Seats inside the MegaBus(Photo: WLTX)
Buses are starting to give airlines, trains, and even cars a run for their money. With spiffed up coaches, internet reservations, and often significantly cheaper fares, bus travel is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to flying, taking the train and even driving your own car, according to a new study released Monday.
"It's a . . . mode of travel that's really shaking things up,'' says Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute which conducted the study. "The ability to hop on a bus for half the price of the next cheapest option is a game changer.''
The study tracked the cost of taking a plane, bus or train from Oct. 2013 to January 2014 in 52 city pairs that ranged in distance from 100 to 500 miles.
Depending on whether tickets were bought a day, a week or 28 days in advance, a ride on an inter-city bus was on average 50% to 55% cheaper than a ride on Amtrak.
Taking the bus was even cheaper than driving a car, with a ticket bought the day before a trip costing 30.9% less on average than getting behind the wheel
"People are taking the bus who have cars sitting in their driveway, which is a new phenomenon,'' Schwieterman says.
Train travel is surging as well. A trip on Amtrak costs 55% to 73% less on average than an airline ticket, according to the DePaul University study.
And Amtrak is seeing record ridership. Last year, it ferried 31.6 million passengers, the most in its history, says Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz. Since 2006, ridership in the northeast corridor has increased 21%, while it has risen 38% during that period on routes of less than 750 miles across the country, Schulz says.
Together, Schwieterman and others say, buses and trains are filling a void left by airlines on some shorter routes, where flights have been reduced or scrapped altogether as carriers focus on more lucrative markets.
"Some of (Amtrak's) growth is due to the decrease in those short distance airline flights and the absence of other travel options,'' Schulz says. "I think it's fair to say that the changes in service provided to some of the smaller communities is an opportunity for Amtrak.''
Less than two years ago, Southwest offered four non-stop round trip flights a day between Chicago and Indianapolis. But it halted that service in November, 2012. Megabus, an express inter-city service meanwhile, has eight daily, non-stop trips each way between the two Midwestern cities.
Cost is a key factor in why bus travel is gaining in popularity, Schwieterman says. But so is a younger generation that is less attached to driving, and a bus sector that is redefining itself, adding amenities, technology and service to attract more passengers.
"It has a stigma that's withering away,'' Schwieterman says of bus travel. "It's no longer seen as a mode of last resort.''
Polina Raygorodskaya co-founded Wanderu, a website that enables travelers to shop for and book bus rides. Since launching in August, the site has had three million searches.
"Buses were always cheaper, but buses over the past ten years became cool,'' she says, noting that millennials appreciate the free Wi-Fi, electric plugs and extra leg room newer buses provide. "That coolness has started attracting the college student visiting a girlfriend for the weekend and the young professional going to Washington D.C. for a business meeting. They'd rather take a bus, plug in and use it as a mobile office.''
Raygorodskaya, who adds that her site also allows reservations on Amtrak, says that airlines may have a hard time competing, at least on shorter trips.
"As airlines are cutting costs and getting progressively worse, bus companies are doing everything they can to be more innovative,'' she says. "They're fighting for these customers . .. It's hard to convince us why we should be taking a plane when taking a bus or train is far more convenient.''
Schwieterman says that more business trekkers are starting to see the bus as a travel option. .
"On the east coast, we're seeing true briefcase carrying business travelers give the bus a try,'' he says. "I don't think it's terribly pervasive in other parts of the country yet . . . I think that can be the next big market, but it's still percolating.''
But Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights says that compared to air travel, a bus has limited appeal.
"If you're looking at it for families or business travelers, it's less of an option particularly once you start getting on routes over a couple of hours,'' Counter says, adding that the train is far more competitive with airlines, on routes of less than 300 miles. "The problem with bus travel is though it's cheap, you never know how long it's going to take based on traffic.''
Victoria Day, spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the industry trade group, says that when adjusted for inflation, the average round-trip domestic fare dropped 15% between 2000 and 2012.
"Airlines compete not only with each other, but also with other transportation modes, even in short-haul markets,'' she says. "There are times when airline customers pay for the convenience to travel a shorter amount of time and have the capability to include optional customer amenities such as food and entertainment.''
But bus lines are boosting their perks.
Megabus which launched in the U.S. in 2006, carries roughly 10 million passengers a year on double-decker coaches outfitted with power outlets and Wi-Fi.
While there are no middle seats, allowing everyone to get an aisle or a window perch, Megabus announced earlier this month that riders could reserve the most coveted seats. The bus lines has Facebook and Twitter accounts which can help followers get first crack at its one-dollar fares, as well as a mobile app that gives arrival-time updates when traffic slows down the ride.
"We're introducing people to a form of travel that's been around for a long time, but now it's the 21st century version,'' says Mike Alvich, vice-president of marketing and public relations for Coach USA/megabus.com.
While college students make up a significant share of their riders, business trekkers are a small but growing segment, Alvich says. And while the company isn't actively scouting for routes abandoned by the airlines, if Megabus sees an uptick in passengers after a carrier pulls out, "we'll absolutely start to put on additional service.'
Greyhound, which will turn a century old in May, has updated its image, installing reclining leather seats and free WiFi. In 2010 , it started Greyhound Express, which makes non-stop runs between major cities, and allows passengers to reserve seats.
Greyhound also launched BoltBus in 2008. The discount express line offers service between major cities in the Northeast and West Coast, picking up passengers primarily at curbside stops rather than traditional terminals.
Luxury bus lines are also making a mark. RedCoach, which provides service to cities throughout Florida, boasts buses that have free WiFi and seat trays. The roomier first class coaches offer snack boxes, and both first class and business class buses feature flat screen t.v.'s so passengers can watch movies.
RedCoach officials say they saw a need in a state where flights between Miami and the state capital in Tallahassee could cost as much as $1,600.
"That's a lot of money for 500 miles,'' says Florencia Cirigliano, RedCoach's vice president of marketing and public relations.
Except for select days, the most a RedCoach rider would pay for that route is $180 round trip.
Business passengers make up 30% of RedCoach's ridership. "You can sleep on the bus . . and if you're a lawyer with billable hours, you can work there,'' she says. "There's a lot of things you can do instead of being stuck in a car or paying that much to fly to Tallahassee.''