Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Bitter End All Star Jam

Image: The Bitter End, 147, Bleeker Street, New York City

Man, I love the internet!

As I write this I am sitting on the Greek island of Ikaria, watching the fortnightly Bitter End All Star Jam in New York City streaming live via my laptop. The ‘house’ band for the jam generally consists of Dave Fields on guitar, Brett Bass on bass, and the organizer/host, Mark Greenberg on drums. I say, ‘generally’, because which musicians play on any given night depends on whether they are gigging elsewhere with their own outfits or with other acts, and tonight Brett Bass is away.

Other regular performers at the jam are the irrepressible Delmar Brown on Keytar (a keyboard or synthesizer hung around the neck and shoulders like a guitar); then there’s Chuck Hancock, a great alto sax player, Lisa, one of the Bitter End’s bar staff who always sings at least one song, Don Cazio the doorman and cashier, and a score of some of the hottest talent that just wants to hang out and jam late into the New York night.

The Jam works like this. While the ‘house’ band opens with three or four numbers to get the crowd jumping, visiting musicians and singers add their names to a sheet of paper and then wait to be called up during the show for a chance to strut their stuff on stage. At this point anything could happen, and often does. Singers and musicians who have never performed together are thrown into the mix for a night of great music that is always exciting, eclectic and rocking.

I made regular visits to the Bitter End specifically to catch the All Star Jam during both my two month stay in 2008, and my recent two month visit over the summer of 2010. So for the record, here is a profile of four of the greatest musicians you are likely to see gathered together in the same place on a Sunday night in New York City.

Image: Mark Greenberg, looking every inch a star!

Mark Greenberg began playing drums at age 14. In the year 2000, he formed his own band, Pimp The Cat, which performs in the same vein as The Grateful Dead, Phish, and The Allman Brothers Band with which he has toured.

Mark has also played and toured with The Dave Matthews Band, The Charlie Daniels Band, Billy Bob Thornton, Vasser Clements, and The Doobie Brothers to name just five from his musical resume. In addition he had played on albums by Ronnie Earl, Dickey Betts (of The Allman Brothers Band), Otis Grand, Apache Stone and numerous other albums.

Mark Greenberg was born in Connecticut. At age 14, while picking tobacco, (yes, tobacco) he decided to take up the drums, which he ‘took’ to like a duck takes to water and thereafter determined to make music his career. He went to Boston to study music at the world renown Berklee College of Music. While there he was recognized by The National Endowment for the Arts with three fellowship grants, some Berklee Scholarships and other awards.

Mark has shared the stage and/or recorded with artists like Dickey Betts & Great Southern (The Allman Brothers Band), The Dave Matthews Band, Roomful Of Blues, Ronnie Earl, Bob Weir & Ratdog, Jimmy McGriff, Lee Roy Parnell, Billy Bob Thorton, Moe., Tongue n' Groove (Deep Banana Blackout), Roy Hargrove, The Doobie Brothers, The Charlie Daniels Band, Larry Coryell, Joss Stone, Bill Simms, Pimp The Cat, The Dana Fuchs Band, and many others.

Dave Fields (guitar)

Image: Dave Fields

Watching Dave Fields squeezing note after note out of his electric guitar, you just know he was born to play that instrument.

His father was the much lauded virtuoso pianist, composer, arranger and producer, Sammy Fields. Sam Fields insisted that his son receive a thorough musical foundation before allowing him to take up the guitar by making him study the piano (starting at eight), followed later by bass guitar. He was finally allowed to move on to the guitar (his preferred instrument) when he was 14. Dave quickly became an accomplished pianist and a skillful guitarist who was playing at recording sessions by the time he was 15.

Like Mark Greenberg, Fields studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. His musical résumé is exhausting to read through. He has been on tour with Tommy James and the Shondells; was director for the New Voices of Freedom who performed with U2 in their movie Rattle and Hum; he has played with and producing numerous jazz and blues luminaries; and he was a staff member for Look Music and has written CDs for many music libraries. In 1996 he started Fields Music, a company that services the radio, TV, web, film and industrial markets.

