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Bus Travel: The Price Is Right

Competition Gives Competition Gives Travelers Lots of Options

Sometimes it’s not about how fast you get there, but how you get there. Even though trains and planes are more efficient, travelers may want to consider going by bus — which may get you closer to your final destination and do it for a lot less money. In and around the nation’s capital, various bus services can provide a cheap and easy escape from the ordinary. And the colorful characters that can pop up along the way can sometimes be worth the trip alone.

Some of the best bus deals around are trips to New York City, with a whole host of bus services competing with each other to offer the deepest of rock-bottom fares. While taking Amtrak and flying can cut an hour or two off the trip into Manhattan, if you can afford to set aside four hours (with an extra hour of buffer time to deal with potential traffic jams in Delaware and New Jersey), the bus might be the best option for your Gotham-bound travel.

And the price is right.

“It’s so cheap, so, so cheap,” one passenger says repeatedly into her mobile phone during a recent weekend bus trip to New York, alerting seemingly everyone in her telephone directory to the low cost of the trip.

The fares alone are probably the biggest draw. While Greyhound may be the best known, there are plenty of other lines that will get your there for even less. The current rate for most of the discount services is $35 roundtrip or $20 one-way. But many of the bare-bones operations are finding it tough to stay alive. One service, Vamoose, plans to raise its fare by $5.

Some of the more well-known discount lines are known as the Chinatown buses, so called for their point of departure. Others leave from McPherson Square and Tenleytown.

Vamoose’s general manager, Sol Wollner, says that while his fares will be slightly more expensive, he can offer something Chinatown buses can’t: legroom.

By removing five rows of seats, Wollner said that Vamoose can offer a more comfortable, cleaner ride to and from New York. “The biggest response is that the customers are coming back and they are liking it,” Wollner says.

Mastering the Game

While the low fares may be the simple part, getting to New York via the bus is a matter of timing and location. The more roomy Jewish-run bus services — Washington Deluxe and Vamoose — don’t have Saturday service because of the Sabbath. And securing a spot on a Chinatown bus can be at times a chaotic experience. While some buses go all the way to Brooklyn, others only go to midtown Manhattan.

Figuring out what bus runs where at what times requires a close examination of the schedules for all the services. But there are online services, like https://www.IvyMedia.com, that cull booking services for all the bus lines. Simply type in the desired times of travel and a listing of available buses will pop up.

And don’t forget about the mainstays of intercity bus travel: Peter Pan and Greyhound. Feeling pressure from the discount bus lines, they too have slashed prices to stay competitive, some as low as $20 one-way. But these services operate out of Washington, D.C.’s main bus terminal at First and K streets Northeast, a few blocks behind Union Station, and may not be convenient for all travelers.

Some credit the low-cost carriers’ competitive edge to the multiple drop-off and pick-up locations downtown and in Tenleytown — locations that are more convenient than the main terminal:

• The various Chinatown buses operate from H and I streets Northwest near the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metrorail station.

• Washington Deluxe has stops at E Street and New Jersey Avenue Northwest (two blocks from Union Station); and 15th Street Northwest between K and L streets (adjacent to the Red Line’s Farragut North and the Blue/Orange Line’s McPherson Square and Farragut West stations).

• Vamoose has stops on I Street at 14th Street Northwest (near the McPherson Square station) and at the corner of 40th and Albemarle streets Northwest (adjacent to the Tenleytown station on the Red Line).

With any trip, securing a reservation is key, though many low-cost bus veterans know that in a pinch, traveling stand-by can get you from point A to point B if you have flexible travel plans. But on holidays or busy three-day weekends, it’s best not to risk it.

Going a Bit Farther: Brooklyn

Most bus trips between the nation’s capital and New York end in midtown Manhattan, providing direct access to most of the city’s subway and commuter rail lines. But for the navigationally adventurous, the trip from D.C. doesn’t need to end there. The Washington Deluxe can take you directly to what some may consider another country: Brooklyn. While a passport is not required to cross the East River into New York’s most populous borough, a walk down Bedford Avenue — where the Deluxe drops off and picks up passengers — may seem like a trip to another world.

