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    BoltBus: Cheap fares, free WiFi, occasional fire

    If all goes according to plan, BoltBus can take you to Vancouver for just $1. Murphy's Law though, still applies.
    A BoltBus, headed to Vancouver.

    A BoltBus, headed to Vancouver. Sue Frause

    When I heard about BoltBus offering fares for as low as a dollar between Seattle and Portland (“Bolt For A Buck”), I assumed it was another version of the Green Tortoise. If you’re not familiar with Green Tortoise, it’s a bus tour company founded in the ‘70s, offering an alternative way to travel for “fun loving, independent backpackers who value cooperation.” Today, it focuses on travel adventures in the USA, Mexico and Central America — all aboard a sleeper coach. The company also operates two hostels in Seattle and San Francisco.

    Well, there’s nothing alternative or hippy-dippy about BoltBus. A division of Greyhound Lines, BoltBus was founded in 2008 in the Northeast as the first curbside bus service to offer such on-board amenities as leather seats, free Wi-Fi and power outlets. Touting “exceptional service, luxury and convenience at low prices,” its initial destinations included Baltimore, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. In May 2012, BoltBus launched in the Pacific Northwest, with non-stop service between Seattle and Portland, adding Vancouver BC and Bellingham to the menu soon after. And yes, you can really get a ticket for as little as $1.

    Here’s how you do it. Book a seat in advance at BoltBus.com. The earlier you purchase your ticket, the lower the fare. Tickets may also be purchased from a driver before boarding, but you’ll pay full price (the highest fare is adjusted based on market demand). There’s a $1 booking fee on all purchases, and tickets are non-refundable.

    I booked a ticket between Seattle and Vancouver BC, scoring a $10 fare on the northbound leg and $18 on the return. Total cost: $29 with the booking fee. The Seattle BoltBus “station” is at 5th Avenue South and King Street, a curbside bus stop, adjacent to the International District/Chinatown Station. They currently offer four trips a day between Seattle-Bellingham-Vancouver and five daily trips between Seattle and Portland.

    There were about a dozen passengers waiting on the sidewalk for a weekday morning bus to Vancouver this past summer. Our driver Trish checked off our names and confirmation numbers as we boarded, and asked to see our passports. The bright red BoltBus features extra leg room, comfy black leather seats, electrical outlets, large windows and cup holders. My only complaint was there are no tray tables for laptops.

    After a brief welcome and a few housekeeping details from Trish (restroom in the back, WiFi only good until the US/Canada border), we were off. All passengers are required to get off the bus at the Sumas border crossing, where the lines were short and the Canada Border Services Agency friendly. We arrived at Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station right on schedule, approximately four hours after leaving Seattle. The station is also where Amtrak Cascades arrives and departs, and the travel time on BoltBus and Amtrak is about the same, approximately four hours between Seattle and Vancouver.

    My second trip on BoltBus was a much different scenario. I was again headed to Vancouver, but could only book the northbound portion of the trip, as the southbound trains were sold out on the day of my return. So I ended up paying $8 for my BoltBus ticket from Seattle to Vancouver and $37.40 for my return trip on Amtrak Cascades (Business Class) south to Everett.

    But the biggest difference was our dramatic departure from Seattle on that sunny October morning. While passing through the heart of the city on I-5, our driver Trish announced she was pulling off to the side of the freeway. She hopped off the bus and within seconds came back shouting, “Fire! Everybody off the bus!” Quickly gathering up our belongings, the four passengers on board rushed off the bus and stood in the median between the four lanes of I-5 and the on-ramp to the freeway.

    Within minutes, two Seattle Fire Department trucks arrived, along with the Washington State Patrol. According to Trish, the air conditioning unit had caught fire at the back of the bus. After standing on the freeway for nearly half an hour, we were given the all clear to re-board the bus and wait for a replacement bus to arrive from West Seattle. Oh, and we were all given refunds. Who says there’s no such things as a free ride?

    Sue Frause is a Whidbey Island freelance writer and photographer. You can reach her at sue@suefrause.com.

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    Posted Fri, Nov 9, 2:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    I had a less than ideal experience, on a one way excursion from Vancouver to Seattle. It took us 1-1/2 hours to get through customs, and unloaded all of our luggage to carry it through. This isn't Bolt's problem, it's US Customs issue, since we stood in line for quite a while before any agents even showed up to process us. There are no assigned seats, so when we got back on the bus, everyone moved around and I ended up not sitting with my travel partner. And no wi-fi in Canada (or at the border crossing) resulted in no wi-fi for more than half of the time on the bus. We also had to stop at a rest stop for people to access the bathroom, which resulted in a longer trip. What was scheduled for 4 hrs turned out to be 5 or 5-1/2. But, the price was right...two tickets for $18! I'll probably give them another try sometime.

    Posted Sat, Nov 10, 8:23 a.m. Inappropriate

    I've taken the Boltbus between Vancouver and Seattle on maybe two dozen round trips. Compared to Amtrak, it's much less comfortable- particularly if you want to work on a laptop- and much less expensive- particularly if you are bringing a bicycle, as I do- free on the BoltBus, $5 on the Amtrak iff there is space on their rack. Until recently, it was a good deal quicker than Amtrak, but now that they stop in Bellingham, it's about equal at four hours scheduled. It's a more reliable service- Amtrak is often cancelled or delayed. If cancelled, you can end up on a bus at the same fare as the train, and then good luck if you have a bicycle with you- you need to be able to box it on the spot.

    Never did we cross at Sumas- we cross at the "Pacific Highway" truck crossing in Blaine. I think the author is mistaken. That's the fraught part of the trip, particularly northbound: even if customs agents show up promptly, everybody has to wait if they find reason to challenge a rider. And they regularly find reason to do so, particularly with African-American and other dark-skinned travelers. Or those with poor English language skills.

    As for the WiFi, it's true that it's off north of the border, but that's only 40 minutes of the nominally four-hour trip. They claim that they are working on getting an agreement with a Canadian carrier to fix that issue.

    I don't believe that the price is a function of when you book the way it is with Amtrak. There is one $1 fare per trip, but it's no longer the first ticket sold- it's a randomly-selected trip. If you are really cheap, a strategy is to keep visiting until they offer you a more attractive fare. I've never paid more than $18, and have paid $1 several times. And $0 twice- if you register for their rewards program, you get a free ticket every dozen or so trips.

    There has been a functioning on-board toilet on every trip I've taken.

    Given the price and reliability, I haven't taken Amtrak once since my first trip on BoltBus. And the drivers are (almost) uniformly great. I just wish they hadn't added the stop in Bellingham. And that the border guards would tone down the racism.


    Posted Tue, Nov 13, 7:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    Oops. You're right, Stinky, it is the Pacific Highway crossing. I've always been confused about the names. According to WSDOT, there are four Whatcom County, WA border crossings: I-5 Peace Arch,
    SR 543 Pacific Highway, SR 539 Lynden/Aldergrove, SR 9 Sumas/Huntingdon. I can handle no WiFi in Canada, and the stop in Bellingham doesn't bother me. I have yet to take BoltBus to Portland, it's next on my list. And when "mud slide season" hits, the bus will be a good alternative to Amtrak Cascades, which often cancels. I'm just glad there are more transportation options!

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