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Going Greyhound PHL-NYC: What It's Like

Going Greyhound PHL-NYC: What It's Like

Old Sep 12, 11, 4:20 am
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Going Greyhound PHL-NYC: What It's Like

On my last trip to New York I found myself with a meeting in Philadelphia on a Friday night, out of position to catch a homebound flight from JFK Saturday afternoon. Changing my flight to a PHL departure was prohibitive, and a PHL-JFK ticket cost $189, so I started looking at ground transport options. Megabus was $15 -- fine! -- but then I hit the Greyhound website on a whim and found they'd sell me an advance one-way Saturday morning ticket from downtown Philadelphia to the Port Authority for $7.

Seven bucks? All in? Sold. Cheaper, even, than the $7.25 A train + AirTrain ride from Manhattan to JFK.

(The rock-bottom, $7, nonrefundable, online-only, take-that-Megabus fare comes and goes from the website. It's good only for a specific trip, just like an airline ticket, and has to be purchased at least 10 days in advance, but even now, as I write this, it's not showing up for Saturdays weeks in the future. Weird; if you see it, grab it. The Philadelphia-New York fare runs as high as $42.50 for a refundable, fully flexible ticket.)

I hadn't ridden Greyhound since college, 30 years ago, and I was dead curious. After years of misery and mismanagement the company was recently taken over by the UK transport firm FirstGroup, and new branding and rolling stock have begun to show up.

The online instructions said to appear at the Philadelphia bus depot at 11th and Filbert one hour before the scheduled 901am departure, but when I arrived at 820am, clutching my ticket printout for Greyhound Schedule #3217 (when you buy online, you receive an email with a link to your ticket), I was first in line. The depot was clean and bright. A couple of cops lounged discreetly against a wall of vending machines and video games.

There were about a dozen loading bays outside, laid out in the typical "sawtooth" pattern. Most of the boarding doors were permanently signed for local commuter destinations, numbered NJ Transit routes, or Atlantic City; three were labeled "All Points North," "All Points South," and "All Points West." I asked at the ticket desk about the New York bus and was pointed to Door 7, the "All Points North" door. "Sit in the red seats," said the ticket counter-woman. Our trip was an elite "Express" trip, a sort of premium sub-brand for certain nonstop runs in the Northeast, and the depot had made a stab at carving out a special red seating zone for Express passengers only, ribboned off from the rest of the waiting area.

One of the advantages Greyhound offers over Megabus is a terminal to wait in when it rains. Another is confirmed seating on your specific run; Megabus is notorious for overselling, although I've never been caught out myself.

The only other departure action was an Atlantic City run attracting a ragged, hopeful line of riders a few boarding doors away, so I sat in the exclusive red Express area and watched with interest as my fellow New York travelers appeared. A couple of young college-age women traveling alone with copious luggage. A quartet of seniors heading to New York to catch a Carnival cruise. A couple of tattooed gangbangers. A middle-aged, spinsterish woman or two. A few folks who looked like hard-luck cases... stereotypical Greyhound customers, cash-only types. And me.

In rural and smaller urban markets Greyhound is for people who don't own cars. In bigger markets like this, it's also for people who don't want to take their cars -- New York being the best example of a destination you don't want to take a car to.

Twenty minutes before the top of the hour an efficient, friendly departure manager in a crisp red button-down shirt bearing the new Greyhound stylized-G logo came around to check everyone's ticket. Each of us had a unique "boarding number" he wanted to see, which turned out to dictate the order in which we got to get on the bus. I was number 6. Number 5 was a sweet young woman from Azerbaijan, an aspiring doctor who was also heading to JFK to catch a flight home after a traveling summer holiday in the US. She was hauling three huge red duffles, a laptop case and a big pink stuffed elephant. She was very pleased to hear I'd heard of Azerbaijan, but miffed that I had spent only $7 on today's ticket. She had ridden from New York to Ohio on a wheezy, decrepit coach with fitful AC and no wifi, then to Philadelphia, and was now finishing her trip -- and she'd paid well over $100.

The boarding numbers seemed be assigned according to when you bought your ticket -- earliest first -- and not how much you paid. So I had my pick of seats despite having paid next to nothing, while a late arrival paying the walk-up fare would go to the end of the line.

