My friend Jon and I were planning a trip to Chicago about a month ago, and around that time, Jon just happened to catch wind of a new bus service called Megabus. It's an express bus between Chicago and a handful of Midwestern cities, including Minneapolis. And if you book your ticket far enough in advance, say a few weeks, you might only pay a buck for it.
Jon was floored by this deal.
"You can't even take the bus from my house to downtown for a dollar," Jon says.
Jon went around to all his friends and encouraged them to check out the new bus, exclaiming the company's name, Megabus, with gusto.
So we decided to try it ourselves. We were dying to know why the service was so cheap. Would we be transported in some kind of dilapidated hippy van? Would there be chickens flying around loose? Not the case.
We've had it going for three years, and we've handled over two million passengers this past year in the U.K. with it.Dale Moser, Megabus company official
"It looks pretty much like your standard coach. There are TV screens -- maybe a little tight on the leg room," Jon observed, as we boarded the bus.
There was no obvious shabbiness about it. So it was cheap for other reasons. First, there's little overhead -- no bus stations, no reservation agents, and all the booking is done online.
Second, the fares are tiered -- so they're not all $1. If you don't book sufficiently in advance of your trip, it will cost you more. Our tickets put us out $40 each.
"If we hadn't waited so long, we would've gotten it for cheaper," Jon says.
Which means, really, that I waited too long to book, and it's procrastinators like me who allow the company to make a profit.
But Erik Myndenhall, one of the other passengers on our trip, only had to spend about $8 for his fare. He was happy with what he got.
"It's been like a normal bus ride so far, but a whole lot cheaper," he said.
If you've ever taken an intercity bus, you might know what a "normal" bus ride means. The bathroom wasn't impeccably clean, which distressed Jon.
"There's been some dark liquid in the sink. It's coffee or I don't know what it is. It makes me kind of uncomfortable," Jon said as he emerged from the restroom.
And the toilet didn't flush. It appeared to be more like an outhouse-style receptacle.
"Oh, that's just the way they're made; those buses don't flush," explained Henry Harris, our driver on the return trip. He says the non-flushing toilets are a standard issue coach bus feature.
"So that's why I say, 'Be careful what you put in it,'" he said, laughing.
There are similar low-cost, express buses along the East Coast. The Chinatown bus takes you from Chinatown in New York to the Chinatown of cities like Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia for about $40 per round trip -- cheaper than Greyhound.
But those fares still pale in comparison to the $1 Megabus model, which, as it turns out, has been tested elsewhere.
Dale Moser, CEO of the North American branch of Stagecoach Group, which owns the service, says the company's United Kingdom Megabus connects a few dozen cities to London.
"We've had it going for three years," Moser says, "and we've handled over two million passengers this past year in the U.K. with it."
Moser has high hopes for the Chicago-based Megabus, which just launched in March. The company did have to drop its Columbus route and has scaled back on some other routes. But Moser says overall, the company has gotten a good reception.
"Ninety-four percent of the people that used our service told us they'd use it again; 99 percent of them said they were going to tell a friend about it," Moser says.
The question was, would Jon and I tell a friend about Megabus, especially after our trip back to Minneapolis, which didn't go as well.
The bus overheated before we even left the Chicago city limits. We were stranded on the side of the expressway for two hours, baking in 90-degree weather, with no air conditioning. We did get a replacement bus eventually.
By then, Jon, the original Megabus cheerleader, had soured on the experience. A few other things went wrong. Jon sat in gum, and the ride back included annoying movies blasting at loud volumes.
"I would do it again for a few bucks," Jon says. "Depending on how bad it gets, there's a point at which no low price is worth putting up with certain things."
On the other hand, I point out, some people might like the campy ridiculousness of all those things going wrong -- and then, if you only paid $8, it ends up being a good story to tell people.
"Yeah. Well, yes," Jon slowly intones, in a way that makes it clear he's unconvinced.
Well, even if it's not such a good story, in the end, it might only cost you $1.