A new DePaul University study predicts that premium bus services offering more spacious seating than regular coaches, food and drink service, and through-ticketing and baggage service with airlines will spread rapidly around the country.
“We expect to see premium service debut in Arizona, the country’s Heartland, Mountain States, and the Pacific Northwest in the next 18 months,” noted Joe Schwieterman, the primary author of "New Directions: 2023 Outlook for the Intercity Bus Industry," DePaul University’s latest annual installment on intercity bus travel.
This rapid expansion, the authors predict, is being spurred by mounting “flyer fatigue,” high fares on short-hop airline routes, and the growing popularity of airport shuttle services, which are giving travelers a taste of new ground-travel options.
“Flights with little elbow room and the chronic air travel delays that occurred last year prompted many to set aside their qualms about hopping on a coach, particularly for trips less than 250 miles,” Schwieterman said. “Passengers, though, want assurance that they will have a favorable experience, which makes proper branding pivotal."
The Northeast Leads the Way
All three business-class services linking New York City to northern New England offered before the pandemic by Concord Coach, C&J, and Dartmouth Coach, are back on the road, the study noted. Similarly, the three business-class offerings in the New York – Washington DC market, provided by BestBus, Vamoose, and Washington Deluxe, have returned.
A newer player, The Jet, offers a first-class bus service between New York and Washington, DC. Basking in the media spotlight after its 2021 launch, The Jet expanded from four to five days weekly last year, typically with two trips in each direction. Its spacious coaches are configured for 1x1 seating and have computer-aided motion-canceling “hoverseats” that allow for a smoother ride than conventional offerings. A service attendant is onboard; the service is aimed at attracting past Amtrak Regional and Acela riders, noted Schwieterman. Fares are typically around $99 - $149 each way.
The Texas Trio
Texas has emerged as a testbed for premium service, with three companies, RedCoach, Tornado, and Vonlane, making notable moves in 2022.
“The luxury lines of the Texas Triangle compete vigorously with the value-priced national brands FlixBus, Greyhound, and Megabus,” noted Allison Woodward, a study co-author. Vonlane, which uses onboard attendants who serve snacks and drinks, has prioritized linking Dallas, Houston, and Austin. Seats are wider than those on first-class and generously recline.
Neck pillows, sleeping eye masks, toiletries, laptop and phone chargers, and noise-canceling headphones are available to borrow. The carrier added two departures in each direction on peak travel days on its busiest routes last year, giving it eight peak-day departures each way. Vonlane recently launched its first-class between Atlanta, Georgia - Nashville, Tennessee, its first route east of the Mississippi River, with fares around $99 each way.
Competition in Texas grew particularly intense in 2021 when RedCoach, a first- and business-class provider in Florida, added its own Texas Triangle service. It and Vonlane added the San Antonio service last year. Then, last November, Tornado Bus launched Tornado Elite, aimed at the region’s Spanish-speaking population. Tornado Elite uses double-deck coaches with two restrooms and boasts enhanced economy seats with seatback screens, foot, and leg rests, and generous reclining. The service links Dallas to San Antonio and points within Mexico.
New Business Models
Flyers who make dozens of trips each year, Schwieterman noted, have taken a particular interest in ground travel options that involve “novel and largely untested strategies to reduce the hassle of travel.” Napaway, which launched a Nashville - Washington DC “sleeper bus” in June, is a standout. Travelers snooze in “Butterfly Suites” which can be converted from a workspace with a desk to a 6.5-foot-long lie-flat bed. Pillows, blankets, a travel kit, and other amenities are provided to each. Napaway’s luxury coach, equipped with 18 suites, is generally operated once weekly in each direction, making late-evening departures and morning arrivals, but is twice weekly at certain times. Two drivers cover different portions of the 670+-mile route.
Prices start at $125 each way, a Napaway trip is far less expensive than $300+ “walk-up” airfares but comparable to a discounted advance-purchased ticket. Its suites, designed by Butterfly Flexible Seating Solutions, Schwieterman noted, “create exciting opportunities for luxury charters in which passengers want to sleep or rest.”
Another novel development of recent months has been the rapid expansion of services with “through” ticketing and baggage service and airline-style boarding passes coordinated with airlines, services in which Minnesota-based Landline specializes.
“Some passengers may be surprised when they are asked to board a motorcoach at an airport gate alongside passenger planes, but they certainly appreciate the more spacious and relaxed atmosphere once onboard,” Schwieterman noted.
In 2021, Landline developed “codeshare” services with Sun Country Airlines and United Airlines at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and Denver International Airport, respectively. Last year, it expanded both partnerships and added a new one with American Airlines at Philadelphia International Airport, which links to Allentown, Pennsylvania, regional airports, and Atlantic City, New Jersey. American Airlines has bona fide flights from Allentown, allowing passengers on some itineraries to depart on a flight and return by bus.
The DePaul team has created an Interactive Map of Premium Bus Services to showcase nine brands that provide service in this sector. The map highlights the notable features of their routes.
“Over the next 18 months, we expect to see many more routes added to the map, giving passengers in other regions a taste of this rapidly expanding transportation option,” Woodward noted.