I’m not 100% sure I’m cut out for public transport. I worked out that the last time I stepped on a coach was the airport transfer to Havana in 2007. The last time I took the coach to London: 1990 or thereabouts. There are any amount of ethical observations that can be made about this, and judgements made of both myself and the public transport system. But something has to be wrong somewhere if somebody like me, who likes to save money and do the green thing, pretty much always opts for driving.
So what finally drove me onto public transport last night? Two things: Scotland, and MegaBus. Scotland is so very, very far, and MegaBus is so very, very cheap. Have a look at their website. The calculator is nice to use: it shows all the services in a given day, but also has Next and Previous buttons so it makes it simple to find the cheapest service. You can do Victoria to Edinburgh or Glasgow for about £14, but it’s a long journey and the seating is quite cramped. We got the ordinary MegaBus from Exeter to Victoria – my tall daughter literally couldn’t stretch her legs under the seat in front. It’s just not structurally possible due to the way knees (don’t) bend. So I decided to shell out the extra and get the sleeper up to Scotland. It leaves Victoria at 23.00 (beware that the MegaBus terminal is not the same as the National Express terminal – about 6 mins apart, so allow a good half hour extra for faffing and getting lost etc) and you arrive in Edinburgh at 7.15 the next morning. The theory is that you arrive well-slept and ready for a day of exploration, saving accommodation costs into the bargain.
Hmm. Well, sort of…
Firstly, please note that it is a ticketless operation – so when the person you are with says to you “Have you got the tickets?” don’t faint or panic or run off to the ticket office to ask. You just have to have printed off whatever appeared at the end of the online booking process, or brandish your email-capable fancy-phone at the person in the high-viz jacket (the one by the door, not the one stashing your luggage).
Yes, so I queued. I stowed my baggage. I showed my print-out. I got on. Large baggage has to go in the belly boxes – one 20kg bag is the maximum – and pretty much anything constitutes ‘large’ for MegaBus sleeper purposes. Inside there is literally nowhere to put any luggage at all. Bring in as little as possible. I slept with my bag and my food bag and my coat on my bed. I left my boots on the floor for others to trip over on their way to the loo, as I tripped over theirs.
Pillows are meagre, so a coat or cardi rolled up might come in useful that way. It’s hot and there’s a blanket so don’t bring extras just in case. Bring your phone charger (I didn’t) and laptop as you can plug it in above your head, and gadgetry is back-up against waking up in the night with nothing to divert you in the blackness.
There is no undressing. There is no privacy and no elbow room. Either travel in your nightwear or be prepared to sleep in your clothes. Since you straddle two days, if you might normally change your underwear I recommend panty-liners or similar. I have no equivalent recommendations for men. (I know when I’m out of my depth.)
The ‘beds’ transform from their daytime incarnation as seats with tables, and by the time we got on the whole upstairs of the bus was already turned into a dormitory of narrow, rigid, hammock-like bunk beds suspended from webbing straps and with a netting strung barrier to stop you or your overnight luggage falling out. Or off. Or through.
Some beds are almost certainly better bed located than others, but as they were allocated by the steward (conductor? bed monitor?) we had little control over it – although I reckon if you get there early there is more chance of being put at either end – which means fewer people swaying onto you en route up or down, a bit of a cosier feel and access to a window (except it’s dark, so it doesn’t really matter, at least not in winter).
If you are a couple, or otherwise constitute a ‘double’, you get let on first and shoved into a claustrophobic, double, bottom bunk. So unless you have someone you particularly want to scrunch up with, or have a small child to pinion into the inside, I would recommend avoiding this at all costs. I am not clear how it occurs: I was never asked, but there was only one of me. It may happen if more than one of you book together – in which case you might want to think about booking as two singles. You’ll just have to pay an extra 50p booking fee.
My bunk was situated above a double. I would also recommend avoiding this if you can. It means you have two ‘outsides ‘ and feel rather exposed. Worse still, if someone beneath you sits up they either poke you in the bottom or ribs, or their head suddenly appears beside you, incongruously close and at eye level as you lie there trying to convince yourself you are alone.
We were all issued with a small, complimentary bottle of water. A few people asked questions, but they weren’t very interesting. One of them was mine: “Are the toilets downstairs?” to which the answer was “Aye.” A few people snored, but only mildly. I farted a few times, but I think I got away with it.
The good thing about not being able to sleep because the bed is too narrow and has hard, rigid bars digging into at least one part of you at any given moment, and because the little blue lights are really bright, and because every time the bus accelerates (or breaks, depending on which way you are pointing) you get a funny feeling of pressure in your head, is that you can get up for a wee in the middle of the night, thus avoiding the morning rush. You can also get up really early, move downstairs to where there might be normal seat, at a table, and then you can peer out of the windows at Scotland emerging from the night sky.