As I waited to board the Megabus for a red-eye trip from Minneapolis to Chicago the other day, I couldn't help but flash back to my dreaded marching band tour in high school: 40 hours on a coach bus from Minnesota to San Diego.
Passengers crowded like sardines into printed blue seats, trying to shield themselves from the too-cold air conditioning blowing from the vents.
I waited by a parking garage on the University of Minnesota campus for about 20 minutes before my bus came. The wait was pleasant enough on a cool July night, but I imagined what a similar wait would be like on a snowy, windy day in February.
When the bus pulled up it was mostly full, having picked up most of its passengers at the 4th Street stop in the Warehouse District. The Megabus-ers made up a mosaic of the cities: young, old, white, black, families, couples, all part of a growing population opting for budget travel in times of skyrocketing fuel costs.
Flights to Chicago can run more than $500 on Expedia.com. And gas for my 1988 Volvo wagon would be about $100 each way.
Atop that was the added risk in driving a 20-year-old-car more than 800 miles.
Cost for my Megabus ticket: $15 to Chicagoland, $30 for the ride back. My cheap outbound seat was for the Tuesday red-eye bus (10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.), the other for the Sunday afternoon return -- a peak travel time.
Dale Moser, president of Coach USA/Megabus.com, said ridership has increased right along with rising fuel costs and airline ticket prices. June 2008 ticket sales were up one-third over 2007 for the Minneapolis route, he said.
Just 56,000 people rode the Megabus to and from Minneapolis in 2006 when the service began, Moser said. Last year, 125,000 rode the bus, and 75,000 have ridden so far this year.
Since Megabus opened its Minneapolis route, gasoline prices have increased 57 percent, but ticket prices on Megabus.com remained fixed. Moser said the top fares have remained a bargain, and the company still reserves some $1 seats on every bus.
And Megabus has no plans to add fuel surcharges or baggage fees as have the airlines. "We're growing at such a fast pace that [it] is well outdistancing the additional cost of fuel," Moser said.
Some tolerance required
The Megabus certainly has its ups and downs. The noises and reading lights were easy enough to block out with the aid of headphones, earplugs and a silk eye pillow. But as Jean Paul Sartre said in his play "No Exit," "Hell is other people." The bus offers no way to escape from the intrusive smells of other passengers: the floral scented hand cream, a last cigarette, a late-night deep-fried snack and its unfortunate aftereffects.
But those irritants faded quickly and the jostle of traveling put me to sleep about half an hour into the trip. I wasn't so lucky on the trip back. The daylight kept me awake, so there was no escaping the irritation of city gridlock, which stalled the trip by more than an hour. On the up side, I had the companionship of several friends from the journalism convention I had attended.
In Madison, Wis., we let off about a third of the passengers, so we all had some room to spread out. But that was little comfort on the long, boring drive through Wisconsin farmland.
The buses I rode were full to capacity when they left their origination points, as they are on about 90 percent of the routes, according to Moser.
He said Megabus.com serves three main groups: college students and young professionals, middle-age women and retirees. The Sunday passengers resembled those demographics more than my Tuesday trip, which included more families.
Moser acknowledged a shift in clientele, driven by the tighter economy: "It's not just gas that's up, everything's up."
Megabus uses the newest and most fuel-efficient buses on the road.
Double-decker buses offer free videos, and Moser said free Wi-Fi will be offered soon.
The Blaupunkt video screen was lost on me, though. I associate the brand with ostentatious, high-end car stereos. I had no desire to watch "The Inside Man" into the wee hours. And, despite the available headphone jacks, I couldn't escape from the soundtrack, which blared through the bus' main speakers.
Even so, I was fairly impressed by the Megabus. The bus stops were bare but well lit and seemed safe. The seats were tolerable. And, for less than half a tank of gas, I made it to Chicago and back in one piece.
Emma L. Carew • 612-673-7405