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Bolting for $18.50

October 12, 2015
BoltBus sign

Orin O’Neill photos

I have always found owning a car rather handy, and willingly pay the cost. But I also say, if you can get along without a car, more power to ya.

But going scooter-only means at times it’s not the most effective means of transportation. My trip from Bellingham to the Seattle Auto Show, for instance.

A friend recently journeyed from Texas to North Carolina on Megabus, for $25. Yes, you read right.

I’m inspired. Drive in either direction on I-5 and you will lose count of the BoltBuses you’ll see coming and going. I’d been meaning to give BoltBus a try, and this was as good a time as any.

BoltBus and Megabus have their origins in the Chinatown buses that became a thing on the East Coast several years ago. Unlike Greyhound and other similar companies, Mega/BoltBus have cut overhead to the bone. There are no bus stations; you often catch your bus on a street corner or a municipal transit stop. All ticketing is done online, and your ticket is nonrefundable. Service is only between major cities, in this case Vancouver, B.C.-Bellingham-Seattle-Portland-Eugene.

Chinatown bus, New York

Chinatown buses (Wikimedia Commons)

Both companies’ fares are variable, depending on how far in advance you book your trip and how much demand there is for the trip you want. Both companies tout fares as low as one dollar, but if you’re able to snag one of those (my friend did, on one leg) you should probably go buy a lottery ticket. And in BoltBus’ case, there is a transaction fee of at least one dollar, so the cheapest fare is actually two dollars. The most you’ll pay on BoltBus is $15, which is what it costs to walk up and get a standby seat.

It took about a minute to book a round trip from Bellingham to Seattle and back on the BoltBus website. Seven dollars down, 10 dollars back, plus a $1.50 transaction fee. I received two emails from BoltBus, each containing a QR code to be read by the driver on boarding.

Neither the emails nor the BoltBus website specifically said if the driver could scan my phone, so I called the customer service number.

The person on the other end didn’t understand my question. And I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. *Sigh*

I printed the emails, which upon reflection is probably not a bad idea… if something happens to your phone, or you have a brain fart and delete the emails, you’re covered.

BoltBus at Cordata Station

In Bellingham, BoltBus stops at Cordata Station, a hub for Whatcom Transportation Authority‘s bus lines. While there’s a park-and-ride lot (and a DQ) nearby, I decide to go all-bus; there’s a WTA bus stop right in front of the Foothill Villa. Catch the bus going downtown, transfer to another one going to Cordata Station. The latter one was there waiting when I arrived! 🙂

The BoltBus arrived about 10 minutes before its scheduled departure time. If you have luggage, you put it in the cargo bay yourself. I counted eight other passengers boarding, which is by group. Even though I was in the “B” group, I was able to get a seat near the front. Getting up the stairs with my pegleg wasn’t too difficult, but there’s no room for mobility devices and no lift at the front door. Oh, the driver was able to scan my phone, no problem.

Seating accommodations reminded me of the last time I flew United Airlines: The seat was surprisingly uncomfortable, and there was about one inch of kneeroom. I was rubbing elbows with my seatmate, who wasn’t a particularly big guy (um, neither am I). Well, for what they charge in fares ya gotta pack ’em in. Even though there was a car-like 3-point seatbelt, it wouldn’t latch. Let’s hope the driver doesn’t, you know, crash or anything.

The view out the window

My seat was on the left, which is the non-scenic side when you travel south on I-5.

BoltBus Wi-Fi

ATandT 4G LTE Wi-Fi

Megabus and BoltBus both make a big deal about their onboard Wi-Fi. My friend works remotely, so she was able to pass the time on the boring parts of her trip earning a living.

The picture on the left is an Ookla Speedtest performed on the BoltBus’ Wi-Fi. Dial-up is faster.

The pic on the right is AT&T’s 4G LTE network.

The bus got to Seattle just in time for the afternoon commute. Kudos to the driver for making use of off/on ramps and collector-distributor roads to jump the queue, as it were. We arrived at the BoltBus stop at 5th Ave S & S King St about five minutes later than the scheduled time. The trip was otherwise pleasant, there being no screaming infants or loud, intoxicated people. No chickens or goats, either.

There were a lot more people boarding the bus to Bellingham, mainly because about half of them would be continuing on to Vancouver.

The bus for this trip was a different model than the previous one, and while it had seats specifically designated for disabled riders, the stairwell was steeper and had several more stairs. After much walking around at the Auto Show, my legs were fatigued, and negotiating the stairs was much more difficult. But that’s my problem, not BoltBus’. However, BoltBus is totally to blame for seats even more uncomfortable than on the previous bus, and even less legroom in a designated disabled seat. And Wi-Fi that didn’t work at all.

Heading north, a serious accident had traffic crawling from North Seattle to Lynnwood. More kudos to this driver; once clear of the accident scene, she (safely) hauled ass getting to Bellingham. Arrival at Cordata Station was again only five minutes later than the scheduled time.

The More Expensive Ford Taurus With A Different Grille burns about four gallons of gas each way between Bellingham and Seattle. While I saved the $15 it would’ve cost to park at CenturyLink Events Center, at current prices the cost of gas vs. bus fare was a wash. The parking structure at the Clink is next to one of the show entrances, so I wouldn’t have had to walk nearly as far. Had I taken the car I could’ve brought a mobility device that would’ve made getting around the show easier, and I could’ve taken my time at the show because I wouldn’t have had to worry about missing the bus home. (If you do miss your bus, you can try for a standby seat on the next one, but the bus home was the last one of the day. I’d have had to find someplace to crash overnight.)

The alternatives, Amtrak and Greyhound, have their own issues.

A last-minute Amtrak ride would cost $43 one way; booking a month in advance would reduce that figure to $18. Unfortunately, the only time you’d be riding a train is early in the morning southbound, and late afternoon northbound; all other Amtrak trips are by bus.

At Greyhound you’d pay between $23 and $33.50 one way on short notice; booking ahead could cost as little as $13, but that amount is non-refundable. A SeaTac airport shuttle could’ve worked, but would be much more expensive.

BoltBus is cheap, yes. But you get what you pay for. Favicon

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