Getting There by Bus

Don't like the high cost of flying? Other options may surprise you.



Memphis is one of the busiest cargo airports in the world thanks to FedEx. On the passenger side, Memphis is a hub, a struggling one to be sure, for Delta Air Lines. Memphis is also a railroad junction, a crossroads of Interstates 40 and 55, home base for the American Queen steamboat, and bursting with pride at its new bicycle lanes and Greenline. 

Oh, and we have some long-distance bus service that should not be overlooked. Memphis actually has quite a bit of bus history, going back to pre-Depression America and the Smith Motor Coach Company (later the Dixie Greyhound Line), a regional carrier founded by Frederick Smith, the father of FedEx founder Fred Smith. Those names are gone, but Trailways and Greyhound bus companies have served Memphis for decades. 

The newest entrant in the passenger travel field is Megabus, which began service in Tennessee in February. In Memphis, Megabus operates out of the MATA terminal north of downtown and just west of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The colorful Megabus is a rolling billboard touting its fares as low as $1. The earlier you book, the more you save. 

I took the Megabus home from Nashville on a recent Sunday afternoon in June for $19.50. The nonstop trip took three hours and 20 minutes, from the Ramada Inn next to the Titans stadium in Nashville to the MATA terminal, which is a five-minute drive from my house. I was eager to try it out after some firsthand experience with Delta’s sky-high fares.

Obviously, Delta Air Lines this is not. Delta caters to a different crowd and charges $641 or $787 for a round-trip ticket to Nashville that you can book on Megabus for $10. That’s right, $10 round-trip if you book in advance. Book in advance with Delta and it’s $641 for the one-hour nonstop. But if you fly Delta to Nashville via Atlanta on its scheduled service, the trip can take from three to six hours. So Megabus (and Greyhound, which has a $20 advance fare and a $57 standard fare to Nashville) is competitive on time as well as price. 

Normally the Megabus picks up and drops off at Nashville’s downtown bus station within walking distance of Lower Broadway, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Nashville’s stunning new convention center that will open in 2013. Because of the Country Music Association festival downtown in mid-June, the drop point was the Ramada on the other side of the Cumberland River.

The good: The trip to Memphis was nonstop because the bus was ten minutes late departing. Passengers who had taken it before said it normally stops in Dickson, 45 miles from Nashville, and the schedule says the trip takes four hours and 25 minutes. 

The bus was half full. The seats and aisles were clean and the ride was smooth. The operation was so informal compared to the security hassles and baggage fees that are standard features of flying that it made me shake my head in wonder. The driver pulled up at 2:30 p.m., got out and opened the luggage door. Passengers started heaving in their bags. Then she opened the passenger door, and everyone climbed in without even showing our proof of purchase or receipts. Carry on anything and everything was the rule of the day. Five minutes later we were rolling.

The bad: Not much. The toilet did not flush. Someone had been smoking in the bathroom. The wireless, as advertised, was spotty. I could not get connected anywhere in Nashville, Memphis, or points in-between. There are two Memphis trips to and from Nashville and Knoxville each day, but the second one is strictly for night owls. 

I would recommend Megabus to anyone going to Nashville, Knoxville, or Atlanta. Longer trips, not so much unless you are hardcore or of the all-part-of-life’s-journey persuasion. Megabus is cheap and efficient, uses existing transportation infrastructure, saves gas, and makes Delta look like bandits.  

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