9:30 AM EDT, September 30, 2013
The temperature outside the Des Moines Greyhound bus terminal on a February morning fell to a dangerously frigid 17 degrees below zero. But the bus driver who dropped off Ankur Singh and 10 other passengers so that they could wait for a connecting motorcoach, knowing that it would be an hour before the terminal would open, didn't seem to care.
"He had absolutely no sympathy at all," says Singh, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Bloomington, Ill. "He was completely apathetic."
Singh's experience offers a glimpse into a corner of the travel industry that receives practically no coverage or concern from the travel media: the conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of people who travel by bus.
After Singh's motorcoach, which originated in Minneapolis, left them at the station, the passengers huddled together outside the closed building. Singh opened his luggage and added layer upon layer of clothes in an effort to keep warm.
"The wait was awful," he says. "All we could do was huddle around for warmth. I remember one woman started shaking and her face turned really red. One passenger gave her his jacket. That act definitely restored my faith in humanity after being so poorly treated by Greyhound."
Greyhound denies that it mistreated Singh or the other passengers.
For starters, says Maureen Richmond, a company spokeswoman, Greyhound hasn't served Des Moines since last August. Singh was traveling on a so-called "interline" carrier -- the bus equivalent of a codeshare flight. So technically, it wasn't Greyhound that abandoned him and the other passengers to the elements.
"Greyhound terminals and agencies are open when buses are scheduled to arrive or depart," she said, adding, "We will work with the interline carriers to help ensure that their hours are consistent with the scheduled arrivals and departures."
Singh has been waiting a while to hear that. In February, he launched a petition on Change.org asking Greyhound to keep its terminals open, and this policy shift seems to address the loophole. It's one that has existed for a while now, and it's one that I should have exposed years ago.
Alex Slover told me about how he was locked out of a Greyhound station for nearly two hours during a recent snowstorm in Binghamton, N.Y. "There was a bus idling in the parking lot," remembers Slover, who at the time was a college student. "I tried to go in there to stay warm, but someone came over and told me to get out, saying they were trying to keep the bus from freezing or something, and that I couldn't be in there."
Christine Pearl remembers a stopover in Buffalo during Thanksgiving when she was shut out of the station late one evening after her connecting bus was delayed. "The person who closed the bus station didn't even tell us how late the bus would be, so we were just left standing outside wondering when the bus would show up," she recalls. "It was miserably cold and snowing. The snow actually leaked through my backpack and got some of my textbooks wet."
After half an hour, her bus arrived. Pearl, a first-year law student, sent a complaint to Greyhound but never heard back.
Greyhound says that passengers shouldn't have to wait outside its terminals and is in contact with Singh and other passengers who have been denied access to their stations, to "better understand the situation and offer assistance," says spokeswoman Richmond.
"The safety and security of all motorcoach passengers is a priority for us."
If stories like these are infuriating to travelers, they should be embarrassing to consumer advocates. Of course, no one should be left outside a bus terminal, regardless of who's operating the motorcoach. (The codeshare excuse doesn't fly with airlines; why should it with a bus?)
But travel journalists like me spill barrels of ink calling attention to the plight of airline passengers. We write about every little fee and frequent-flier offer, no matter how inconsequential, while ignoring the fate of the passengers who are freezing outside a decidedly less glamorous bus terminal.
Singh is hopeful that for now, at least, this problem has been fixed.
His petition collected nearly 90,000 signatures, and he says that he's reassured by Greyhound's promises that it won't lock any more passengers out of its terminals, even if they are on an interline bus.
Even so, he warns, when traveling by bus, "always be prepared for the unexpected."
To say the least. When airline codeshares get confused, it can lead to lost luggage or a missed connection. But this "interlining" story could have had much more serious consequences. Thank goodness it didn't.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at email@example.com. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)
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