Skift Take

Megabus (which is owned by Coach USA) and its Greyhound-owned competitor Boltbus have taken the low-cost carrier model to the highways with an interesting twist: The old-school bus companies are learning from the budget lines and improving service overall.

I got here on the bus. The Greyhound bus. And it was all good.

Since Megabus breezed into Detroit in 2006 with fares starting at $1 each way and online-only ticketing, many Michigan travelers have regularly taken it from Detroit to Chicago and points beyond. In fact, many travelers think Megabus is the only game in town.

It’s not. Greyhound is upping its game. It has added “express” service and more routes where you don’t change buses or stop at every little podunk city. It’s in the process of upgrading its entire bus fleet. It has “print-at-home” ticketing, plus it still takes cash at its ticket counters (which is why it retains its transportation-of-last-resort reputation for the credit card-less).

Since last fall, Greyhound has added express service from Detroit to Chicago and Toronto.

The traditional knock on Greyhound — that it attracts riff-raff (there was a shooting and robbery at the Detroit Greyhound station last year, for example) — may give people pause. But plenty of regular people rely on the service.

“I take it all the time, and I’d take it again,” says Sally Kennedy of Detroit, who regularly uses Greyhound for the 16 1/2 -hour bus ride between Detroit and Birmingham, Ala. James Newton, 22, of Kalamazoo has taken Greyhound all the way to Florida and back and felt safe.

“I’d recommend it,” he says.

To test Greyhound against Megabus service, I chose the Detroit-Cleveland route. Why? The Megabus from Detroit to Cleveland detours to Ann Arbor on the way, making for a 5 1/2 -hour trip. Greyhound stops only in Toledo and gets you to Cleveland in 3 1/2 hours. Easy choice.

Eastward to Cleveland

At 6:30 a.m. on a Thursday in June, I left my car at the Free Press parking lot and walked 2 blocks to the Greyhound Station on Howard Street. I already had a ticket for the 7 a.m. bus, booked and printed at home. But the terminal was bustling with a long line of people buying last-minute tickets.

At numbered gates, passengers formed into four lines bound for Cleveland, Toronto, Chicago or Nashville, Tenn. Drivers slid big suitcases into the belly of the buses. Small carry-ons fit in bins above the seats.

I boarded my bus. Only about a quarter of the 52 seats were filled. Surprisingly, the silver-and-blue bus looked new. It had reclining leather seats, and the onboard free Wi-Fi worked. Electrical outlets were at every seat. The bathroom at the back of the bus was spotless. Best of all, we glided out of the terminal at 7:10 a.m. and quickly sped out of Detroit.

Who was on the bus? Some elderly Detroiters, students, mothers with children, a few people who looked down on their luck and some mysterious travelers hard to place (they probably looked at me and thought the same thing). In the quiet atmosphere, most passengers dozed or stared out the window.

With only a short stop in Toledo, we arrived in Cleveland uneventfully and right on time.

Babies and the Amish

Megabus keeps its costs low by picking up and dropping off on street corners. Greyhound has terminals. In Cleveland, I got off with some trepidation at the 1948 art deco Streamline-style Greyhound bus terminal on Chester Avenue. I had booked a hotel, the Hampton Inn, which I thought was within walking distance from the bus station. But was it safe? I stepped out of the station to find it was 4 pleasant blocks to the hotel, which in turn was down the street from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

After spending 24 hours in Cleveland, I returned to the station for the 12:05 p.m. Friday bus home. This experience was somewhat different. First, a security guard hand-checked luggage before we boarded. Second, the backs of the leather seats seemed a bit worn and the bus just seemed older, although the Wi-Fi worked and so did the plugs. Third, it was packed with about 50 passengers, nearly full. Most passengers looked like Detroiters, but then a whole crowd of old-order Amish people boarded with their flocks of children and babies — not an uncommon sight, as it turns out, since the Amish don’t drive or use credit cards and need to use the bus.

After leaving on time, we encountered a bit of construction on the Ohio Turnpike. Then we stopped for what was supposed to be 10 minutes at a rest stop, which turned into 20 minutes because some of the Amish got stuck in a long line at Burger King, and we had to wait for them. Still, the bus rumbled into Toledo, dropped off and picked up a few more passengers, then sped toward Detroit — babies crying, people chatting and everyone awake.

At the Detroit Greyhound station, we pulled in only 10 minutes late. As I came out of the terminal into the cool afternoon air, there were a few sketchy people hanging around the front of the terminal with their drug-mobiles and music blasting. But ordinary folks far outweighed the riff-raff element.

I walked the 2 blocks back to my car. How did I feel? Pretty good. I didn’t have to drive the Ohio Turnpike or pay its tolls, and you know, the Greyhound bus was actually pretty comfortable.

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Tags: bus, greyhound, megabus

Photo credit: Competition has spurred Greyhound to make improvements in its fleet and services, including print-at-home tickets. Pictured is a Greyhound bus in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, in July 2011.