The Washington Deluxe stops at the corner of Bedford and Park avenues and at Havemayer Street in South Williamsburg, in the heart of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community. Lining Bedford Avenue are numerous apartment buildings with security bars shaped into star of David designs all the way to the top level.

If you’re traveling light, a 15- to 20-minute walk north on Bedford Avenue will lead to the Williamsburg Bridge and Brooklyn’s famed Peter Luger Steakhouse (178 Broadway, one block east of Bedford Avenue). The restaurant, which has been around since 1887, is considered one of the best places for steak in all of New York City, maybe even the best.

Farther north on Bedford Avenue is the core of Williamsburg’s hipster quarters, home to artists, thinkers and disaffected youths. Now that condo towers are moving in, the hipsterdom has moved to places farther to the north and east. But the galleries, vintage clothing shops and a spattering of Polish bars, gastropubs and cafés remain.

Farther south, the Deluxe stops outside an Exxon gas station at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Empire Boulevard in Crown Heights. While tensions between the community’s black and Jewish residents have eased considerably since the riots of 1991, the neighborhood’s proximity to Prospect Park — Brooklyn’s outdoor jewel, designed by Central Park and Capitol landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted — and the Brooklyn Museum of Art places it smack dab in the middle of the borough’s gentrifying zone.

From the bus stop at Empire Boulevard, the subway’s Q train is two blocks to the west at the Prospect Park station and, with it, there is easy access to Coney Island and the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, where Cyrillic script is more common than English.

Since Brooklyn developed more organically than Manhattan, navigating the complicated street layout can be a challenge, so a good map is recommended. The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Web site, https://www.mta.info, has a number of maps and other navigational guides.

Closer to Home: Using Metrobus

But going all the way to Brooklyn may seem a bit far when there are Washington, D.C., city buses that can take you to places otherwise inaccessible to those without personal transportation.

Consider taking the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metrobus to some of the city’s remote outposts of greenery and solitude, especially as the weather warms up.

Riding the X6 bus, which runs from Union Station to the National Arboretum via Maryland Avenue Northeast, can get you to the remains of the Capitol’s former East Front in about 15 minutes.

When the Capitol’s eastern facade was expanded in the 1950s, Corinthian columns from the 1850s that had to be removed found a new home at the Arboretum and remain there today, standing tall in the middle of the giant arboreal reserve.

Information about the National Arboretum can be found at its Web site, https://www.usna.usda.gov.

And for a taste of what the rural highlands of the District of Columbia looked like around the Civil War, consider a journey out to Chain Bridge Road in Northwest Washington’s Palisades neighborhood on the D6 bus.

This section of Chain Bridge Road, between MacArthur Boulevard and Loughboro Road, is a quiet, meandering country-like lane lined with some of the city’s priciest real estate on one side and Battery Kemble Park on the other. During the Civil War, an artillery battery guarded the Chain Bridge approach to Tennallytown (today’s Tenleytown) and the inner ring of the capital’s network of forts.

Next to the road — which despite its paved (and potholed) surface looks like it’s still stuck in the 19th century — lies one of the oldest black cemeteries in the city, weed-strewn and surrounded by chain-link fencing. The centerpiece of the park, its great isolated valley framed by tall trees and a tiny bamboo forest, is a perfect spot for an afternoon picnic after the long bus journey there through Georgetown and Foxhall Village.

Relatively well-marked trails leading from the park — like the Wesley Heights trail, which snakes its way through the ravines of the palatial Foxhall neighborhood — will eventually lead back to civilization, but you might as well be light years from the official downtown environs of the nation’s capital.

To reach Battery Kemble Park by bus, take the D6 from Union Station or P Street in Dupont Circle, just west of 20th Street Northwest. Get off at Nebraska Avenue (if you are unsure where this is, ask the bus driver to alert you to the stop). Walk north on Chain Bridge Road, uphill from MacArthur Boulevard, or from the same intersection take the forested Battery Kemble Trail, which will empty into the great valley.

Metrobus is only $1.25, or 35 cents with a Metrorail transfer. Bus information and timetables are available at https://www.metroopensdoors.com.

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