For a college student like me, getting the time off of work and saving enough money to head over to another country takes about as much effort as getting home to central Washington for the weekend. In fact, getting to Canada is usually cheaper.
On one recent break I choose a trip to Canada with my boyfriend over a visit home (sorry Mom!). We booked a cheap hotel and tickets on the BoltBus. We hopped aboard at 6 a.m. just outside the International District metro station.
I was ecstatic — I hadn’t left the country before, with the exception of a visit to Canada when I was still in diapers. I was excited to find out if “America’s Hat” was just as laid back and friendly as everyone made it out to be (spoiler alert: it is).
For me, this was a real moment of International Travel — yes, even though it was “just” to Canada— the sort of travel that’s supposed to give you pause and allow you to reconsider yourself in a really global way.
I guess the part of International Travel everyone kind of leaves out is the part with cheap bus tickets and motel rooms in the sketchy part of town. Is a bus trip up to Canada really the sort of travel, then, that deserves capital letters and italics?
Is the ability to hop over the border on a whim and an hour’s paycheck changing the way we travel?
Naraelle Hohensee thinks so.
“If anything, [BoltBus] may make travel more like a mode of quick consumption rather than a meaningful, thought-provoking experience,” she said in an email.
Hohensee is the Outreach Coordinator of International Programs with the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) department at the University of Washington, a department known for emphasizing travel as a part of the curriculum.
“CHID promotes travel that is based on collaboration, curiosity, reciprocity, compassion, self-reflexivity, and criticality vis-a-vis travel itself. I’m not sure a $15 bus ticket gets you those things, and I can see it, potentially, working against many of them.”
Since it launched in June of 2012, the Seattle-Vancouver BoltBus route has “seen a nearly 60 percent increase in customers,” according to Lanesha Gipson, Senior Communications Specialist at Greyhound, which owns the low-cost brand.
BoltBus was launched in 2008 in the Northeast by Greyhound before expanding to the West Coast in spring of 2012. Destinations within the States include stops at over a dozen locations, including Portland, Las Vegas and San Francisco.
The trip from Seattle to Vancouver takes about 4 hours, with a stop in Bellingham, and of course, at the border. Fares however at around $15-$25. A lucky few snag $10 or even $1 tickets.
Darby Jenny, a student in Seattle, said she used the service to visit an ex-boyfriend.
“As far as bus travel goes it was fairly nice, the drivers were good and friendly,” she said, adding that the border crossing went smoothly. “I’ve been to Canada before in just a regular car with family and comparatively they asked the same questions and I felt I was treated the same.”
“I picked BoltBus because of what I got for the price: A really good deal and you also get WiFi and outlets and it’s comfortable.” Sarah Egger-Weiler, who uses BoltBus to visit friends in Seattle.
“It’s cheaper than Greyhound and there’s WiFi,” said Rahel Abey, who is from Vancouver and visits family in Seattle.
A report released in 2014 by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development out of DePaul University found that services like BoltBus are thriving.
“Discount city-to-city bus companies, including BoltBus and Megabus, have dramatically expanded in recent years,” the report said. “[These companies] have added service at a rate far faster than any other transportation mode.”
The institute also discovered in this study that these services were saving American travelers “a cumulative monetary savings of $1.2 billion annually.”
A policy analysis by Randal O’Toole for the Cato Institute in 2011 also found that BoltBus, Megabus and Greyhound Express — all similiar low-fare busses – were increasingly becoming direct competitors to other on-the-ground modes of transport, even Amtrak.
Hohensee says that the lower prices may simply reflect a demand created by a somewhat recent cultural norm of traveling.
“I do think that overall, travel has become much more accessible and people now move about the globe more than ever before,” she said. “Whereas going to Europe may have been an once-in-a-lifetime luxury for many people twenty years ago, it’s commonplace now. On the other hand, as demand has risen for things like hostels, travel there has gotten more expensive. Perhaps services like BoltBus reflect a response to this increased demand.”
It’s a hard one to call. In my experience, Hohensee was right, it did turn my grand adventure into a bit of a “quick mode of consumption.” On the other hand, I’m all sorts of broke.
So the question remains: As transportation like BoltBus grows increasingly popular and remains competitively priced, will travel itself be cheapened?
Perhaps more importantly, will crossing the borders between countries lose the significance it once had? And is that a bad thing?
Even those with raised eyebrows have to admit: The way we travel has changed and even if it feels “cheap” it’s certainly affordable.
As Egger-Weiler put it: “As a twenty-something, I don’t care about sitting in a bus. It doesn’t cheapen the experience.”