Fung Wah Buses: Worth the Trip?

Fung Wah Buses: The Lines are Long, but the Price is Right

Riders wait in line to board a Fung Wah bus. Photos by Kevin McDermott
Riders wait in line to board a Fung Wah bus. Photos by Kevin McDermott

By Daniel Derouchie

Ed Note: In March 2013, Fung Wah Bus was forced to stop operating due to their poor safety record. You can find similar buses in and out of Chinatown from Lucky Star and very cheap service from Megabus and Bolt Bus.

The line inched forward as the pack of edgy riders clumped tightly to one another filling in any potential gaps where a queue jumper might penetrate. Finally, the door swung open as the spry Asian attendant screamed in broken English, “People with reservation get on first.”

This well-intended sentiment seemed to satisfy those in the line who bought tickets on

the Internet, but experience has taught me that this bubbly Asian bus loader has no real intention of waiting very long for all the others who have reserved tickets and aren’t standing right here, right now. And why should she, when a billowing line of anxious new ticket holders are right in front of her vying for the seats on the next departing bus to Boston?

Learning the Pitfalls

Few New Yorkers openly admit it, but everyone I know has taken the Fung Wah Bus. It’s the Queen Bee of the deep discount bus lines now operating out of Chinatown. And yes, it’s the real deal. But like any bargain, it comes with its own set of unique challenges. And unfortunately for me, I learned all the pitfalls of Fung Wah the hard way – by riding.

Fung Wah supposedly came onto the scene about eight years ago, but most people you talk to will say that they’ve only known about it for a couple of years. In the early days, its main drive was to shuttle the ever-growing Asian immigrant community back and forth between the Chinatowns of Boston and New York (There is now service to Philadelphia and D.C. too).

Yet once cash-strapped college students discovered the bus line, and its strikingly cheap one-way admittance price, the seats began filling up with a predominantly young, white, 20-something crowd. It has remained this way since.

The Fung Wah terminal
The Fung Wah terminal

For a while everything cruised along in Fung Wah's favor. The operators charged $15 for one-way trips between the respective cities and jacked the price up to $25 during peak hours. No one complained though, because even $25 was an amazing bargain.

Mechanics of Capitalism

Then the mechanics of capitalism kicked in and things turned cutthroat. Travel Pack/Lucky Star came onto the scene, setting up a ticket stand right around the corner from Fung Wah’s site. Travel Pack/Luck Star offered one-way tickets for an astounding low price of ten bucks. Any hour, anytime – always!

The operators of Fung Wah had no intention of losing the cash cow they had created and responded to Travel Pack’s tactic by matching the new carrier’s price.

Even Greyhound jumped into the fray briefly, setting up a sales booth a few doors down from Fung Wah (which has since disappeared). Greyhound didn’t slash its price to meet the Chinatown carriers, but it did offer a reduced price of $30 one-way; and from what this seasoned rider can detect, Greyhound, and the other commercial carriers with routes serving major northeast destinations, have become the bottom feeders in this highly competitive discount food chain. They’re slugs hoping to scarf up the overflow, basically those whose patience and stamina wane trying to get tickets during the peak times aboard one of the Chinatown buses.

I became wise to the peculiarities of Fung Wah and its competitors during an excruciating wait in smothering August heat. For nearly two hours I crouched on a grimy sidewalk just north of Canal Street.

A blend of congested car fumes and a rotting stench of what smelled like warm eggs permeated from the exhausts of nearby Chinese takeouts.

The Fung Wah ticket window
The Fung Wah ticket window

An Ill-Prepared Rider

I can admit now that I was an ill-prepared rider. This was one of my first trips, and I had waited until the last minute, assuming I could just wander up to Fung Wah's tattered-looking ticket booth, buy a ticket, and go. When I arrived, a mob of at least 150 people greeted me. Some had tickets, most didn’t, and I wasn’t anywhere near the front.

When I finally pushed my way to the ticket booth I made an infuriating discovery. Fung Wah had completely sold out, offering only tickets for the following day. Obviously I had not yet developed “brand loyalty,” as I distinctly remember wrapping my hand tightly around the metal handle of my suitcase and nervously wheeling myself over to Fung Wah’s competitor, Travel Pack/Lucky Star, to see if they could get me to Boston any sooner.

“Ten Dollar – I need ten dollar,” screamed the scraggly looking Chinese girl from behind what looked like a worn-out circus booth.

