New route to Big Easy

For most people, the allure of Megabus is as simple as this promo from the company’s website: “The first, low-cost, express bus service to offer city-to-city travel for as low as $1 via the Internet.”

Excuse me, did you say as low as $1?

The super-cheap Megabus began operating out of Atlanta last November with routes to 11 cities. Recently, the company added daily departures to Athens and New Orleans.

It was the latter that grabbed my attention: French Quarter Festival. Jazz Fest. Essence Music Festival. Satchmo SummerFest. Voodoo Fest. My friend Alessia’s birthday. There’s always an occasion to go to the Big Easy.

But rarely do I drive there. The last time I drove to New Orleans, in March, the seven-hour trip cost roughly $200 in gas. Usually, I fly. But getting a good price requires constant diligence on discount websites. And sometimes, there are no specials out there.

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I occasionally take Amtrak. For the money (usually under $150 roundtrip), the train is a great deal and it’s very comfortable. But the journey takes nearly 12 hours — if all goes right. And it’s rare, at least on my trips, that all goes right. Because of freight traffic, it often takes closer to 14 hours. By the time I arrive, I find myself swearing that I’ll never take the train again.

As soon as I heard about Megabus, I knew I would try it. A friend had given it rave reviews, taking it to Florida and Tennessee several times. He likes to talk about the free Wi-Fi and outlets that let you plug in your laptop or reader at your seat. But I know it’s mostly about the price. The most he’s ever paid one way? $49.

I decided last month to take the midnight bus down to New Orleans on a Wednesday, arriving at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, which, of course, is 8:30 a.m. eastern time. The bus would make two stops — one in Montgomery, another in Mobile. The cost was $18.50 one-way — not $1, but still pretty good.

Megabus leaves from the MARTA Civic Center stop on West Peachtree Street. Dozens of riders were waiting on the sidewalk when I got there — probably more than usual due to Jazz Fest. When the double-decker bus pulled up, it stopped about eight yards from where the lines were formed and, immediately, all order disintegrated. We proceeded to get on the bus every-man-for-himself style, with those who “checked” bags in the luggage compartment ending up at a decisive disadvantage to those who just rushed for the door.

Checking bags, by the way, is not what happens. You receive no receipt for your bag, and those removing bags are not required to show a receipt. You depend on good will and a sharp eye to keep your bags from disappearing.

Still, there were so many “checked” bags that the woman next to me kept her suitcase in her lap. She couldn’t find anyone to tell her what to do with the bag, either — which brings us to another thing about Megabus: No one seems to be in charge. The bus drivers are there, but they weren’t really answering questions or making announcements. At some stops, new passengers couldn’t find seats, and the best the bus drivers could do was to say keep looking. Several savvy Megabus riders bought two seats, one just for their luggage.

My seatmate and I crammed her suitcase into the space on the floor between us. Given that the leg room isn’t overly generous to begin with, this made the ride very uncomfortable. She held her oversized purse in her lap all the way to Mobile.

We arrived in New Orleans on time. The drop-off spot was convenient, just off a main street in the French Quarter. It was a decent-enough trip, made a bit surreal by the overnight hours.

I didn’t use the Wi-Fi once. And I never plugged into an outlet. But I did eat a couple of good meals in New Orleans with the money I saved by traveling on Megabus.

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Colleen McMillar is an assignment editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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