Combine skyrocketing oil prices and congested airports with a reduction in services, and you have the perfect formula for agonizing flight delays. So as travelers, do we have any alternative options?
The answer, surprisingly, is yes — if you don't mind taking a trip back to the future. For a growing number of travelers, trains and buses have become viable alternatives to flying.
Let's start with bus travel. For trips under 500 miles, you should "take the dog," as in Greyhound. If you do the math, especially in terms of gas prices, motor coaches may be the most fuel-efficient, and least energy-intensive mode of commercial passenger transportation around. Compared to other forms of transportation, buses have the best ratio of passenger to mile per gallon of fuel (148 passenger miles per gallon). This figure is more than four times greater than air-carrier and passenger-car fuel efficiency. As a result, Greyhound’s ridership is beginning to climb.
The Dallas-based company runs the largest intercity bus system in the country, with a fleet of nearly 1,500 vehicles servicing 1,700 destinations. Moving forward, Greyhound is concentrating most of its buses on short and medium-length routes.
For trips under 500 miles, the bus competes more than favorably with the airlines. Consider these fare comparisons:
- Los Angeles to San Francisco
Airlines: $241 on Virgin America
- New York to Chicago
Airlines: $571 on American
- Atlanta to Boston
Airlines: $793 on Air Tran
If Greyhound is out of your price range, why not take take advantage of discount bus services? Megabus.com is a low-cost, express bus service that offers fares as low as $1 via the Internet (there are only a few of these low-cost seats for each ride, and you have to book well in advance). Most fares, of course, are higher.
Megabus.com launched in April 2006, servicing portions of the Midwest. Since then, the company has expanded to the West Coast, but as of June 22, will not be serving that market. Megabus.com recently expanded to the East Coast, with fares between New York and Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Buffalo, Atlantic City and Toronto. On board, amenities include free Wi-Fi access (as of June 9) and video entertainment.
But don’t think that Megabus.com is the only low-cost bus around. Greyhound now has a low-cost East Coast subsidiary, called BoltBus, operated in association with Peter Pan Bus Lines. The service just launched in late March with routes including Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.. Fares start at $1, plus a booking fee, with maximum fares based on market demand. Each bus seats 51 passengers, with free Wi-Fi access and power outlets in each row.
Between its launch on March 27 and Memorial Day weekend, BoltBus has carried 65,000 passengers. This figure is 30 percent higher than the company had expected for this period. Let’s compare a BoltBus fare from New York to Washington, D.C., with train and air fares.
- BoltBus: As low as $10; 4 hours
- Amtrak: As low as $138; 3 hours 25 minutes
- Delta Shuttle: $445 (LaGuardia to Reagan); about 1 hour 40 minutes
Some other fare comparisons tell the story. Traveling between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the highest roundtrip fare on Megabus.com is $69. Between New York and Washington, D.C., BoltBus’ highest roundtrip fare is $50.
If you’re traveling between Boston and New York, there’s another alternative: Limoliner is a first-class, 28-passenger vehicle geared toward business travelers. Amenities include: high-speed Internet access, clear cell-phone reception, power ports at each seat, meeting tables at the rear of the vehicle, reclining leather seats with leg rests, an onboard attendant, snacks and beverages and video and audio entertainment.
Last, but not least, there’s Amtrak. Even beyond the Northeast corridor, Amtrak’s ridership has increased 11 percent this year. This is in part thanks to the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner that runs between San Diego and San Luis Obispo.
Using this information, I challenge my fellow travelers to a race from New York to Washington. I’ll take the train, and you can either fly or drive. If you’d like, we could even race from Los Angeles to San Diego. It doesn’t matter where we race; the outcome will be the same: I’ll win with the train almost every time. Not only will I save time and money, I won’t have to take my shoes off!
However, I offer one important caution. While I remain a staunch advocate of train travel, I also advise you to bring a book, or maybe two. Amtrak has a dismal on-time performance record. Here are just two routes in particular.
- California Zephyr, April 2008: 33.3% on-time
- Last 12 Months: 23.6% on-time
- Missouri Routes, April 2008: 22.0% on-time
- Last 12 Months: 19.1% on-time
Amtrak has an on-time performance problem for one important, and for the moment, unavoidable reason. Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks. As a result, passenger trains are often forced to pull aside as hundred-car freight trains lumber by. The freight trains own the tracks and thus have priority.
But no matter the potential delay, one thing remains certain. Despite an almost embarrassingly low government commitment to supporting efficient, high-speed passenger rail travel, the price is still right for most travelers. Given the equally poor performance of the airlines, taking the train is still, in most cases, a good and overwhelmingly affordable choice.
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com.
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