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AFFORDABLE THRILLS

Planes, Trains & Buses

You can get there cheap. You can get there fast. But can you get there cheap and fast? We hit the road to test transit options here and abroad.

September 23, 2007|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco

Just a buck. That's how much it can cost for a cozy bus ride to San Francisco, where it's Alcatraz, cable cars and chowder on a whirlwind tour. You may leave your heart on the Megabus.

--

Anew travel company in California has my number -- $1.

That's how much I paid to go from Los Angeles to San Francisco last month on a bus service that whisks travelers from the Southland to the Bay Area for as little as a buck. I spent $10 to get home, but I could have scored a two-buck round trip if I had been less choosy about when I wanted to return.

The cheap transportation made possible a cut-rate mini-vacation by the bay. I hopped a cable car, wolfed down clam chowder at Fisherman's Wharf and rambled around Alcatraz, peering into cells that once housed infamous criminals. My 24-hour visit -- designed to be copied by readers -- cost $65. I may have left my heart in San Francisco, but I didn't leave my wallet.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 26, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Cable cars: An article in the Travel section on Sunday listing contact numbers and information for San Francisco included an incorrect website for San Francisco Cable Cars. The website is www.sfcablecar.com.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 30, 2007 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Cable cars: A Sept. 23 article listing contact numbers and information for San Francisco included an incorrect website for San Francisco Cable Cars. The website is www.sfcablecar.com.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Cable cars: A Sept. 23 article in the Travel section listing contact numbers and information for San Francisco included an incorrect website for San Francisco Cable Cars. The website is www.sfcablecar.com.For the Record

The linchpin of this penny-pinching tour was Megabus.com, which launched its California operation in early August. The big blue and gold buses connect Los Angeles with San Diego, Las Vegas, San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco. Fares run from $1 to about $35, with those who book early online at www.megabus.com receiving the lowest prices. The company already operates similar bus lines in Britain and the Midwest.

One of my fellow passengers, Arthur MacBeth, a retired Los Angeles attorney, said he managed to get $1 reservations for five visiting friends to go to Las Vegas. "Five people for $5," he said, chuckling. "It's tremendous. Hard to believe, but tremendous."

MacBeth was one of the lucky ones. As I polled other passengers on my bus, I discovered that everyone had paid different fares.

Stephen Mahon, an Irish student visiting the U.S. for the summer, paid $35 each way. "It's OK," he said, "I just booked today. It's still the cheapest way I can go north."

South Gate resident Isabel Chavez, along with her mom and a friend, paid $51 total for their three round-trip tickets. Stuart Patterson, another Irish student, paid $1 for his fare from San Diego to Los Angeles and $15 for the leg to San Francisco.

Is it random luck? No, said Megabus.com President Dale Moser. "One-dollar fares are always available for a limited number of seats on every route. After the $1 tickets have sold, prices increase incrementally."

Here's a tip: The company books about 45 days in advance, he said. "So if you plan ahead and go out 45 days, you increase your probability of getting a $1 seat. As you get closer to the date you want to travel, prices increase. There are various seats at various prices. But even our top price is competitive."

To score my $11 fare, I booked three weeks in advance; Times staffers Richard Hartog and Mary Forgione, who accompanied me, booked 10 days in advance and paid $25 round-trip, plus a 50-cent booking fee. That was still a good deal when compared to Greyhound, with $75 round-trips; Amtrak, $100; and the airlines, $133.

ALL ABOARD

Our adventure began late on a Tuesday night at Los Angeles' Union Station. The overnight bus, which left at 11:30 p.m., was first-come, first-serve. In other words, no assigned seats. There were 12 of us, some carrying pillows and blankets and sacking out as soon as they boarded. The bus was new, a 56-passenger MCI J class. "This baby is one of the best buses on the interstate," driver Chada Adeyama said with a touch of pride. "It makes driving a pleasure."

As he wheeled the vehicle out onto Alameda Street, he made one announcement: "We're outta here. There's a restroom in the back and a trash bag in the front. Our next stop is Oakland."

We drove into the night and I settled into my seat, relishing the opportunity to gaze out the window instead of watching the road from behind a steering wheel. The bus seat was markedly more comfortable than any coach aircraft seat I've ever occupied. The reclining seat had plush upholstery and foot rests, and I fell asleep before we reached the Grapevine -- the busy section of Interstate 5 that winds through the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains and descends to the floor of the San Joaquin Valley.

I didn't awaken until we came to a stop at 3 a.m. Adeyama had exaggerated: There was a rest stop. We were at a combination gas station-market in Firebaugh, Calif., a small community in Fresno County.

"Thirty-minute stop," Adeyama announced. The bus emptied out as its 12 tousled-haired passengers sleepily filled the store, seeking a restroom and a snack. Then we milled around in the glaring light of the gas station, stretching our legs before reboarding.

Back on the highway, I glanced at the traffic; there wasn't much. Just big rigs and an occasional California Highway Patrol cruiser. Soon, I drifted off again.

"The time is now 5:37 a.m., and we are early," announced Adeyama in a voice loud enough to awaken sleeping passengers. "That beats being late."

We were at the West Oakland BART Station. Seven people got off.

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