“I know it’s ten bucks. Is there room on the next bus to Boston?”

She immediately snapped back, “Ten dollar – bus here in two hour.”

“Two hours!” I squealed. “I’ll take it.”

Surprise Sting

Bargains like this drive people to make all kinds of hasty decisions. The police conducted a surprise sting operation – pulling 16 of the Chinatown buses off the road for failing inspections. Two of those buses belonged to Fung Wah. Yet even as rumors and news reports in the local New York papers reveal the darker side of the discount buses, it doesn’t seem to have deterred anyone from riding.

From my vantage point, the line is as long as ever. Like most things bordering on legality in the Big Apple, your average law abiding citizen will turn a blind eye if the price is right or until the mayor’s or D.A.’s office steps in and literally shuts the whole operation down.

After an excruciating wait, I finally climb aboard Travel Pack/Lucky Star’s final nightly departure. I was happy to have a seat, but the panic I experienced not knowing if I would get to Boston that evening resonated in my sub-conscious. I vowed never to take Fung Wah during the Friday or Sunday evening “rush hours,” and I didn’t for the longest time.

Giving Fung Wah Another Chance

Recently, I needed to be in Boston for my sister’s 40th birthday party. My cousin Sara was also attending and we decided together we’d give Fung Wah another chance: we’d take the Fung Wah challenge to see if we could travel during peak time and arrive in Boston hassle-free at the advertised rock-bottom price.

If you lose your place in the Fung Wah line, you can't get it back.
If you lose your place in the Fung Wah line, you can't get it back.

This time I went on the Internet a week in advance and bought two round-trip tickets. I also arrived a half-hour early to check in at the window. Still, I found myself waiting on a long line not knowing if our “reserved” tickets meant we’d be guaranteed a seat on the 6:00 p.m. bus or just an opportunity to stand on line for one of the later buses. I found myself mixed in with riders who had tickets for the five-thirty bus (it was now five-forty, but by Fung Wah standards this was timely).

I quickly made friends with a middle-aged Asian couple who stood behind me in line, and a hip, Lower East side-looking girl from Oregon in front. I let them know that I was traveling with my cousin and that she would be arriving any minute to assume her rightful spot next to me. They teased that they wouldn’t allow my cousin to cut line as we all nervously laughed about whether or not we’d make it on ourselves.

Stay Away From the Bathroom

I learned the hipster-looking girl had clocked in more than 30 trips back and forth on Fung Wah. She claimed she knew every trick needed to make sure she made it on and scored a decent seat, and although she didn’t share her strategy with me, she did mention that her main goal was to be as far away from the bathroom as possible. I knew exactly what she meant.

A seat near the toilet is especially problematic if you’re sensitive to foul smells and obese people. The smell of urine mixed with cakes of crystal air fresheners continuously lingers from the bowels of the toilet emitting a sickening, noxious fume. But it’s the non-stop foot traffic, the bumping and shuffling of legs and arms and fat butts in your face that really starts to chisel away at your sense of equilibrium.

Suddenly everything I’d anticipated accelerated at a rapid pace. The bus door opened as the crowd tightened into a snug round ball hoping somehow this would secure their entry. It was at this point that all rational thought went out the window; even the young Williamsburg-looking artists clenched their bags and teeth as everyone fought to make it on, but Sara hadn’t arrived yet. This put a wrinkle in my well-devised plan.

I could get on without her and secure our seats, but then she wouldn’t have a ticket and might not know she could cut to the front of the line. The other option meant waiting until she arrived. I dialed her cell phone number hoping to reach her, but went straight to voicemail instead. Wrapping up my brief frantic message I began growing nervous. I stood paralyzed as everyone around me, even the friendly Asian couple, seemed more than willing to bypass me.

Congeniality Aside

All of our congenial, friendly banter was brushed aside as they stiffened and pushed their way towards the front of the line. Once you forgo your spot, you can’t get it back. And you risk not getting on at all. This was what I feared, yet getting on without Sara and leaving her to fend for herself, without a ticket, was not an option.

Just as the woman in front of me boarded I turned and spotted a swath of blond hair and a bright pink blouse coming towards me. It was Sara. I could see the hurried distress in her pursed lips and brisk walk as she totted her wheeled weekender behind her. “Perfect timing,” I muttered.
“I’m so sorry, I was on a major deadline with a case at work,” exclaimed Sara in a gasping, rushed tone of voice.