There can’t be a note or a chord that Dave Fields hasn’t played a million times over. He can play blindingly fast if he wants to, but understands that the best guitar players don’t just play fast, they know how to play s-l-o-w, drawing one note out so that it fills a whole bar (both the musical measure, and the venue). He can bend a ‘G’ string beyond its snapping point and still push it places many guitarists fear to tread. It is a pleasure watching him play – and play is the operative word. He is not afraid to have fun with his instrument or have fun on stage, and obviously gets real joy out of both, and that joy and enthusiasm is conveyed clearly to the audience.

Here he is fronting his own Dave Fields Band - Live at The Cutting Room – performing Let’s Get Shakin’. That's Dave Fields on lead guitar, with Dave Hughes also on guitar, Hurricane Bob Alfano (harmonica), Rob Chaseman (sax), Andy Huenerberg (bass), and Mark Greenberg, the All Star Jam host on drums.

Brett Bass (bass guitar)

Image: The very illusive Brett Bass captured on film at the Bitter End

Brett Bass plays bass. Could there have been any other choice for him? Of course, there could, but it just seems so right that Brett Bass plays bass. The thing I appreciate most about Brett's playing is that it seems to be so understated. It's almost as if he isn't there, but if he was to stop playing, you just know the performance wouldn't sound the same.

Most bass players tend to keep out of the limelight and just lay down that groove that (along with the drummer), helps hold everything together – and Brett Bass is no exception to this. In fact, Brett seems to have taken keeping out of the limelight to the extreme. Of all the musicians profiled here, Bass is the one who doesn’t appear to have his own website or MySpace page, and is all but invisible online. There are a bunch of music clips available via YouTube, which include Brett somewhere in the lineup, and some references to him appearing on other artists recordings, but that is about it. I couldn’t even find a decent photograph of him online, so had to make do with a screen shot from a video recording to illustrate this introduction.

Thankfully, I did manage to find one article online dated, Tuesday, April 15, 2003. Headlined 'Ace of Bass', the article written by John Davis for the Lubbock Avalanche Journal talks about a young Lubbock*, Texas bass player who is making it big in New York City. The bass player of course is Brett Bass, and from the article we learn that Brett’s interest in the bass guitar started at about 11 years of age. In 1998, at the age of 18, Brett moved to New York City with the help of his parents, and has been living there ever since.

"I find it to be sonically satisfying," Bass said of playing bass guitar. "It takes up a lot of room, sonically. It kind of supports the whole thing. It's the bridge between the harmony and the rhythm. It moves a lot of air. You feel it in your chest and in your legs."

I would add, and in your heart and soul.

On stage, hair down to his shoulders and sporting a pork pie hat, Brett rarely says a word, but you know he is there every note of the way. When a brief smile occasionally passes between Brett and Mark Greenberg, you are aware that he is loving every minute of the performance, and that right at that moment, there is nowhere else he would rather be.

In 2001 and 2002, Brett toured through the United States, Europe and Beirut with Enrique Iglesias, and has performed with numerous musicians since. On the following clip - from the DVD "Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth," - Brett joins Bernie Worrell (Talking Heads) for an improvization which includes Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule, and the Allman Brothers) on guitar and Will Calhoun on drums. The track is available on the CD, Improvisczario.


*Lubbock, Texas, is the birthplace of rock and roll legend Buddy Holly.

Delmar Brown (Keytar)

Image: The inimitable Delmar Brown

Delmar Brown (the creator of the Illuminator Keytar.) has performed with some of the greatest names in jazz, including Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Jaco Pastroius and many others. He has toured with Sting, Youssou N'Dour, and Peter Gabriel to name just three top acts. When Delmar steps into the Bitter End spotlights, he eats up the stage like no-one else I have seen in a long time. He coaxes notes out of his Keytar that makes you wonder if he is just a frustrated guitarist as his fingers fly across the keys in an attempt to keep up with his vibrant personality.

