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The Fungus Bus

The Fung Wah bus is a bus of legends.  If you want to get from New York to Boston or vice versa, Fung Wah will get you there for $15, while other bus companies cost $70.  But it’s also the bus of not-so-good legends, like being in the worst 2% of drivers in the nation. 

About 10 years ago, Fung Wah dominated the cheap-rides-to-Boston-and-New-York market.  You showed up at Chinatown on the day you wanted to travel, and fought your way through a line on the street corner to squeeze your way onto the bus.  Very inexpensive fares meant very popular buses and a moment of panic about not being able to get a seat, whether or not you already had your ticket.  It was commonly accepted that you rode at your own risk; I heard stories about everything from buses catching on fire, getting stuck at toll plazas or losing wheels to passengers having to spend the 5-hour ride next to a crate of chickens. 

Things have improved a bit since then; the buses seem to be nicer, you can order online, and the Boston end of the operation moved into a cleaner, user-friendly location in the South Station bus terminal.  Other cheap bus services like Megabus and Lucky Star provide competition, and even Greyhound offers tickets as low as $18 on the internet.  The term “Chinatown bus” can now mean any cheap bus to New York, from Boston, Washington or Philly, regardless of whether it even goes to Chinatown.

I wanted to try out a “Chinatown bus” again for my first wayfaring adventure.  I had a long weekend, and a Facebook spouse good friend in New York who I’d been promising to visit for far too long.  Plus, Chinatown buses are cheap.  I love cheap.

Frugal Traveler Seth Kugel recently wrote a comprehensive guide to cheap buses which I read with interest as I debated taking this trip.  He gave good reviews to new lines like Bolt, and I was tempted by the idea of $1 tickets for those who book in advance.  In the end, though, it was a last-minute trip leaving very early in the morning on a long weekend, and as I stood in the bus terminal without a ticket considering my options, Fung-Wah caught my eye.  I had taken it before.  My last Fung Wah trip was about 7 years ago, and, from what I remember, it wasn’t too painful.  In fact, I was safely delivered from New York to Boston late at night in a raging blizzard.  And Fung Wah has $15 tickets no matter when you travel, so I wouldn’t wait in line hoping to score $1 only to find out only $20 seats are available.

How did Fung Wah perform?  Service at the ticket counter in South Station was quick and efficient.  Buses ran every hour, with some half-hour departures too, as early as 2 AM and as late as 11. In less than 5 minutes I was through the line, ticket in hand.  I texted my friend Jess to tell her to meet me in 4 hours at Canal and Bowery.  “You’re on the Fungus bus!” she told me.

There was no actual fungus on the Fungus, only some pushy ladies who cut me and everyone else in their quest for good seats.  No matter.  I ended up next to a kid in a hoodie who slept the whole ride.  Sometimes you get a Chinese movie on the Chinatown bus, which is always interesting, but this time they had a documentary about a boxer.  The ride was not unpleasant, we didn’t break down, and nobody puked, not even me.  The drawback: this Fungus bus had seen better days, and its shock absorbers didn’t do the job.  The seats were cramped.  As we got closer to New York and the roads got bad, I curled up in a ball to keep my knees from bashing into the seat in front with every bump.  One middle-aged couple stood up after we got over the bridge and into Manhattan and elected to spend the rest of the trip on their feet.  I don’t know if it was the best decision, because with traffic, they were standing for a good 45 minutes.  But we all arrived in one piece.

The return trip had its ups and downs, too.  The plus was that I arrived early, thinking that the bus I wanted might be in danger of selling out, and instead snagged a seat on an earlier bus.  The downside to that trip was that this time, there was no DVD player and, after the sun went down, nothing to do to pass the time except listen to other people’s cellphone conversations. The old bus did a number on my digestive tract. I ended the journey in South Station feeling nauseous and looking urgently for a trash can.

Where to: New York City on the Fung Wah Bus.

When: February 2011

The pedometer says: Although I didn’t expect to get a lot of steps on the bus, it logged over 4,000 just in the process of getting to the bus station, buying a ticket, getting last minute coffee at Honey Dew, etc.  The bus itself is not a good place for your morning walk; if you make too may trips down the aisle to the bathroom the other passengers may become alarmed.

Can flush toilet paper? I assume so.  As mentioned above, there is a bathroom at the back of the bus equipped with one of those vaccum-flush toilets.  However I have prided myself in never having used a bus, airplane, or train toilet, and I didn’t intend to start now.

Lowlight: Banging my knees into the seat in front of me.

Highlight: Sometimes you get a Chinese movie with subtitles.

The verdict: Take the Fungus Fung Wah if you don’t mind an older bus and want decent service for cheap.