How does BoltBus compare with Amtrak for travel between Seattle and Portland with a bicycle?

by Eric Shalit on May 29, 2012

BoltBus arrives and departs at 5th and King St. in Seattle's International District and in Portland at 548 SW Salmon.

Discount regional bus line BoltBus, began nonstop Seattle-Portland service on May 17, and is about to add another line from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. on May 31. There are 6 runs per day each way between Seattle-Portland, and 4 runs per day each way between Seattle-Vancouver, from Fifth Avenue South next to Seattle’s International District/Chinatown transit station.

Their pricing structure is variable dependent upon travel date and time. Apparently there are a few tickets available for as low as $1, but most fares are in the area between $10-$13. BoltBus started on the East Coast as a partnership of Greyhound and Peter Pan Bus Lines, and chose the Northwest as its second region.

Galfriend and I have been traveling back and forth between Seattle and Portland every week via Amtrak with bike for more than 2 months. We love Amtrak, but the typical round-trip ticket is around $80. We read about BoltBus and its cheap fares in the local press and decided to check it out. Our interest is in traveling with bicycles, so that’s an important factor in our review.

For price comparison we chose a departure date from Seattle of Saturday 6/2/12 and a return date from Portland of Sunday 6/3/12. BoltBus departs Seattle at 8:30 AM and departs Portland at 6 PM. Amtrak departs Seattle at 7:30 AM and departs Portland at 6:15 PM. Travel times are similar. Bolt Bus is subject to freeway traffic and Amtrak subject to track construction and obstacles.

BoltBus vs. Amtrak travel between Seattle and Portland with bicycle

BoltBusAmtrak Cascades
Round-trip passenger cost$32$72
Additional round-trip cost for bike$0$10
Bike accommodationsunder bus with luggagebike hooks in baggage car
# of bike spaces per runup to 3 depending on space
(plans for additional exterior 3-bike rack)
6 hooks
(plans for 6 additional hooks)
Ability to reserve bike space in advance?NoYes

The price difference for this run was $82 for Amtrak vs. $32 for BoltBus. What are the plusses and minuses associated with that $50 difference? Clearly, saving $50 will be an incentive for using BoltBus.

Here are a few negatives to consider. Currently you can’t reserve a bike space when you reserve your passenger ticket. Bike spaces are on a first-come basis at departure and there’s room for maybe 3 mixed in with luggage underneath the bus. Let’s say 4 people have booked tickets and show up with their bikes. One of those people will not be able to take their bike and will be left sitting alone on the curb. If 6 or more passengers show up with bikes there will be mayhem.

BoltBus needs to add bikes to their online reservations form just like Amtrak currently does, so passengers are not wondering if they’re going to be able to travel with their bike, or so they can make other plans. Personally, I think charging a nominal fee of even $1-$2 for the bike is a good way of reserving that space. This will keep people without bikes from checking the box and reserving the space by accident or “just because”.

BoltBus General Manager, David Hall has been very interested in accommodating passengers with bicycles. “I’m a long time recreational biker and that is one of the reasons we allow them” says Hall. However, he acknowledges that there may be limitations. He’s currently looking into adding a rack for the front of each bus so it can accommodate an additional 3 bikes.

In my experience, Greyhound buses typically require bikes to be boxed. BoltBus does not. In placing my galfriend’s bike in the luggage compartment I took care to position it so that it was unlikely to be accidentally damaged by luggage that could be placed on top of it. That’s the passenger’s responsibility and liability.

In placing my galfriend's bike in the luggage compartment I took care to position it so that it was unlikely to be accidentally damaged by luggage that could be placed on top of it. That's the passenger's responsibility and liability.

Amtrak currently has 6 bike hooks in the baggage car on its Cascade runs. Coast Starlight runs do not have bike hooks in the baggage car, and require the bike to be boxed. Should you need to take a train without bike hooks or if bike hooks are full, Amtrak has its own large bike boxes that can fit a bike with wheels attached. Only pedals must be removed and handlebars turned. This will require a pedal and headset wrench. Park Tool makes a lightweight combo wrench that’s perfect for this task. The Amtrak boxes are $15, but stations will often give you a free recycled box if you ask. These boxes are much larger than the bike boxes manufacturers use to ship disassembled bikes in. While boxing a bike is more of a hassle than simply hanging it from a hook, it’s not a catastrophic affair as long as you’ve got a wrench. Get to the station early. Amtrak waits for no one.

