How far will a dollar take you?

Marketplace Staff Aug 17, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Air travel’s becoming more and more painful, as we all know. Sometimes it’s faster and cheaper to drive. Or take a bus. There’s a bus line in the Midwest that’s doing brisk business this summer by charging as little as a dollar a seat. From its hub in Chicago you can get a ride to Detroit or seven other cities for that price. But do you get what you pay for? Chicago Public Radio’s Diantha Parker has more.

DIANTHA PARKER: It’s blisteringly hot outside Chicago’s Union Station. And the passengers waiting there look really happy when the Megabus pulls up to take them to Minneapolis.

The bright blue and yellow coaches, emblazoned with a cartoon bus driver mascot, are easy to spot. That’s good, because you catch them outdoors.

But college student Brian Hughes says a little discomfort is OK. He only paid $50 for a Midwestern trip with a layover in Megabus’s hub, Chicago.

BRIAN HUGHES: Amtrak wanted like $300 to go from Detroit to Minneapolis and Greyhound was about the same price. So, I figured, you know, I could get to Minneapolis in about the same time for for about $200 cheaper, I might as well do it.

Fifty bucks is pretty good. But Hughes knows he could have done better:

HUGHES: I booked about two weeks in advance. I know a couple of my buddies from school booked about three or four weeks in advance and got $1 trips. So their entire round-trip from Detroit to Minneapolis cost $5.

That includes a 50-cent booking fee. Word of mouth has attracted about 100,000 passengers to Megabus so far. The British-based company keeps prices low by selling tickets online. That means no ticket windows, fewer employees, and no boarding passes. The bus driver just checks a list for your reservation number.

JIM SCHWARTZ: Write it on the back of your hand, if you want. As long as the number fits the number that’s on that sheet.

Jim Schwartz is a Chicago-based general manager for Megabus.

SCHWARTZ: We’ve made no bones about it from the start . . . We consider it the Southwest Airlines approach.

The formula is simple. The Megabus base fare is $1. As your travel date approaches, the prices go up.

A recent passenger survey shows those fares are getting Midwesterners to leave their cars at home. And experts say cheap bus service can fill in transportation gaps.

I, for one, tried out the ride from Chicago to Milwaukee. It cost $16.50. And I booked it two hours before I left.

I figured if the ride was bumpy, I’d have something to report. But it came and left on time, and it was smooth. The driver even offered us a choice of movies.

DRIVER:“I have a limited selection. I do apologize. The first one is “Spiderman” with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. The other one is “The Truman Show” with Jim Carrey. “Jumanji” with Robin Williams — that’s the one . . . .

He actually offered us six choices. We picked “Spiderman.” And, the bathroom, unlike the last time I flew American Airlines, was spotless.

In Chicago, I’m Diantha Parker for Marketplace.

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