Saturday, March 10, 2012

Megabus - Morgantown

On occasion, I have to go to DC as part of my job. Over the years, I have traveled there in a variety of ways—by car, by motorcycle, by airplane, and even most of the way via bicycle (the C&O Canal biketrail follows the Potomac River for 180 miles from Cumberland, MD to DC). I recently learned that a new discount bus service added a stop in Morgantown, so I decided to leave my car at Anna’s and give “Megabus” a try.

I’ve enjoyed charter bus trips I’ve taken to NYC (thanks to Lisa Starcher Collins and her Arts & Culture tours!) and to various WVU bowl games over the years, but this would be my first common carrier passenger bus trip since my college days. We had first become aware of Megabus when we saw one in Chicago during our Amtrak adventure to the Windy City years ago. Unlike the old Greyhound bus service (which I used once while a student at UC and once while at WVU) which had brick-and-mortar bus terminals in cities around the country (even in Parkersburg), Megabus (as well as a few other new services) rely on the Internet for ticketing and information.

This allows for very low fares, but they can vary based on demand. When I first checked, the round trip from Morgantown to Union Station in DC was going to only cost $17.50. By the time I convinced the “powers that be” to approve this form of transportation, the cost had gone up to $22.50 when I purchased my ticket. However, with gas nearing $4 a gallon, this Megabus fare is still cheaper than what it would cost to drive—even with my Prius. Just out of curiosity, I revisited the Megabus website on the morning of my departure to see what a last minute ticket would cost me, and the total had risen to $34.50—which is still a pretty decent fare.

This bus route starts in Pittsburgh, and then stops at the new multi-modal transportation facility adjacent to the Medical Center PRT station (in the Green Lot). This facility includes a parking garage, bicycle lockers, and a bus station lobby for use by local buses, as well as Megabus. It arrived at about 12:25, just a few minutes prior to its advertised 12:30 PM departure. There was about three other passengers (who appeared to be college students) who headed out from the lobby to get on the Megabus. The driver got out, reviewed our tickets to ensure they matched the listing he had (one can either print a copy of the ticket that Megabus e-mails to you, or simply show the e-mail to the driver on your smartphone) and allowed us on-board with one carry-on (a backpack for me), while he stowed our other allowed piece of luggage (a small overnight/laptop bag for me) in the storage compartment at the back of the bus (behind the bathroom). I’m not sure how many passengers a Megabus could hold, but there were lots of empty seats. My guess is that there were only about two dozen people on this particular trip.

Megabus utilizes double-decker buses, and this was my first experience on the modern ones (during that previously mentioned Chicago trip, I rode one of those old-fashioned double-decker tourist buses where the top floor is out in the open). The Megabus driver sits low in the front, and the other passenger seats on the first floor are low to the ground. Some of the first floor seats are configured facing each other, with a small table in between (reminded me of Amtrak). As mentioned above, it doesn’t have the typical huge storage bays under the bus, but simply one storage room at the back. In the front and the back are stairways leading to the upper floor. The ceilings on both floors are lower than in a typical bus, and don’t include the large overhead storage bins. However, on the top floor you get a skylight (I’m glad I grabbed my sunglasses before I left!) along the length of the bus (with the exception of the two escape hatches). Also, if you are lucky enough, the front seats of the upper deck allow a panoramic view (those seats were already taken when I got on board). I chose a seat directly behind the back staircase, which meant I didn’t have any seats directly in front of me, giving a better view out the side windows for me.

The double decker design gave me my highest view I’ve had traveling this section of highway (which I have done numerous times). For example, I had never been able to see the mountain creek which tumbles down Cheat Mountain adjacent to the highway. I was pleased that the higher seating position did not result in an extreme leaning in the turns—I didn’t really notice any swaying difference from the standard bus riding position.

One advantage to Megabus is that they provide power outlets at every seat, as well as wi-fi internet service. I didn’t try the Internet service (it appeared many others were using it), but I did take advantage of the power outlet just to recharge my phone. I prefer watching the roadside scenery and listening to non-fiction podcasts while I’m traveling.

This Pittsburgh/Morgantown/DC route makes one stop along the way—a “rest stop” at the Pilot/Arbys truckstop in Grantsville, Maryland. This stop took about half an hour off our time. While it may be halfway for the folks who got in Pittsburgh, I felt (after only being on-board for about an hour) it was not that necessary. Perhaps Megabus gets some monetary consideration from Pilot for stopping there—another Megabus also stopped there while we were there. I’m okay with it if it helps to keep costs down.

