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New York: Great travel deal for the new year -- the $12 Chinatown bus to Philadelphia

January 01, 2011|By Tony Pierce, Los Angeles Times
(Tony Pierce / Los Angeles…)

The paralyzing New York blizzard reminded me about my favorite travel experience of 2010: a $12 ride on the Chinatown bus.

I was in New York this fall and needed to get to Philadelphia for the day to see the fascinating Barnes art collection made famous in the documentary "The Art of the Steal." A colleague had recommended "the $10 Chinatown bus," but I didn't seriously consider it until I found out that a plane or even a train would cost more than $200 round trip.

So there I was marching through Manhattan's Chinatown one morning, where I found the Apex Bus on Allen Street. Its website had recommended arriving about half an hour before the bus departs, which I did. But as soon as I bought my ticket, I boarded the bus parked out front and we were off. Had I caught an earlier bus? No one seemed to know.

I was riding in an air-conditioned, relatively new Greyhound-type coach bound for Philadelphia -- and all I paid was $12 including tax each way. The bus wasn't very full. The driver went directly to Philadelphia and made two stops before arriving at 1015 Arch St., dropping us off across the street from a bus station.

In September, Tina Susman wrote this Los Angeles Times Travel story about several very cheap bus options like BoltBus, Vamoose and Megabus around the country. Apex, also known as Universe, definitely fits into this group.

But there were a few things I noticed that mere price doesn't tell you. One recommendation: Bring your own toilet paper. Though the bus has a toilet, there's no guarantee that it will be clean or fully stocked. Also, I would bring a sweater. We were traveling in September, it was warm, but the bus had the air conditioning cranked so high that it was truly cold.

And finally, expect the unexpected. If you go to Yelp for any of these bargain bus lines, you'll read horror stories followed by glowing reviews. The ride to Philly was smooth and easy; the ride back to New York was curious, cramped, cold and stinky. Some people are ready for those types of travel curve balls; some aren't. So be warned.

For me, a very frugal traveler, I found it surprisingly impressive. So if I had been stuck in New York during a snowstorm and was trying to get out quickly to Washington, D.C., Boston or Philly, I would have run immediately to Chinatown to hop a bus.

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