New BoltBus offers $1 fares from Vancouver to Seattle or Portland...with luck

Here’s how to get the cheap fares and what it’s like to ride the bus across the U.S. border

Yes, it’s true. You really can take a direct bus from Vancouver to Seattle for $1…well, actually, $2. In any case, it can cost less than taking the SkyTrain to Surrey. But you need to know a few things first.

On May 31, BoltBus started a new nonstop route between Vancouver and Seattle, with fares as low as $1 (plus a $1 online-transaction fee). Two weeks earlier, it launched its first route in the Pacific Northwest, a nonstop service between Seattle and Portland. BoltBus is operated by Greyhound, and it’s been serving the eastern United States since 2008 in cities such as New York and Washington, D.C.

On the line from Greyhound’s head office in Dallas, BoltBus general manager David Hall told the Straight that this is the first foray into Canada for the brand. The company is considering more routes in the region, but “it’s really early to be thinking about expanding when we’ve just launched,” he said with a laugh.

Hall noted that back east, BoltBus attracts college students and young urban professionals, a different demographic than traditional Greyhound customers. Tickets are sold online and by phone and buses are equipped with electrical outlets and are Wi-Fi–enabled. Each bus has 50 leather seats, each with a couple more inches of legroom than usual because there’s one less row of seating per bus. Everyone may stow one bag under the bus—or a bike, if you like—for free.

There are multiple buses daily, and Hall explained that ticket prices fluctuate like airline prices, based on demand. “It really just depends on the day of the week,” he said, noting that Wednesday-afternoon runs are cheaper than Friday afternoons. A typical one-way fare from Vancouver to Seattle is about $20, with $30 at the high end for a major holiday. From Vancouver to Portland, a one-way fare is typically about $35 but could run as high as $50 on a long weekend.

BoltBus created a buzz by offering all Vancouver-Seattle tickets for its first four days of service for just $1. While that promotion is over, the ongoing hook is that every bus has at least one $1 ticket available for purchase. The trick, however, is scoring that ticket.

“They’re randomly scattered [in the system], usually within the first 10 seats [sold],” explained Hall. “On some schedules there’s more than one. There may be 10 or 15 $1 tickets.…Booking early you have a better chance, and the prices will generally be lower earlier.” He added that joining the loyalty program gets you a free one-way trip after eight one-way rides.

So what’s it like to ride the BoltBus? I snapped up a $1 ticket to Seattle and did the journey recently. It was a good experience, but a few tips can make yours better.

First, the website lets you buy tickets only four to six weeks in advance. I purchased a seat returning from Seattle for $8, a price that doesn’t seem unusual, judging from a random search of upcoming dates.

Before you plan an early-morning departure, consider how you’ll get to and from the BoltBus terminus at Pacific Central Station (1150 Station Street). I had assumed I could take the SkyTrain to Main Street Station in time to arrive 15 minutes early for my 6:30 a.m. departure. But to my chagrin, the SkyTrain doesn’t start running until after 7 a.m. on Sundays and holidays (and until after 6 a.m. on Saturdays; see translink.ca/ ). All of a sudden, my bargain ticket wasn’t looking so cheap in the face of an expensive cab ride. (I begged a ride from my groggy husband instead.)

The whole boarding process is very casual. At Pacific Central Station, there’s no wicket for check-in or ticket purchase—just head straight to the outdoor bus bays. (If there are extra seats available, you can buy them at full fare directly from the driver, cash only.) Your ticket guarantees you a seat, and boarding is supposed to be by the group listed on your ticket, but my buses both ways were half empty, so the drivers didn’t bother.

The driver checks your ID before you board, so remember your passport or enhanced B.C. driver’s licence. At the border, passengers disembark with their suitcases and line up for interviews, airport-style. How long this process takes depends on volume and your fellow passengers. The whole journey Sunday morning took three-and-a-half hours; returning Monday night, it was three hours. (Info on the increased duty-free exemptions since June 1 can be found here.)

