The Awfulness of Airlines Is an Opening for Trains and Buses

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New train and bus services are loaded with features you almost find on airplanes nowadays, including free Wi-Fi, power outlets, party lounges—and even complimentary checked baggage.

The glamour of flying is long gone, replaced by the “cattle-herding, fee-crazy airline business” of today, as Mark Gerchick, author of a new book about the airline business called Full Upright and Locked Position, puts it.

Still, no matter how uncomfortable and annoying the modern-day airline experience is, travelers aren’t going to give up on traveling anytime soon. But as airlines continue to give passengers less and charge them more, travelers will be more likely to seek alternatives to get where they want to go. And as these alternatives—we’re mainly talking buses and trains here—manage to give passengers more and charge much less when compared to airlines, the decision to avoid flying gets a little easier.

In the U.S., with few exceptions (mainly along the Boston-Washington, D.C. corridor), the train is dismissed as inconvenient. The bus, meanwhile, has traditionally been considered the slow, low-budget transit option of last resort. It may be time to rethink these assumptions, however, as bus passengers increasingly benefit from more perks and amenities than their counterparts traveling via the “bus with wings.”

(MORE: Why the No Frills, Cattle-Herding, Fee-Crazy Airline Business of Today Is Here to Stay)

Greyhound Lines, for one, seems to have sensed opportunity in the continued degrading of airline travel. The national bus route operation just launched a six-month pilot program featuring perks rarely found in the air: free Wi-Fi, plus free movies, TV, music, and games. The service, called BLUE (Bus Line Universal Entertainment), is available on premium Greyhound Express buses connecting Dallas and Houston, with more routes to be added later this year. BLUE is also being tested in the Pacific Northwest aboard BoltBus, Greyhound’s sister brand already known for free Wi-Fi, as well as fares starting at $1. With BLUE, passengers not only get free Wi-Fi, but the ability to use their personal devices to access more than 25 movies, 15 hours of TV shows, 100 music albums, and a handful of games at no additional charge.

“With BLUE, we are adding an exclusive, top-of-the-line on-board entertainment system at the touch of our customers’ fingertips, further complementing our current family of premium amenities such as free Wi-Fi, power outlets, extra legroom and leather seats,” Greyhound president and CEO Dave Leach announced via press release.

Traveling via bus also comes with some fairly basic perks seldom enjoyed by fliers, such as the ability to check a suitcase for free and to check in oneself without enduring hours of security lines.

A train operator in the Southwest, meanwhile, is trying to finalize a new service that makes a claim no airline could repeat with a straight face: The act of traveling can actually be fun. The Vegas X Train is an adults-only luxury party train that has been in the works for years, but that just recently announced plans to connect Fullerton (outside Los Angeles) and North Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. The typical one-way fare on the five-hour journey is expected to be around $99, depositing California travelers roughly 10 miles north of the Strip. Cocktails, live entertainment, and two deluxe lounges will be aboard the train that seems to be conceived with bachelor and bachelorette parties in mind.

(MORE: Why Hotels Aren’t Making a Killing on Fees Like the Airlines)

None of these new travel options is perfect. The X Train departure and arrival points are hardly ideal, and train travel in the U.S. is far slower and less convenient than it is in many parts of the world. Even the most luxurious bus ride will be miserable if you’re snarled in traffic.

For longer journeys, flying truly is the only feasible mode of transportation, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But on short-haul and mid-range trips that last, say, six or fewer hours on the road or the rails, trains and buses are increasingly attractive options—if only when compared to the cramped, frustrating, nickel-and-diming alternative in the sky.

3 comments
Payingattention
Payingattention

In a couple of weeks my wife and I want to go from Rochester to New York City for a couple of days.  We have 4 options on how to get there.  drive, take the bus, take the train, or fly.  Driving, with tolls, gasoline, parking will be a little over $200 and 6 hours driving time.  The bus is 7 hours with a fare of $150.  The train is also 7 hours with a fare of around $300.  I would need to allot at least 4 hours from house to hotel if we flew, but the cost with airport parking and travel from airport to midtown looks like it will be around $650.  So to save 3 to 4 hours it will cost somewhere between $350 to $500.  I'm probably going to take the train because the seats are comfortable and Penn Station is only a few blocks from the hotel.

barnett835
barnett835

Yes, the train should be more than competitive on any trip of 3-400 miles, or any flight of less than 90 minutes in the air - why because as the other poster noted, door to door times are roughly the same, and the added comfort/ease of boarding, ete. makes up for the lower speeds.  And those low speeds could be much higher if only the US could get its act together for high speed rail, just like the Germans, the French, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese ... I could go on and on and on.

So, to me, the big mystery is why this engagement with high speed rail does not happen ?   Here in central California, living near a proposed HS rail line, dating back 20 years now, we have seen literally no progress;  talk, talk, studies, studies, but no commitment, no construction ...  what is the matter with this country in this respect ?   Don't bother to answer - items like this one in Time seem to point to upbeat possibilities, but they never happen.  

21 years ago, in 1992, I worked on some reports for the Caltrans financed study on HS Rail, directed by the Planning research program at UC Berkeley.  Nothing that we did has ever come to fruition, except the creation of a HS Rail Commission, whose existence is barely recognized buried so deep is it in the state government structures.  I was in my 50s when I did this work, and at that time I truly thought I might see a High Speed rail line linking northern and southern California in my lifetime.  Now in my 70s, I seriously doubt I shall live long enough to see a working system.

In the 1950s the Japanese conceived and built the first Shinkansen line - less than ten years overall.  They solved many real problems at that time (current collection from the overhead wires at high speed, effective cab signalling etc - there were many indeed).  From the early 1970s the French built the 350 mile TGV line, Paris-Lyon, in ten years.  What is the hang-up in the US?

 Others have done much of the technical work, we can buy and build on that ... or does that offend the American sense of amour-propre and superiority.  When i worked on the California hgh speed rail project 20 years ago, there was always an undercurrent of dismissive disregard for the achievements of others, and deep desire to re-invent the wheel in high speed rail, so instead of working towards a coherent adoption of the best of existing systems, there was an urge to look for some wonder world of mag-lev, monorails, or ...  so sad.

JimB210
JimB210 like.author.displayName 1 Like

What with transit time to the airport, early arrival and line waiting through security, taxiway delays, and baggage claim wait, transit time at the destination, my personal threshold for airline versus drive is about a six hour road trip (door to door in the car, of course.) Add in the factor that airlines are more expensive for the timesavings, and the ever more obnoxious security and proliferating nickel-and-dime fees, and I find that a trip I frequently make, which a few years ago I would have flown I will now drive. Cost is about $100 less for the additional six hours travel time... but the comfort level is much higher, plus I have my car at the destination end. Over the years the airlines strategy of increasing fees, more packed and less comfortable planes, and they have strategized themselves out of thousands of dollars of my business. Pretty smart, those airlines.