind of reaching my limit with these buses. All of the wondering whether something might happen during my ride gets wearing. Plus, it’s hard to feel sexy in a pencil skirt that smells like McDonald’s.

As for you, you’ll have to call the shots. What I can tell you is this: it’s the cheapest ride in town that will probably get you there.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Erin Smith October 24, 2014 at 9:31 pm

I refuse to take the Chinatown bus. I’ve heard too many nasty stories about the bus and they are often in the news for crashes. I recently discovered the Greyhound express from NYC to Boston which was only about $65 for a roundtrip ticket. I would rather pay a few extra dollars for a bus line with a better reputation for safety and cleanliness. But that’s just me…

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Lauren November 3, 2014 at 3:58 pm

Well said, Erin. Though I did hear about a gruesome event on Greyhound years ago.. Crazy stuff can happen anywhere, but I’m slowly beginning my migration towards taking the train.

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