Thursday, October 25, 2012

Megabus trip report

I just returned from an eLearning symposium in New Orleans (more on that in a future post), and for the trip I decided to try the new Megabus service from Houston.  I still think this kind of express intercity bus service substantially undermines the cost-benefit case for high-speed rail, but there's nothing like first hand experience to really understand the pros and cons.

Pros
  • Incredibly good value.  A few days out I got a round-trip ticket for $44.  It can be as low as $2 if you get it far enough in advance.  Southwest wanted $400, and I would have spent north of $100 on gas and $100+ on downtown New Orleans parking if I drove, not to mention the loss of productivity for 10-12 hours round trip and the full depreciation cost of adding 700 miles to my car (IRS says 55.5 cents per mile, or $388, including gas cost).
  • Convenient pick-up and drop-off locations.  In Houston, their lot is next to the Metro HQ downtown transit center and a light rail stop.  In New Orleans, it's on the edge of the French Quarter next to downtown, within walking distance of where most people want to go in New Orleans.
  • Productivity.  I was able to get a lot of work done for the 10-12 hours round trip, including free wifi and power at every seat.  Love the downstairs seats with a table.
  • Comfort.  The double decker buses have ~80 seats, but neither leg was more than a quarter full, so plenty of room to stretch out.  Here are interior pics.  Fun fact: a new megabus costs $790k.
  • No TSA security or having to arrive for departure an hour+ early.
Cons
  • Street pick-up/drop-off.  Good weather for me, so no problem, but you may not be so lucky so be prepared.  Not having the overhead of a bus station keeps prices low.  In Houston they do have a covering to keep the rain off, but not in New Orleans, which is just an open sidewalk.
  • Speed.  They go a pretty steady 65-70mph - which is not going to compete with a plane or HSR.  Still, our driver did not stop on the outbound leg, and we made it in a quick 5 hours instead of the 6.5 hours on the schedule.  
  • Spotty wifi.  It fades in and out as the bus moves from cell phone tower to tower.  I had to get in the rhythm of opening as many browser tabs as possible while the access was good so that I could stay productive reading when it went out again.  No video streaming - they block it, but it wouldn't work anyway.  The internet seemed much better and more stable on the return trip - not sure why it was different than the the first leg.
  • Ride can be less than smooth.  Of course you're at the whims of the quality of the road surface you're on.  I don't think most people had any problem with the ride quality, but I was trying to write notes, and it didn't do wonders for my handwriting.
  • Don't be even a minute late. (some people may consider this a pro)  They tell you to be there 15 mins before departure.  Do it.  One woman showed up as we were just pulling away from the stop in New Orleans, and they didn't let her on.  Lucky her.  Why lucky?  Well...
  • It really, really sucks when the bus breaks down.  Our transmission died near Lake Charles on the return (heard maintenance did not secure the transmission fluid cap and it slowly drained out).  We ended up stuck on an exit (and later at a rural truck stop after a tow - a cultural experience in itself) for 4 hours waiting for a rescue bus to come from Houston to get us.  We were supposed to get into Houston by 11:15pm, but instead got in at 4am, 11 hours after departure.  Ugh.  But hey, it's better than a plane breaking down in flight, right?
On the handling of the breakdown:

Con
  • My major complaint with the breakdown was the long delay sending out a rescue bus.  We actually had problems twice before the third and final breakdown (we had to pull off the road and restart the bus).  In each case, we were told they would send a rescue bus out as a precaution, but they actually didn't.  And then when we died for the third and final time, we were told the rescue bus was "leaving the lot in Houston" immediately, but it took 3.5 hours to go 150 miles, which implies to me it left an hour+ later than they said.  It arrived with a fresh driver and a mechanic.  I think they delayed to get the mechanic at 10pm at night, which means they sacrificed customer service for their own convenience.  The mechanic certainly could have come out separately later on his own.
Pros
  • They immediately sent out an apology email to us with the estimate of the rescue bus arrival time.
  • They followed up with another email refunding all our tickets to our credit cards.  They refunded the full round-trip amount too, not just the return leg.
  • They also sent an email voucher for one free round trip ticket.
  • They arranged for rides to get people to their final destinations at 4am in the morning in Houston.  The original driver made these arrangements with each passenger while the new driver took us the last 2.5 hours back to Houston.  I thought that was very kind of them.  You could definitely hear that friends and family weren't thrilled to be asked for pickups at 4am instead of 11pm.
Overall: they screwed up early on not sending out the rescue bus much sooner, but were proactive after that in trying to make up for the inconvenience.  I overheard a couple Greyhound horror stories on the bus, and they definitely seem to be well above Greyhound in the customer service department.  Maybe over the airlines too, although that's a low bar these days.

Other tips
  • Bring a bottle of water and snacks.  I brought some trail mix, which was perfect.
  • Bring an iPod and headphones.  You may want to drown out the conversations around you.
  • Bring your phone recharging cord in your carry-on.  Luggage is in an inaccessible rear compartment.
  • The toilet on the bus works in a pinch, but, for comparison, is a notch below an airplane toilet (no sink - just hand sanitizer - and you're on a swaying bus).  You'll want to use real restrooms when they're available.  I'm told most drivers do include one 15 min snack/bathroom break at a gas station convenience store, but you can't count on it.
  • The earlier you get there, the better seat selection you get.  Most popular include the tables and the upper level front seats where the road unfolds below you (please be kind and don't take a table seat unless you plan to use a laptop).  They say be there at least 15 mins before departure - I'd say arrive a half-hour before departure and you're likely to be near the front of the line.  But if you do this and get the last table seat ahead of me, you are now morally obligated to give it up to me, since I unwisely shared this tip online instead of keeping it to myself... ;-)
Bottom line: a winner, just come prepared and don't be overly reliant on the schedule (i.e. don't schedule an important meeting right after your theoretical arrival time).

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2 Comments:

At 7:43 PM, October 29, 2012, Anonymous Rich said...

Megabus will reportedly resume with trips from Houston to Austin THIS Thursday... I hear a destination will be U. of Texas @ Austin. Those students will grow up to become adult fans of MegaBus, which shows marketing savvy...

I also hear it’s a matter of days before Megabus offers trips to Galveston from Houston, too...

NASA JSC is not a destination, but Lamar supposedly will be, and is reportedly 15 or 20 minutes from there.

Meanwhile, as Grand Prairie, TX is in “no-man’s land” (with no commuter bus service), it’s nice to know that as of Nov. 19th or so, there will also be MegaBus trips from Houston to Downtown Dallas (from which folks can rail over to Ft. Worth, for example).

Hopefully they'll succeed :-) Lord knows Greyhound needs the competition! They're pricey and some of their female employees at the Houston terminal are downright lazy, condescending and rude.

 
At 5:07 PM, October 31, 2012, Blogger Carey said...

Thanks for this writeup! I'm planning an overnight trip to San Antonio this weekend on the Megabus and it's nice to know what to expect.

 

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