Why This Year We Took the Bus Going North

For those of us who have reached the stage in life when we’ve got more time than money, bus travel offers an affordable travel alternative. For those of us living in Mexico, a long way from loved ones, it is not only affordable. It can be downright enjoyable. I’ll write this blog in three stages, most helpful info up front. Hang in there til the end, and you may still find something useful or entertaining.

Contrary to a favorite travel tale of my husband’s, buses in Mexico do not always involve a chicken in your lap. That was 1972, we were students, and I didn’t know one bus line from another. I’m sure there were differences then. There definitely are now. In February, 2011, I took a bus from Guadalajara to San Miguel de Allende, and fell in love with ETN. My experience with them was so fantastic, I decided that was the way Larry and I would travel north to Texas this year. The trip was a success, and here are the reasons why:

Affordability. The regular one-way fare between Guadalajara and Nuevo Laredo when I purchased our tickets was MN$1,115 (MN indicates pesos). But Larry and I are over sixty and have official cards, issued by INAPAM, to say so. Among other perks, we get half price on bus tickets. So MN$1,115 was what we paid for two of us. That’s right at US$100. Our tickets from where we live on the Pacific coast to Guadalajara had been MN$135 a piece, about US$11.  So our round trip tickets from home to Nuevo Laredo came to just about $222.That’s a heck of a lot cheaper than either driving or taking a plane.

Flexibility. This is a big factor for me. In 2010, due to health issues, airline bankruptcy, landslides, Homeland Security policies and death in the family, I either had to replace, change or forfeit parts of six different airline tickets. That gets very expensive. This past June, we bought our tickets out of Mexico just a day before we left.

Time Schedule. Since the ETN bus leaves Mexico in the evening and arrives at the border in the morning, the thirteen-hour, practically non-stop trip doesn’t take big chunks out of daylight hours. One could conceivably leave La Peñita at noon, arrive in plenty of time in Guadalajara to take the evening bus, and be with family in San Antonio by noon the next day.

Safety. Hi-jacking buses would probably be as profitable as a crap shoot, and a lot more trouble. They’re full of students, middle class travelers and senior citizens like us. We were waved through military checkpoints and border crossings.

Comfort. The seats on the executive class coaches are wide and few, and fully recline. There are extended leg supports, as well. With lots of room below and above for stuff you’ve carried on, these buses have even most first class airline seats beat.

Amenities. Each seat has its own headset. Some have individual TV screens. If not, there are flat-screen monitors strategically placed. There’s free wi-fi on board most executive class coaches. The bathrooms are compact, with an additional door separating the seating area from the bathroom/coffee bar area. A sack lunch (nothing special) is provided. You are welcome to bring your own food on board, but keep it neat, as these buses are really clean.

Stage 2 – Further details if you’re interested:

 I didn’t have a clue how luxurious ETN was until I stepped on board. I should have had an inkling of what to expect from their waiting lounge in the main bus terminal (the “new” Central de Autobuses) in Guadalajara. The white marble floors there were spotless, the personnel dressed in business attire, the bathrooms well-appointed and pristine. It wasn’t quite on a par with the Admiral’s Club, but it was certainly a cut above your normal airport waiting areas. There were even power ports available for recharging cell phones and plugging in laptops.

I might interject here that Guadalajara’s “new” (that’s what you tell the taxi drivers) Central de Autobuses is not just a big building. It’s a series of big buildings set in a horseshoe shape. Look for major names of bus companies, such as Omnibus de Mexico, Primera Plus, Vallarta Plus, Turistar de Lujo. These are just a few. There are other lines, such as Tufesa, which offers executive class service and some “platinum” service to destinations in the western United States, which have their own terminals close to this main conglomeration. The complex is big, but well organized and not particularly intimidating, except for myriads of cab drivers offering their services.

