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Bargain Buses- The Hartford Courant
2009-02-17
(CHRIS PYLE / SPECIAL TO THE COURANT / February 12, 2009)

An upside to living in Hartford: You're smack-dab between Boston and New York.

A downside: If you're on a budget and either can't or aren't willing to drive to Boston or New York, you're kind of stuck smack-dab in the middle.

Airline shuttles cost $182 round-trip. Less expensive alternatives have typically been a bus or train, and it's easy to catch either at Hartford's Union Station, used by more than 400,000 passengers annually.

But taking the train to Boston or New York can still be pricey, with Amtrak tickets costing between $68 and $184 round-trip. Round-trip tickets for Union Station bus lines go for about $40.

Low-Cost Transportation From Hartford

Now budget travelers have a more inexpensive way to get to the Big Apple or Beantown: two economy bus lines that count on passengers willing to pass up some amenities for lower ticket prices.

Boston Deluxe, which started doing business in Hartford five years ago as a midpoint along its Boston-to-New York route, is selling $30 round-trip tickets, or $15 one-way, from Hartford to either Boston or New York.

In December, a new low-cost contender, megabus.com, began offering one-way tickets to New York and Boston, starting as low as $1.

The low-cost buses do require some customer concessions. Instead of dining at Hot Tomato's at Union Station while you wait to board, for instance, you wait for the Boston Deluxe bus outside the Charter Oak Super Market at Capitol Avenue and Lawrence Street, a sidewalk stop that might not be so super during snowstorms or on hot summer days.

Also, unlike the Greyhound, Bonanza and Peter Pan buses you catch at Union Station, some of the Boston Deluxe buses aren't equipped with restrooms. Whether they are depends on whether you choose a popular departure time — meaning a big bus with a toilet — or a less popular time — meaning a small bus without one, said Jack Ho, owner of the New York City-based bus line.

Ho said he's able to offer low fares by operating a smaller fleet, employing fewer workers and bypassing Union Station, which charges fees to bus operators. Ho also said his drivers will get you where you want to be the fastest.

"The other buses are no competition to me," he said. "They take certain routes. But who's going faster? Me."

Megabus.com, a Paramus, N.J.-based subsidiary of Coach USA, has adopted a business style similar to that of low-cost airlines. The company sells a small number of seats well in advance at rock-bottom prices, then gradually raises the fares as the departure date nears.

Even purchased less than a week before departure, a megabus ticket can cost less than one from Boston Deluxe or the Union Station bus lines. A round-trip ticket to Boston this Valentine's Day weekend cost $25.50 if purchased on Monday, Feb. 9.

Getting a $1 fare requires advance planning and flexibility. The rate is available if you buy a ticket at least a month ahead of time and are willing to leave on a weekday at, say, 10:15 p.m.

Mark George, a West Hartford musician and director of The Hartt School's community division, travels to Boston and New York at least once a month for rehearsals and recruiting. He said he used to take an Amtrak train to New Haven, then pick up Metro-North into the city.

Last Monday, he went with megabus.com for about $20 less.

"Despite the bus being a little bit late coming in, it worked out pretty good," said George, who was returning Monday from a rehearsal in New York. "I think this is what I'm taking from now on. And I'm going to recommend that the people we bring in from New York do it, too."

Megabus.com, like Boston Deluxe, keeps down costs by operating its Hartford routes as part of its Boston-to-New York routes. It also maintains a relatively new fleet that includes double-decker buses with nearly twice the capacity of a standard coach and provides free wireless Internet to passengers. The bus only stops outside the Connecticut Convention Center on Columbus Boulevard.

"We actually found that most of our customers don't want to be at a bus terminal," said Dale Moser, president of Coach USA. "They just want to be in the center of the city, where they can get other services, if needed."

In New York, for example, megabus.com buses stop on 31st Street by Penn Station instead of at the city's Port Authority bus terminal, about a block west of Times Square.

Such outside-the-station stops have given companies such as megabus.com and Boston Deluxe an industry nickname — "street-corner operators." They're criticized by other bus lines for forcing customers to stand in the rain and snow and skipping out on station fees that cities can use for transportation projects.

"We stop at the beautiful facility in Hartford," said Robert J. Schwarz, executive vice president of Peter Pan Bus Lines, which picks up and drops off its Hartford customers at Union Station. "We pay fees for gates and for ticket counter space. That money then goes to municipalities, and the people of Hartford have used it to do very important things. These [other bus lines] are coming in and using the streets of Hartford, but what are they contributing to the economy?"

Schwarz said his company's Hartford routes are also express routes independent of the company's routes between Boston and New York, so there are fewer delays.

Still, Schwarz pointed out that Peter Pan and Greyhound Lines co-launched BoltBus, their own budget line, last year. BoltBus operates much like megabus.com, stopping at streetside locations and offering $1 fares. But the company is not currently considering service from Hartford.

"At this point," Schwarz said, "we're not looking into that."