Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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How Frequent Flyers Become Road Warriors
February 23, 2017 -- Pity poor John Pitts.
Pitts has long been a frequent flyer, commuting on Southwest Airlines to the Texas capital of Austin from his Houston home. But airfares became too costly for the 154-mile flight and Pitts always had to scramble for an aisle seat. It was expensive to valet park at Houston/Hobby and Southwest's decision to squeeze more seats into its Boeing 737s meant legroom was so tight that Pitts said he couldn't work in-flight.
Pitts switched to driving, three hours each way. But it was a strain on his body and his BMW. Texas traffic is unpredictable, too. Except for phone calls, Pitts couldn't work while at the wheel, either.
These days, however, Pitts commutes in what he calls his "rolling office:" a 22-seat Vonlane luxury motorcoach.
Founder and managing principal of Texas Star Alliance, a 24-person lobbying firm, Pitts now rides regally between the two cities in a seat larger than his office chair. He plugs in his laptop, connects with the free WiFi, spreads out his papers and works without interruption during the three-hour ride. The Vonlane attendant brings complimentary breakfast, sandwiches, snacks, coffee or juice.
"I can work the whole way, take and make phone calls, think, write," Pitts explains. "I can watch the news shows--CNN is on one big-screen TV, Fox News is on the other."
Vonlane picks up Pitts at the Hyatt Regency in Houston and drops him off at the Hyatt Regency in Austin. Price: $79 each way, no extra fees. On the Houston/Hobby-Austin route, Southwest charges $229 each way for an "anytime" ticket with a 14-day advance purchase.
Pitts' experience is not unique. More and more frequent flyers are literally becoming road warriors as luxury-bus operations pop up on short-haul rules between major business destinations. LimoLiner, one of the pioneers, has plied the New York-Boston run since 2003. Royal Traveler operates between New York and Washington. In traffic-choked Florida, RedCoach is carving a niche by connecting the state's key cities. Several operators are running in New England, too.
"Our target is the business traveler making a 200- to 250 -mile trip who figures it's a toss-up whether to fly or drive," says Alex Danza, founder and chief executive of Vonlane. "Flying door-to-door is a costly and time-wasting three-and-a-half hour ordeal for a 60-minute flight."
Vonlane has 13 luxury buses and currently links Dallas, Houston and Austin. Next month, Danza says, Vonlane will launch a Houston-San Antonio route. Fares range from $79 to $89 one way.
"I see it as a private jet on wheels," he claims. Passengers have more legroom and personal space than a first class cabin on a domestic flight."
Back East, former Washington restaurateur Andy Seligman dreamed up Royal Traveler two years ago for commuters between New York and the District of Columbia. His two, 24-foot-long Mercedes-built Sprinter vans seat seven or eight people, mostly those who find Amtrak's Acela or flying too pricy or a time waster. Depending on traffic, the ride between midtown Manhattan and the District takes about four hours and costs $95 each way.
Like Vonlane, Royal Traveler also picks up and drops off at hotels: In New York, it's the Loews Regency at East 61st Street and Park Avenue. At the other end, it makes stops at the Embassy Suites in Chevy Chase, Maryland; the Hilton McLean in Tysons Corner, Virginia; and the Park Hyatt Washington at 1201 24th Street NW in the West End. On the bus, there are lap desks or drop-down tables; 7-inch monitors with DirectTV and Netflix; free WiFi; adjustable LED reading lights, and seat-side power outlets and USB ports. Fiji and Perrier water as well gourmet snacks from Dean and DeLuca are served.
"We're catering to business travelers who don't want to stand in lines at Reagan/National or waste an hour or more plus cab fare getting into Manhattan from LaGuardia Airport," says Seligman.
Royal Traveler currently makes two trips a day north from Washington and soon will beef up its schedule with two more vans now being outfitted. Seligman concedes Amtrak's Acela is often faster than his vans by an hour, but one-way Amtrak business class fares cost at least $165 and first class starts at $253.
Competition among luxe buses on Interstate 95 between Washington and New York is growing, too. Vamoose, a traditional bus operator, has a Gold Bus tricked out for road warriors. Configured 2x1 with 36 seats versus regular 56-seat Vamoose buses, Gold Bus fares range between $50 and $75 one-way. Vamoose Gold seats have power outlets, folding tray tables and free WiFi. The Gold bus departs mornings from Arlington, Virginia, and Bethesda, Maryland, and arrives 4.5 hours later at Seventh Avenue and 30th Street in Manhattan. It returns in the afternoon.
In Florida, RedCoach now connects 10 cities including the state capital of Tallahassee, Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. RedCoach operates 27-seat first class and 34-seat business class buses. All have drop-down tables, free WiFi, power outlets and movies. RedCoach fares are as complex as airline tariffs with first class, business class, Web, standard and nonrefundable fares. A Miami-to-Orlando run, for example, takes four hours and costs between $48 and $61 one-way.
New England is a hotbed for posh bus travel, too. Dartmouth Coach Lines runs a roomy 26-person bus between Midtown Manhattan and two destinations in New Hampshire: Lebanon and Hanover, the home of Dartmouth College. Configured 2x1, Dartmouth buses have a conference table in the back, free WiFi, in-seat power and gratis snacks, pastries and coffee. Fare for the five-hour trip is $80 each way. One problem: no drop-down trays for laptop users. Dartmouth's sister company Concord Coach Lines has the same 29-seat buses with the same amenities. It operates between New York City; Portland, Maine; and Concord and Nashua, New Hampshire. The six-hour trip costs $69 one-way. (Concord also operates frequent buses to Boston and Logan Airport from Maine and New Hampshire.)
A competitor, C&J, has 29-passenger buses that travel to New York City, Boston/Logan and the Amtrak South Station in Boston from several cities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Longer-haul C&J buses offer drop-down tray tables, free WiFi, power ports and a galley in the back for snacks and soft drinks. Five-hour trips to and from New York cost about $80 each way.
Although it's hard to be precise, the pioneer of luxe buses aimed at business travelers is probably LimoLiner. It has operated since 2003 between Midtown Manhattan and the heart of Boston. Founded by Fergus McCann, a Scottish businessman who had already dabbled in golf vacations, satellite broadcasting and European football, LimoLiner outfitted a few traditional motorcoaches with luxury seats and perks, priced trips at $69 one-way and took on both Amtrak and the then-dominant air shuttles between LaGuardia and Logan.
LimoLiner's current owners now operate a fleet of seven buses as frequently as four times a day between the New York Hilton in Rockefeller Center and Boston's Back Bay Hilton with an intermediate stop at the Sheraton Framingham Hotel in Massachusetts. The buses are outfitted with 28 reclining leather chairs in a 2x1 configuration, free WiFi and at-seat power. An on-board attendant serves complimentary snacks, meals and beverages and travelers can watch on-board movies or live DirecTV broadcasts.
Walk-up one-way fares for the approximately four-hour ride start at $89, but there are frequent discounts. There's even a frequent-rider program that awards a free ride after ten paid trips.
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