Back in April I wrote to Amtrak’s Dan Engstrom, “I think there need to be more bike hooks on the Cascade run. The current 6 have been filling up. I’ve never seen so much luggage in the baggage car that having 12 hooks would interfere with luggage. Being able to hang the bike as opposed to boxing it is a terrific way to travel.” Amtrak’s Dan Engstrom replied “We know and will be expanding to 12.” but didn’t say when. If you’re concerned that your bike may be scratched in the BoltBus luggage compartment or are averse to putting it on an exterior rack that may be installed in the future, then paying the additional $50 and taking Amtrak is for you.

50 comfy leather seats on each BoltBus. Galfriend's bus arrived about 15 minutes early.

Here are a few of the BoltBus amenities.

  • More legroom: we’ve taken a standard coach configuration and removed seats. This adds about three extra inches of legroom per seat.
  • Internet: Our buses are equipped with WiFi hot spots. This technology is new, and there are spots on the trip where the service may be unavailable. We also do not advise downloading large files, as the speed will be relatively slow. The WiFi service is free of charge…enjoy.
  • Power plugs-ins: Located throughout the coach are standard 110-volt plug-ins. To make the trip more enjoyable, plug in your laptops, iPods and portable DVD players, and enjoy yourself.
  • Standard amenities: restroom, air-conditioned, panoramic views, the normal coach accoutrements.

Here are a few of the Amtrak amenities.

  • Food car featuring beer and mixed drinks.
  • Internet: The WiFi service is free of charge.
  • Power plugs-ins: Located throughout the coach are standard 110-volt plug-ins. To make the trip more enjoyable, plug in your laptops, iPods and portable DVD players, and enjoy yourself.
  • Ability to walk around: People with small children particularly benefit from this. Toddlers like to march up and down the aisles of the whole train for the entire trip. People often stand between cars to make cell phone calls.
  • Beautiful scenic route: route takes you along south Puget Sound, and Willamette River.

If you travel frequently between Seattle and Portland or are traveling with family members, the $ savings from using BoltBus can quickly add up. My 18 and 21 year old sons love visiting Portland with bikes. $50 is a lot of money to them and many of their friends. They’re excited about BoltBus. Conversely, if you’re an occasional traveler on this route the additional $50 for traveling Amtrak will give you more of a first-class travel experience. By the way, I recently asked what the main differences were between traveling Amtrak with a coach ticket vs. a more expensive business class ticket and was told that other than the color of the seats, there wasn’t much difference.

I’m thrilled that there are more options available for travelers with bicycles. It’ll be interesting to see how BoltBus and Amtrak compete for this market segment.

Unlike BoltBus, current Greyhound bus policy says “bicycles, skis and ski poles must be packed in wood, canvas or other substantial container, and securely fastened”. That basically means bikes must be boxed. A couple years ago I got stranded on the Oregon Coast with my bicycle due to a knee injury. I could catch a bus in one town, but couldn’t get a bike box in that town. I ended up hitchhiking back to Eugene, Oregon with my bike. I’m looking forward to the day when intermodal bike/bus transportation is a real option nationally, and the bicycle is considered as more than just a toy. Amtrak Cascades run and BoltBus are moving in the right direction.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Marge Evans May 30, 2012 at 8:08 am

nice write up. Bolt Bus is going to be going to Vancouver B.C. starting in June(?). I completely agree about reservation system for bicycles. How disappointing to arrive with ticket and nowhere to stow bicycle.

Reply

Eric Shalit May 30, 2012 at 8:17 am

BoltBus service from Seattle to Vancouver begins tomorrow.

Reply

Tim K June 27, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Hmmm….wonder what the odds are of getting a tandem on Bolt?

Reply

Eric Shalit June 27, 2012 at 2:00 pm

call them and tell them dimensions or go see one of their buses in advance of your trip. I think the odds are good.

Reply

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