Bus travel between New York and the cities of Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Boston is nothing new. Greyhound has offered this service since early in the 20th century, and the advent of discounted e-fares means prices of as little as $20 each way or $35 for a round trip. Meanwhile, so-called Chinatown buses, operating under any of a dozen company names but ultimately very similar in their practices, offer competition to America's de facto national bus carrier.
Despite all of their efforts, though, neither Greyhound and its affiliates nor its Chinatown competitors have been able to escape the fundamental truths. The seats are comfortable at boarding but too cramped for long-distance trips. You can bring a laptop but you'll run out of power. In other words, you take the bus because it's cheap--but that's all.
Until now, anyway. There's a new way to travel by bus along the East Coast. It's called BoltBus, and it's different. How different? Start with legroom: by removing seats, the company has added about 3" of legroom for each passenger. That makes long trips more comfortable.
And those electronic gadgets we tend to drag along on trips? BoltBus has 110v power plugs throughout its coaches, so you can connect your laptop, iPod, DVD player, or whatever you want. There's also Wi-Fi onboard, and while the service is slow and isn't 100% reliable at every spot along the route, it's free. (As an aside, keep in mind that Amtrak is only in the process of getting power outlets for its regionals, and there is certainly no Internet connectivity on America's trains--even the Acela.)
You get all of this along with the typical amenities found on commercial buses: a restroom, air conditioning, and big windows. And unlike the Chinatown buses, BoltBus drivers are actually employees of the company and covered by standard commercial insurance.
Sounds good; now you wonder, what does it cost? That's the best part: fares start at $1 and get more expensive as you get closer to the day of departure, but even the most expensive walk-up fares go for about $20 one-way, and buying just one day in advance will usually find you a ticket for $15. Buying online also guarantees you a seat.
BoltBus has a frequent traveler program (who doesn't?) called Bolt Rewards. Members get priority boarding (something that costs $5 extra on Greyhound), and after eight one-way trips, you get a free one-way fare. Bolt Rewards also keeps your account active as long as you've had some activity in the last 18 months, so even occasional travelers can benefit.
We've had buses for a long time. We know what they're like, and we've been willing to shell out $60 to $110 cost of a one-way train fare from D.C. to New York just to avoid the bus experience. But if BoltBus can deliver more legroom, power outlets, and free Wi-Fi for $20, Amtrak may actually have found a twenty-first century competitor. That's good news for everyone.