One of the beauties of bus travel is you can stay close to your “stuff.” You check your baggage as you line up to step aboard. That way you can offer advice – and hopefully a tip – to the baggage handler. They accommodate odd pieces, like over-sized picture frames and crates of pottery with no additional charge or grumbling. My friend Hala, here in La Peñita, stocks a large part of her shop Hamaca Maya by traveling and transporting her goods by bus.

And the “stuff” you can carry on board can be pasty, jelled, or liquid. No worrying about whether your tube of toothpaste is under three ounces or if your nail clippers will pass. Bring a paring knife if you want to cut fruit for your lunch. Bring a jar of peanut butter. It’s OK! The security check does weed out firearms with a quick look through hand held bags and briefcases, and you can’t bring on any alcoholic beverages to drink. I forgot I had a bottle of wine I was carrying to a friend. The agent waved me on and told me it was OK, as long as I didn’t open it.

There are twenty-four seats on the ETN and other executive class coaches, instead of the usual fifty-plus that you find on regular coach lines. They are placed three across, two on one side of the aisle, and a single on the other. They are as wide as first class seats on commercial airlines – wider than some I could name – and when fully reclined, your head is far from the knees of the passenger behind you. He or she probably already has the elevated footrest in place. Getting comfortable is the primary object on ETN, and it’s easy to do. I felt nestled in my wide, cushy seat, happy to let the guy in the suit, as well-dressed as any airline pilot, take charge of all the driving. He was not to be disturbed, separated from the passengers behind a sealed door. I wonder, Do they call that area up front the cockpit, like they do on planes?

There’s a cup holder for the drink you were given at the door, along with a ham sandwich in a plastic bag. The ham sandwich was definitely sub-par, but there’s plenty of room to store your own provisions. It’s a good idea to bring something to eat, because the trips are generally long with minimal stops. My trip in February from Guadalajara to San Miguel de Allende took five hours. There were two stops before reaching its final destination, the first in Leon and the next in Guanajuato, but neither offered the opportunity to get off and buy anything. When Larry and I traveled from Guadalajara to Nuevo Laredo, we left at 8:45 in the evening and arrived in Nuevo Laredo at 9:40 the next morning. There was a fifteen-minute stop in the wee small hours of the morning at a mini-super/diner/cantina somewhere in the middle of nowhere. One look at the aging hot dishes in the buffet line, and the processed snackie stuff and I got back on the bus, happy I’d provided our own dinner earlier.

It does occur to me that these long stretches may be uncomfortable for some people, because all bus lines provide a completely smoke-free environment. That means in the bathrooms, as well.

The bathrooms on the bus were better equipped than the one in the cantina, where an ancient proprietor dispensed fragments of toilet paper for three pesos each. Admittedly one has to contend with a certain amount of sway in a bus bathroom, but that’s true on an airplane, as well. At least, you don’t worry about dropping several thousand feet. On the ETN coaches, and its cooperative line Turistar de Lujo, both men’s and women’s were behind a preliminary door, so any objectionable odors were entirely sealed off from the seating area. None of those could last very long, because the ventilation fans were, to say the least, intense. Between the two bathrooms and behind the first door was a coffee bar of sorts, with hot water and instant Nescafe available.

But we chose sleep, not coffee. There was a movie, Indiana Jones and Something or Other in Spanish, which I listened to on the personal headset provided each seat. Then the lights went out and all was quiet. We slept through Mexico, waking sometimes when the bus slowed down to go through a military checkpoint or a tollbooth. There was a major stop in Monterey at 7:30 in the morning. From there we started stirring and getting ready to disembark in Nuevo Laredo. We arrived right on time.

