Jill Pack popped her seat back, took a handful of potato chips out of her box of snacks, cast a languid gaze at Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton singing and dancing up on the TV screen, and pronounced her verdict: In all her years of traveling to see her relatives in Port St. Lucie, driving had never been like this before.
“I never thought I’d say this, but the bus is a really nice option,” she said.
Pack, a 46-year-old flight attendant from Chicago taking advantage of a South Florida layover to visit her family, is the latest convert to Miami-based RedCoach, a luxury bus service that’s on the cutting edge of what transportation experts say is a renaissance in bus travel.
“This is a new generation of bus service,” says Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation think tank. “The growth in the past four to seven years has been phenomenal.”
Spurred on by passengers weary of the security hassles at airports in the post-9/11 world and anxious to stay wired to their cellphones and laptop computers while in transit, bus travel is growing four times as fast as airlines and nearly eight times as fast as railroads.
From cut-rate, nameless lines serving ethnic niches (known in the industry as “Chinatown buses” because that’s their most popular market) to streamlined commuter companies offering express service between cities on the upper East Coast, buses are taking back a big chunk of a travel market that they once dominated.
“The stigma that was long associated with bus travel has finally lifted, completely,” says Joseph Schwieterman, who studies transportation at DePaul Univeristy’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. “You’re seeing passengers riding buses now who would never have set foot in a Greyhound coach 20 years ago.”
Not so long ago, the industry’s dominant image was that of Dustin Hoffman as the seedy, tubercular pimp Ratso Rizzo, dying in the back of an overcrowded bus from New York to Miami at the end of Midnight Cowboy.
That’s a sharp contrast with RedCoach’s first-class buses, which feature roomy leather seats (just 27 in a coach built to hold 56) that recline into beds, on-board movies and free wi-fi service. “To get somebody out of a car, which offers so much freedom of scheduling, you have to give them a good reason, and I think we do,” RedCoach vice president Florencia Cirigliano says.
RedCoach, which stops at the Miami airport, has been in the luxury-bus business in Argentina for 20 years. It launched in Florida in 2010 after Cirigliano and her parents, vacationing in Miami, discovered that a side trip to Orlando would force them to either spend exorbitantly on airline tickets or rent a car and negotiate Florida’s unfamiliar and crowded freeways for several hours.
“We were surprised at how few options there were,” the 29-year-old Cirigliano says. “In Argentina, we have 40 million people and 20,000 buses. The business for buses is huge. Every town has a big bus station the size of Union Station in Washington, D.C. We didn’t see why that couldn’t work here.”
It wasn’t easy — many RedCoach buses in those early days carried just one or two passengers. (And even earlier this month, a Herald reporter traveling mid-week from Fort Pierce to Miami was the only one aboard.) “We lost a lot of money at first, a lot,” Cirigliano says.
But an aggressive combination of cut-rate fares (at one point, as little as $20 for a round trip between Miami and Orlando) and visits to county fairs and other events where crowds were invited to climb aboard and inspect the luxuriant seats expanded RedCoach’s business at a rapid pace.
Originally less than an asterisk in Florida’s transportation system, operating a single bus between Miami and Orlando, RedCoach now operates a fleet of 15 vehicles linking 11 Florida cities, from Naples to Jacksonville. Though the days of dirt-cheap fares are gone (a first-class round trip between Miami and Orlando now costs $80 to $100, about double the fare on conventional bus lines), the company expects to carry 100,000 passengers this year, a 35 percent increase from last.
Nearly half of RedCoach’s passengers are college students, traveling home on weekends from the big college campuses in Gainesville, Tallahassee and Orlando. Another quarter are businessmen. Those are the same two groups groups spurring the growth in bus travel around the rest of the country.
Both are attracted by the same thing: the opportunity for almost unlimited use of cellphones, computers and other electronic gadgets, which are restricted on airlines and often don’t work very well on trains because they often travel through remote areas far from phone towers. Even the most bare-bones bus these days is likely to have wi-fi service and power outlets.
“Bus travelers use technology much more intensively than those on trains and planes,” DePaul’s Schwieterman says. “The bus seat becomes an extension of their office. ... Time in a bus has suddenly become a billable hour.”
Polina Raygorodskaya started traveling by bus while commuting between Boston, where she was attending college, and New York, where she had founded a fashion-industry public relations company. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford other forms of travel, I was making money,” she says. “It was buses worked better with my schedule — I could always get a bus ticket at the last minute if something changed — and I wasn’t losing a day of work every time I traveled because I could get so much done on the bus.”
Her fondness for bus travel eventually turned into a business itself. Five years ago with a friend, she created the Boston-based wanderu.com, a one-stop shopping site that allows customers to collect schedules and prices from 28 different bus companies, then purchase tickets with a single click.
“We’re up to nearly a million searches a month,” the 28-year-old Raygorodskaya says, “and the vast majority of our customers are millennials. When you talk about an older generation of people who grew up with bus travel as it used to be, it’s not considered cool. This generation, which is what’s moving bus travel forward, thinks it’s really cool.”
Bus travel may never have been cool, exactly, but it was once the most popular long-distance travel option in America. “Between 1930 and 1965, you could go literally anywhere on a bus,” Schwieterman says. “Every little town in America had a bus stop.”
But the 1970s brought big changes in the way Americans traveled. Auto registrations doubled every year of the decade, while the 1978 deregulation of airlines sent plane fares plummeting. “By 1980, bus travel had acquired a real stigma,” Schwieterman says.
Most observers think the bus revival began in 2008 with the American arrival of the British company Megabus, which launched discount express service in the Midwest. (It has since expanded into California, the upper Northeast and, five months ago, Florida.) Megabus was soon followed by Boltbus, a competitor with similar service and routes, owned by Greyhound.
Around the same time, Greyhound — the only remaining national bus company in America, with 3,800 stops across the continental United States and Canada — began a major upgrade of its vehicles, adding legroom, wi-fi and electric sockets like the other companies.
“We’ve done a great deal to transform our brand, from new mobile websites to onboard amenities,” Greyhound spokeswoman Lanesha Gipson says. “We’ve improved an onboard experience that’s still safe, reliable and affordable.”
But instead of carving up ever-smaller pieces of the same passenger pie, all the new competitors have expanded the bus-service market. Precise numbers are hard to come by because no federal agency collects statistics on bus travel, but Schwieterman estimates interstate buses carry about 70 million passengers a year.
“That’s way fewer than the airlines, but way more than the trains,” he says. “It’s a force to be reckoned with.”
RedCoach’s traffic doesn’t count toward that total, because none of its routes stretch across Florida’s borders — yet. “We want to add a few more cities within the state, but for sure we plan to go outside Florida,” Cirigliano says. “The business has expanded much faster than we expected.”
So fast, in fact, that it triggered a domestic crisis. Her parents liked their 2010 visit to Florida so much that they bought a vacation condo here. Cirigliano used it when she came for the RedCoach launch, expecting to stay a few weeks. Four years later, she’s still there, along with a husband and, any day now, a baby.
“My mother was furious,” she recalls. “She told my father, ‘You promised me a condo for vacations, not to move my daughter out of the country.’ But so far, they’re still married.”