As we neared DC, the outbound traffic on I-270 was backed up, but we had smooth sailing until we hit the beltway during afternoon rush hour. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about doing the driving—I could just enjoy the view and listen to my shows. Stop and go traffic may have slowed us down, but we made it to the parking garage behind Union Station right on time at 5:00 PM. The driver opened up the back door to the storage room, gave me my bag, and I was on my way. Soon I was inside Union Station (an old favorite of mine in DC) enjoying dinner at Chop’t (an interesting fast food fresh salad restaurant). After eating, I could have taken the subway, but I opted for the Metro Circulator bus to take me to my hotel (it was cheaper than the subway, plus let me enjoy the scenery above ground).

After several days of working in DC, I hopped the subway to Union Station Friday afternoon to catch the Megabus back to Morgantown (a Turkish TV crew was roaming around the station and they interviewed me about the American election—I should have mentioned WVU basketball player Deniz Kilicli in my interview). I arrived about an hour prior to scheduled departure, thinking I might be first in line so I could get a top front seat. However, there were already eight people in front of the line when I got there. While there is no TSA screening malarkey to deal with, they do have established lines set up in the parking garage for the different bus companies and routes. It was easy to find the right bus line, and soon the Pittsburgh Megabus customer line extended far behind me. Most of the folks in line seemed to be college students, but there were a smattering of other types as well.

Finally, we started to board. I showed my printed ticket and handed over my suitcase for stowing in the back room. Although I didn’t get a front row seat, I was able to get a good one near the front of the upper deck, just behind the front staircase that comes up behind the right side of the front row, so once again I had a good side view unimpeded by seatbacks directly in front of me, yet I could also partially enjoy the sensory experience of watching out the panoramic front window as well (now filled with four college students). This time, the bus was nearly full, with only a few people not having someone sitting directly beside them (luckily, no one sat beside me—maybe I looked too much like a college professor).

The bus left at its scheduled time of 5:45 PM, with the safety video being shown on all the monitors. It was a bit like the talk you get at the start of an airplane flight. Megabus does have seat and shoulder belts, but I think I was one of the few who bothered to wear them (I didn’t want to go “down the hole” of the staircase that was directly in front of me had we stopped quick).

It was wonderful not to have to deal with all the downtown traffic as we slowly worked our way to the beltway, and then I-270, and finally beyond Frederick where the traffic eventually thinned out. It was great sitting topside and getting the view out the front windows. Since there is very little swaying even on the top floor, one could easily imagine that we were in some futuristic transport bus that was automatically taking us to our destination. After all, it was weird to be looking out the windshield but seeing no driver or steering wheel—just four college kids watching videos on their laptops with their headphones on as we sped down the road. Already Nevada has passed legislation allowing for driver-less cars. DARPA has been holding robotic car competitions for several years now, and Google has been funding research on this for the fleet of cars that take those street view pictures. Someday folks will look back on how quaint it was that people actually had to drive to their destinations, rather than letting their cars do it for them. The ride on the upper deck of the Megabus provided me a glimpse of that future.

You could really tell a difference in the increased passenger load when we got to the mountains, because the bus really bogged down on some of the steepest hills. We did our half-hour rest stop at the Pilot/Arbys truck stop in Grantsville, and arrived in Morgantown last night at 10:30. This was about 15 minutes later than advertised, after dealing with the Friday beltway traffic in DC as well as a bit of a backup on the Mileground in Morgantown where the cops were running a sobriety checkpoint.

All in all, it was a great way to travel to DC!

[By the way, to give a little insight into “what makes me tick,” here is the list of podcasts I listened to on this trip: • Several episodes of NPR’s Science Friday (I especially enjoyed the show with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson) • The BBC radio show “The Naked Scientists” (just a catchy title to a science program) • John C. Dvorak’s “No Agenda” podcast (Dvorak is a PC Magazine columnist I like, but I grew tired of the time they spent honoring donors to their ad-free show) • Grammar Girl (featuring a discussion on the use of the word “that”) • Freakonomics & NPR’s Planet Money, two shows that use good journalism to examine our economy • Penn Jillette’s show, featuring Adam Carolla and Arsenio Hall • This American Life, a public radio show hosted by Ira Glass.]


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. It seems like everything went smooth and I'm sure you had a great time. Morgantown is an amazing place with so much fun to be had. My friends and I have been looking into charter bus rentals to take us to Atlantic City for my cousin's 21st birthday. We want to ride there in style and have a great time on the trip.