“You come, you come,” shouted the ticket taker to Sara.

I guess even our rushed exchange was too long by Fung Wah’s protocol because the ticket taker immediately turned and motioned more people who were lined behind us to step around me and Sara to get on. Sara quickly realized what was happening; she knew we were losing ground. Without blinking an eye I turned and handed the ticket taker my reservation sheet: “I’m ready now, she’s with me.”

“Okay, Okay! She got ticket?”

“Yes, she’s listed on this same reservation, see!”

“Dan, I’m going to stow my bag underneath,” Sara said in a hurried tone.

“Alright, I’ll get on and get us seats,” I muttered knowing one of us had to get on immediately.

A New Set of Struggles

I climbed the three steps onto the bus and into a whole new set of struggles. Every row of seats had a least one person occupying a space already. I scanned again and again hoping I had overlooked a set of seats together, but there was nothing. I knew the chances of getting seats side-by-side would take some shrewd negotiating.

To my left I noticed Miss Hipster Oregon nestled in a window seat already staring peacefully out the window. Somehow all the commotion going on around her wasn’t penetrating her. I felt a brief pang of envy; she made it all look so easy. I stared helplessly for a moment, wondering how the bus managed to fill so quickly. I thought I had been fairly close to the front of the line, so I couldn’t imagine where all these people came from and how they got on before me.

Suddenly, I snapped out of my state of bewilderment and realized I had to take action: I had to move one of these bodies.

As I pushed forward down the center aisle, I spotted a studious-looking Asian girl gazing out the bus window. She appeared to be in her early 20’s and her hunching shoulders lead me to believe that she wouldn’t say no to a stranger’s kind request. I studied her for another moment and surmised that if I asked her in a pleasant enough tone, she would willingly move to another seat.

No Way, José

“Excuse me, would you consider moving over here?” I asked motioning to the empty seat on the other side of the bus. “I’m traveling with my cousin and we’d like to sit together.”

She turned from her dazed state and looked me straight in eye:“No. I’m not giving up a window seat.”

Her abruptness caught me off guard and instantly angered me. I wanted so badly to hurl some nasty comment back at her, yet decided to take the high road and find a more productive solution to solving our seating dilemma.

Turning around I could see the seats behind me filling rapidly. Looking over to my right I saw another studious-looking passenger, a guy in his 20’s sitting alone. I thought about approaching him, but my confidence had taken a fall with my unsuccessful attempt to move the Asian girl. An attractive looking woman would garner better results, I thought.

Turning on the Charm

From the corner of my eye I could see Sara trying to squeeze past the lingering passengers who stood clogging the aisle. Sara and I looked at one another, and without relaying a word, she knew exactly what I wanted her to do. It’s not in her nature to be necessarily flirtatious, but she seemed willing to use her feminine charm for a worthy cause.

I backed away, probably more mentally than physically, to let Sara work some magic. She leaned in slightly and cracked what looked like a sincere smile: “Would you mind moving over and sitting here? I’m with my cousin and we’d like to sit next to one another.”

He smiled back at her with a boyish grin, “Sure, no problem.”

He no sooner lifted himself from the seat than I dropped my over-stuffed blue Adidas shoulder bag in his place – marking our territory from the aggressive throngs of people pushing towards us.

The bus filled in seconds and before we were even situated it was pulling away, a whole 15 minutes before the scheduled 6:00 p.m. departure. Settling, Sara and I looked at one another with a sense of satisfaction almost like we had won some tag team volleyball tournament – and in a way we had. We were going to Boston for ten bucks and we had great seats – this time we scored. Now we just had to worry about getting on a bus back to New York.

Contact Information:

Fung Wah Bus (Serves Boston & New York $15 one-way)
To Call: 212.925.8889

Lucky Star (Serves Boston & New York $15 one-way)
Call toll free: 1-888-881-0887
Or local calls at: 617-426-8801 -or- 617-426-8802

Washington Deluxe (Serves NY & Washington DC $20 one-way | $35 roundtrip)
Call toll free:
1-866-287-69 32
Or local calls at: 1-718-387-7523

New Century Travel (Serves NY & Philadelphia $20 oneway)
To call: 202-789-8222

Daniel Derouchie is a freelance writer. He lives in New York City.

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