Megabus express routes include stops in Madison and Milwaukee.
Even on a glorious, wintry day of bright sun and no wind, we bounce uncomfortably from one foot to another. Our ride is late; no indoor refuge is near; and we have no clue about how long of a delay to expect.
The silver linings: It's noon, not midnight. About 20 of us share the predicament. We are not being pelted with sleet or rain. And the price is right.
About 45 minutes after our scheduled departure, a bright blue and double-decker bus turns into a parking lot near the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Luggage and people are loaded swiftly, and soon we head to Madison, Chicago and - for some - far beyond.
How much we pay to ride this Megabus depends upon when tickets were booked. I dawdled a bit too long and ended up paying $8 to ride north and $12 to return to Madison; the tickets were only $3 and $8 when my trip planning began.
Others pay as little as $1, and this is why our grumbling about tardiness and the potentially harsh pickup site are minimal. Just the cost to park one night in Minneapolis is more than what I pay to ride.
Factor in gasoline prices and the stress of driving in winter (I board within hours of a 15-inch snowstorm in the Twin Cities). You could say the experience is priceless, as was the top-deck view of all that fresh snow, seen as the bus rolled along and I simply enjoyed the scenery.
Once on board, it's warm, clean and quiet - and that was even the case en route to Minnesota, when nearly every seat was occupied, most by college kids heading home for the semester break. Some people traveling together had to sit apart.
At bus seats are electrical outlets for laptops. WiFi access is free but sometimes pokey or interrupted. The on-board restroom begins clean; patrons decide whether it stays that way. The bus driver stops only once between Minneapolis and Madison, about 30 minutes for a lunch-bathroom break.
In Chicago, riders disembark a block from Union Station, for easy hook-ups to the Loop, a train or Megabus to another state. That's where I picked up a Megabus to Indianapolis in late summer, a ride that also began about 45 minutes later than scheduled. Passengers stood unshielded from heat, but had the weather been wet or otherwise unwieldy, I'd have crossed the street for refuge under a long awning.
The reasons people ride are about as varied as you can imagine. Besides college students looking for a cheap ride, I've encountered white collars en route to business meetings and poor people with hard-luck stories. Megabus is how a single parent finds a way to maintain contact with a son in foster care. It helps a newly divorced man move forward by going back home. It allows sisters to stay connected, friendships to stay fresh and romances to blossom.
Strangers start as seatmates, and two in rapid-fire conversation near me had all but exchanged phone numbers and kisses, before the bus pulled out of town.
And then there are the wanderers, the travelers who wear layers, carry bedrolls and backpacks. They aim to snooze soon after nestling into a seat. They travel light, but you don't know if their hearts are heavy. At the end of the line, you wonder whether their journey has ended or only begun, and whether their trip is an escape or a solution.
What a way to travel across the country, if you have the time or need to hit the road.
The addition of light rail in the Twin Cities makes the area easier to navigate with public transportation, which is what I relied upon during my two-night, wintry stay. The hardest part was toting a suitcase eight blocks to my hotel; wheels were useless on poorly cleared sidewalks and street corners.
Later I realized it would have been far easier to use the city's indoor, eight-mile skywalk system, but I didn't think it extended as far as it does. Above-ground, enclosed and climate-controlled bridges link many downtown buildings and would have gotten me within a block of lodging.
I paid $6 for a 24-hour transit pass, which meant unlimited rides on the light rail and city buses. The 12-mile Hiawatha line got me from downtown Minneapolis to Mall of America in about 40 minutes; a train shows up every 8-15 minutes, and the 19 stops include two at the airport.
The same transit pass also transported me dozens of blocks on and near Nicollet Mall, the heart of downtown shopping, dining and nightlife. Waits were minimal; buses were clean; and drivers helpful and friendly.
For more about public transportation in the Twin Cities: metrotransit.org, 612-373-3333. A new line between Minneapolis and St. Paul opens in 2014.
For an interactive map of the Minneapolis skyway maze: skywaymyway.com. Note that skyway bridges are not open 24 hours a day, but hours are suitable for most needs of visitors.
It's also helpful to book a hotel with shuttle service, even if it is limited to major venues.
Megabus routes between Chicago and Minneapolis include stops in Milwaukee and Madison (but the two cities aren't on the same route). The trip from Madison to Minneapolis takes 5.5 hours, and it's 2.5 hours (or more) to Chicago. From Milwaukee, it's six hours to Minneapolis and two to Chicago. Purchase a ticket to ride in advance; you can't just show up and pay to ride.
In Chicago, Megabus routes connect about 40 cities.
Despite my tales about Megabus tardiness, don't show up late. I've also seen these buses leave right on time. Extreme delays are posted online at megabus.com, which also is the place to buy tickets.
Megabus service began in 2006 and now links at least 120 cities in North America. It also operates in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and United Kingdom. It is a Coach USA subsidiary.
Why visit the Twin Cities in winter? Tune in next week for good reasons.
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