Here is a rare clip of Delmar Brown recorded in 1987 at the Free Jazz Festival with the Gil Evans Band in São Paulo, Brazil. The quality of the footage may be a bit rough, but there is nothing rough about the stunning performance Delmar gives in this nine minute video.



I don’t know if Delmar Brown can hit those high notes anymore, but I do know he has a voice that is so powerful and dynamic it could stop a runaway freight train in its tracks! And you can quote me on that. You will find numerous videos through YouTube of Delmar performing, simply by searching his name. The man deserves wider recognition in his own right, and I’m happy to help that happen.

So how much would you expect to pay to see these talented musos? Twenty dollars? Twenty-five? More, or less? The really amazing thing about the Jam is that you can see these guys for Free! That’s right. Apart from the ‘two drink minimum’ you are asked to purchase during the night, there appears to be no cost to catch the show.

I deliberately said “appears to be”, because I have never been asked to pay to watch the show. I should explain however, that I have always attended early in the evening to catch part of the weekly Singer/Songwriter Sessions that kicks off at 8.00pm. There is a $5.00 entry fee for this, and I’ve always stayed on for the Jam which follows. I’ve never been asked to pay extra for this, and neither do the Bitter End website or the All Star Jam website give an indication of an entry fee. So I am assuming entry for the ASJ is free (If this is incorrect, I would appreciate someone letting me and other readers know by posting a comment below).

If you can’t physically be in New York to catch the show, you can always tap into the live stream and watch it from the comfort of your own home. To do that you will need to first work out the time difference between New York City and your home location, and the best way of doing this is the world clock feature on the Time and Date website.

So there you have it. My ultimate Bitter End All Star Jam lineup. You will see at least two of these four amazing musicians at each fortnightly gig, although you are more likely to see three of them – if not all four. If you are in New York City on the second and/or fourth Sunday of every month, do yourself a favor and head down to Greenwich Village and visit the Bitter End at 147, Bleeker Street, for a great night of live music. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Comfort Inn Hotel, Philadelphia

Image: Comfort Inn, Philadelphia
UPDATED April 30, 2016: Please note, this review was for the former Comfort Inn Hotel, in Philadelphia, PA. Since my stay in 2010, this hotel has been rebadged as the Holiday Inn Express. However, I have decided to leave the review on my site for historical purposes. 

* * *

Travelling on a budget, as I do, necessitates looking for good affordable accommodation when one simply has to stay in hotels while on the move. On my summer road trip from New York City to New Orleans, I had occasion to book hotels twice; once in New Orleans and the other in Philadelphia (later I also stayed at Yavapai Lodge at the Grand Canyon). And since I wrote about my road trip in a series of recent posts, I thought this was a good time to offer a review of one of the hotels I stayed at during that journey.

In America, budget accommodation for me is in the $60-$80 range. Anything cheaper, and the flaws can start to show in the way of loose fittings, water damage in bathrooms, faulty equipment, poor quality bedding, and so on. Of course, where you are in America plays a big part in all this. In New York City $60-$80 won’t get you very much at all in the way of even reasonable accommodations. On the other hand, you can get very good rooms for those figures in other parts of the country, and smaller state capitals.

After the usual online research, and for numerous reasons, I settled on the Comfort Inn Hotel at 100 North Christopher Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia, PA 19106. (215) 627-7900.
  • It was close to the Greyhound Bus station
  • It was within walking distance of Philadelphia’s historic district
  • It was right on the Delaware River
  • It had great views of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge
  • It offered free high-speed WiFi in rooms
  • There was a small bar fridge
  • It provided a free shuttle bus to various locations in the city center
  • The extensive breakfast included in the price
  • It had very good reviews
  • At $70.00 per night – the price was right
I wasn’t disappointed.

The online booking was smooth and trouble free, and at check-in everything went just as smoothly. I asked for and received a room with a great view overlooking the Delaware River and the Ben Franklin Bridge (which connects Pennsylvania with New Jersey). The views during the day were great, but at night they were particularly beautiful.

