After nearly half a century of decline in the bus industry, a new
breed of sleek, Wi-Fi-pumping intercity coach is transforming the
image of buses as the much-ridiculed travel option of last resort.
With free Internet connections, tickets as cheap as $1 and decent
legroom, companies such as Megabus.com and BoltBus are luring
holiday travelers disenchanted with the hair-pulling rituals of
airports and driving.
"I've been doing it for a couple of years and it is a nice ride,"
said theater student Natalie Sienicki, 22, sitting inside a blue
double-decker Megabus idling on a windy, snowy street corner near
the grand colonnades of Chicago's Union Station.
Her journey on Monday was not only cheaper than flying ($56
roundtrip) but also took her all the way to her destination in Ann
Arbor, Mich. If she had traveled by air, Sienicki would have had to
make a side trip through Detroit.
The new bus services are capitalizing on generational and
technological shifts: younger urbanites are espousing a car-free
lifestyle, and gadget-wielding travelers of all ages increasingly
expect to buy tickets online and stay connected for the duration of
"Young people have no great psychological connection with the car,"
said transportation trends researcher Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul
University in Chicago. "They just want to get from Point A to Point
B, and being able to use their electronic device on the way is a
Many new bus carriers offer free Wi-Fi and have electrical outlets
at each seat. Megabus.com has slapped GPS tracking devices on its
fleet of 300 double-decker buses, allowing travelers and the people
waiting for them on the other end to track the trip in real time
with a smartphone app.
"Those kinds of things we feel really matter," said Mike Alvich,
Megabus.com's vice president for marketing. Such innovations along
with the prices, he said, are why Megabus.com has enjoyed so much
success pulling people out of their cars. The company says 30
percent of its customers are people who otherwise would have taken a
car for the same trip.
In another technological leap, new companies such as Wanderu have
emerged to become the Expedia or Travelocity of buses, offering
deal-seekers the chance to compare prices.
The industry is using a demand-driven pricing model common to
airlines and hotels but with a much lower starting point: as little
as $1. Prices go up the closer you get to the date of travel and as
the bus fills up, but for someone traveling alone a last-minute
booking is often still cheaper than driving.
The companies are able to offer such cheap seats because their
online-only booking systems save them from having to staff ticket
offices. Operating from curbsides rather than bus terminals also
keeps costs low.
It also helps that the typical 18- to 35-year-old passenger barely
remembers the bad old days of bus travel. That image problem endures
for older travelers who braved interminable bus trips that launched
from seedy downtowns, included numerous stops and were often
punctuated along the way by the — let's call them eccentricities —
of a fellow passenger or two.
[to top of second column]
"I had visions of 'Midnight Cowboy,' but this is nice," 31-year-old
Andy Dale joked, referring to the movie in which Dustin Hoffman's
character dies of an illness on a bus journey. But his
Michigan-bound Megabus was a lot more comfortable than he'd
imagined, Dale said.
There's even a touch of razzle-dazzle from companies like Lux Bus
America, which operates in southern California and goes to Las
Vegas. It bills itself as an "airline on the ground." Its fleet has
leather seats with comfy headrests and seatback entertainment
systems. An attendant serves up beverages, snacks, pillows and
The bus rebirth began around 2006, when Megabus.com, which first
started in Britain, entered the U.S. market in Chicago. It now
operates in 120 cities in North America and hit 30 million customers
Buses are now the fastest growing form of intercity travel in the
U.S., according to a study released this year by DePaul's Chaddick
Institute for Metropolitan Development.
The study found that service by discount operators rose by more than
30 percent from 2011-2012. The 2013 numbers are still not in, but
Schwieterman, who co-authored the study, expects the sector's
scheduled operations to top 1,200 for the year.
No baggage fees, security hassles or limits on using laptops are
some of the reasons the companies are drawing more passengers like
Alex Leopold, who said she'd rather take the nine-hour Megabus ride
from Chicago to Nashville than fly.
"This is reliable, and there aren't any layovers," the 20-year-old
DePaul advertising student said, an ear bud dangling from one ear as
she waited to board.
The traditional Greyhound service also has rebounded somewhat after
decades of cuts. It spun off the BoltBus brand in 2008 to get into
the discount game.
BoltBus General Manager David Hall says he has been blown away by
"It's a bit overwhelming, quite frankly," Hall said. "... You get
people who haven't ridden the bus in years, and yet they're coming
down to give us a try because they've heard it's cool."
Press; JASON KEYSER]
Associated Press writer
Don Babwin contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated
Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.