Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Greyhound Bussing America [Pt.6]

Image: Complete bus route from New York City to New Orleans

Dear reader, if you have taken the time to read my four previous posts detailing my journey from New York City to New Orleans, you may have noticed I have said very little about my fellow passengers, Greyhound bus terminals, station staff, or company drivers, so let me add some observations here.

Greyhound Bus Stations

From my experience, there is a certain dull sameness to Greyhound Bus Stations around the country. They tend to be low-lying structures decked out in the company colours (blue and grey); with a ticket counter staffed by a bored and overworked employee. Notice I said employee, not employees. Unless it is a major terminus, like the one in New York City, most are understaffed, although even the one at the Port Authority Bus Terminal seemed to have only two or three staff on at any one time.

Most stations have small cafés or restaurants selling overpriced fast food like hot dogs, chips/fries, chicken nuggets, soft drinks, and snack foods. If this is not to your liking, you can always buy from the vending machines which also sell a range of snack foods like canned soft drinks (sodas), chocolate bars, crisps, cookies, M&Ms, and other comfort food. They also sell a variety of tourist trinkets such as key chains, post cards, mugs, fridge magnets, travel pillows, electronic games and other such fare.

At least Greyhound has recognized the need for traveller to recharge their mobile phones and other devices by providing a strip of electrical outlets for this purpose in their bus stations. They just don’t provide this service on their buses. At least not on the older buses. Pack your recharge cable in your carry on luggage for easy access.

Image: Greyhound Bus station Recharge Bench

Some General Observations

  • Some stations have luggage storage boxes where you can leave bags for short periods – for a fee of course (typically $5.00)
  • All stations have signage in Spanish and English (though not necessarily staff conversant in both languages)
  • Many stations have games machines and televisions to occupy travelers while they wait for connections
  • Some stations have security officers on hand, and your carry-on bags may be subjected to a visual search
  • Some rest rooms leave much to be desired. As previously noted in Part 5, the tips and advice article, it is advisable to carry Wet Ones or similar cleaning products to wipe down toilet seats.

Somewhere during the road trip I wrote in my notebook: … passengers are a mix of the nation’s most poor, who have no alternative but to use long distance bus travel to move around the country.

However, I am happy to admit this assertion is clearly contradicted in the Facts and Figures section on Greyhound’s website which includes the following information:

· One-third of Greyhound passengers make more than $35,000 per year.

· More than half of Greyhound riders have received higher education beyond high school.

· In many cases, Greyhound passengers report they own automobiles…but travel by bus because it is safe and more economical.

· The majority of Greyhound passengers travel to visit family and friends, but more than 21 percent travel for business reasons.

I suspect though, that the typical Greyhound demographic (if there is a ‘typical’ demographic) changes depending on which parts of the country you are travelling through.

Thankfully, passengers have for the most part been quiet, well behaved and friendly. The few exceptions I saw always involved conflicts or arguments between passengers and Greyhound staff – never between the passengers themselves.

Finally, even children have been quiet and well behaved on all the buses I rode in. thankfully, most can be entertained (or entertain themselves) with iPods, Game Boys, and even portable DVD players. Generally, though, small children seem to fall asleep quickly and remain that way for extended periods, which is a great relief.

Image: “BAD LUCK – If you always expect the worst you will never be disappointed.”
[Source: the internet]

A Question of ‘Luck’

At the start of my first trip report I wrote: “Reading through other trip reports of passengers travelling on the North American Greyhound Bus network, one could be forgiven for thinking that only the foolhardy (or brave), use the network as a means of travel in the United States and parts of Canada. Online travellers tales are full of warnings and horror stories of cancelled departures, overbooked buses, smelly fellow passengers (and even smellier toilets), crying children, and cranky staff.”

As I also wrote, maybe I was lucky, and although being in the right place at the right time played a part in my ‘luck’, I like to think that attitude plays a large part of any travel experience. As do expectations.