The border is the only stop before Seattle, and there is no opportunity to buy food or drinks, so bring your own. The bus has a decent restroom onboard. Currently, Wi-Fi is available only on the U.S. side of the border; Hall said they’re working on it for the Canadian segment. The drivers were friendly, and one noted that the Wi-Fi signal is stronger near the front of the bus. I found the Wi-Fi spotty, and since there are no tray tables, laptops might be awkward. Bring a sweater to combat air conditioning.

In Seattle, passengers disembark curbside at 5th Avenue South and King Street, opposite the Chinatown gate to the International District. This is conveniently located right next to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, where buses whisk you quickly to the main shopping district.

This is also where you board the bus back to Vancouver or onward to Portland. The drawback is that you’re waiting outside with limited shelter, which could be an issue if it’s cold or rainy. (In Portland, the pickup/drop-off point is at 648 SW Salmon Street, which Hall said is right next to a Starbucks.)

I found the ride comfortable and easy. And for $11 total roundtrip, it was a good alternative to driving and the cost of gas.

For tickets and info, see the Bolt Bus website or call 1-877-265-8287.

You can follow Carolyn Ali on Twitter at twitter.com/carolynali

Comments (12) Add New Comment
J-L Brussac
Good article. Only one tiny mistake: the Downtown Seattle Transit tunnel doesn't have only buses but also the Central Link Light Rail Transit (looks a bit like the SkyTrain but it has drivers) that link downtown to SeaTac airport.
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Stinky
Ridden this a couple of times now. Contrast these fares with the Amtrak train - $35 or more depending when you book, but slower and more comfortable- and the Amtrak buses - always $40 and slightly slower and less comfortable than the Boltbus and no WiFi. A key advantage of the Boltbus is that it is point-to-point without intermediate stops save the border. The WiFi is a sometimes thing even south of the border. Another alternative is the QuickShuttle- very comfortable for a bus, with reliable WiFi but it stops a few places on the way and costs more than the BoltBus- that's the best choice for getting to SeaTac.
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vc
Scored one of those cheap intro fares to Portland - $2 one way. Clean bus, good driver. 7 hrs Vancouver to Portland incl. border and rest stop in Centralia. Unfortunately WiFi not working at all, but I'd consider taking this bus again, esp. considering my return Amtrak train was cancelled due to mudslides -- a common occurrence on the train route.
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miguel
How is it subsidized? Someone has to pay.
Miguel
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Daphne M
When packing your own food, consider that fruits and vegetables aren't allowed across the border - be prepared to declare that you have lettuce and tomato in your cheese sandwich so the border folks can decide whether or to confiscate it (if you don't declare food items, there can be a hefty fine - just answer their questions honestly and they'll let you know if it's allowed or has to be confiscated.) If I bring an apple or something for breakfast on an early-morning cross-border trip, I eat it before the bus stops.
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Carolyn Ali
@Daphne very good point about the fruits and veggies

@miguel I believe the idea is the make their money by volume...lots of cheap seats fill the bus. Plus, the more expensive seats sold at the last minute offset the cheaper seats sold weeks in advance.

FYI, for those continuing on to Portland, the bus in Seattle stops just a block away from Uwajimaya, an Asian grocery store like T&T with a deli section that sells bentos and such for takeaway.
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earlnelly
good tip re: Uwajimaya. there's also a number of other (mostly asian) food stands within the same complex.
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LK-Wright
We have this with Megabus in the Midwest and East Coast. The UK has it too. It's wonderful. I was disappointed the northwest didn't have it when I was there. It's a great thing. It will interconnect those cities like never before. All three cities have different things to offer, and should be interacting more often. Support this! Do not have childish hipster skepticism and cynicism,
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Mary M
What is the maximum baggage weight you can take?
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JT Lorenzo
Wow, I just learned of Bolt Bus today. I would love to take it just for the sake of travelling. I live in Vancouver. Bolt's most southern stop in the West Coast is Portland. Any suggestions for travelling from Portland to Los Angeles?
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james ross
I would book this if you drop us at Bellingham airport instead of some station where I will have to get a cab.
Too bad, is there some reason you dont go to airport??
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Al
Do they charge in US dollars or Canadian dollars? Their website does not state anywhere.
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