BoltBus makes travel cheap, but is it cheapening travel?

A BoltBus driver loads luggage into the bottom of a bus in Seattle. (Photo by Holly Thorpe)
A BoltBus driver loads luggage into the bottom of a bus in Seattle. (Photo by Holly Thorpe)

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?

Passengers have their tickets scanned for a BoltBus to Portland outside of the International Station in Seattle (Photo by Holly Thorpe)
Passengers have their tickets scanned for a BoltBus to Portland outside of the International Station in Seattle (Photo by Holly Thorpe)

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.”

Passengers wait in line for a BoltBus to Portland outside of the International Station in Seattle (Photo by Holly Thorpe)
Passengers wait in line for a BoltBus to Portland outside of the International Station in Seattle (Photo by Holly Thorpe)

“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.”

Even locally, the service has made just about every “alternative” and “cheap” travel list around, including this one from the Seattle Times earlier this year.

Passengers wait in line for a BoltBus to Portland outside of the International Station in Seattle (Photo by Holly Thorpe)
Passengers wait in line for a BoltBus to Portland outside of the International Station in Seattle (Photo by Holly Thorpe)

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.”

5 Comments

  1. Holly, thank you for this article. I'm a big Bolt Bus fan. While I admire the values that Naraelle Hohensee expresses in this article about promoting “travel that is based on collaboration, curiosity, reciprocity, compassion, self-reflexivity, and criticality vis-a-vis travel itself,” I am not at all convinced that the MODE of how you travel should be held up as the be-all, end-all to achieving Hohensee's criteria.

    The last time I traveled to Vancouver by Bolt Bus (I have averaged about a trip a month the last quarter and I'm headed to Portland in two weeks) I was seated next to an exchange student from Scotland who was spending the year at UBC. We got to talking and it turns out she has a keen interest in work I do around food and identity (full disclosure, I teach at the UW and am on The Globalist board) and I was able to swap information with her and connect her to a UW colleague whose research interests will be a boon as she sets off to do fieldwork in Ecuador this summer.

    I choose Bolt Bus because a) it's inexpensive but reliable, b) I got rid of my car two years ago and so affordable options like Bolt Bus keep me happily on the move, and c) the wi-fi and courtesy of the drivers goes above and beyond anything I have experienced save Cathay Pacific airlines or Emirates. And neither of those carriers gets me to Portland or Vancouver cheaply or easily.

    I believe "collaboration, curiosity, reciprocity, compassion, self-reflexivity, and criticality" are behaviors we must strive for in our day to day lives–not just when we travel. If Bolt Bus makes travel more affordable for a range of budgets, I'm all for it.

  2. Anita, those are great points. With props to author Holly Thorpe for a well-written article, I'm not actually a critic of BoltBus, or any other form of affordable transport! One thing I pointed out that she didn't quote from me was that many people may be using these services for things other than just travel for pleasure. And you are right that mass transport is not only eco-friendly, but a great way to connect and meet new people. As you rightly state, you really can't fault the mode of travel – or even the ubiquity of travel – for the rise of a "consumption-based" travel mindset … and you could probably even make the argument that consumption itself isn't a bad thing in the first place. Probably one of the takeaways here is that the world is a very mobile and extremely complex place, full of tradeoffs good and bad.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Naraelle, and apologies for not seeing it until just now. You are quite right: the world is a mobile and complex place and I bet that those two realities are things we both value about living in this era we do. And I fully agree that there are trade offs that accompany mobility and complexity–surges in tourism that can be boons and headaches for communities simultaneously. Ultimately, the more all of us an travel outside of our known spaces (as gently on the environment as possible), the more we cultivate humility, curiosity, and, I hope, optimism! Thanks again.

  3. As a semi retired Radio D.J. , commercial voice over guy and landscaper, I find the service a simple pleasure. i'm now 56 , I like the idea of leave the travel to us ( Greyhound ) This is smart, hip and priced well. My hope is that this will expand to future travels by myself and folks of all ages. My three rides were all wonderful.

  4. If this double posts, my bad….

    I think it overlooks part of why a service like this is so necessary. Most of the people I travel with, just like me, are not on the bus for pleasure and vacation. We have real needs to cross back and forth consistently, due to work or VISA requirements. There is a severe lack in reasonable, fast transportation between Portland – Seattle – Vancouver. A bullet train would be a wonderful thing, but I`m not going to hold my breath. The Bolt Bus has students on travel Visas, people with work visas, entertainers traveling to gigs, and people just trying to see their families. I married a Canadian. It takes THREE YEARS for us to be able to live together. So for the 2 years leading up to the marriage, and the 3 years till I get a VISA if we want to see each other we have to bounce back and forth like ping pong balls. We could never afford to do so with plane prices, even the train would cost more. Bolt Bus is a godsend, and has little to do with degrading the experience of travel….and everything to do with people being able to work and see their loved ones.

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