We queued at the "All Points North" door in gangs of ten, Southwest Airlines style. (As on Southwest there were no assigned seats.) At 10 or 12 minutes before the hour our driver pulled the door open, and the ticket-checker assured him, "I checked everyone's ID for you." This was not strictly true; he had checked that everyone's ticket had a name on it, but we were never asked to produce ID. No other security procedures in effect, and mercifully no sign of TSA.

The driver took our ticket printouts, retaining the whole thing, and directed us to our bus. Passengers with big suitcases left them at the cargo bay coachside, while us light travelers climbed right on board.

Our Greyhound bus was a clean, new Prevost X3-45 that looked like this:

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3601/...31091000_o.jpg

There were 2 + 2 black leather seats inside, each with an integrated shoulder belt, AC outlet, and water-bottle caddy. They did not recline but were very comfortable, more comfortable than a Continental Airlines coach seat, and offered as much legroom as a typical domestic airline's economy class. Greyhound has purchased at least 140 of these Canadian-made coaches and in the Northeast, at least, they're slowly displacing the sad, sagging, peeling, road-weary fleet that has defined Greyhound since the '80s. (The Atlantic City crowd a few bays over was trudging onto an ancient-looking MCI bus with lopsided suspension and scarred, sun-blasted paint which didn't look capable of taking them around the block.) President Obama now travels in a big black Death Star-ish Prevost coach that is essentially the same platform.

We boarded 25 or 30 passengers. The Carnival cruise contingent was disoriented by the sit-anywhere policy and flapped around interminably, consulting each other while getting settled. Almost everyone had their own window/aisle seatset. The AC was powerful, and in seconds my laptop glommed onto a strong onboard wifi signal.

We "pushed back" precisely on time and vroomed out of the depot and down Chestnut Street with surprising speed and power. The bus was very well sprung giving a smooth, quiet ride. I have not been on intercity buses much lately and had forgotten how they surge forward so dramatically with so little engine noise -- the power plant being totally out of earshot, fifty feet aft. (I got to drive a Greyhound once too, many years ago, and it's an exciting but disconcerting, headlong motoring experience... you sit ahead of the front wheels, so all your instincts from driving regular cars are useless. And you're always conscious of the formidable size of the thing; it's like flogging a supertanker up a narrow tributary, canoes and rowboats scattering.) The engineers who worked on this coach did an incredible job of minimizing NVH. Most bus frames resonate, or transmit vibration at certain speeds / frequencies; this one seemed carved from granite.

Our driver, also sporting the red button-down shirt with the new G marque, made about a minute's worth of polite announcements -- estimating a trip time of two hours, explaining how to get the wifi going, warning us to silence cell phone chirps and ringtones, and pointing out the restroom in the rear. Peacefully we hurtled -- that's the best word for how this bus goes, it hurtles -- onto I-95, then the New Jersey Turnpike.

I have read that some Greyhound drivers don't permit passengers to sit in the first row of seats for security reasons. That wasn't the case here, but the bus was fitted with a tubular-steel barricade that swung across the front of the aisle and locked in place when the driver sat at the wheel, effectively barring passenger access to him and the front door... the bus driver's equivalent of the reinforced cockpit door.

About an hour into the trip the Azerbaijani medical student left her seat near the front of the bus, visited the restroom, and returned having changed into a frilly Technicolor red-white-and-blue party frock -- a virtual Fourth of July costume, lacking only the sparklers. I wondered if that was how she intended to deplane in Baku tomorrow.

No stops en route for this elite "Express" run and soon enough I looked up from my laptop in surprise to see EWR sliding by on the left. Soon afterwards we were in the big dramatic down-the-drain loop that leads to the Lincoln Tunnel, and I was actually sorry the ride was ending so soon. It was comfortable, quiet and civil. I had a brief whoosh of road fever, the kind I was seized by in my youth, when it wasn't considered dangerous or slummy to ride long-distance buses, and my family did -- once, famously, from LA to Tulsa, screaming across the desert on a Greyhound Super Scenicruiser with ribbed stainless-steel siding; later, I rode Greyhound or Continental Trailways alone, cross-country, to summer internships or to visit friends. Great, absorbing trips -- hitting flag stops in little southern towns at three or four in the morning, piling out at Nashville or Savannah for midnight rest stops while the bus sighed and ticked in summer heat, smelling of rubber and oil and air conditioning, bugs flecking its silver-and-blue skin, low diesel rumble echoing under halogen lamps... I miss that.