When I go north again this way – and that’s a when, not an if – I won’t do what we did this time around. From the Nuevo Laredo bus terminal we rented a taxi to the Laredo airport and rented a car to go to Lubbock. That was expensive, and time consuming. Hertz didn’t open until noon, so we had to wait around a couple of hours. (We’d sailed through the border in our cab on Sunday morning and got to the airport way ahead of when I’d said we’d be there.) What I found once I got to the bus station in Nuevo Laredo, and what I haven’t found on the internet, is that from Nuevo Laredo you can buy bus tickets to most destinations in the States, including the relatively short trip on up to San Antonio. That’s where we’ve got family who live in the King William district only a few blocks from the downtown bus station on St. Mary’s. This makes getting to see family, literally an overnight affair. Next time we’ll get all the way to San Antonio, and then think about how to get to other parts of Texas. There’s a good chance it will probably be by bus. If you want to know why, read on.

Even further details that might be really tedious to some people.

 We only used the Hertz car for twenty-four hours. It cost $105 plus all the gas. After visiting with my mom for ten days, I thought we’d rent another car, drive to San Antonio, use it there for the last ten days of our trip, and then drop it off in Laredo. Hah! We literally could not drop the car off in Laredo. The rental car companies would not let us do it. Laredo is in a different “region” than Lubbock. It’s also in a different “region” than San Antonio, so I’m not sure just where Laredo falls, except “on the border.” But I digress. Back to the rent car. If we rented it in Lubbock and dropped it in San Antonio, the ten days would cost us $1,020. But, if we were in San Antonio, then the ten days rental would cost us only $276.  Go figger, as they say in Texas. Those are some hefty drop charges! One-way tickets on Southwest on such short notice were over $600 for the two of us. And since to get any where by air in Texas, you have to go through Dallas and wait, traveling by air from Lubbock to San Antonio would take most all of one day.

So, we sampled bus travel in the U.S. Greyhound style. Lubbock’s bus station is at the edge of downtown, which is absolutely DEAD at night. We know because we left at 9:45 p.m. Tickets for the two of us to San Antonio came in around $80, and again, we bought them just before we left.  The quality of the coach fell far short of ETN or even Primera Plus. Bus drivers in the U.S. don’t dress as “professionally” as they do in Mexico, and they weren’t separated from the passengers in a spacious cockpit. But the seats were more comfortable than coach class on a plane, and they were filled with as colorful a variety of people as you find in coach class these days.

The trip from Lubbock to San Antonio took about nine hours through the night, because we stopped at five different places. When we drive ourselves, it’s daylight, takes about seven hours, and we usually stop once for bar-b-que and a bathroom. We arrived with the early morning light in downtown San Antonio, just across the the Cakery Bakery on the corner of Pecan and St. Mary’s. How handy!

For domestic travel Greyhound allows one bag free for each of us at fifty pounds. The agent in Lubbock winked us by when the scale showed we were a shade over. He charged us $10 for the extra 50-pound bag we had picked up along the way, full of Lubbock purchases. (Well, what else are you going to do in Lubbock except shop and eat out?) By the time we took Greyhound ten days later from San Antonio to Nuevo Laredo, we’d added yet another 50 pound bag. But because our tickets took us across the border we were allowed two free bags each. What a deal!

I’m not going to rag too much on airlines. We need them. I’ll use them. But I can look forward to seeing a lot more of my friends and family to the north, more cheaply and more spontaneously then being limited to just air travel. It’s good to have options, and even nicer to enjoy them.

5 responses to “Why This Year We Took the Bus Going North

  1. Thank you for a well-considered, informative account of your trip on ETN, which is also my favorite in Mexico.

    Heather Hanley
    San Miguel de Allende

  2. Pingback: Omnibus Mexicanos From Texas to San Miguel de Allende | Welcome to Virgin Territory!

  3. Pingback: Staying On One Bus to Cross the Border Not Such a Good Idea | Welcome to Virgin Territory!

  4. Susan, I too was pleasantly surprised by the amazing comfort of ETN buses in Mexico — nothing like that anywhere I’ve ever been, except Mercedes-Benz buses in Turkey where a helper comes around with refreshments and lemon cologne to keep everyone smelling fresh. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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