Bolting To New York For One Lousy Buck
I went from the District to Manhattan last week and my trip involved two trains and a bus. Can you rank the three pieces of my journey by how much they cost?
--Metro from Northwest D.C. to Metro Center.
--Bus from downtown Washington to midtown Manhattan.
--Subway from 33rd Street to 57th Street in New York.
Answer: The three elements of the trip cost $1.35, $1.50 and $2--in the order I listed the modes of transportation above.
I didn't believe it till the bus pulled away from the curb, but I really got a 225-mile trip for $1.50.
Consider me a convert to Bolt Bus.
Bolt is a new effort by the folks at Greyhound to come to terms with the newly competitive nature of the East Coast intercity bus business. Ever since the various Chinatown bus services arrived on the scene a few years ago, the Big Dog has been left to chase his own tail. Everything the hound did, the Chinatown buses did better: The upstarts were cheaper, faster, more flexible and, most important for many Washington passengers, the Chinatown buses didn't require you to suck it up and head over to Greyhound's sleazy Northeast station.
The Big Dog tried to fight back against the Chinatown buses by helping to spread the word that the upstarts were unsafe and unreliable. But riders like me didn't care--we preferred to take our chances on the cheap trip, even if some of the drivers seemed more interested in smoking, eating and nonstop chatting while they operated the bus. Greyhound even tried suing the Chinatown bus services, alleging that they were operating without proper safety precautions. I didn't mind the alleged unsafe practices in the least and neither did thousands of others.
So now Greyhound is fighting back the right way, with a bus service that's cheaper, faster, more convenient and in every way better than either the Chinatown services or even its own more expensive Greyhound Classic buses.
The Bolt is a spanking new orange and black coach--so new it has the most intense new car smell I've ever sniffed--that pulls up to the southeast corner of 11th and G streets NW 12 minutes early. (It will pull out two minutes early, another impressive touch.) The driver, dressed in a neat, form-fitting Bolt Bus black sweater and a black uni, just glances at the boarding pass you've printed out at home and you're on your way. Service started last week, so I guess the fact that there were a grand total of six people on my midday trip to New York is not necessarily a sign of lack of customer interest.
On my trip, three of the six passengers chose Bolt because its buses offer wireless service all along the route (though a couple of folks complained that the reception was slow--hey, for a buck, hold the whining.) All of us chose Bolt because of the price. One woman, a student at the University of Maryland, said she picked Bolt because "I heard it's owned by Peter Pan/Greyhound, so it's reputable-ish."
Only two of us got the $1 fare (there's a 50-cent booking fee online, which is the main way to buy Bolt seats). The others paid $5 or $7, except for the one walk-on, who paid $20, which is still less than Greyhound and less than a third the cost of a regional Amtrak train around the same time of day. Bolt uses a Southwest Airlines-style fare system in which a few seats on each trip are sold at ludicrously cheap levels and the prices bump up a notch or two as more seats sell and as the time before the trip diminishes. But the service's highest fares remain competitive with the Chinatown buses and cheaper than real Greyhound (which these days offers a $22 web-only one-way fare to New York.)
The Bolt bus was sparkling clean with black velour seats and heavily tinted windows.While there were three flat-screen TVs on board, luckily they were not in operation. Indeed, our driver told us that while "we usually say to please keep conversation to a minimum so you don't disturb your neighbors, today you can do whatever you want" because there were so few of us and we were spread all around the bus. I used three rows for my various paraphernalia.
We made it to 33rd Street on Manhattan's West Side in three hours and fifty two minutes--eight minutes longer than an Amtrak local train I took on the way home and 25 minutes shorter than the scheduled time for Greyhound's D.C.-NYC run. It was a remarkably smooth ride, with a courteous and friendly driver who helped folks with their luggage. And best of all, Bolt, unlike some of its competitors, makes no potty stop--just a nonstop Bolt to the big city. Anytime I'm on a Chinatown bus that makes a pit stop, I cross that company off my list.
But Bolt won't be alone in the buck-a-trip biz for long. On May 30, a Scottish-owned company called Megabus is jumping into the fray with 11 departures daily from the District to Manhattan, leaving from Union Station, a new wrinkle in the downtown street corner vs. Greyhound bus station competition. Megabus doesn't have its full range of fares up on its site yet, but it has committed to $1 fares for some passengers.
Given the price of gas and tolls, not to mention insurance and taxes, these companies can't keep up these bargain basement fares for long, so grab them now. You can always go back to the seething, cursing, wild-driving, smoking Chinatown drivers; those trips get you there for next to nothing, but they feel as cheap as they are.
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