Here are just a few of the historic sites you can walk to from the hotel: the United States Mint (free self-guided tour); Elfreth’s Alley and Museum; Betsy Ross House; Christ Church and Cemetery (where Ben Franklin is buried); the National Constitution Center; Liberty Bell Carpenter’s Hall, and so much more.

Image: Comfort Inn, Philadelphia: a room with a real view
The room was perfect. The oversized bed was comfortable, everything worked as it was supposed to, and the air conditioning was cold (given that the temperature in Philadelphia during my stay was in the 100+ degree range, good air-con was a must). The room was huge and featured a large window that took up the whole width of the room, allowing plenty of natural light to fill the space.
Image: Comfort Inn, Philadelphia: main room with king bed
Image: Comfort Inn, Philadelphia: main room
The bathroom was also large and spacious, had more towels and soap than one person could reasonably expect, and the attention to detail was clearly visible (as can be seen in the next two photographs).
Image: Comfort Inn, Philadelphia: paying attention to details
Image: Comfort Inn, Philadelphia: still paying attention to details
Of course, hotel rooms are generally provided with towels and soap for two or more people which accounts for the excess of both in my room – but was I going to complain about that? Not likely.

As you can see in the next series of images, the bathroom was fitted out with plenty of counter space, a large mirror, a generous supply of extras (shampoo and conditioner, box of tissues, etc), and hair dryer.
Image: Comfort Inn, Philadelphia: plenty of counter space
Image: Comfort Inn, Philadelphia: bathroom hair dryer and tissues
There was more than enough storage space for clothing, and an iron and ironing board were also provided, as was a safe for storage of important documents, money and other valuables. An additional fee applies if using the safe, so if you don’t use it (and this applies pretty much universally), make sure you tell reception staff when either signing in or out, so that the fee is not included in the final account.

The air-con was large and very effective. In fact, it was too effective for me, and despite signs asking guests to not adjust the settings, I increased the warmth factor a few degree so that I didn’t have to over dress while in my room.
Image: Comfort Inn, Philadelphia: air-conditioning unit
The buffet-style Continental breakfast offered a good range of choices including cereals, donuts and muffins, juices, waffles (make your own), coffee and tea, and fresh fruit, etc. If I was going to complain about anything, it would be that the breakfast room is too small for a hotel of this size. However, guests are able to eat breakfast in the bar space next to the breakfast room, which, while not ideal, helps alleviate the crush.

I enjoyed a seafood meal just down the road from the hotel at the Octo Waterfront Grille, at 221, N Columbus Blvd, where a house band played some great funk and soul as the sun slowly set in the west, and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge lit up to provide the perfect backdrop along with some stunning river views.
Image: Octo Waterfront Grille with Ben Franklin Bridge as backdrop
Image: My Octo Waterfront Grille seafood plate. Yum, yum!
I also ate at La Veranda Ristorante, a more up-market establishment which is right on the Delaware River (as is the Octo), and again on North Columbus Blvd, from where more great views of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge can be enjoyed.
Image: The Benjamin Franklin Bridge viewed from my hotel room...
Overall, I rate the Comfort Inn Hotel an easy four stars. If you are looking for a well placed resting place, within walking distance of Philadelphia’s major historic attractions (don’t forget you can utilize the free shuttle bus as well), this hotel is certainly worth considering.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Airport Taxes Be D@md!

Image: Air France A320 coming into land

I’ve just finished booking a ten night stay in Paris, France. All my bookings were done online, and I’m happy to say the whole process was relatively quick and trouble free. But having booked a return ticket from Athens, Greece to Paris, with Air France I still feel a need to vent my spleen.

The actual cost of the flight is just €52.00euros (US$71.00). Return!

This is a bargain if ever I saw one so I have no complaints here. However. Once airport taxes and fees are added to the cost of the ticket, the price jumps to €171.64 (US$235.00)!

