The search for the best budget bus line.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
June 17 2009 6:58 AM

Get on the Bus

What's the best discount line? Fung Wah? Bolt? Mega? Or good old Greyhound?

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Despite my initial grumpiness, I settled pleasantly enough into a novel. And since the trip stretched to a long five-plus hours, I was able to finish it. I've since discovered that Megabus supposedly offers Wi-Fi on its New York-based service, but there was no evidence of Internet use among my fellow riders, and the driver didn't mention it in his announcements. Perhaps it's an amenity mentioned only to the Harvard-bound clientele, not to us plebeians.

Bolt Bus

Bolt Bus Bolt Bus, a Greyhound-owned, more recent entry to the cheapo market, is the Google to Megabus' AOL: It makes connectedness—Wi-Fi and electrical outlets—central to its vaguely hip branding. Like Fung Wah, its clientele has grown more mixed as its reputation has grown. But especially at peak travel times, the core Bolt customer is a member of the Gchattering classes: a twentysomething professional-ish type who can't be parted from technology. On a recent trip from New York to D.C., an older woman who arrived just before departure stared down the aisle and muttered, "I feel like the teacher." There's a sort of reconstructed Bobo, ADD-addled vibe—the girl in front of me on a recent trip to D.C., for instance, was clad in a fur-lined hoodie and sipped from a bottle of Perrier whilst toggling from Special Topics in Calamity Physics, to GOOD magazine, to The Daily Show on Hulu, to Sudoku on her iPhone. The guy next to me, ostentatiously talking shop on his BlackBerry, was an overripe frat boy type familiar to me from college—and when he asked to borrow my phone charger, I realized that we had indeed gone to college together.

That's the Bolt Bus niche: familiarity. Riders can forget that they're traveling, since they can do virtually any activity they might while sitting at the desk where they spend their days. Of course, there are the same inherent discomforts as on any bus. It's always freezing onboard, it tends to be less than reliable in terms of punctuality and speed, and the pricing system is quite similar to that of Megabus (I got an $18 ticket two weeks in advance). Yet, on the strength of its Wi-Fi signal, Bolt is my top choice.

Greyhound

Greyhound I returned from D.C. on a Greyhound—my maiden voyage on the storied bus line. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, since the brand has acquired a reputation for seediness in recent years, and my mother has always spoken nervously about Greyhound. But plenty of other things she's warned me against over the years have turned out to be lots of fun.

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The terminal was in an out-of-the way part of town, as it is in most cities, and I thought it had an air of poetic despair. Or at least I did until I caught a whiff of the bathroom, which removed all poetry from the picture. The bus itself, however, was brand-new, with comfortable leather seats, a perfectly calibrated air-conditioning system, a clean bathroom, and even electrical outlets. No wireless, although Greyhound has announced plans to equip its entire fleet with the service.

Other buses tend to attract people traveling alone or in pairs, while this one was full of families. I doubt anyone on the bus had a trust fund, but there was also no one who seemed deserving of maternal warnings. I bought my ticket online for $20, but many purchased on the spot, and the bus wasn't full. Greyhound, at least in the saturated New York market, seems to be catering to people who haven't figured out that there are cheaper options. But the upgraded bus—physically, the nicest one I took—was a sign that the ante has been upped and that Greyhound is adapting to compete.

It's easy to dwell on the minor discomforts of bus travel—and, over several hours, you certainly will. It might also be an experience whose appeal suffers a sharp decline after you turn 30. (Or maybe even before then? Margaret Thatcher allegedly said, "A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.") But beyond sheer affordability, bus travel also offers certain underappreciated perks. There are no officials to hassle you, no security or bag checks. And although there are also no minor luxuries, like beverage service, to perk up your spirits, you can probably sneak a Bud Light onboard. A good rule of thumb: If you can still appreciate the charm of cracking open a $2 beer, you will find much to appreciate about budget bus lines.

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