In the late 1990s a few entrepreneurs in New York’s Chinatown started running buses from Chinatown in NY to Chinatown in Boston for less than half of what traditional bus companies were charging and a fraction of what it cost to take the train or fly. Their target market was Asian immigrants who wanted to shop or visit relatives and needed cheap and convenient transportation. Although the buses were modern and comfortable, the service was bare bones-no advertising, customer service, or bus stations. Customers simply went to the bus stop, waited for the bus, and paid the driver upon boarding. For those willing to do without frills, these companies offered virtually the same service as Greyhound at a substantially lower price. Before long, word spread about the service and all kinds of travelers started using the service. It became especially popular with students, budget travelers, or people for whom the service was simply more convenient.
Soon more bus companies duplicated this model and started offering service in other markets. Now you can find this type of bus service in Philadelphia, Virginia, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco. At this point the term “Chinatown bus” is used more loosely to describe this sort of low-cost/low-frills service. Many, if not most of the company’s do not have Chinatown as there main location and may not cater to the immigrant population at all. These operators are also sometimes referred to as “curbside” operators.
Why are Chinatown Bus services so Cheap?
There are a few fundamental differences between the way Chinatown bus companies and traditional bus companies run their operations. Most Chinatown operators run small, streamlined operations and only offer basic service. First, most of these operators do not have formal stations; instead they pickup passengers at bus stops. Second, they eschew traditional advertising in favor of word of mouth buzz. Third, many of the operators play a very hands-on role in the operation-there are no overpaid executives at a small independent bus company. Finally, and perhaps the most important factor, is that these operators make sure they fill their buses. That tend to serve only on heavily trafficked routes.
Are they safe?
When these companies first started operating, concerns were raised about safety standards. There is still controversy within the bus industry about whether these newcomers are complying with the same regulations as the traditional companies. Nonetheless, all bus companies operating in the U.S. must all undergo the same inspection standards and must comply with the same rules. As in any industry there is a range of quality among bus carriers. Some are fly-by-night operators that try to cut corners while others are legitimate entrepreneurs who plan to grow and operate a long term business. Check out the News to see get the inside scoop on different bus companies.
What to expect
No frills service-the driver may be the ticket collector; there will not be a lot of customer service.
Comfortable buses. Despite the low fares buses are usually quite nice. Most buses are comparable to Greyhound and many are actually more deluxe.
Communication challenges. Drivers are legally required to speak enough English to help passengers in the case of emergency. In reality this is often adhered to rather loosely. At the very least, expect your driver to have an accent.
Possible delays. Many of these bus routes are on highly congested roads. When the roads are busy, expect delays.
Rest stops. Buses will have a lavatory on board but there is usually a 10 or 15 minute bathroom break on trips over 4 hours. Don’t be late returning to the bus, the driver will not count heads before leaving at the appointed time.
Full buses. Buses definitely sell out at peak times (weekends and evenings). Book ahead or get there early if you want secure a seat.
Plastic Bags. An odd little quirk on Chinatown buses is that every aisle seat usually has a plastic grocery bag tied to the arm. I guess they find this is the best way to keep the buses clean.