Intercity bus lines look to win over wary travelers with upgraded, expanded services
- Intercity bus travel may have been challenged, yet new entrants and existing operators are upping their game in bids to take on both the airlines and Amtrak.
- The Jet debuted 14-seat luxury service between New York and Washington in November, while Florida-based RedCoach has expanded premium services to the "Texas Triangle."
- "There's a whole new breed of business-class services that are wooing airport-weary flyers," said DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman.
For New York City resident James Gilmer, 28, long-distance travel by bus usually means something very specific: getting to and from his hometown of Pittsburgh during the holidays.
It's a routine — and route — familiar from childhood, when he and his sister would take Megabus to Manhattan to visit cousins for New Year's. Otherwise, Gilmer, now an artist with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, hasn't really been a regular bus rider, apart from local commutes and occasional road tours to nearby cities with the dance company.
"I don't have anything against it," he said, referring to motorcoach leisure travel. "But the specific situation of traveling from Pittsburgh to New York has a familiarity about it for me that doesn't exist anywhere else, in terms of feeling comfortable aboard a bus."
More from Personal Finance:
How to spend less on gas for your holiday road travel
Overspending, uncertainty could spoil holiday travel fun in 2021
Here are the 10 most underrated national parks in the U.S.
When it comes to consumer comfort levels, bus travel often gets a bum rap. In the popular imagination, buses are often the travel option of last resort.
Given that bias, said Florencia Cirigliano, vice president of marketing for RedCoach — a luxury service with origins in Argentina that has operated in Florida since 2010 — her company saw an opportunity more than a decade ago. "People here are used to bus travel, but it's a different kind of bus travel," she said. "When we started, people said 'What are you doing? Americans don't want buses.'
"But many people who would never get on a regular bus would probably jump out of their cars if they were given our kind of bus option," Cirigliano said.
Indeed, someone's been riding buses — of all types — all this time in the U.S. According to Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, an industry group, in 2019 nearly 3,000 motorcoach companies provided a record 600 million passenger trips or so and employed about 100,000 workers.
Then Covid hit. "With point-to-point [buses] … overall, it's probably about 50% of where it was in 2019 and slowly coming back," he said, referring to current passenger numbers. "But every time there's a new variant, you know, the brakes go on and people pull back again."
Still, Joseph Schwieterman, professor in the School for Public Service, Department of Public Policy and Sustainable Urban Development at DePaul University, called this "an exciting time" in the industry, which serves twice as many U.S. travelers as Amtrak.
"For the first time, we have three big national brands: Greyhound, Megabus and now FlixBus," he said. (FlixBus USA parent FlixMobility acquired Greyhound on Oct. 21, but the brands have not been integrated.)
"They each feel pressure to keep up with the latest tech conveniences, [such as] mobile boarding passes and bus tracker programs, and Megabus even has reserved seats," said Schwieterman. "All three also stress value — rival service at an attractive price."
Branding services as premium does reassure travelers who have reservations about buses.Joseph SchwietermanProfessor at DePaul University
One trend that's picked up steam in the last five years is business- or first-class motorcoach lines that offer point-to-point service along with limited, luxury seating; food and drinks; and, in some cases, on-board attendants. They are also competitively priced compared to rail and air offerings on similar routes, and are often highly discounted in comparison.
"There's a whole new breed of business-class services that are wooing airport-weary flyers," said Schwieterman. "The sweet spot is a distance of between 125 miles and 250 miles — maybe 300 on the absolute upside — where it's short enough that a bus trip doesn't take an eternity."
One obvious candidate is the New York-to-Washington corridor. The approximately 225-mile-long route is already served by airline shuttles, Amtrak and several discount motorcoach lines, yet new entrant The Jet launched direct, first-class service between Hudson Yards in Manhattan and D.C.'s Metro Center in November, starting at $99 one way.
That fare, on a route where a business-class airline ticket can run $250 and up, gets passengers a reserved "HoverSeat" motion-canceling seat with a 45-degree recline, fast-streaming Wi-Fi; on-demand attendant service; and access to a large upscale restroom. In a nod to both comfort and Covid-awareness, the number of seats was reduced to 14, from a planned 19; rows are spaced 6 feet apart; and a state-of-the-art UV air filtration system was installed. The JetSet rewards program will launch soon, as well.
The real standout aboard is the HoverSeat, the first-ever application of existing commercial technology to passenger service, according to Chad Scarborough, founder and CEO of The Jet. An active, independent seat suspension reads what's happening beneath riders 100 times per second — and reacts accordingly.
"If it feels a bump, it measures the bump and then moves the seat in the exact opposite direction to counteract it," he said, noting that leg rests and tray tables move in sync with the seat. "So you end up just kind of floating for the whole ride … seeing the bus bounce around you."
Rethinking intercity bus travel
Scarborough said he wanted to completely rethink intercity travel. "We're trying to eliminate all the pain points [and] create a true first-class experience from booking through destination — but at a very reasonable price," he said.
The Jet is offering two nonstop departures a day between New York and Washington between Friday and Sunday. Scarborough hopes to scale up to four departures per day, every day of the week, come spring, and is also considering other point-to-point nonstop services in the two metro areas.
Other motorcoach lines have been offering deluxe direct services for years.
C&J Bus Lines recently upped frequencies of its existing services between New York and three cities in New England. Its buses to Portsmouth and Seabrook in New Hampshire and Tewksbury, Massachusetts, feature first-class double or single seating, power outlets, Wi-Fi and a self-service refreshment galley.
For its part, RedCoach — which has transported more than 25 million business and leisure travel passengers in the last decade on its existing Florida routes —expanded on Oct. 15 to Texas, connecting Austin, Dallas and Houston (with stops in Waco and College Station) with its fleet of 27-seat first-class or 38-seat business-class motorcoaches. Maximum one-way fares on Texas routes range from $60 to $120.
"When people try our seating and experience the comfort, the Wi-Fi [and] the convenience of our [drop-off] locations compared to flying and going through the TSA and all, they're kind of hooked," said Cirigliano. What's more, unlike airlines, RedCoach doesn't charge for seat assignments or luggage (two pieces and a carry-on are allowed for free) and some routes offer on-board refreshments. The firm also offers a loyalty rewards program, called RedRiders.
The Covid-19 pandemic may have hit many transportation companies hard since March 2020, but RedCoach never stopped operating its lower-density coaches and, the de facto on-board social distancing thanks to fewer seats became a selling point, she said. Now, rising gases prices are making the line's routes look even better to many Texans and Floridians who might other drive themselves.
"With all the wear and tear, the mileage and how much it costs to fill your tank, [driving] adds up," Cirigliano said. "We're luxury but also affordable and we want to make this concept available to everybody."
Changing passengers' mindset
Schwieterman at DePaul University estimates that a dozen motorcoach lines have now gotten into the game. "Most of the premium brands are special offerings by mainstream carriers," he said.
For example, Vamoose, with service on the New York-Washington corridor, now offers up to four Vamoose Gold departures a day, with 34 wider leather seats (compared to their standard coach-class of 56), more leg room, reading lights, in-seat power and bottled water. Other lines with premium offerings include BestBus, competing with Vamoose; Dartmouth, another New York-New England operator; and Vonlone, in Texas and Oklahoma.
"Branding services as premium does reassure travelers who have reservations about buses," said Schwieterman. "It's a game-changer if done correctly and these business-class operators are going to have an easier task of winning over reluctant customers."
Correction: RedCoach operates first-class motorcoaches with 26 seats in Texas, where maximum one-way fares range from $15 to $35. An incorrect seat count and prices appeared in an earlier version of this story.