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?