How to Ride the Bus–A Public Transportation Primer

Union Station, Chicago

Using public transportation sounds easy enough—after all, how hard can it be to ride a bus? But this assumption of ease just doesn’t play out in the real world in many places. These systems were generally not designed all at once as a cohesive system, but in most cases have been patched together in an attempt to keep up with the eternal sprawl of cities as they grow. And this leaves some of the places that need public transportation the most, such as rural areas and large suburbs, entirely car dependent. Yet, leaving aside the environmental aspect and just looking at the economic side, it still makes sense to take public transportation when you can. On a recent visit to LA I found that it would cost twenty dollars to take a cab to my hostel, but the bus took only forty minutes and cost a dollar. I only had to ask six people to find the stop the first time…

So how do you cut through the complexity of the system and get where you need to go? In the area where I live, north of San Francisco, public transportation is a mess. There was once a great passenger train system here, but the tracks were partially torn out years ago at the height of our unrequited love affair with the automobile. There is a good bus line running in and out of San Francisco but politics keeps this company from operating efficiently in my county. There is a county system that will get a person to any town in the county—eventually…

Then there is the bus system in the county’s biggest city, Santa Rosa. This may be the most workable of the three systems, though it misses some areas completely.  Where I live, supposedly in Santa Rosa, I must walk for an hour to nearby Sebastopol to catch a county bus. I keep three bus websites on my desk-top. None of the schedules sync with the others and it takes up to three hours to get where a car could go in 20 minutes. All of these buses except the San Francisco bus stop running at around 7 or 8 PM, making it impossible to go out at night without a ride home.

I am pretty sure the scenario I just described it at the extreme when it comes to dysfunctional public transportation systems. This does not make other systems, even the best ones in the country, any less daunting Riding a bus is not rocket science, but it has been made as complicated as programming your own remote. Anyone who finds themselves in Manhattan for the first time can attest to that. So—if you are in an unfamiliar city and want to learn to get around fast, what can you do? I suggest going to a phone book and looking under the transportation authority of the city you are in. Or better yet go online. There may be more than one authority if it is a big area. Detroit has two systems. LA has at least two. But all of them have a number that you can call for information, and many have online schedules and fare charts.

It may take some time to get a live person on the phone. When you do get someone, ask about the best way to get where you want to go. Confirm the fare, the boarding location, and even the schedule if it is not clear that your route is well serviced. Ask about discount passes, even if you are just visiting. But don’t stop there. Get your questions answered even if you think they are dumb. You are a paying customer and you are not the one who made this so complicated.

Another trick is to type in the address of where you want to get to and pull up the Google map. Click on “get directions” and then click on the bus icon. Make sure the origin and destination addresses are correct and hit search. It should give you the bus stop locations, times, transfer points, and route numbers of the bus or busses you need to take.

Once you know how to get where you want to go remember to dress in layers, carry a book and some snacks, and hit the bathroom before you head out. Once you get the hang of it you will come to enjoy the reading instead of driving and the freedom of not being chained to a car and having to park it. Happy Trails!

Here are some links to transportation information for some major cities:   New York City  Chicago San Francisco Boston Seattle Los Angeles Minneapolis New Orleans Atlanta Detroit Denver Las Vegas Phoenix St. Louis

If your city is not on the list just Google it!


Frugal Travel-Vacations for the Rest of Us

Wonderful Sights Await You

Though many types of travel can hardly be called frugal, there are ways to enjoy the rich experiences engendered by seeing the world and still not break the bank. This post will not include information on air travel, though that could be a future post. For now, I will concentrate on seeing the United States as cost efficiently as possible.

For transportation there are several possibilities. If you own a passable vehicle, why not crunch the numbers and see how things look. Just take the number of miles for your round trip, divide by your average miles per gallon, and multiply by current fuel costs per gallon. If it seems reasonable, and you like driving, this may be all the figuring you need. You might want to post for a rider on the craigslist ride share board.

But there are other ways to get around that might work better. The Greyhound bus line has a pass, called a discovery pass that can be bought in two week, one month, and two month increments, and allows unlimited travel on their lines and the lines of their affiliates in the USA and Canada. Or, check out that same rideshare board on craigslist as a rider. You may be surprised at what you find. Just be sure to check out the driver with the same care you would a date.

For lodging there are several cheap options. If you have a friend at your destination, see if you can stay for a little while. Some people really enjoy occasional company. Just be sure to buy your host dinner, and respect the cleanliness and order of their space. But, if you don’t know a soul at your destination try, a web based organization to bring hosts and travelers together. There are thousands of couch surfers from hundreds of countries around the world. The website includes several safety features including identity verification, reviews of both hosts and guests, and vouching. There are also local groups and interest based groups on the site, and events for travelers and local alike to attend. Because this is a cultural exchange and not a hotel it is important to take the feeling of your host into account. It is also nice to do something for the host, such as cooking dinner or bringing a bottle of wine.

If you are not ready to couch surf, try the local hostel. No longer just for students and elders, now anyone can enjoy rates of $20 to $35 a night, more for a private room. It is a good idea to get a guide book to the hostels with up to date reviews, including cleanliness and noise levels.

The next biggest expense for a traveler is food. Try packing a selection of cut veggies, fruit, and trail mix for the road. Peanut butter and jelly and string cheese are also good choices. That way you will eat more lightly and healthily while on the road. Once at your destination, why not just shop as usual and cook with your old or new friends, except for those one or two special meals? The availability of a kitchen may vary if you are staying at hostels. In that case, keep snacking or seek out inexpensive local venues. And don’t forget to take your vitamins. Travel may be broadening, but it is also stressful.

Finally, I would suggest bringing a simple water filtration system. Bottled water has problems with carcinogens in the plastic, to say nothing of the waste issue. And now reports have come out about the safety in many municipal water systems. It is wise to bring your own filter and stay hydrated.

So if you are hearing the call of the road, start planning, and may you enjoy a wonderful adventure and not go broke doing it. Here are some useful links: Here is the couch surfing site, a really fun place Look up the Rideshare for your city If you plan to use hostels buy this book The international hostel site for the United States


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