We were 20 minutes early plunging into the Port Authority -- I think the bus circulation ramps linking the PABT directly to the tunnel are an incredible logistical feat; my God, the traffic they carry daily -- and we dove below ground level to where the long-distance buses have berthed for as long as I've paid attention, pulling up at Gate 60. The driver listed all the connections one could make to points north and east, warned that checked baggage is not automatically transferred to your next coach if you have one, and thanked us sincerely for riding Greyhound. Trip time: one hour, 40 minutes.

I disembarked and had a look around. My Azerbaijani friend disappeared into the crowd. A wave of deja vu hit me; the below-level concourses formerly dominated by Greyhound and Continental Trailways have scarcely changed in 40 years, though Greyhound is a more modest operation now and Continental Trailways is long gone, its PABT gates taken over by a mystifying array of local commuter operators posting cryptic, tattered destination information on the doors.

The Port Authority is trying gamely to market the bus terminal as a sort of chic destination with shopping and dining galore, but it's still an incomprehensible rabbit warren with terrible signage. And there's nowhere to sit down.

I recommend Greyhound unreservedly, at least if you can score the fare and the bus I did for a trip of up to a few hours. Much more comfort and legroom than Megabus (though without the novelty of double-deckers), no TSA hassle, free checked baggage, friendly staff, and far better bang for buck than Amtrak if you ask me. On Friday, the day before this trip, I had endured a $70 ride from Penn Station down to Philadelphia on a late-running Amtrak Keystone Service train with no food or drink and broken air conditioning. No time advantage, no amenities, sweltering, stuffy coach car; me pouring sweat, with ruined clothes... for ten times the price of Greyhound. I'll think twice before doing that again.

And later Saturday, out at JFK, my Delta 757 back to Seattle was delayed at the gate for more than three hours as a broken lav led to a long, stupid comedy of operational errors. I squirmed and fought backache in a very uncomfortable 34C, listened to terse and usually misleading updates from staff a lot less pleasant and polite than the Greyhound staff had been, tried to block the quartet of screaming babies around me, and missed my bus ride. Really, I did.

Last edited by BearX220; Sep 12, 11 at 6:27 pm Reason: Fix typos
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Old Sep 12, 11, 1:12 pm
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Nice report; not sure I'm signing up for a ride any time soon though.
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Old Sep 12, 11, 5:11 pm
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I am not a fan of buses. For me they are very uncomfortable. But as when I was younger, much younger, I thought a bus trip was the most exciting thing imaginable.
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Old Sep 12, 11, 5:41 pm
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BearX220, this is beautifully written and a refreshing change here on the FT TR forum. I really enjoyed reading about your coach journey (not a phrase I ever thought I'd have cause to write, let alone actually mean) much more than I'd anticipated, and share many of your reflections both on how it evokes childhood memories and on its place and value in modern times.

I've done the Greyhound between Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and back again as a student and found it comfortable and great value when compared to the cost of rail and air fares at the time, particularly when the flexibility of the tickets is taken into account. Even here in the UK, for journeys of up to a few hours they can be a great alternative to our horrendously overpriced trains.

I must say though, that in four years of living in London, I never once dared try the 1.50 Megabus (or any other kind of bus!) for my frequent trips back to Glasgow to see the folks. There is most definitely a line that I shan't cross in a coach!
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Old Sep 12, 11, 6:40 pm
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Very nice report. In fact, IMO the second best bus TR filed here.
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Old Sep 12, 11, 6:58 pm
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Wonderfully, descriptively written......and such good info to know, since you always need to know all the alternatives in the Bos-Wash corridor! (such as post-hurricane when Amtrak was not running due to flooding at Trenton only cancelling Philly-NYC)

Never knew the Bus Terminal in center city Philly was so well-placed near the Convention Center, hotels and Market East transit stop......thanks for the info!
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Old Sep 12, 11, 7:21 pm
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Excellent Report

I love trains, but the new Greyhound operated by First Transit has become a very serious alternative to Amtrak on trips in the 2-6 hour range.