I didn’t embark on this trip completely oblivious to potential dangers or to the possibility that things might go wrong. When I set out on the trip I was a few weeks shy of my 62nd birthday. As an Australian, I was a long way from home, travelling on my own in a big country through a landscape I was familiar with only from having seen it a thousand times in movies and televisions shows, and not all of these show the American South in the best possible light. But my attitude going into the trip was that whatever happened was going to happen whether I was on the bus or not, and since there was no way of knowing what might transpire, I might as well get on board and enjoy the ride. And enjoy it I did.

As for expectations: if you think the trip is going to be long, dull, and tiring – you can pretty much guarantee it will be! If you think your fellow passengers are all going to be large, smelly, loudmouthed ex convicts – or worse, you may well spend the entire trip trying to identify which of the passengers those attributes apply to. I firmly believe that if you head out expecting problems, you will encounter them. If you travel with the expectation that you are embarking on an exciting adventure, then almost anything that you encounter – short of theft or some criminal assault on your person – will be seen as part of that adventure.

From my observations, all my fellow passengers just wanted to get to their destinations quickly and safely and with as few hassles as possible. Just like I did. Passengers travelling with a companion obviously had someone to share the trip with, and pass the time with. Solo travelers like myself had to make do with their own company or strike up conversations with other passengers.

Image: A page from my pocket notebook…

I kept myself occupied by constantly jotting down notes in my pocket notebook (the old fashioned paper kind – not the modern computer kind). Without it, I couldn’t have written the trip reports I have posted here – and they are not page by page transcriptions of my notes by any means).

The vast majority of passengers I shared my trip with kept to themselves, but it was interesting to see other passengers engage with each other in conversation about topics of mutual interest – generally sport – with good humor and bon ami. There were no fights or assaults, no objectionable language or loud arguments. At least not onboard the buses, although – as I’ve noted above – I did hear some very heated conversations between frustrated travelers and ticketing staff of whom there never seemed to be enough (the expression, overworked and underpaid comes to mind here).

According to the Greyhound website their coaches covered nearly 5.8 billion (my emphasis) passenger miles “last year”. Across the whole network (USA, Canada, and Subsidiaries) they carried nearly 25 million passengers. That’s an awful lot of miles and passengers – a fact that should be taken into account when you read some of the bad experiences some passengers have had travelling on the Greyhound network.

Even if 250,000 passengers each year across the whole network had reason to complain about some aspect of the service they received, that still amounts to just 1% of passenger numbers. Or to put it another way – 99% of Greyhound passengers were satisfied with the service they received. [Note: I have no way of knowing exactly what percentage of passengers have lodged complaints with Greyhound. It could be ten times the figures I’ve plucked out of the air – or ten times less].

All the drivers I encountered were polite, if matter of fact, imparted essential information at the start of each segment, and didn’t hesitate to remind passengers to lower the volume of music players and other electronic devices if too loud, and to keep cell phone conversations quiet and brief. Unfortunately, none of my drivers were as entertaining as Virgil the Greyhound bus driver seen rapping in this brief YouTube video:

I am not being paid by Greyhound to say any of this, by the way. Certainly take note of the bad travel experiences other passengers have had, and can learn what you can from them, but keep them in perspective. Wherever you travel, and by what ever means, there will always be delays, rescheduled flights or buses, missed connections, cancellations, breakdowns, tired and frazzled passengers, temperamental staff, weather affected services, and so on. Travel websites love to highlight the problems but rarely, if ever, have ‘good news’ stories to tell.

All this is not to say that Greyhound (management, station personnel, drivers, etc) are blameless and couldn’t do things a lot better. Especially, in responding to genuine complaints involving lost baggage, overfull coaches, unsympathetic staff, grumpy drivers, and numerous other issues.

Well, “That’s a wrap,” as they say in the movie industry. For now, I have exhausted this topic and explored as many aspects of bus travel as I can think of. It’s time to move on to other subjects, but feel free to add Comments and advice where you are able. I and other travelers will appreciate it.

Read The Full Greyhound Bussing America Trip Report:

[Part 1] New York City to Philadelphia, PA

[Part 2] Philadelphia, PA to Raleigh, NC

[Part 3] Raleigh, NC to Mobile, AL

[Part 4] Mobile, AL to New Orleans

[Part 5] Tips and Advice…

[Part 6] A Final Word…

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