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Review by Ernest Lilley
Date: 24 June 2008

Links: BoltBus website / About The Bus: Prevost X3-45 /

Getting from DC to NYC or the other way around, is a pretty expensive affair by train, plane, or automobile. Even by bus. Unless it's the BoltBus, which makes multiple trips to the Big Apple from the Capital, or down from Beantown if that's where you are. Who would have thought buses could be so comfortable, roomy, safe, new ... and affordable? By the way, with only four passengers on board, these buses are about energy-equivalent to a passenger car with one occupant. Fully loaded, they're closer to 40 times more efficient.

I'm bolting up to NYC to attend a digital trade show tomorrow night. I say "bolting" because, if you didn't get it from the headline, I'm taking the ultra-affordable "BoltBus" from DC to NYC for $15 each way ($25 if you buy tickets on the bus). There's no round-trip discount, but I'm not complaining ... it costs me more in tolls to drive to Manhattan, not to mention gas or parking. The train has a certain charm to it, but costs five times as much and, frankly, they haven't gotten the message that we're in the 21st century, or even the latter half of the 20th, keeping riders guessing about which platform trains will leave from and not always providing WiFi and power en route. Some trains do have power, and maybe the Acela has WiFi ... but I wouldn't be surprised if you had to pay for it.

So here I am on the BoltBus, my laptop hooked up to their seatback power outlets, rolling up the Baltimore Turnpike. It took about the time it takes to climb to cruising altitude out of Reagan to get out of town and onto the highway, and since I'm riding up midday, traffic is light and there are plenty of free seats. Most everyone (who wants one) has seats by themselves. Folks are mostly quiet, though I can hear a cellphone conversation from the back. No one is carrying a live chicken.

I bought my ticket online and printed it out, which you need to show the driver. Not being sure how long it would take me to Metro into DC in midday, I left earlier than I needed to, but a few minutes after I arrived at the corner of G and 11th in the Capital, the Metro station stop on the Metro, a BoltBus (you can't miss them) pulled up. The buses go to two different endpoints in NYC, one at Canal St. and 6th, and the other up at 33nd and 7th, which is at Penn Station. I'd bought tickets for Canal St., thinking I might get some Chinese food in Chinatown, but this bus was heading uptown. Deciding I'd rather be early than downtown, and since the bus had room, I hopped on board and settled into my seat. Try that on a plane.

The seats are at least as comfortable as airline seats, with a nice bit of lumbar support and the ability to recline enough to let you really relax. You don't have to feel guilty about the person behind you because there's plenty of legroom. I'm 6'2" but my legs are long for my size, so if you can hit your knees on this bus, you probably play basketball for a living.

The bus is air conditioned, of course, and rides as smooth as a plane in slightly choppy air. It seems quieter, though, but that may be a function of the lower pitch of its noise. No turbine engine a few feet away, no 600 mph air stream out the window.

Instead, out the window is the greenery of northern Maryland passing by at 55 mph. Nicole, our driver, doesn't understand my question when I ask what our cruising speed and altitude is, but, as much fun as looking down on the clouds is, this has its own charm. It turns out that the bus has a top speed of 65 mph, controlled by a governor, as well as a black box to track the speed and a GPS unit so the bus's location isn't a mystery. All in all, it's comfortable, clean, quiet and high-tech. By the way, there is a roomy restroom in the back, a bit more Spartan than on a plane, perhaps, but clean. They did miss having paper towels in it, which probably reduces the mess, but that's my only complaint.

Across the aisle from me is a gal from a financial company trying to get a little work done, but she's having trouble logging in with her secure token. Public WiFi works fine so it may be a firewall issue. Besides that we had a pleasant chat about economics, the price of oil, downscaling the American lifestyle to have more time and fun…and what a good idea taking the bus turned out to be.

We're told the bus line has just discontinued their onboard movie service. A driver made the mistake of showing a PG movie on a ride with a minor on it, and the parents complained. Seems like that may have been an overreaction to me, but I'm not actually complaining. I like the lack of distraction.

A Chinese-American friend of mine told me about her experiences on the Chinatown express, a lower-rent bus trip to New York. Crowded, dirty, unhelpful and unsafe pretty much summed it up. I know that this image made the notion of budget bus travel seem like a dangerous gamble to me, but the notion of free WiFi lured me in. Well, free WiFi and a fare so reasonable that it's nearly free.

If you think of BoltBus as the highway equivalent of Ted airlines, you won't be far off. Started in March this year and run by Greyhound, not only did the company set it up with new buses, take out seats to provide three extra inches of legroom, put sockets in the back of the seats and offer free WiFi ... they price the seats according to demand. The first seat goes for $1, but you've got to get online a few weeks in advance to catch that rate. One blogger complained that the best he could do was $4.50. $4.50? I was more than happy to book the day before I traveled for $15 each way. Really happy.

I've been typing away at this at a leisurely pace now for an hour and a half or so, and we're moving smartly through Delaware. I think I'll put my seat back and do a little reading. Assuming I can stay awake…

Addendum: Bolting back to DC…

Well, nothing's perfect. I got down to the designated BoltStop after a pretty civilized cab ride where I got to watch the GPS map of NYC roll by, and the I paid by credit card. That was nice. Waiting for the bus, which got there 20 minutes late, mildly frustrating. More than mildly for some of the other folks gathered around. Also, the online instructions said that the bus stopped between Canal and Grand on 6th, but both our DC-bound bus and a Philly-bound Bolt went on to the next block to stop - causing confusion and consternation among the gathered riders. The good and bad news is that buses ultimately have to go through inner cites, which means that they're easier to get to by public transit, but traffic tends to mess up their schedules and even buses can have a hard time finding a parking space.

These aren't major issues, but ones that could be addressed pretty easily. Given that the buses all have GPS locators on them, there should be a way to access their locations from any cell phone with web browsing capability, and if they're not allowed to mark the bus stops, which I expect would annoy the city, they could post pictures online of where the bus actually stops. Even a shot from Googlemaps showing the location would be handy.

One nice thing I saw was a rider taking a bike down to DC to provide transport there. It fit easily into the cargo bay and looked like it would arrive in good condition, ready to take to the streets at the other end. That's smart traveling.

Our Readers Respond

From: Mark Smith
    I enjoyed reading the review, you definitely helped me make my decision on going with BoltBus. I live in LA but am flying to NYC to visit a friend and do some Christmas Shopping and then taking the BoltBus, one-way, down to DC to visit parents for Christmas, then departing from Dulles to Los Angeles. My mother reccomended the bus services from some of her work friends. Great review. I will take BoltBus.
From David Hecht
    Great review! I've been thinking about this myself, but I stopped off in Philly on my last trip up and unfortunately, BoltBus doesn't have a Washington-to-Philly route (yet)! I could have taken their Philly-to-NYC service but (1) I was coming in from the suburbs, and (2) the "poor man's way" (SEPTA to Trenton, NJT to Penn Station) doesn't cost much more than BoltBus.

    Anyhow...good to know it's comfortable and safe as well as cheap!

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