The Awfulness of Airlines Is an Opening for Trains and Buses

  • Share
  • Read Later

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.