Wednesday, April 09, 2014

BOLTBUS: Lightning on Wheels?

Not quite, but the pricing is right, if the sparse schedule is not. 

Photo: Leonard Wilson (c)
The lightning bolt slicing through the ‘O’ of BOLTBUS' branded logo may be an overzealous association with the reality of the service, but the prices are still better than its direct West Coast competitor, megabus.

I caught wind a while back of a Groupon for the Greyhound-owned and operated bus service. Since there’s no way I can pass up a $20 roundtrip ticket I slurped one up and used it to head to Napa from Los Angeles. 

Although the service has existed in the Northeast United States since 2008, it began serving the West Coast — including Vancouver, BC — in 2012 and California last year. Its sole point of departure (as well as megabus' service) from Los Angeles is Union Station, and hopefully the newness of the L.A. service accounts for there being no directions or signage at the station though emailed information told me the general area from which to board. 

At the designated curb in front of the large transit hub — not the bus bays where Amtrak, megabus, and other Greyhound coaches depart —  a cheerful, friendly company attendant greeted and checked me and my reserved seat off her list. Given the early departure, 8 a.m., I was charmed at the earnest, smiling girl who offered a passing transient cans of soup between checking in passengers. I can get behind a company who hires such compassionate people. The one sign indicating the boarding area materialized when the bus arrived. The attendant pulled it out of the luggage storage area of the coach and put it in place on the sidewalk. 

BOLTBUS is clearly Greyhound’s attempt to revamp its long-ailing reputation as a people mover for the poor at a very slow pace. It doesn’t widely advertise the association between the brands, promoting BOLTBUS as an equally hip alternative to megabus. The problem is with the schedule. While megabus has six runs between Los Angeles and San Francisco starting at 6:30 in the morning and ending with an overnight 11:30 trip, BOLTBUS has just three: 8 a.m., 12 p.m., and 2:45 p.m.

The service shoots between most of its destinations with minimal stops, which is its major selling point over traditional Greyhound routes. In my case, though, the bus stopped in San Jose and downtown San Francisco before terminating in Oakland. It took about eight hours compared to roughly six if I had driven to Oakland, or an hour and twenty minutes if I had flown. But it was $20, compared to the $204 that Southwest Airlines would have cost. The bus was brand new and immaculately clean. The seats were assigned, though the passengers were allowed to seat ourselves where we chose because it was half empty — everyone had two seats to him or herself. Good for the grumpy and unfriendly like me, but bad for business. 

As for the price, the $20 Groupon was about half the full ticket fare. Though BOLTBUS boasts $1 tickets (one-way), I had to search through seven or eight days in the online schedule to find one. Full-price tickets range from about $18 to $40 each way. megabus fares top out at about $50 each way. Although I wouldn’t have been able to do this kind of online research while I was on the bus. There is WiFi, but for me it took several tries to connect and failed frequently. On the trip home, the electrical outlet at my seat didn’t work. The last thing that I had to get used to was the absence of a sink in the lavatory — there’s hand sanitizer instead, which, when I think of it is an inspired decision given how untidy and wet a moving toilet can be. 


It’s certainly not fast as lightning, and I’m not sure I’d pay $80 for an eight-hour trip if I could get a commuter flight for less than $200, but there is value in BOLTBUS if you’ve got the time. Hopefully, the company has the time to build the ridership and business it will take to put more options on the schedule. If not, BOLTBUS may be as fleeting as lightning. 

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