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Bus trip is safe and cheap but has drawbacks

Take own food — and don’t rely on the washroom

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NEW YORK — Many long-distance travelers who would have chosen jets before Sept. 11 are now boarding buses. That can be a good choice — for those prepared to expect the unexpected.

For starters, the low ticket price of my long bus trip was amazing. I was certainly delighted with the $160 fare I paid for my round-trip from New York City to Ruidoso, N.M., to visit my grandfather.

But other less-appetizing surprises awaited me when I stepped aboard. Those included the uncertainty of finding good food or good sleep, or even of following the itinerary I thought I signed up for. The trip took 55 hours each way.

The number of bus travelers swelled dramatically just after the Sept. 11 attacks when the nation's airports shut down, according to Kristin Parsley, spokeswoman for Greyhound.

"But it went back to normal when the airports opened again," she says. "And it's been slightly below that since early October."

Travel generally is way down. So, if bus ridership is coming close to holding its own, that's probably as good as the news could get right now for bus operators.

Greyhound, for example, is doing its best to seize the moment with sharp discounts on fares for tickets purchased a week in advance. My $160 ticket was well under half what a bargain air ticket would have cost. The company recently announced $49 one-way fares for many popular routes.

I booked my trip at an easy-to-use site that also let me choose cities where I might want layovers.

My ticket called for bus changes in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Amarillo, Texas, but I ended up being switched in about a dozen more places, including Indianapolis, Tulsa, Columbus, Ohio, and other towns I never have heard of. Some travel legs were canceled without notice, resulting in waits for alternate routing that ran as long as several hours.

But the lost time somehow always got made up on the substitute legs, and I reached my major intermediate stops and my final destinations pretty much on time in both directions.

Here are some things I wish I had known before I left:

— If you're picky about food, bring your own. Vending machines and fast food are all you're likely to see en route.

— Take a small pillow, or even one of those inflatable collars that keeps your head from flopping. Bus seats are no bigger or softer than their airplane counterparts, and bumps in the road don't help matters.

— Avoid depending on the on-board washroom. It may leave you with a not-so-fresh feeling.

— Grab a window seat if being nudged or bumped bothers you, because the aisles are narrow, and riders heading back to the rest room can't always avoid hitting elbows and knees.

— Be ready to meet interesting people. Bus riders are at least as sociable as air travelers, and shared adversity is a great conversation starter.

— But you'll need a way to pass the miles when the seat next to you is empty. Books, crossword puzzles and CD players are the solutions I saw most often. A few passengers pulled out knitting needles and yarn, and one even had a portable television.

— Don't expect to avoid airportlike security. At New York's Port Authority terminal, for example, gloved guards unzipped purses and frisked bags.

— Consider getting a cell phone if you don't already have one. When you're stranded, or feeling that way, it can be a morale booster to hear a familiar voice.

Would I go by bus again? Maybe for a shorter trip.

But I felt safe the whole trip, and I met some nice people along the way. That included several dozen bus drivers, all of them courteous and competent.