“A Megabus From England to Spain? Are you mad?” Yes. But I did it anyway. Here’s why.
I’m halfway up the Avenue de la Grand Armeé and I’m getting desperate. Paris doesn’t seem big on supermarkets. All I want is somewhere that sells bottled water at 8pm – instead, I’ve got fashion boutiques, up-market auto shops and restaurants with the kind of French waiters that would take one look at me and ring the police. I’m a mess. It’s ten degrees too hot, I’m down to my last mouthful of water, my shirt is drenched with sweat, my head is pounding, and I feel sick.
But I absolutely cannot stop moving. Not now.
The thing is, I’m not sure what time my bus leaves. I need to be on it, yes . . . but this is about balancing nightmares. If the bus left the Porte Maillot Coach Park without me, that’d be awful, I’d be stranded in France – but at least I’d have time to find something to drink. If I’d stayed at the coach park (the most literal I’ve ever seen, featuring nothing but parked coaches in a wasteland of gravel) I’d have boarded the bus with no water and a 14 hour journey ahead of me. I’d have been licking condensation off the windows and looking at the chemical toilet with a speculative air. It would have been worse than missing the bus. This is my only hope.
I’m on the way to Spain by Megabus, from northern England, I’ve been on the move since 2am, and I’m not even halfway yet.
But that’s ok – because the whole thing is costing me £25.
The Joy Of OK Travel
Let’s investigate the word “OK” here.
Are you willing to inflict discomfort upon yourself as you travel? Not just an irritating half-hour wait on the tarmac, or watching as your phone battery hits 0% in the middle of writing a particularly awesome Facebook post. I’m talking about misery – the psychologically hard, entirely self-indulgent kind where nobody’s really to blame but you, forcing you to surf powerful waves of self-hatred until you reach your destination.
The kind where it’s awful and stupid and hey, you planned it that way, you dedicated traveller / damn fool?
The kind where you’re reluctant to explain what you’re doing to fellow passengers, especially if they look comfortable, happy and well-adjusted?
The kind that makes good travel stories – and also excludes you from a lot of polite society?
Travelling long-distance by Megabus can be exactly that kind of travel. You have to be ok with low-grade, slow-burn awfulness, which can strike at any time on such a journey. It’s a requirement. Get past that, and you’ll be able to appreciate why you’re doing this. Fail to get past it and you’ll lose your mind, escaping the bus at the first motorway service-station, never to be seen again.
Leeds To Barcelona: A Choose-Your-Own-Misery Adventure
Here’s the sequence of events that got me from Leeds (Yorkshire, England) to Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain).
2.30am: Leeds. I arrive at 5pm, on a Megabus from Hull (price: £1). After having dinner in town, I discover the Leeds bus station closed at 10pm, and can’t find anywhere open to spend the next few hours – so I hike half a mile out of town and go to sleep in a hedge. Four hours later, I board my first bus of the journey.
8am: Victoria Coach Station, London. Yawning, I stagger across the road into the Departures area, an overcrowded L-shaped corridor that gets more packed the closer you get towards the end. Megabus controls the final two stands, and the seats around them are always crowded. In the summer, it’s horribly close and sweaty. It’s not a fun place to linger. I didn’t.
10.30am: The Megabus to Paris departs! Incredibly, I’m on it. (I nearly wasn’t, thanks to dozing off in the corner of a nearby Caffe Nero.) We sway towards the coast. How does a zero-budget bus service cross the Channel? Will we drive straight into the waves, like the London Duck Tour bus, or sprout wings like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Will we be shot from a cannon? It’s time to find out.
12 noon: Somewhere under the English Channel. “Shot from a cannon” is closest. We (passengers, bus and all) are in a 0.75km long steel tube masquerading as a train, and it’s propelling us from Folkestone to Coquelles. Each carriage is separated with air-tight doors: you have to press a button to break the seal, then give the doors an ENORMOUS SHOVE to get through. The train toilets are always at least three or four shoves in each direction, and offer the train’s sole source of entertainment. Within minutes it’s too hot on the bus (no engine = no air-con) so we congregate outside to have a communal non-experience. It’s efficient, fast (30 minutes) and completely inhuman.
