Megabus $1 rides: What's the catch?

11:27 AM, Nov 28, 2011   |    comments
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A Megabus coach


ATLANTA -- Megabus promises fares starting at $1 to destinations all over the Southeast from Atlanta including cities like Birmingham, Chattanooga, Jacksonville, Knoxville, and Orlando. Just like you, we thought, what's the catch? 

We put their claims to the test in three areas: cost, time, and service.

The $1 fares depend on demand. With just two days notice on my trip to Chattanooga, I was not able to get a $1 fare. It was $3 each way, plus a 50 cent reservation fee.

The bus includes occasionally slow, but free Wi-Fi.

I had to pay to park near the MARTA Civic Station. That's another $3.

The total trip cost was $9.50. Compare that to triple AAA's estimated cost of driving: $19.32. Another bus competitor: $67.95 and flying $802.

The bus was in place well before our 7:30 a.m. departure time. Driver Johnny John Russell is retired military with almost two decades of bus driving experience. He knows being on time is one the most important things for his riders. It starts with him.

"Be on time ourselves, always be early," Russell said. "We can't force the bus to do something it won't do. Sixty-eight miles an hour, that's our maximum speed. So, if we start late, we stay late. We build in some extra time between routes so we can catch up if we need to."

The estimated travel time to Chattanooga is 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Martin Bailey has already taken the Knoxville to Atlanta routes several times. "It usually leaves fairly close to on time, and arrives fairly close to on time. The only problem I've seen is the drivers getting lost. As we're sitting here now, we're on about a 10 mile detour," he said. He added every driver has had difficulty finding the Chattanooga drop-off.

Driver John Russell said he didn't miss the exit. He said there was a large truck in the way and he did not have time to merge over. He knew we were running early and decided it would be a safer move to take the next exit and circle back.

Despite missing our exit, we still made it in 6 minutes early.

My bus was less than half full on the trip to Chattanooga. Most passengers were using that free Wi-Fi or sleeping. It was clean, quiet, smelled like cherry air fresheners.

"Oh, it is so comfortable!" first-time Megabus rider Eric Bailey said. "I slept like a baby the whole way!" He's recently used other long-distance bus services and had a much different experience. "It was loud, freezing; it smelled. No, this was much better."

When we arrived in Chattanooga, we saw the first sign of getting what you pay for. The stop isn't downtown like in Atlanta. It's this huge parking lot belonging to a discount furniture store, movie theatre and Italian restaurant (closed at the time we arrived).

My return bus wasn't due for two hours. Luckily, there's a dollar store in the strip mall. I outfitted myself with bright blue fuzzy gloves and snacks, then settled in for the wait. The bus back home is early and nearly full.

The driver apologized profusely; they were having trouble with the Wi-Fi. I was unable to get it to work on the way back to Atlanta.

There's a Twitter account called "Megabus Fail" listing complaints. This trip will not end up there.

"It's better than any bus system I've ever been on," Claudia Stevenson said. She and her son both made use of the Wi-Fi on the way up to Chattanooga. "Oh, I loved that! And they had plus on each row to charge everything. That was great."

On one of the busiest travel days of the year, instead of driving, I shot, wrote, and edited my entire story on a bus for under $10.

It did involve a less-than-stellar lay-over.

Click here to check out fares and routes for Megabus.

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