It was about 6:30 a.m. when I was awakened by the bus driver on the loudspeaker: "Memphis."
Eyes half open, I grabbed my backpack and stumbled off the bus.
Even with a mammoth headache and heavy limp from a 10-hour overnight ride spent with my knees jammed against a seat in front of me, I smiled. I was in Memphis, after all, and my ticket to get there was cheaper than the bottled water I'd bought during our rest stop.
Memphis was another daylong stop on my seven-day trek through the Midwest on the Megabus -- the cheapest way to get anywhere these days.
I went to, in order, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, Toledo, Chicago, Memphis, Champaign, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and back to Minneapolis, which Google Maps calculates as 3,758 miles. With gas at $1.80 and a car that gets 20 miles to the gallon, that's $336.
My trip cost $36.
Add in some careful scheduling that put me on all overnight buses with no need for hotels and I had a vacation that even Jack Kerouac could be proud of.
While everyone might not be that ambitious (or careless about their joints and hygiene), the Megabus grew this summer in the wake of rising gas prices and, with the inflated cost of airline travel, has stayed strong. Ticket sales in November 2008 were up 72 percent over a year ago.
After spending 75 hours on the bus over the course of a week, I'd recommend it.
Buy early for best fare
I first heard about the bus line last school year (it's well known among college students) as a way to get to and from Chicago. I learned that the line goes to lots of Midwestern cities from Chicago, often with a stop on the way (the Minneapolis to Chicago bus stops in Milwaukee). It stood to reason, then, that I could get to any stop I wanted as long as I spent some time in Chicago. Also, red-eye buses were an option for almost every route, and the cities were spaced out far enough to allow for a healthy amount of sleep.
With the idea hatched, I tried to book it for spring break 2008 (the thrifty man's Cancun, if you will), which was a month away. The tickets were all around $30 -- a lot cheaper than flying, but still more than I wanted to spend on a road trip with no purpose.
The bus operates heavily on the early-bird-gets-the-worm system, and I got much more favorable prices when I booked instead for mid-June. Boarding the first morning, I was surprised by how nice the bus was. It had been freshly painted royal blue, with new-looking upholstery to match, and felt no different from the coach class of an airplane.
That bus, and all but two of the buses I rode, was a double-decker that accommodated 74 people. I was usually one of the first to board because I didn't have to check luggage, and would shoot for the front part of the top deck, which has a huge windshield and by far the most room. I'd only suggest the spot if you have something to cover your eyes, though, because the front-of-the-roller-coaster effect gets to you. If that wasn't available, I would take the seats by the stairs, with a table and some extra legroom.
There were flip-down movie screens overhead every few rows, which were nice for restless daytime rides, but became bothersome by the time I had seen "The Bucket List" for the sixth time. Then, on the way back to Minneapolis, we watched a bootleg copy of "The Hulk," filmed straight from a Japanese movie theater and supplied by a fellow rider. As a travel mate told me in Kansas City, "What happens on the Megabus stays on the Megabus."
Not always easy riding
I never felt unsafe on the bus. I could see how the double-deck setup, with the bus driver as the only means of security, could pose a problem, but the only nuisance I ran into was the steady stream of people trying to convert me to their religion.
In fact, I didn't run into any real problems that week -- no late buses, no unruly passengers, no mechanical problems -- but maybe I just got lucky. I did hear a few horror stories.
The worst came from a woman and her young daughter who were visiting relatives in Chicago. On the way down, their bus blew a tire that took about an hour to replace, which made them an hour late to Milwaukee. One of the passengers boarding there got into an argument with the driver about being late, and the entire bus waited another hour while the driver called police to get the guy off the bus.
Then, about 30 miles out of Chicago, the back of the bus caught fire on Interstate 94 and they made an emergency stop just off the freeway. She showed me a picture from her digital camera of all 74 people lined up nearly single-file on the narrow left shoulder, all of whom probably could have been taken out by a single car. They waited another two or three hours before another bus took them the rest of the way.
This, though, was an exceptionally bad story, and like most everything-went-wrong stories, it tends to stick out above the buzz from the countless people who got exactly what they expected.
Six-hour delays happen in any mode of travel, but $1 fares don't.
I already have a three-day, $4 trip planned for January, and if you're the thrifty traveler, maybe I'll see you the next time the driver yells "Memphis."
Trevor Born is a freelance reporter based in Minneapolis.