Promising fares as low as $1 and a promotional giveaway of 1,000 free tickets, Megabus is starting daily service next month from Hartford to Manhattan and Amherst, Mass.
The company will start with a daily schedule of five trips each way between downtown Hartford and midtown Manhattan, and two each day to Amherst.
The move marks a U-turn for Megabus, which pulled out of the Hartford market a little more than a year ago because of disappointing sales.
"We had a large increase in e-mails, blogging and social media messages with regard to us coming back, so we made the business decision to give it another try," President and Chief Operating Officer Dale Moser said. "We're really excited about coming back into Hartford."
The company is known for keeping fares by skipping the cost of terminals and instead using streetcorners to drop off and pick up passengers. Moser said Megabus would use slot at Hartford's Union Station, but the company later said it won't. Instead, it will stop at Arch Street and Columbus Boulevard.
The company's distinctive blue buses operate on routes among about 40 cities in the Northeast and northern Midwest, and Moser predicted that that number would grow to 50 soon. For a little less than a year in 2009, buses running between Boston and New York stopped in Hartford, but that schedule didn't generate much extra ridership. Megabus now runs express buses between Boston and New York.
Starting today, travelers looking for deals will be able to search http://us.megabus.com. Service begins Dec. 15, and Megabus will be selling tickets for trips through mid-March.
Bargain-hunting can be a big part of the Megabus experience. Virtually all of its tickets are sold online, and prices fluctuate sharply depending on demand and schedule. This weekend, for instance, Boston-to-New York fares for Dec. 7 varied from $9 to $13, depending on departure time. A return on Dec. 8 had the similar options — along with a $1 fare for a bus leaving at 11:10 p.m. and reaching Boston at 3:25 a.m. For dates two weeks later — on the verge of the Christmas holiday — all fares are set at $20.
"The whole concept is very similar to what discount airlines have been doing. We have some $1 seats if you purchase far enough in advance, and incrementally it will go up to what we establish as the top fare," Moser said. "But we'll always be more economical than flying, driving or taking the train."
Megabus isn't specifying what its highest fares would be on the Hartford routes, but Moser suggested that some one-way prices would be priced at $5, $8 and $12. When tickets go on sale today, there'll be a sprinkling of $1 one-way fares and 1,000 seats, spread through the schedule from December to March, will be free except for a 50-cent processing fee.
"If you have flexibility and plan in advance, there are deals on prices out there," said Moser, who noted that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are typically low-travel days and thus likely to offer the best shot at low fares.
On the Hartford to New York route, bus competitors include Greyhound and Peter Pan, which are currently advertising fares of $40 and up for round-trips. Both have more frequent service and both stop at the Port Authority bus terminal in New York. Megabus has no terminal rights in New York, and passengers board and get off on a corner of 9th Avenue not far from Penn Station. Greyhound and Peter Pan pay to use Union Station, which provides bathrooms and a heated waiting area with seating.
Megabus will face the same competitors on the Hartford-Amherst route, though its service will be direct while theirs will require a transfer in Springfield. Peter Pan quotes round-trip fares at $36; Greyhound's rates range from $27 to $46, depending on whether the ticket is refundable and whether it is purchased in advance.
Amtrak has one train a day in each direction on the Amherst route, and about a half-dozen each way on the New York run.
Moser says Megabus isn't too concerned about those competitors, though.
"Sixty percent of people who ride Megabus never thought of taking bus transportation before. We're getting people out of their cars," Moser said. "There are millions of people on the highway — I'd rather get a small percent of them than take a large percent [of riders] out of another bus company."
Megabus is a unit of CoachUSA, a subsidiary of Stagecoach Group of Great Britain. The company has been operating in the U.S. for four years with buses that offer free Wi-Fi and power ports. All are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and have restrooms.
Unlike Fung Wah and other super-discounters that operate between Chinatowns in New York and Boston, Megabus will sell only guaranteed-seat tickets.
"We recognize what people don't like about that kind of bus travel – you're 68th in line for the 10 o'clock bus, and it holds only 55 so you're not going to be on it," Moser said. "Time is too valuable for that,"
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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