(Coming back the other way was much nicer, as Megabus chose to use the passenger ferry – giving us all a stunning first-light view of the white cliffs of Dover. More on that another time.)
1pm: France, heading for Paris. Pro tip for Megabus users: don’t sit in the middle seats, behind the window-covering logo of a friendly, unhealthy-looking man in a uniform I’ve never seen any Megabus driver wearing. Up close, it’s made of widely spaced plastic dots, leaving enough room to let the light through, but doing deeply unpleasant, insectoid things to your vision if you try to stare out. (“See Europe Like Brundlefly!”).
7pm: Paris. Quelle horreur. We’re not changing buses. This means all the hold luggage is staying put, and I can’t dig out my suitcase because it’s packed tight in there. No extra water, no food, no change of clothing. The bus leaves in…I’m not sure when the bus leaves. But I have to risk it.
9.15pm: Well, I found water to buy. I found…what I hope is food. I’m still wearing the shirt I set off from London in. But the bus is leaving Paris and I made it. Go me! I celebrate by falling into an uncomfortable sleep where I dream I work at a company that makes baths, and it’s my job to test them all. I wake up with sunlight streaming through…..oh no, I did it again. I’m in one of those window-seats. Brundlefly Spain, here I come.
6am: somewhere near Toulouse. My world is The Bus. There is nothing but The Bus. I was born here; I will die here. My entire reason for existing is to fill this seat. Soon I will expire and they will stop by the roadside and I will be gently lifted out and fed into the furnace at the heart of The Bus, to be converted into a few hundred more miles gained on the road to infinity. This is what I’m for. My bag is filled with things that make no sense. Why do I need a “passport” when The Bus is all there is? I gnaw on a mini-croissant and wait quietly for death.
11am: Estacio Nord Bus Station, Barcelona. I’m sitting on a station bench, sweating and trembling, my bags heaped around me, my senses overwhelmed. I am born again. What just happened? What did it all mean? I’ll never know, but I do know that I really need to pee, but alas, 11am is when they clean the toilets at the Estacio Nord bus station and I’ll just have to hunch over in agony until they’re done. Welcome to Catalonia, Mike!
How To Book Your Megabus Ticket
- Go to the Megabus site, here.
- Fill out the search form. NOTE: you will not find the cheapest prices unless you’re booking at least 3 weeks in advance. With less than a fortnight to go, the prices hike up alarmingly. You can get from London Gatwick to Barcelona for around £35, via EasyJet. If you’re trying to book with a couple of weeks to go? Look for flights. It’s comfier, quicker and probably cheaper.
- Find the cheapest journey – it should be in the £20-£30 range. Make sure you can be in Leeds (or wherever) at Stupid O’Clock in the morning/evening, when the bus departs.
- Get your passport ready: you need to key the number in before you complete your booking. You’re crossing multiple borders and you will be required to show I.D. Your Megabus driver needs this info because the French police may pull the bus over and ask for a passenger list. (This happened on the way back from Barcelona.) Also, the French border control is unpredictable and will either wave you through with a cursory glance as you wave your passport at the window, ask you to step out the bus and file through passport control, or just drag you out and shoot you.
- Complete your booking with a mixed sense of excitement and horror. Congratulations! You’re about to have an adventure you’ll never forget – even after therapy!
OK, Where Else In Europe?
Megabus also runs services from England to Scotland, Wales, France (obviously), Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands, giving you an enormous range of fantastically cheap and only occasionally miserable journeys to pick from.
My suggestion? Do one journey at a time. Leeds to London, rest; London to Paris, rest; Paris to Barcelona, rest – where “rest” entails a shower and at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Happy adventuring! And remember – feeling bad means you’re starting to get somewhere.
(All images: Mike Sowden).