Don’t bother, I already have the answer – that amounts to an additional €118.64 (US$162.00) in various taxes and extra fees. Yes, that’s well over double the actual cost of the airline fee. Here’s a breakdown of those extras courtesy of Air France:

Image: Air France Taxes and Surcharges screenshot

If you are having trouble reading the screen shot, here are the itemized extras (in Euros):


I’m not blaming Air France for all these ‘Taxes and Surcharges’. The figures include taxes and fees levied by Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport as well as those by Paris’s Charles De Gaulle airport, and I have no way of knowing who gets what when the spoils are divided up between them. But the fact remains, that a cheap €52.00 euro return ticket has more than doubled due to corporate and government greed that happily continues to milk travelers for as much as they can get.

I’m not happy. Not happy at all.

What on earth is a Solidarity Tax? I don’t care if it is only one euro – I want to know what it is, and who gets it. And how does an Airport Fee differ from the Passenger terminal facility charge and the Airport development tax? And what is the Passenger service charge international anyway?

And what about those ridiculous figures? A French airport tax of 4.11? Couldn’t they round the eleven cents down to 10, and the 10.13 cent Passenger service charge international up to 15? Imagine how many croissants the could buy with all those extra millions of 1 cents collected. Yes, I am being sarcastic.

This is patently ridiculous. Imagine how much cheaper air travel would be all over the world if taxes like these were done away with. Ok, that’s expecting too much. Halved, then. Imagine how much cheaper air travel would be all over the world if taxes like these were halved.

Surely someone, somewhere has done the sums on this. Surely, people would travel more if the costs were cheaper. As a case in point, take myself. I would love to visit several other countries in Europe, particularly Italy and Spain and even some of the northern European countries, but simply can’t afford to. I certainly can’t afford to fly to them anyway. So instead of visiting several countries I am only visiting France (apart from Greece where I am currently located).

Sure, if I was visiting three or four additional countries, I would spend fewer days in each destination, but if more people could afford to fly to more countries, one would expect the extra visitor numbers would more than make up for any drop in the length of each visit.

I don’t expect all air travel costs would be reduced by two-thirds if all these extra fees were eliminated, but my one example does shows how cheap air travel could be, if they were.

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…

Monday, November 22, 2010

Greyhound Bussing America (Pt.5)

Image: Greyhound’s iconic racing dog image adorns Mobile, AL, terminal building

If you are still with me after my four previous extended road trip reports, and you are contemplating your own road trip using the Greyhound Bus company or a similar carrier, an important question you might consider asking me is, Would you do it all again?

The answer, based on my personal experience is, Yes. I will write more about this in a forthcoming entry, but for now suffice to say that I am already considering making another overland trip across America using Greyhound either next year or in 2012. If I do so, I plan to use a 60 day Greyhound Discovery Pass to try and complete a full circuit of the United States. I’ve got plenty of time to research and plan that trip, and the prospect of that journey is already firing my imagination.

The other option I have is to purchase a cheap car and drive myself. While more expensive, I does give me the option to follow my whims and explore out of the way locations. As I wrote in Part 3 of this trip report: For me, a great road trip should involve lots of stops and diversions. It should allow time to follow interesting back roads, and minor highways. It should get me off the beaten track, exploring quiet corners and grand vistas. It should be challenging and relaxing by turn.

And so it should. But all that is way down the track. The purpose of this entry is to provide some sage advice to other travelers – so let’s get on with it.

According to Greyhound’s own statistics, the Top 10 busiest Greyhound Bus terminals based on passenger volume in 2008 by Rank and Terminal were:

1. New York, New York

2. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

3. Los Angeles, California

4. Atlantic City, New Jersey

5. Richmond, Virginia

6. Washington, D.C.

7. Dallas, Texas

8. Atlanta, Georgia

9. Nashville, Tennessee

10. Chicago, Illinois

So bearing that in mind, here as a community service to potential long distance bus travelers everywhere, is a comprehensive collection of the best travel tips and advice gleaned from my own experiences, and collected from numerous sources across the internet.

Image: Greyhound Bus schedule. Buy online and early to save money.

