Several years ago I went on an East Coast baseball trip with my brother and cousin. We decided we wanted to see a baseball game in as many baseball stadiums as we could over a relatively short period of time along the East Coast of the US.
When we were making our travel plans, a friend of mine let me in on a relatively cheap way to travel between many of the cities we were hoping to visit on the trip. She said we should look into the “Chinatown Buses.”
I had lived in China before, and was actually moving back to China after a few years in Brazil, and I had experienced cheap Chinese travel. I tried to imagine what a “Chinatown Bus” trip would be like, and pictures of old, dirty, very crowded buses danced in my head.
by Yusuke Toyoda via wikimedia commons
I imagined chickens flapping around, huge bags full of anything you could fit into them, loud talking, lots of smoking, and an overall miserable several hours crammed into uncomfortable seats. But the prices I found online were cheap, so we decided to be adventurous and give it a try.
We didn’t try the bus from Boston because we decided to rent a car and drive to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. From there we drove to Poughkeepsie, New York, where we took a train into New York City.
But after our initial stop there, we tried our first Chinatown Bus to Philadelphia. All we had was an address located somewhere in New York City, so we hopped in a taxi and crossed our fingers. We were dropped off on the side of a street where there were other people standing around.
by LuHungnguong via wikimedia commons
After asking some of them, we were pointed towards a little ticket window where we purchased our tickets to Philadelphia. They were as cheap as we had been led to believe, and once the bus arrived we put our bags underneath and climbed aboard.
To our surprise, the bus was clean and everything was quite orderly. The trip only took a few hours, and with the air-conditioned bus, it was quite pleasant.
We were dropped off on the side of the road, where we were able to get a taxi to our hotel without any problem. With one bus trip under our belts, we felt much more confident about the remaining ones ahead.
We took two more bus rides, one back to New York City for another game and then from New York to Washington D.C. for the last trip. Each trip was similar, with comfortable, clean buses picking us up in random spots in the cities and dropping us off in similar fashion.
by Ilya Plekhanov via wikimedia commons
After the trip was over, I was converted! If ever I took another East Coast trip, I would definitely use the Chinatown Buses again.
That first trip took place in the summer of 2007, and I had not had another opportunity to try it again until this past summer.
The original trip included three relatively young men who didn’t mind roughing it, if needed. The second trip included two families, one with a toddler and the other with a 5 year old.
I was nervous again because I was unsure if the buses had changed much since my first experience with them. I had heard stories of how some of the companies had been shut down because of unsafe vehicles, which definitely did not fill me with confidence. But we still wanted to travel as cheaply as possible, so we decided to give it a try.
Again, I was pleasantly surprised. There were some things that had changed in the 7 years between trips. One was that you could now purchase the bus tickets online.
Another was there was now quite a few different companies you could choose from. Some buses even had free Wi-Fi on them! The buses were still clean and comfortable, even for families with small children. We took the buses from Boston to New York City, and then from New York to Washington D.C.
by Joseph Barillari via wikimedia commons
This second experience with the Chinatown Buses confirmed to me that this is a fantastic form of transportation that I would recommend to anyone.
The tickets are still cheap (around $25 per person for each of our trips), although they did not seem to sell discounted children’s tickets. But compared to renting a car, taking the train, or flying, it was still a great deal.
Looking at the website (www.chinatown-bus.org), it seems routes have now expanded beyond the original northeastern US spots to now include western ones as well. So if you are planning an upcoming trip, I recommend having a look at the Chinatown Bus options that might be available to you.
It is a cheap and easy way to travel between major cities, and is not just for backpackers, but can also be used by families with small children.