In the Cheap Seats

It’s no luxury cruise, but taking the Megabus to Madison was definitely an adventure.

Madison, Wisconsin
Photos courtesy of University of Wisconsin
Picnic Point and Lake Mendota overlooking the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and the downtown Madison skyline

Megabus had me at “free Wi-Fi.” Last summer I learned by chance that the nonstop intercity bus service, which has operated in this country since 2006, now offers free wireless Internet access on its two-story coaches as they zip along U.S. freeways. Up to that point, bus travel held no appeal for me—it’s something for college kids. Not me.

I had not been on a Greyhound bus since my own car-free, care-free college days in the late 1980s at St. John’s University when I wanted to go on road trips but didn’t meet rental car age requirements. But with the offer of Wi-Fi, I visualized myself in an airline-style seat reclined with my laptop on a tray table and its power adapter plugged in (yep, the buses also have power outlets) to do all my work as the landscape whizzed by. It sounded like an efficient way to travel, and I had a little free time for a solo adventure.

1013_booinbaraboo_p01.jpgWisconsin farmlands
1013_booinbaraboo_p01.jpgWisconsin State Capitol and Lake Mendota
1013_booinbaraboo_p01.jpgWisconsin State Capitol dome detail
1013_booinbaraboo_p01.jpgUniversity Avenue
1013_booinbaraboo_p01.jpgState Street

With my family happily occupied at home, I decided to test out Megabus with a pilgrimage to Madison, Wisconsin, and relive a little of that college spirit. I was under no illusions that Megabus’s $65 round-trip fare, booked online, would provide luxury travel. Even so, I was a bit shocked at what passed for a bus terminal—a decaying parking lot behind the Midway Shopping Center strip mall on University Avenue in St. Paul’s urban core. Hey, Megabus, how about using the recently refurbished Union Depot transportation hub in downtown St. Paul instead of this dump by I-94? When the bus arrived, the coach was fine enough, a well-maintained, brightly colored double-decker (think Greyhound on steroids, not one of those iconic London buses) emblazoned with the company logo, a pink-faced cartoon driver in a yellow uniform, and a promise of fares “from $1!”

With no luggage to check, only my extra-roomy backpack, boarding was as simple as flashing my reservation number on my iPhone’s screen. I bounded up the vehicle’s rear staircase to claim any vacant second-level seat (there were lots). This was perhaps the most comfortable public-transportation seating of my life. Not what I expected. Then there was the technology situation.

The seat backs had no airline-style tray tables, as I had assumed. I wished I had packed my iPad mini instead of my bulky laptop. Sigh. Worse, the power outlets were all but useless. Oh, they had plenty of power, but they accommodated plugs so loosely that they fell out at the slightest bus movement. As for the Wi-Fi: As the Megabus roared onto eastbound I-94, I tried connecting to the cabin wireless network. No go. I reminded myself that this was an adventure—not a luxury trip. I had packed a lunch, I had plenty of space, so after that frustration I decided to enjoy the fact that I wasn’t driving, and the four hours passed quickly.

In the spirit of youthful adventure, I decided to try something new for lodging, too. I booked a place to stay through the online service Airbnb, which matches you with people who host travelers in their homes—often at crazy-low prices. I quickly zeroed in on prospects near the University of Wisconsin, where the bus would drop me off. I narrowed it down to “semi-private room near UW,” a listing in an attractive-looking private home owned by Matt, a local real estate agent. He was asking $50 for the night, and I knocked the price down to $30 with a Google coupon. Seriously, 30 bucks.

I liked Matt’s house—it wouldn’t be out of place in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. But my bed was in the basement, up against the furnace and water heater, and just steps from the washer and dryer, in a barely enclosed spot. “Semi-private” is right. Another instance of not studying my options carefully enough when planning my trip. Especially since I learned Realtor Matt also offers private accommodations upstairs that would be worthy of a visit with my wife. But for this trip, and for just me, this was fine, as I noted later in my online review:

I just needed a place to crash, and the queen-size bed was very comfortable. An adjacent, comfy couch gave me a place to read and work on my laptop. And since Matt was a fantastic host (giving me coffee and a bagel with cream cheese in the morning, plus sightseeing tips), I recommend you consider him. The price certainly is right.

I did much of my sightseeing on a Sunday that happened to coincide with Ironman Wisconsin, a triathlon that is roughly on par in prominence and popularity with the Twin Cities Marathon, and I thrilled to the crush of people on State Street.

The eight-block stretch linking the UW campus and the State Capitol grounds is, of course, chockablock with shops and restaurants. I love how the eastern tip of State Street ends right at the Wisconsin State Capitol steps, making that majestic edifice an integral part of this vibrant city. I lamented the relative catatonia of the grassy, monument-strewn Minnesota State Capitol grounds and wished I could reconstruct my home city by rolling St. Paul’s elegant Grand Avenue, the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, and the Minnesota State Capitol into one vibrant little hub.

I’m normally not one to gape at historical buildings, but the State Capitol building made an impression. The exterior is constructed entirely of Bethel White Vermont granite, giving it a strikingly bright appearance with a strong resemblance to, and a height a mere three feet and seven inches shy of, the U.S. Capitol.

My big “splurge” of this bargain-basement trip came at Wasabi, a lovely Japanese restaurant on State Street with an unusually generous combo deal. Twenty bucks gets you any two of the following: tempura, hibachi or teriyaki chicken, grilled or teriyaki salmon, hibachi or teriyaki ribeye steak, a five-piece sashimi spread, or sushi. I left happily stuffed with sushi.

UW is not the most beautiful university on a lake. That honor goes to my alma mater (a Walden-esque enclave on Lake Sagatagan in Collegeville Township and my favorite place on the planet). But I was floored by UW’s Memorial Union, a grand edifice on the shore of Lake Mendota with a popular outdoor gathering space called the Terrace right on the water. As I walked along this lakeshore district, with its collegiate sailors attending to various kinds of watercraft, its brightly colored metal picnic-style tables, its chairs by the dozens for eating and studying while feeling the lake breezes, and the nearby tree-lined walking and bicycling trails at the water’s edge, I felt at peace.

I mostly got around on foot. On occasion, I used one of the city’s B-cycle bicycle-rental kiosks, which run essentially on the same principle as the Nice Ride ones in the Twin Cities—although they have bright red bikes that look a bit more whimsical and incorporate a clever pullout locking system to prevent theft. And they have a one-up on the Twin Cities, because the first half-hour on a B-cycle is free.

Waiting for my return-leg Megabus on University Avenue, I chatted with a Spaniard who is a UW staffer and was headed to the Twin Cities for a work-related workshop. We sat together—out of necessity, since this bus trip also turned out to be sardine-can hell. Instead of letting him ride to Minneapolis and decamp in another godforsaken parking lot, I insisted he get off with me. We took a taxi to my place and then I drove him to his Minneapolis hotel, with a promise to keep in touch.

My backpacking budget-travel adventure over, I returned to the comforts of home with a new friend to visit the next time I’m in Madison and some stories to tell. For that, Megabus, I thank you.

But next time, I’m driving.

Julio Ojeda-Zapata lives in St. Paul and is the longtime technology writer for the Pioneer Press.