I could also say that I was traveling by catapult. “How are you getting there…?” My colleague looked baffled when I announced that I would be getting a carriage from London to Cardiff, where I was staying with my family for Christmas.
“But… won’t it last forever?” Officially three hours and 45 minutes, I said with a shrug, though in reality probably five hours, taking into account traffic and delays – but I had a good novel, some crackers…
Then another colleague came. “I heard you got into a car,” he said with a glint in his eye. “To Wales?! Stop at a roadside cafe, stretch your legs and take a look around. It was my turn to be surprised. Does anyone else get the coach but me?
It wasn’t always like this. In my 20s, I routinely took the train when visiting family in Cardiff. The hustle and bustle of Paddington station on Friday night was legendary back then. Groups of passengers gathered around the departure boards. A second platform flashed, mayhem: Running. Push. They become bottlenecks as people simultaneously squeeze narrow barriers. The cars were also overcrowded – there were seldom seats, so you’d be standing for two hours, boiling in mild anger paying £71.50 for the experience.
I asked myself one day, didn’t I pay like £20 for a coach instead? Sure, journey time has nearly doubled, but Friday nights spent traveling around the country are already a discount… and at least the buses guarantee a seat. And so five years ago, I became a National Express loyalist, helped by the fact that my office is just around the corner from the bus station.
So what can you learn from my journey from rail to road?
First, choose the right bus company for you. Because the National Express is single-deck, it has higher ceilings that give it a fresh air and make them worth the usually slightly more expensive ticket price. Megabuses have better visibility from the upper deck, but can be a bit “noisy”. Chatting in the hallways. Sharing food or insults.
Most trainers these days have mod cons – outlets and small folding tables – but Wi-Fi is often patchy. Still, there’s little else to do but sit, think, and just move on.
The National Express even inspired a song by indie band The Divine Comedy. If Philip Larkin were alive today, it would certainly be a car, not a train, that carried his poems.
Certainly not always glorious. I once boarded a plane with luggage and landed first in someone’s tub of Yeo Valley peach yogurt popped family size. Another time, a man next to me opened a giant plate of hot sushi and ate it slowly. It was the busiest summer season. Oh, the smell…
But other drawbacks, such as scruffy bus stations and grumpy drivers, are easily resolved with a bottle of antibacterial hand gel and some banter. Noise canceling headphones are recommended, although my 77-year-old grandmother, a professional coach traveller, disagrees. People are the beauty of rams, he tells me. Just last month, after serving time for fraud, she sat next to a man who had just gotten out of jail and chatted for four hours.
Coach climates can also be unpredictable, so layers should be worn. I learned this the hard way on my first Megabus at age 19.
Somewhere between Coventry and London there was a breakdown – it was stormy and we were stuck on a hard shoulder. Still, I found a pack of playing cards in my bag and a bottle of Coca-Cola to cheer us up. I was cold, but I soon forgot about it as I was sitting with my soon-to-be boyfriend good friend.
I wouldn’t credit Megabus for this romantic pass, but what a fun way to meet – the joy of a Friday night together on the National Express.