Purchasing Tickets

  • Buy online as early as possible – Web Only fares are great money savers
  • Check Greyhound’s website to see if you qualify for discounts. Children, Students, Seniors, Military Personnel and Veterans all qualify for money saving discounts
  • Buying tickets well in advance of your trip saves up to 50%
  • Buying one full-price fare gets you up to three companion fares at 50% off
  • WARNING! Buying a ticket does not guarantee you a seat on the bus. Get to the station early and line up to maximize your chances of securing a seat! The First Come – First Served rule applies here
  • If you are departing from a limited number of cities (Boston, MA; Framington, MA; Newton, MA; Springfield, MA; Hartfoed, CT: New York, NY; Philadelphia, PA; and Washington, DC), you can purchase Reserved Seating* for an additional $5.00
  • Want to make sure you get a good seat? Pay an extra $5.00 for Priority Boarding*. If you plan to use Greyhound Buses regularly, sign up for the Road Rewards program
  • Planning the ultimate road trip? Then purchase a 30 day or 60 day Discovery Pass
  • On busy routes, buses that travel between the same two destinations may take different routes which can result in marked differences in trip lengths, so make sure you are travelling on the fastest, most direct route – if that is what you want

*What’s the difference between Priority Boarding and Reserved Seating you ask? To be honest I don’t know. They seem to offer the same thing – sort of. Priority Boarding lets you board before the general rabble, but doesn’t let you reserve a seat, while Reserved Seating lets you claim a favourite position, but doesn’t necessarily let you board before the impatient mob! At least that is my reading of the information on the Greyhound website.

If a Greyhound Bus company representative reads this, maybe they can confirm or deny or clarify my reading of the company website.

NOTE: I never made use of either service, so I have no idea how they work in practice. For example, if you are boarding an already crowded bus, does your Reserved Seating ticket give you the right to ask a passenger who has taken your seat to give it up? Probably, but are you prepared to risk the ire of that person to stake your claim?

Image: Greyhound Bus station Nashville, Tennessee [Source: Internet]

Greyhound Stations and Terminals

  • Arrive at least an hour before departure if you need to pick up or buy a ticket.
  • If you are departing from one of the ten busiest stations (see above) arrive even earlier in case you end up at the back of a very long queue.
  • Once you have your ticket line up! The first 20-25 people to board get the pick of the seating. However there are exceptions to this rule. See notes below…
  • This is especially important if you are travelling with a companion. On crowded buses the chances of you sitting together is virtually nil if you are at the back of a long queue!
  • It is acceptable to leave your luggage in the queue to claim your position in the line, at which point you can find a seat and relax – while at all times keeping a close eye on your bags of course.
  • Drivers do not check to see if passengers have returned to the vehicle before setting off on the next stage or the journey. Nor do they check to see if new passengers have boarded the bus. Therefore…
  • The onus is on you to pay attention to driver announcements about the length of brief stops to pick up and discharge other travellers along the route, and the length of any rest stops. As long as you do that, you do not have to worry about missing the bus. Also…
  • Pay attention to station announcements as well, especially during layovers. Sometimes the departure gate/door number changes, and you could be left standing in front of the wrong door watching your ride disappear down the highway in a cloud of dust!
  • If in doubt – ask. I you are still unsure – ask again.

Notes: I wrote above: “The first 20-25 people to board get the pick of the seating”. This only applies to coaches at the very start of their journeys. If a coach is already in transit, previous passengers obviously get to board first so they can return to their seats. Only then are new passengers allowed to board. It follows then, that if a coach is already crowded, new passengers may have to share a seat with existing passengers.

  • WARNING! Buying a ticket does not guarantee you a seat on the bus.

Sometimes a worst case scenario occurs: a long queue waiting to board an already crowded bus. If you are at the back of that long queue you may not be able to board the bus! If you are lucky, Greyhound will add another bus to the route, but only if the number of passengers warrants it. Otherwise you have no choice but to wait for the next available bus. It’s worth repeating again, and again – get to the station early and line up to maximize your chances of securing a seat!

