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For all the glitz and glamor that can encompass the airline passenger experience, millions of travelers around the world still prefer to board a coach bus and hit the road — traveling hundreds or thousands of miles — to their destinations.
That’s particularly true in countries such as Mexico where rail travel, another alternative to flying, is a less popular option. India’s rail system isn’t the most comfortable and Ireland’s trains aren’t very convenient as they only connect a few major hubs and neglect rural areas and smaller cities and towns, for example.
Flying is also perceived as an expensive mode of travel by many travelers in Mexico, a country where flying isn’t as popular as in others like the U.S. While flying domestically in Mexico often stretches travel budgets for many locals, that situation is being turned on its head in some cases as Mexican airlines get smarter with marketing and their competition.
Increased competition caused both buses and carriers to reimagine their products and has influenced bus lines to further differentiate themselves from airlines and other Mexican bus lines.
In Mexico, some 2.8 billion intercity trips are made by bus each year and bus travel is an estimated $10 billion market in the country, according to Sebastian Gomez, founder of Mexico travel booking site Reservamos which offers bus bookings.
“Buses are to Latin America what airlines are to the U.S.,” said Gomez. “In the U.S., for example, you don’t have the differentiation of sophistication for bus travel as you do in Mexico. And unlike in Europe and the U.S., in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America you really don’t have the presence of rail travel.”
Gomez said that while there is more competition between airlines and buses in Mexico to offer lower fares, airlines are still behind in the amenities and convenience factors. “Bus travel won’t become obsolete,” he said. “One of the benefits that bus travel has that airlines don’t is that you can get to any destination in Mexico that airlines can’t.”
Buses in Mexico are generally more lenient on luggage allowance, seat products offer varying degrees of comfort and drinks, snacks and meals are provided that are superior to airline competitors, Gomez said. As this Los Angeles Times op-ed from November points out, traveling by bus often prevents headaches that ensue from airports and airlines as buses escaped heightened security and other crackdowns on travel that happened after the 9/11 attacks.
Bringing more bus ticket sales online, however, remains another challenge. Nearly 95 percent of all bus sales in Mexico are still offline and made at local bus terminals and paid for in cash.
Reservamos has approached this problem by partnering with companies such as Uber or Airbnb to give travelers an incentive to use its site to get access to deals for booking other ground transport or accommodations in one place. “By the end of 2015 we saw that many of the big bus lines in Mexico had noticed the growth of online travel and made improvements to their online booking experiences,” said Gomez. “The customer didn’t have access to this technology before and booking any kind of travel online is still a novelty in Latin America.”
Buses vs. Airlines in Mexico
Acapulco, Mexico, a destination about 200 miles south of Mexico City on the Pacific Ocean, has 10 million visitors per year with more than half arriving by bus.
Mexican bus lines such as Estrella de Oro, Costa Line, ADO and ETN are the main source of business from Mexico City, one of Acapulco’s top visitor markets, said Piquis Rochin, international promotion director of the Acapulco Destination Marketing Office.
In comparison, some 500,000 travelers arrive in Acapulco by cruise ships and by air via Acapulco International Airport, although low air connectivity to other hubs is likely also a reason for this. “The low-cost airlines like Volaris are coming from our primary markets, but those travelers coming to us by bus tend to stay longer and spend more,” said Rochin. “The buses have very few restrictions but the airlines have more restrictions. If you come by bus, you can purchase a one-way ticket and decide how long you want to stay or be flexible, but that’s harder to do if you fly.”
Tour bus groups, which Rochin said are also a popular way to reach Acapulco and bring significant business to the destination, are another way many travelers experience Mexico as they do other countries and bus tours are included in the bus arrivals total for the destination.
Acapulco tourism runs promotions with both bus lines and airlines but encourages travelers to uses buses to reach the destination. “There’s so much bus connectivity to Acapulco from other large cities and you get to see the mountains and other things you would miss if you flew here,” said Rochin. “And with so much competition just among the bus lines and improved and comfortable products buses are still a very attractive option.”
But low-cost carrier Volaris, for example, carried more than 15 million passengers last year (12 million domestic and three million international, an overall 25.2 percent increase year-over-year).
Aeromexico, the country’s flag carrier, carried 19.7 million passengers in 2016 including 13 million domestic passengers and 6.7 million international passengers, a 3.7 percent and 7.6 percent increase year-over-year, respectively. Total revenue year-to-date in September 2016 was up more than 13 percent year-over-year for Aeromexico to 38 billion Mexican pesos (US$1.8 billion)
Passenger totals for both carriers are a far cry from the number of travelers that buses serve in Mexico as Aeromexico and Volaris try to expand to the U.S. to help them grow faster than their domestic markets currently afford.
Granted, the state of the economy is one of the largest forces that determine how people travel. Bloomberg reported that Mexico’s economy faces a tough year and similar scenarios in other markets around the world could help benefit buses or low-cost carriers depending on how severe the economic woes.
Bus Travel Growth Around the World
In the U.S., while a much smaller bus market than Mexico, about 60.9 million people took intercity buses to their destinations in 2015, up 22 percent year-over-year, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data. Greyhound, one of the largest U.S. bus lines, had 18 million passengers in 2015 with more than 5.4 billion passenger miles per year.
Germany-based Distribusion, a global distribution system provider for bus operators in Europe and Asia, estimates the global intercity and shuttle bus travel market is a $74.7 billion industry.
India has always been a hotbed for bus travel with companies like redBus bringing ticket booking online in the past decade. In October 2016, Indian online travel sites MakeMyTrip and Goibibo merged and bus transaction volume and cross promotion of buses across different brands were listed as reasons for the merger.
As economies around the world continue to fluctuate from boom to bust times the bus market will remain relevant to capitalize on what consumers can afford and also what amenities they’re willing to give up — or gain — from choosing the road over the skies.