Do you know what I cannot stand about travel in the USA? The public transport. Or the lack thereof. Backpacking New Zealand wasn’t a prime example either but at least it wasn’t so big. What is a solo traveller to do when leaving the driving licence at home but having driving experience that amounts to zero anyway? Bus is the magic keyword and the bus I took. It had aided me I my travels across England, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan before and so it was to chauffer me from one place to another yet again. And so, I teamed up with Megabus to get me down the East Coast.
Fast Slow Travel – The East Coast in a Month
I am a big advocate of slow travel, which involves actually seeing the landscape pass you buy instead of flying over it armed with a sleeping mask and an in-flight screen depicting altitudes and distances. Sure, you won’t see or reach under-the-radar US locations this way but you can get definitely closer on a budget. I love flying, too. To me, all kinds of travel are exciting and to keep that spark, you need to spice it up and go the distance.
With the United States of America, distances are huge. When going from Boston to Miami, most people would opt for plane, but why would they miss out on all these colourful stops inbetween – and I am not speaking about only during autumn season. With the arrival of the American fall, I had come across the pond in my plane that took me from Iceland over Greenland and to Boston, the city of Harvard and tea parties. Relentlessly beating the jetlag, I walked the Boston Heritage Talk, befriended squirrels and schemed for more travel stops.
With the map of the Megabus route and their kind sponsoring of my crazy endeavours to play modern New World Explorer and set out on my East Coast expedition, I connected the dots in the following order: Boston – New York City – Philadelphia – Baltimore – Richmond – Durham – Atlanta – Jacksonville – Fort Lauderdale – Miami. And all of this in one month (and including ComicCon, Broadway, TBEX and excessive sightseeing)!
Let the City Hopping Begin
My first bus ride started off nicely. Within only two hours would I be carried off from Boston to the Big Apple, where I spent a whole week of indulging in burgers, neon lights and big city life bliss. This meant that I didn’t have much time to spend in my other destinations, which called for switching to powerhouse sightseeing mode. I am a person with a very itchy travel bug. And I studied economics and the principal of getting the most out of it with the least amount o resources. Together, this makes for a very potent mix in that I do not only travel as much and far as I can but make the utmost of my stays at the littlest budget.
Just ask my poor friends who I guided through Stockholm. They saw things they would have never thought of exploring, checked off all items on their lists and then some more and, the moment their heads touched the hostel beds, entered into a deep sleep that would cause envy in every insomniac. Afterwards, they were thankful. During … not so much.
And so I stayed only two nights in each place, made friends in local Hi hostels, satisfied my inner literature nerd with tracing Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore, Philly and Richmond, metaphorically ate my weight in cheesesteaks and consumed an excessive amount of carbonated sugary drinks in Atlanta.
Lessons from the Bus
It is highly recommended to arrive at least 15 minutes before each trip so as to A) not be late and miss the bus and B) get better seats. Whenever I arrived, the queue had already formed and one thing I absolutely hate about moving queues is that once you succumbed to the weight of your backpack and put it down together my your gazillion other bags, the person in front of you shuffles just enough for you to move everything up a bit but not enough to make it worthwhile. The torment continues until the point you realise you need to frantically search for your printout or the booking reference in your phone. I recommend, having those at the ready.
This time around, my master plan of travelling with only carry-on paid off in that I didn’t need to check my bags and possibly miss out on good seats but also meant that I had to cram my still huge backpack into the tiny leg space and toggle my other bags on top of it, all the while trying to learn skills of a gymnast and bend my legs around the whole construction. I am proud to say, I have mastered this as well. The times that the bus was not so full that I can claim two seats were glorious times for me.
Another lesson I learnt is not to sit in the back at the top – especially during an overnight trip – as this involves possibly very talkative persons who are oblivious to their noise and music disturbing fellow passengers and who will answer with insults. Not the best lullaby. Scout the passenger’s faces before you pick a seat (unless it’s very busy) and keep both sleeping mask and ear plugs ready. A neck pillow or rolled up coat are also very handy as are scarves and a jacket due to the ever-blowing air conditioning.
