Chicago . . . on a dollar

Ryan deBiase

Ryan deBiase reads his itinerary before getting on the Megabus. For more information, visit PHOTO BY LISA HOFMANN | SPECIAL TO THE SUMMER KENT STATER

Credit: Steve Schirra

The doldrums of late summer often wear us down. The same Northeast Ohio scenery greets us every day as we get sucked deeper into boredom and stagnation. A good way to break the summer daze is to take an easy escape to a big city. The cost of traveling to a big city may turn off college students on a tight budget, but thrifty alternatives to flying or road tripping do exist.

Megabus is a low-cost direct route bus line that runs from Tower City in Cleveland to Union Station in Chicago. The line runs to Chicago from several other Midwestern cities, such as Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis.

As with any economy service, the selling point is the low cost. Prices seem to fluctuate depending on the number of reservations, but a one-way ticket seldom goes for more than $40. By planning ahead, a Megabus customer can secure a ticket from its Web site for a measly $1.50. Low prices can be found by making reservations about 45 days in advance. For instance, seats on the Sept. 12 outbound bus are a dollar each.

But many questions arise with low-cost travel, and customer service is considered one of the first things sacrificed when eliminating overhead. In an effort to determine whether Megabus is more pro than con, I set out on a round-trip Megabus excursion, armed with a pen, notepad and an open mind.

Jack was our bus driver. He was a stocky, balding man who chain-smoked cigarettes outside the bus while checking our confirmation numbers off a clipboard.

We departed from Tower City in Cleveland at exactly 8:30 a.m. Jack gave us a run down of the trip: we’d stop only once, at mile marker 126 in Howe, Ind.; the trip would take six hours; we’d arrive by 1:30 p.m. Chicago time and there was to be no smoking or drinking on the bus. He made sure to mention that arrival times are approximate, as there is no exact science to judging Chicago traffic.

Jack instructed us to think happy thoughts and all will go well. I found that reaffirming — it seems optimism and bus travel so seldom go hand-in-hand. Per Jack’s instructions, I thought positively.

It’s no coincidence that I scheduled this trip on the weekend of the indie rock gathering Pitchfork Media Festival. The clientele on the bus was mostly hip, urban, young adults.

By 9:30 a.m., the passing landscape became filled with cornfields.

“This is the land of corn and God,” my travel buddy Ted Ferringer, graduate architecture student, commented on northwest Ohio. Directly following this revelation, Ted passed out. I glanced around the cabin to see that most of the indie brethren had done the same. I followed suit, slumbering to Jets to Brazil’s Perfecting Loneliness on my iPod.

The stop at mile marker 126 was a fleeting 15 minutes, just enough time to order a meal at Hardee’s, Fazoli’s or Hershey’s Ice Cream.

We arrived in downtown Chicago to a spectacular view of Lake Michigan. Despite an abrupt stop five or 10 blocks from Union Station, (Jack ran back to the bathroom, mumbling, “Not going to make it, guys”), we arrived on time, or at least near enough that I didn’t notice. I hadn’t stowed any luggage underneath the bus, but retrieving it after the trip didn’t appear to be a hassle.

The trip from Cleveland to Chicago had its quirks, but went smoothly, efficiently and I had no complaints.

The return trip from Chicago began a bit more tumultuously. The temperature at street level approached 100 degrees, and the departure point outside Union Station bustled wildly. The block of Canal Street between Adams and Jackson streets serves as the hub for arriving and departing Megabus, Amtrak, Greyhound, METRA and CTA passengers, so I had to deal with multitudes of luggage-laden, overheated people.

The Chicago rush hour traffic wreaked havoc on our 3:30 p.m. scheduled departure time. We were left to wait an additional 40 minutes for our bus to arrive.

The return bus emitted a smell somewhere between musty cellar and gym feet. I hoped the smell would either dissipate or I would learn to live with it. One or the other happened.

The bus driver introduced himself as Ibraham, a retired truck driver of 30 years who found refuge in the apparently booming business of discount express bus travel.

“I’m not used to people yet,” he admitted, “but we’ll get you there safe. When you run late, people get crazy. Just relax, you in good hands, like Allstate.” Ibraham bared a toothless-yet-enthusiastic smile.

Though Ibraham’s behavior was unique and entertaining, his driving during the first 40 minutes of the trip was quite nauseating. The sickening amount of Giordano’s stuffed deep dish pizza I ate earlier in the day did not help matters, nor did attempting to write the content of this article longhand.

“When you ride Greyhound, the passengers are the crazy ones,” Ted said. “With Megabus, it’s the drivers.” I can’t help but think back to Jack and his overactive bladder and propensity towards chain-smoking.

We were allowed a half hour at a rest stop in Indiana. Two more stops followed, and by 11:15 p.m. EST, we had arrived back in Cleveland with a successful Chicago adventure tucked neatly under our belts.

The return trip, much like the outgoing one, was quirky but successful. I spoke with fellow Megabus travelers, and they had stories of failed air conditioners and travelers left behind at rest stops. The presiding sentiment seemed to be: You get what you pay for.

Some people may be put off by the notion of discount travel, especially by bus. Though the thing to remember with low-cost travel — any travel, really — is to maintain an open mind. Do as Jack said, think happy thoughts. And be prepared. Always keep tabs on the bus when at rest stops and most importantly, enjoy yourself.

I recommend Megabus to anyone with an adventurer’s spirit looking for a cheap atypical getaway.

Contact features reporter Ryan deBiase at [email protected].