Greyhound's low-cost BoltBus competes with Amtrak for travel between Seattle and Portland and Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.
If you could get from Seattle to Portland or Vancouver, B.C., by bus for less than the price of a few lattes, why would you take the train?
BoltBus, Greyhound’s new low-cost, nonstop express-bus service, promises to whisk travelers to these cities for fares starting at $1.
Amtrak’s Cascades trains are the main competition, but at these prices, why even drive or fly?
To find out how the new bus service stacks up, I spent a recent Thursday riding the BoltBus one-way from Seattle to Portland and taking Amtrak back.
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Planes, trains and buses
Eight dollars barely buys two gallons of gas, but that’s what I paid to ride one-way from Seattle to Portland on the BoltBus, which began service in the Pacific Northwest this spring.
The first thing to know: This is not your grandmother’s Greyhound.
Onboard, I typed notes on my iPad from a black leather seat equipped with free Wi-Fi and a plug-in outlet. My “ticket” was a confirmation number stored in my cellphone.
Secondly: No one pays just $1. This is because every ticket comes with a $1 service fee, so the $1 ticket is really $2. But that’s nitpicking.
BoltBus makes good on its promise to make at least one $1 seat available on every trip, with prices going up to around $25, maybe slightly higher, based on demand, the day of the week and how far in advance you book.
Sitting across from me was Mark Gause from Auburn. He found a seat for $1 when he first went online. But he didn’t book immediately, and the fare went up to $8 the next time he looked.
Booking just two days ahead for a quick business trip, Ryan Yee, the owner of a small outdoor-gear company, paid $17 to go to Portland and $19 to return to Seattle on the same day.
“I might have flown,” he said. “But it’s a lot more expensive and it’s a pain.”
Tickets on Amtrak Cascades’ 250-passenger trains run $39-$68 each way, depending on how fast seats fill. Special promotions can push fares lower and Amtrak offers discounts for students, children and seniors. Booking a week out, I paid $36, including an AAA discount.
It’s anyone’s guess how train prices will shake out as time goes on. “It’s something we’re going to monitor,” said Laura Kingman, rail, marketing and communications manager for the Washington state Department of Transportation. “So far, we haven’t seen the need to make any changes.”
Who’s the winner? For now, if cost is your No. 1 consideration, BoltBus is the way to go.
BoltBus estimates travel time at three hours, 15 minutes. Our bus left Seattle promptly at 8:30 a.m. and arrived in downtown Portland at 11:30 a.m., 15 minutes early.
The black and orange buses are bigger, newer and roomier than a regular Greyhound, with a surprisingly smooth ride.
Bus seats (50 instead of the usual 55) are narrow and recline only slightly. Each has a plug-in for electronic devices. Our bus was half full, so almost everyone had two seats to themselves. It could have been a very different experience had the bus been full and stuck in rush-hour traffic.
One drawback: There are no tray tables. Balancing a laptop on your lap gets tricky, warned Sandra Elliott, of Portland, who rides both BoltBus and Amtrak on business trips. “If I have real work to get done, I take the train.”
Her tip for scoring an extra empty bus seat: Head straight to the back. Seats toward the front tend to fill up first.
BoltBus is a nonstop ride. Some drivers stop for a quick bathroom break, but for the most part, passengers should bring what they need to drink or eat and plan on using the bathroom onboard. The bathroom on our bus was clean, equipped with a small sink and hand-gel dispenser.
“If time is important and you want to economize, this is perfectly fine,” said Ryan Yee. “We’re no worse off than we would be on an airplane, and there’s no turbulence.”
What about the train ride?
Jim Barrett, 82, of Brookings, Ore., could teach a class on making the most of the 3 ½ hour ride on Amtrak Cascades. There can be delays due to its six scheduled stops between Seattle and Portland; slowdowns for passing freight trains; and mechanical problems.
Our train arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station 15 minutes late for total travel time of 3 hours and 45 minutes.
“You just sit back and relax,” advised Barrett, preferably over a microbrew and bowl of Ivar’s clam chowder available in the bistro car, where he passes the time playing cribbage and solitaire.
Hands-down, Amtrak is the more comfortable and scenic ride. Much of the route skirts the Puget Sound. Amtrak renovated all the Cascades train cars recently, adding new carpeting and paneling and tan leather to wide seats equipped with tray tables and computer plug-ins.
Best is the friendly service. Conductors wear snappy caps and red ties and make jokes over the public-address system, reminding everyone “this is a family train,” and not to irritate others with loud cellphone conversations.
Using the Wi-Fi aboard the train required repeated sign-ins to reconnect. There’s no streaming video or downloading of large files. But these are small quibbles.
Who’s the winner? For comfort, relaxation and scenic beauty — views of mountains and waterways — Amtrak has the edge.
Nuts and bolts
Booking the BoltBus is one-stop shopping. Book online or by phone (for an additional $3 fee) and show your e-ticket or smartphone receipt to the driver. No boarding passes. No seat reservations. No waiting around. No bus station.
Our bus arrived five minutes before boarding time curbside at Fifth Avenue South and South King Street next to the International District/Chinatown transit station in Seattle. It dropped us off on Southwest Salmon Street in downtown Portland, about 2 ½ blocks from Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Ticketing on Amtrak required several steps, starting with printing out a receipt from an online booking; exchanging the receipt for a paper ticket at the station; then lining up for a boarding pass and a seat-reservation card.
The good news is that Amtrak is working on a new e-ticketing system expected for the Cascades trains in the Pacific Northwest later this summer.
Trains depart Seattle’s King Street Station, currently under renovation. Wooden benches and neon signs give Portland’s Union Station a cozy, bygone years feel. The downside is Portland’s station is almost a mile from the center of downtown.
Who’s the winner? When it’s rainy and cold, sitting inside a train station is better than standing on a street corner waiting for a bus. But when it comes to overall 21st-century convenience, BoltBus is the winner.
Carol Pucci: firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @carolpucci.