On my mileage run starting and ending last December at RDU, I took Amtrak from the DC area to North Carolina, and returned on Greyhound. The winner was Greyhound by a country mile. The Greyhound staff at the Raleigh bus station made me feel like they appreciated my business, and the two different drivers I had (we had a bus change and an hour layover in Richmond) really knew how to drive a bus. On Amtrak, the staff is largely either indifferent to you or hates you for being there.

I recently traveled by bus in the Baltic countries, and the trips were great; modern, comfortable buses--a company called Lux Express actually runs buses with a first-class section for 3 euro more than the rest of the bus.
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Old Sep 12, 11, 8:24 pm
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Brilliant! It sounds like Greyhound have come a long way since i spent 2-3 days travelling on them from Banff, AB to Denver, CO (and another 2 days back) in 2002. They've popped up over the pond here too. Figures if they were bought by FirstGroup. The UK Greyhound coaches don't quite have that gravitas of the old US ones, though they do look very similar to the new ones.
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Old Sep 13, 11, 1:26 am
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Originally Posted by Yahtzee View Post
Nice report; not sure I'm signing up for a ride any time soon though.
Agreed.
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Old Sep 13, 11, 1:52 am
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Nice trip report. Thanks for posting.

Certainly sounds like a good alternative to the train.
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Old Sep 13, 11, 10:00 am
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Thanks for the nice comments. I appreciate your reading a sort of non-traditional TR.

Originally Posted by ND76 View Post
I love trains, but the new Greyhound operated by First Transit has become a very serious alternative to Amtrak on trips in the 2-6 hour range.

On my mileage run starting and ending last December at RDU, I took Amtrak from the DC area to North Carolina, and returned on Greyhound. The winner was Greyhound by a country mile. The Greyhound staff at the Raleigh bus station made me feel like they appreciated my business... On Amtrak, the staff is largely either indifferent to you or hates you for being there.
I agree with you. The new Greyhound ownership seems to have energized the ground troops. Amtrak personnel may not all hate you, but they sure act like their jobs are secure whether any passengers show up or not.

Originally Posted by Yahtzee View Post
Nice report; not sure I'm signing up for a ride any time soon though.
I was skeptical too. Thought I was too old for Greyhound, or too used to creature comforts on other modes of transport. I was wrong.
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Old Sep 13, 11, 10:38 am
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I took it a month ago, Atlantic city to NYC for a day trip, going up 7am, was fine, everyone was quiet and was able to get some sleep. Bus was newer and fine, going back awful (1am)

Bus packed, people blaring rap and hip hop through speakers, almost thought some gang fight would break out at one point , worst 2 hours in transit ever.
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Old Sep 13, 11, 1:12 pm
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my problem with the bus - and all of the carriers are guilty of this - is that they think PHL to NYP is a 2 hour trip, just because mapquest says so. About half the times it is longer. The Friday afternoon, or other peak schedules should automatically allow 2.5 or 3 hours to get through that tunnel, at least. Not that connections are guaranteed or anything, but you should expect to allow much extra time for these trips, because the schedules are fantasy world.
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Old Sep 13, 11, 2:00 pm
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Originally Posted by launcher View Post
my problem with the bus - and all of the carriers are guilty of this - is that they think PHL to NYP is a 2 hour trip, just because mapquest says so. About half the times it is longer. The Friday afternoon, or other peak schedules should automatically allow 2.5 or 3 hours to get through that tunnel, at least. Not that connections are guaranteed or anything, but you should expect to allow much extra time for these trips, because the schedules are fantasy world.
I find much the same is true for air connections via EWR, ORD, etc. And the Hound timetable is padded to some extent. Our trip was billed as 2:00 but took 1:40, and the published runtimes are longer during weekday rush hours.
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Old Sep 15, 11, 3:46 pm
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I must say that was quite an enjoyable read and not at all what I was expecting. Thanks for posting it!
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