Even if I was known for giving insider tips, I would still be hesitant to yank up the curtain on a certain well-kept travel secret.
For the past three years I’ve been a regular on the Chinatown bus system, known for low fares ($15 to Bos-ton, $30 to Washington, D.C.) and a growing list of routes (departing not just from East Broadway and the corner of Bowery and Canal Street, but now from mid-town, too). And though word is definitely out by now, a trip on one of these coaches still offers a feeling of secrecy, even on its most crowded cruisers.
This street-smart alternative to Greyhound ($35 to D.C., one-way) and Amtrak ($95, also one-way) was originally a series of vans used to transport Chi-nese immigrants to jobs outside New York City. It has evolved into a thriving industry that shuttles bargain-hunting students, tourists and others along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to Atlanta. Fierce competition among carriers helps maintain the rock-bottom prices — so low that the only operating costs seem to be candy bars for the drivers, instead of gas and tolls.
My recent trip to Washington typified how casual and convenient this method of transportation can be. After picking up a chicken parmigiana hero to go in Little Italy, I moseyed over to Chinatown’s East Broadway where a fleet of buses brim in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. At the sight of my backpack, a ticket lady sidled up to me, yelling, “D.C., D.C.?” When I nodded, she handed me a round-trip ticket to the nation’s capital in exchange for $30 (online reservations assure a seat, but also carry an additional fee). I snuggled into my velour seat and was soon watching I-95 go by with marinara sauce streaked down my shirt.
Tickets are collected onboard and a 10-minute snack stop allows for a quick stretch halfway through the trip. The ride was smooth right through to the dropoff at a quiet corner in downtown D.C. a mere four hours later. The Chinatown system exchanges the mayhem of bus terminals and train stations for pickups and dropoffs on unassuming side streets.
With prices so low, passengers tend to ride in hushed silence as though fearful that they will be charged for theft. Cleanliness follows closely behind quietude on the Chinatown buses, with clean plastic bags dangling from the armrests on each row. Together, they make for a tidy and peaceful passage. On a bus full of strangers, that alone can seem like a secret worth keeping — at least for the return trip.
Complete listings of destinations, schedules and prices are at www.IvyMedia.com, or call (617) 354-2101.