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Holiday puts low-cost buses into overtime - Washington Times
By Tim Devaney

The holiday travel season is at full throttle a day before Thanksgiving, and in strained economic times, the bus companies that sell low-fare tickets to New York are taking on much of the load.

Nationwide, travel will jump 54 percent over the holiday as more than 38 million people leave town - nearly a million from the Washington area alone, according to a report from AAA.

But with recession-struck travelers searching for bargains, airlines are reporting a 5.5 percent decline in passengers compared to last year, AAA reported. That leaves it to the bus companies to pick up the slack, and most report they are scrambling for extra vehicles to handle the crush.

Megabus is making a no-traveler-left-behind promise to "accommodate anybody and everybody," said President Dale Moser, who indicated the company would book extra buses between Washington and New York "on demand."

"I won't hit a sold-out number," Mr. Moser said, promising to "flex-it-up to meet the needs of the traveling public."

For the last four years, Phil Cohen, a senior at George Washington University, has been traveling to New York by bus about once every three weeks to visit his girlfriend. He went to New York last Thursday, returned to Washington on Saturday and is now back in New York for Thanksgiving.

The economy is forcing the veteran bus rider to search for bargain prices during strategic off-peak hours.

"I really will look through every single company to find the cheapest one," he said.

Washingtonians, who will travel more than people in other parts of the country during Thanksgiving, will spend an average of $796 altogether in the course of that travel, AAA reported. That price tag includes transportation, living expenses, food, shopping and entertainment.

To curb some of the costs, many Washingtonians are turning to intercity buses, which remain one of the least expensive travel options. During Thanksgiving week, a round-trip ticket between Washington and New York costs about $40. A similar Amtrak ticket stacks up to around $200, while the airline equivalent purchased at climbs to between $400 and $550, plus miscellaneous fees.

Many companies are following Megabus lead and beefing up their fleets to meet the demand.

Washington Deluxe plans to add about 20 more buses for Thanksgiving, while Chinatown Bus could implement as many as 12 extra buses. BoltBus also plans to allocate more of its 77 vehicles to its New York-Washington route during the holiday season.

Additionally, Amtrak plans to add more trains as needed to its Acela Express and Northeast Regional Service lines. Wednesday, which will be its busiest day of the year, the train company expects to carry about 125,000 passengers, which is 70 percent more than on a regular Wednesday, spokeswoman Karina Romero said.

Despite plans to run at full capacity, seats are already filling up quickly at intercity buses.

BoltBus is sold out of tickets for Wednesday and only has a few left for Sunday, spokeswoman Bonnie Bastian said.And Chinatown Bus, which includes Eastern Travel Bus, HolaBus and Apex Bus, also expects an overload of passengers during the holiday season, President David Wang said.

Chinatown Bus hit the scene in the late 1990s as a niche bus system that provided a cheap way for people to travel between East Coast cities that were within a few hundred miles of each other.

The industry has "exploded" with a "flurry of new service" and has grown by about 30 percent since the summer of 2008, when Megabus and BoltBus entered the market, said DePaul University professor Joe Schwieterman, whose Chaddick Institute studies intercity bus travel.

By the end of November, Mr. Moser projects Megabus will see a "triple-digit growth in ridership" from a year ago owing to Thanksgiving travelers.

For decades, the bus industry got trampled by other transportation industries as Americans opted for airplanes, trains and cars. But in a plummeting economy, Americans are looking for less expensive options.And a steady diet of promotions provides just that.

Megabus and BoltBus both guarantee at least one $1 ticket on each bus.

And, just in time for Thanksgiving, GotoBus and Chinatown Bus are partnering to sell 30-day unlimited passes that target "budget-crunched consumers" who travel more than once a week, GotoBus Marketing Manager Amy Veiga said.

Bus companies find it easier than other transportation companies to save money. In fact, many intercity buses grow out of a larger transportation company, which provides a lower startup cost. They also sell empty seats at discounted last-minute rates, which attract more passengers. And by selling tickets online, they save even more money.

Airline tickets, meanwhile, are headed in the opposite direction. United Airlines reported booking slightly fewer flights in Washington and Baltimore this Thanksgiving. And sales nationwide are down 6.7 percent from a year ago. In fact, since 2000, air travel has dropped by more than 60 percent, largely because of hidden fees that annoy passengers, AAA reported.

"People aren't silly. People aren't stupid. People aren't dumb," AAA spokesman John Townsend said. "You cannot fool the people."

But hidden fees arent the only thing irritating travelers. Flight delays and heavy security are also getting on their nerves.

Malik Nadeem Abid, president of the American Muslim Voice, traveled by bus from Long Island to Washington last Thursday for a meeting at the White House. The Muslim leader said buses are not only cheaper, but also more comfortable and convenient - and less discriminating.

"Im usually humiliated by the airport, so I try not to take the plane unless I have to," Mr. Abid said.

Combine that with recent improvements to intercity buses, such as wireless Internet and power outlets, and these companies are surging in the transportation industry again, Mr. Schwieterman said.

To find a good price and secure a seat during this year's hectic holiday season, bus companies advise passengers to purchase tickets early, be flexible about the dates and times they travel, and arrive at least 30 minutes before the departure time.

Holiday travel will be packed, and passengers should expect long lines, delays and traffic congestion. So traveling light and stowing carry-ons in overhead compartments will make it more comfortable for everyone, Mr. Wang said.

"We can't go any faster than the traffic is moving out of Washington or into New York," Mr. Moser added.