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The Globe Tests

Booking it to N.Y.

Competition means lower fares. But what's the best bus line to take?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / June 29, 2008

Surging gas prices and airline fees are making day trips and weekend excursions to New York that much more expensive. Yet one mode of transportation between the Hub and the Big Apple has actually gotten cheaper: the bus.

You can thank intensifying competition. BoltBus and MegaBus launched service on the popular Northeast Corridor this spring and undercut the three incumbents by offering some tickets for $1, $5, or $10 each way. Lucky Star quickly slashed its $15 price to hang onto customers.

The Globe tested the five low-cost bus lines - BoltBus, MegaBus, Lucky Star, Fung Wah Bus Transportation Inc., and the pooled operations of Greyhound Lines Inc. and Peter Pan Bus Lines. We bought our tickets online and anonymously boarded the New York-bound buses from Boston's South Station on various days and times over the past month.

The costs of our one-way trips ranged from an unusually low 50 cents to $22.50. We only had to pay MegaBus's 50-cent online booking fee because the company let everyone ride at no charge during its first week of service. Now, the first seat on each bus is sold for a buck and the rest are priced up to $14. Greyhound is the most expensive, and the best deal requires booking a round-trip ticket online for $45; otherwise, a one-way ticket costs at least $30.

The boarding process distinguishes the newcomers from the incumbents. BoltBus and MegaBus guarantee you'll get a seat on the bus you bought a ticket for, while the others frequently oversell their motorcoaches and force passengers who arrive last to wait another 30 or 60 minutes until the next bus departs. Yet each method has an advantage. Booking with BoltBus or MegaBus means you won't have to kill more than 15 minutes at the bus terminal standing in line. But with Greyhound/Peter Pan, you can decide at the last minute to leave town on a later bus without paying a change fee.

Certain types of passengers are swayed by the predictability, others by the flexibility. And equally important is where the drop-off spot is.

Based on our interviews with passengers, the Chinatown-bound Fung Wah and Lucky Star buses often fill up with backpacking road-trippers, elderly Asian immigrants, and a wide swath of riders who care more about saving money than saving time.

Greyhound/Peter Pan, which ends at the Port Authority, is popular with baby boomers, young families, and folks connecting to Greyhound buses bound for the suburbs or other states.

BoltBus and MegaBus, which arrive at Pennsylvania Station, are magnets for day-trippers eager to shop at New York's mega-Macy's, riders connecting to the Long Island Railroad, college kids, young professionals, the tech-savvy, and hipsters who look like they're heading to an MTV casting call. But the new ultracheap buses are drawing riders who used to be loyal to the Chinatown lines.

Don't expect to make friends on the bus. Most riders sleep, read, listen to music, or talk to their traveling companions. Some gab on cellphones, but many drivers ask that calls be kept short.

All of our buses departed on time for the drive that takes about four hours, but most arrived late. Only Fung Wah reached its destination in four hours flat - speediness largely due to the driver skipping the company's promised pit stop. We weren't too peeved that the rest of the traffic-snarled buses were on the road for up to five hours because at least they paused along the way to let us fuel up at Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's, or vending-machine laden rest stops. More important, the 10-minute break relieved us from using the on-board restroom.

BoltBus and MegaBus shuttled us around in coaches that were noticeably cleaner than the competitions', but that's because they're new. The interiors are also designed differently.

BoltBus boasts a few extra inches of legroom and a pair of electrical outlets in almost every row so you can plug in your laptop or iPod and have enough juice for the entire ride. It's also the only bus line outfitted with a toilet that flushes.

MegaBus upholstered its buses from floor to ceiling with dark fabric, creating a cozier feel than Greyhound's linoleum look. Some Peter Pan coaches have small screens that broadcast old movies aloud - whether you want to watch them or not.

And both BoltBus and MegaBus are outfitted with wireless routers, which enable laptop-toters to pass the time surfing the Internet or sending e-mails. The Wi-Fi is free, but sometimes spotty.

The rest of the experience depends on your driver. BoltBus aimed to hire drivers whose fun, friendly attitude would remind riders of Southwest Airlines flight attendants. Our MegaBus driver tuned the radio to old Top 40s music - and amicably turned it off after someone asked him to lower the volume. Our Greyhound driver stood outside the bus door warmly reminding passengers to watch their step as they got off. And our Lucky Star driver also treated passengers quite well, but we got a little nervous when he made a vulgar gesture when he was cut off by another driver.

More important than demeanor is the driver's skill at, well, driving. By virtue of being new, our MegaBus driver wasn't adept at navigating nightmarish traffic by finding alternate routes. And when we rode BoltBus in April, our driver sideswiped a piece of construction equipment parked on a crowded Manhattan street.

Nevertheless, we liked BoltBus the best. Stretching out in a seat while sipping on free Wi-Fi and electricity can make even an hour-late, traffic-tangled ride bearable . . . and dare we say enjoyable?

Amanda Schulman, a 21-year-old student at Northeastern University, prefers BoltBus, too. She used to ride Greyhound, but using BoltBus's electrical outlets and free Wi-Fi to check e-mail after watching a movie on her laptop is "a big plus," the native New Yorker said.

On a recent BoltBus ride, about 40 passengers were on our 51-seat bus and several were using laptops. A tool we used to test connection speeds showed we sometimes were able to get a download stream good enough for casual surfing.

That we were able to read online content at all was a minor miracle. We usually grow nauseated when reading on the road. But BoltBus's cushy seats and suspension - plus the driver's skill - provided an unusually smooth ride.

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com. Globe staff writer Hiawatha Bray and Globe correspondents Angel L. Jennings and John Guilfoil contributed to this report.

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