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Cheap Fares Make Chinatown Buses Popular

December 10, 2002

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Dragon Expressway’s buses pick up passengers on street corners. Many of its drivers don’t speak English. Schedules can be erratic, and the on-board movie will probably be in Cantonese.

But lured by low fares _ up to half off what it costs to ride Greyhound _ a growing number of English speakers have turned to Dragon and a smattering of similar Asian-owned bus companies for cheap travel between Chinatowns in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

In just a year, Dragon’s $10 one-way fare from New York’s Lower East Side to Philadelphia’s Chinatown, just blocks from the Liberty Bell, has attracted a loyal following of college students and backpackers in addition to a regular ridership of Asian immigrants.

``At first, we didn’t target English-speaking people at all, but right now, we are changing a little bit,″ said Kevin Ho, who manages the fledgling line from a travel agency in Manhattan. ``We’re thinking about adding an English movie on the bus.″

Similar lines have flourished in other cities.

Companies like Fung Wah Transportation and Travel Pack USA have offered bus service between Boston’s Chinatown and New York since the mid-1990s, at prices ranging from $10 to $25 each way.

A handful of agencies offer service between Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Richmond, Va. Competition can be fierce. Dragon engages in regular fare wars with New Century Travel in Philadelphia, cutting fares to as low as $10 round trip to New York. In Washington it dukes it out with Washington-New York Express Tours, with one-way tickets to Manhattan for as low as $15.

Those prices are just right for Neal Ungerleider, a Temple University junior who has been taking the New Century bus between Philadelphia and New York nearly every weekend for six months, usually paying $10 round trip.

Greyhound was charging $21 for one-way travel between Philadelphia and New York last week, and $42 between New York and Boston.

Chinatown lines aren’t for the pampered, or easily deterred, Ungerleider cautioned.

Few companies advertise outside the Asian community and most rely on walk-up sales at hard-to-find ticket counters, sometimes tucked inside restaurants or video stores. Buses stop on the street, sometimes with no indication where they are coming from, or where they are going.

``The first time you pick the bus up in New York, you need to have someone coming with you who has done it before, or you will be lost,″ Ungerleider said.

Karen Olivo said she heard about the service from a French friend who had lived in the United States for only six months, and rode for the first time last week.

``It’s not five-star service, but for the price, what do you expect?″ said Olivo, 18, a student from New York.

Dragon, founded seven years ago by Chinese immigrants, has 14 buses in its fleet, but only began offering interstate bus service in January, in part to make up for a 70 percent drop in what had been its main business _ weekend package vacation tours _ after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ho said.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, its buses carried 200-300 passengers a day on the New York-Washington line, at a round-trip price of $30, Ho said.

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On the Net:

Dragon Expressways: http://www.dragonexpressway.com/

Fung Wah Transportation: http://www.fungwahbus.com/

Travel Pack USA: http://www.travelpackusa.com/