With air travel having become such a hassle, with so many annoying fees, and Amtrak barely holding its own, the only mode of public transit left to innovate is the bus system. And several operators are responding by adding interesting new services.
Two companies run large regional networks of "express" buses operating relatively few daily trips, up to 400 miles, with only limited en route stops, and featuring onboard amenities such as "free" Wi-Fi and superior legroom:
Megabus is the original and is market leader. It operates in a region bounded by Portland, Maine, to the north; Charlotte, N.C., and Memphis, Tenn., to the south; and Kansas City, Mo., and Minneapolis to the west. Most routes radiate up to 400 miles from Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Typically, Megabus runs a minimum of two round trips daily -- one daytime, one overnight -- with more frequent buses on many routes. Fares are capacity-controlled, starting out very low -- as little as $5 each way -- and increasing as the trip fills. Seating is guaranteed. A Canadian affiliate operates similar services linking the main cities in the corridor from Montreal to Niagara Falls, with cross-border service to Buffalo and its airport -- popular with air travelers who want to avoid Canada's heavy fees on international air trips.
The latest entrant is Greyhound: Its "express" subsystem appears to be pretty much a clone of Megabus; it operates in the same general areas in the same pattern of operations. Greyhound discounts include up to 50 percent for advance purchase and half-price family companion tickets.
A few years ago, Megabus started a similar western service in California, Arizona and Nevada, but that apparently was not a success. At this point, as far as I know, nobody operates a similar system anywhere west of Omaha, Neb.
A handful of small bus lines operate high frequency short-haul services from New York to Boston and Washington, with a few intermediate stops along the Interstate 95 corridor. They originated serving ethnic Asian markets, but they have gone "uptown" and now appeal to a broad range of travelers. Among them:
*BoltBus (www.boltbus.com), Greyhound subsidiary: Boston-New York-Newark, N.J.-Philadelphia-Washington.
*DC2NY (www.dc2ny.com): New York-Washington area and Washington-area and Delaware beaches.
*Hola Bus (www.holabus.com): New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington.
*MVP Bus (www.mvpbus.com): New York-Baltimore-Washington.
*TripperBus (www.tripperbus.com): New York-Washington suburbs.
*Vamoose Bus (www.vamoosebus.com): New York-Washington suburbs.
*Washington Deluxe Bus (www.washny.com): New York-Washington.
For the most part, these lines provide onboard Wi-Fi, and most provide at-seat power outlets; some offer limited onboard refreshments; most carry onboard restrooms. Pickup and drop-off points are generally curbside in busy city center areas.
Fares top out at about $30 each way, and some lines sell a few capacity-controlled fares as low as $1. The lines do not oversell buses, so anyone with an advance ticket gets to board. If you just show up at a boarding spot, you may or may not get on any particular trip.
Typical end-to-end runs from New York to either Boston or Washington take about four and a half hours. Although most describe their buses as "deluxe" or "luxury," that's only by comparison with conventional bus services.
Two lines operate truly "deluxe" buses with two-and-one seating and extra legroom: Limoliner (www.limoliner.com) operates Boston-Framingham, Mass.-New York, and Vamoose Bus runs one daily "Golden Bus" New York-Washington-area round trip. Fares are about double the regular prices.
Clearly, these lines challenge both flying and Amtrak. Given the hassles of airport access, check-in deadlines and weather uncertainties, they come close to matching airlines in center-to-center time, with less hassle.
Although Amtrak beats them for center-to-center time -- and is a lot more comfortable and roomy -- even the lowest "regional service" rail fares are much higher. Amtrak's best service, the Acela Express, dashes between New York and Washington in just under three hours, but the lowest weekend fare is $139, and even the slower trains charge at least $149. Those fares provide enough of a price umbrella to give the bus lines a lot of business -- which they apparently do get.