The Rebirth of Buses: N.Y. to D.C. for $1

ALONG INTERSTATE 95 -- Imagine traveling from New York to Washington -- and back -- for less than the cost of a gallon of gas. Sounds impossible, right?

Not anymore.

A new bus line started service Thursday offering tickets on the well-traveled route for as low as $1 each way. The company, called BoltBus, is the latest in a series of supercheap bus lines across the country trying to woo travelers away from trains, planes and their own cars.

So what do you get for $1?

I decided to find out for myself.

First, I must point out that not everybody gets that $1 fare. BoltBus offers at least one seat on each bus for that rockbottom price. Then as seats start to fill up, the price goes up.

If you are, say, the fourth person to book a seat, it might cost $7. Wait a little longer, maybe $10 or $15. The top price is $20 if booked online, $25 if you buy your ticket last-minute from the driver. (There is also a 50-cent surcharge for booking online.)

"The earlier you book the seat, the cheaper it will be," said Dustin Clark, a spokesman for the bus line.

Basically, if you want a cheap trip you need to book early and do it over the Internet with a credit card. That is in stark contrast to Greyhound's traditional service where, Clark said, 90 percent of the tickets are purchased at bus terminals or over the phone.

Another change that saves money: BoltBus doesn't use the normal city bus depots. The bus picks up and drops off passengers at a designated street corner in each city.

With the train and the plane -- or even a regular Greyhound bus -- there is usually an indoor or covered place to sit and wait. For my trip on BoltBus, I found myself standing on a street corner in Washington, D.C., waiting.

And then it started to rain.

Passengers huddled together under umbrellas, counting down the minutes until the bus arrived.

I had to remind myself: The ticket cost only a dollar.

Bus Traffic Grows

BoltBus -- a joint operation of Greyhound and Peter Pan bus lines -- is part of a growing number of bus companies trying to draw the American public back to motor coaches.

U.S. cities lost nearly one-third of their scheduled intercity bus service between 1960 and 1980, and more than half of the remaining service between 1980 and early 2006, according to a study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago.

Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul professor and director of the institute, said that in those decades buses were filled with low-income travelers and almost nobody else.

"Women traveling alone, who were once the staple of the bus market, fled partly out of fears about safety," he said. "The inner cities also deteriorated, which made bus stations places to avoid. And of course, discount airline travel became widely pervasive."

Schwieterman said that now, after those decades of decline, bus travel is having a national resurgence in popularity.

"Young people don't feel any particular stigma riding the bus, unlike us old-timers who came to see buses as a mode of last resort," he said. "It's been a remarkable combination of factors ranging from sky-high fuel costs to growing frustration with traffic congestion."

While bus travel has started to rebound, it is still consumed by individuals traveling alone for vacation or to visit friends and family.

"There are a few briefcase carrying business travelers onboard, and we still don't see a lot of families," Schwieterman said. "It tends to be younger people and leisure travelers coming to the big city."

The BoltBus Crowd

My fellow passengers were mostly those who decided to make the trip simply because the fare was so low.

Andrea Nazarian, from Gaithersburg, Md., and her two sons and mother decided to spend a night in New York. Their plan: visit the Museum of Modern Art, one of the few sites they have not seen in New York. (By the way, admission to the museum is $20, making the bus ride really seem like a bargain.)

So why did the family decide to take the trip?

"Because it was a dollar," Nazarian said, adding that it cost her more to take the subway to the bus stop.

In the past, the family has driven, flown and taken the train. This was its first time taking the bus.

Did they think there was a stigma to taking a bus?

"I don't think so anymore," Nazarian said. "Especially with the price of gas, who cares?"

Doris Henry and her daughter, Neisha, were doing a day trip to New York.

"I saw $1 and I couldn't believe it," Henry said. "So I'm taking a day to spend some quality time with my daughter."

"You can't compare it to driving. Considering gas and tolls, it's quite a bargain," she added. "I love Amtrak, but it's expensive."

Smart Marketing

BoltBus is just the latest transportation company to lure passengers in with the promise of ridiculously low prices. The idea is to catch somebody's attention who might have never thought about making the trip.

Last year, Skybus Airlines launched service with at least one seat on each of its flights for $10. And just this week, Spirit Airlines was running another ridiculously low-priced promotion, offering some seats for a penny.

BoltBus even boards by groups -- A, B, C, -- a system pioneered by discounter Southwest Airlines.

Two years ago, Coach USA launched a discount bus line called Megabus, which offered intercity travel for as low as $1. It started with service from Chicago to other Midwest cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cleveland. In August, the company added bus routes out of Los Angeles to other California cities and to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Now Megabus plans to go head-to-head with BoltBus on the East Coast. BoltBus plans to start service between New York and Boston sometime in April, and its Web site also mentions planned service to Philadelphia.

Megabus plans to serve all those cities plus Baltimore, Buffalo, N.Y., and Toronto.

These lines have to compete with so-called Chinatown buses: low-fare bus lines like Fung Wah and Lucky Star that operate between the two cities' Chinese neighborhoods, as well as other new upstarts, including DC2NY, Vamoose and Washington DeLuxe.

Also trying to get a piece of the action is LimoLiner, which casts itself as an upscale bus with leather seats, a private rear cabin for up to 10 people to hold meetings, complimentary snacks and drinks, satellite TV with news channels and fresh flowers in the bathroom, the bus line's "signature touch."

LimoLiner, however, charges a hefty $89 one way between New York and Boston.

For $1, BoltBus wasn't quite as lavish.

But BoltBus and other bus companies are trying to shed the image held by many Americans of buses being rundown and uncomfortable.

The new sales pitch: free wireless Internet and power outlets. I have to admit, the ability to surf the Web on my laptop was a big selling point for me -- until I actually got on the bus. The connection was slow and I hit a few dead zones. There was only one other person on my half-full bus who had a laptop out.

Also missing: a place to put my laptop. BoltBus doesn't have any tray tables, leaving my laptop to rest on, well, my lap.

The bus was scheduled to take just four hours, compared with Greyhound's express bus at 4 hours 20 minutes. (How do they cut out those 20 minutes? Clark, the spokesman for both companies said, "I don't know.")

Regardless, the bus was 27 minutes late. But did I care? No. it still cost less than a penny for each mile I traveled.