When I heard Greyhound was hitting the road in England, I had to hitch a ride. The company that hauls road-trippers is so quintessentially American that is was difficult picturing its buses in the British countryside without seeing it for myself.
So I booked a roundtrip ticket from London to Portsmouth, on the Southern coast, one of the two destinations Greyhound offers. I am not sure why I volunteered. My extensive bussing experience along the East Coast of the United States wasn't overall a positive one. I have bad memories of one particular journey from Boston to Montreal to visit a friend at McGill University…the interminable stops at deserted bus depots, the screeching old seats, the back pain that lingered for days after.
Logging on to the Web site, my first surprise was the fares. A two-hour journey for $1.6 (£1)? Fearing the page might refresh and reveal a steeper price, I clicked away. But it's not a bug: the first 20% of fares on each bus cost $1.6. Including the booking fee, my roundtrip cost $4 (£2.5), a pittance of a bus fare for a roughly 100-mile ride.
The bus waiting for me at London's Victoria Station is a spanking new coach, dark and slick. Just a second to reminisce on the old-fashioned Greyhound buses with their metallic lining, and rock-hard seats, and I board my ride, named Good Golly Miss Molly, an Englishman's idea of an American name. I would have preferred Jolene or Sweet Caroline.
To my surprise, when the bus takes off, there's only four of us on board. I was expecting a crowd. Very unlike the time in Wilmington, Va., when cancellations almost caused me injury as a mass of travellers pushed and shoved trying, stampede-like to board a single Greyhound bus. Greyhound being a family name in the states, I was expecting American tourists and expats to show up. In fact, the other passengers were British.
Settled in with my free newspaper and the legroom of a business class seat, I must admit it feels pretty exclusive. But what I was really looking forward to was the Wi-Fi access advertised on the Greyhound site and everywhere on board – such a plus on the long-haul journeys. I was disappointed that it failed on both legs of the trip. I also noticed that the seats lacked a flip down table to rest a laptop on. Deprived of contact with the e-world I turn to my fellow passengers.
Meera Joshi, a student at Portsmouth University, tells me she used to travel on the largest U.K. bus company, National Express, which has fares at $8 (£5). "They're both very good services but I'm just very impressed with the prices of this one," she says. "I hope they stay as low as they are right now!"
FirstGroup, which owns Greyhound, told me the first 20 percent seats on each bus will remain at $1.6, while the rest will average $11.5. If so, and with two-way train fares at $33 (£20) , Greyhound should carve itself a good slice of the market among students. And students are not the only travelers. On the journey back to London aboard the Sweet Caroline (finally), I meet Nelson Da Silva and his wife, on their way to an evening out on the town.
"I've first read about Greyhound in the newspaper," Nelson told me. "The seats are very comfortable, I mean the journey is so pleasant really, and with so much leg room! That is the reason why it is so excellent."
As for me, I quite enjoyed my visit to Portsmouth. The town's seaside attitude offers a good respite from the buzz of London. I stopped by Gunwarf Quays, an outdoor mall of bars, restaurants and factory outlets, for a quick bite. The marina also offers some decent boat-spotting, and the bus drops you off a couple of yards from the ferry to the Isle of Wight, if you fancy a longer break and some true British seaside. Not bad, for $1.6.