Onboard Coaches

  • Don’t take up two seats when you have only paid for one!
  • Keep your trash to yourself
  • Pack tissues and/or toilet paper! On long trips the paper supply may run out
  • Pack Wet Ones or similar and wipe the toilet seat down before use. Wet Ones are good for personal cleanliness as well
  • Some people love the long back seat at the very rear of the bus. I prefer to leave it alone as it is right next to the toilet and I did not want to put up with the constant coming and going of fellow passengers – or the odors they might leave behind.

Image: Greyhound Bus station Recharge Bench

Safety & Security

  • If you see something – say something!
  • They don’t happen often, but assaults on drivers and fellow passengers have taken place on Greyhound coaches and those of other carriers. If you see signs of a weapon onboard the bus (a federal offence by the way), say something. The same applies to drug taking or alcohol consumption.
  • According to the Greyhound website, “Greyhound uses approximately 90 company-operated bus terminals and 850 agency-operated terminals or sales agencies. Including all stops, Greyhound serves more than 1,700 destinations in the United States.” That’s the good news. However…
  • Some travelers report being dropped off late at night at isolated stops from where they must make their way home. Other travelers report stations/agencies closed when their coach arrives.
  • Clearly the onus is on you to arrange for someone to pick you up if your arrive at your destination late at night or after a station/agency has closed for the night.
  • If you have a cell/mobile phone (and who doesn’t nowadays) you can keep it charged at the Recharge Bench (see image above) now found in most Greyhound Bus stations, so pack your cable in your carry-on luggage.
  • Print a copy of your travel schedule, keep it close and refer to it often.
  • Because many bus stations are open 24 hours, they tend to attract homeless people (handy for bathrooms, air conditioning, panhandling, etc). This doesn’t mean stations are unsafe, but stay alert and watch your belongings.

Note: I have been unable to find out how many stations/agencies operate 24 hours and how many close at say, midnight. If a Greyhound representative or someone else is able to provide that information, I and my readers would be very grateful.

Image: Greyhound Bus station en route to New Orleans

Missed Connections

  • If your journey involves transfers, be aware that the bus on the next leg of your trip will not wait for you if the bus you are travelling on is delayed due to heavy traffic, road accidents or breakdowns. Just as airlines and train operators don’t hold up flights or train departures, so don’t expect Greyhound or other bus companies to delay scheduled departures for you.
  • If you are lucky, the next scheduled bus might only be an hour or two away. If you are not – be prepared for a long wait.
  • If you do miss your connection and you have to wait more than 10-12 hours for the next bus, consider getting a room in a nearby hotel – especially if you face an overnight wait. At least you can get some sleep and freshen up before continuing your trip.

Luggage & Carry On Bags

  • Unless you pack very lightly, your main luggage will go under the bus. Keep a close eye on your luggage and make sure it goes in the luggage compartment, and doesn’t come out before it is meant to
  • Keep carry-on luggage to a minimum. Storage compartments above the seat are quite narrow, so don’t expect to be able to store large items there.

Traveling With Children

  • Pack a mini-DVD player with a couple of their favourite movies, a Game Boy or other portable games, or an MP3 player with their favourite music.
  • Don’t forget to pack headphones or ear buds!

Bathrooms and Rest Stops

  • No-one, but no-one has anything nice to say about restrooms on Greyhound buses, and in my experience, station restrooms are only marginally better – but not by much. It is worth repeating …
  • Pack tissues and/or toilet paper! On long trips the paper supply on buses (and in restrooms) may run out
  • Pack Wet Ones or similar and wipe toilet seats down before use. Wet Ones are good for personal cleanliness as well
  • Take advantage of station rest stops. You may only have one or two before you get to your destination, and in some cases there may be no stops.

What Have I Forgotten?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I encourage other long distance bus travelers to add their own gems of advice and insight to this entry.

You will have to create an account if you haven’t already done so, but that will only take a couple of minutes. If you already have a Google account: Gmail, Panoramio; or some other, you may be able to add a comment without creating a Blogger account, but don’t quote me on that.

I look forward to your contributions.

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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