People on the Bus
When you travel by bus you travel more consciously. You look at your fellow travellers more – if only to try and fit all of your belongings into the tiny space of your seat and below, pulling out the laptop and fidgeting your elbows into a position that allows tiniest movements and won’t result in punches for your neighbour. You get a much better chance to people watch. It already starts in the queue.
You see people with big hats and larger suitcases the further north you embark and the more south it gets, the less international tourists you get. Bus passengers seemed to mostly travel to meet family and friends and sometimes travelled with family, friends not so much. With the overnight bus you get people in comfy jogging looks and plush pillows, and during the day the main item of interest seems to be the smartphone.
It is terribly quiet on board as no music is playing and talking is scarce. (Unless there are excessive phone conversationalists.) All the better for me as I can plug into the electric sockets, charge my phone and work on my laptop. The free wifi isn’t working for me most times, which I anticipated. What I am missing, though, is an overhead compartment for my smaller shopping bags and hat.
You Grow with Your Challenges
What I loved about my bus tripping is that it allowed me to visit so many different cities on a budget and relatively fast. I can stay connected while I watch the passing landscape and catch myself squinting for gum trees. I do miss Australia and my bus trips over there, it seems. So when I am not working or daydreaming, I am leaning back and actually dream. Sleeping on busses is another art that I have semi-mastered by now but that sometimes still requires some getting used to.
What I cannot get used to are the bus toilets. With the buses so far, I have only had one toilet that was closed and sucked in whatever came into the toilet’s way but mostly, it opened into an abyss of open blue water that was threateningly swaying from side to side, showing me floating pieces I did not want to think to hard about. It is a daring adventure to use them while the bus is driving full speed on the highway and I will congratulate everyone who masters these toilets. Also, there isn’t water to wash but at least the hand sanitiser was always full.
My biggest challenge is luckily over. I was facing a day of 13 hours on and off buses, from Miami over Orlando (who knew these weren’t close at all?) and towards Tallahassee, which included a near four hour stop in the middle of nowhere. I originally wanted to go straight to New Orleans but that would have been too much. I had survived a 21 hour bus ride from Alice Springs to Adelaide with food poisoning and that I certainly did not want to repeat such a long haul. With our without being sick.
Handy Things to Know
I caught the bus bound for Atlanta twice, once from Richmond to Durham and then from Durham to Atlanta. Both times, the bus had a two hour delay, however, only the first time was announced via mail and that only 15 minutes prior to departure, when I had already been waiting at the bus stop. It was awfully cold outside (2 degrees Celsius) and it didn’t help that the bus had air-conditioning on. So I highly advise you, just like megabus does, to check whether your bus stop is outside or has a waiting building to go with it, check your mail in case it is late and be aware that buses can be late due to traffic. Also, in case it is an outside stop, there usually are no benches around. Or toilets.
Another thing that is good to know is that in case you do have a building where you can wait in, you do not necessarily have a kiosk, let alone a place to buy food, so bring your own snacks. On my way from Atlanta to Jacksonville, we had one lunch stop at a roadhouse with a mini market and a dinner stop between Orlando and Tallahassee. I wish I had known about this before so as not to fret over packing enough food (which I never have) and calculating my budget. Regardless, it reminded me of the tours and bus rides I have done in Australia and Japan and made me very nostalgic. During my first layover in Orlando on my way to Fort Lauderdale, we had a stop that had an expensive mini diner and a petrol station right next to it. The second time I stopped in Orlando (going to Tallahassee), was at an entirely different place but I found some small and affordable restaurants nearby.
Don’t Underestimate Luggage
You should travel with just one piece of luggage and only one checked bag but if you happen to run around with as many bags as I, try to book the window seat on the upper floor as it has the most leg room. The table section certainly is not suited for four people with anything other than a handbag that can be squeezed between your feet or put on your lap. I had a hard time finding space for my backpack, food bag, camera bag and hand bag. Seriously, I was holding up the whole bus and making the rest of the ride really awkward to sit in for me and the person having to sit next to me. Sorry about that.
I would like to thank Megabus again for helping me travel down the east coast and getting to see so many cities along the way. As always, my opinions and adventures are entirely my own.