April 24, 2024

Goodbye Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Hello, Luxury Bus?

John Rosenberg found a last-minute flight for $200 last month from Washington, D. C. , to Nashville to see Pearl Jam. But flights home were $600 and there was no easy way to take the train.

Mr. Rosenberg started searching for buses online. He stumbled on Napaway, a company that promised premium overnight accommodations on an 18-passenger bus with seats that fold into a flat bed and come with a pillow and plush blanket.

The week before, Mr. Rosenberg and his friends had spent 18 hours at Midway Airport in Chicago after they were bounced off their connecting flight to Washington. He spent the night cold and slept a total of 45 minutes in the airport chapel before security kicked him out.

The Napaway, Mr. Rosenberg reasoned, could not be worse. And at least he would be traveling, not waiting.

He booked the flight to Nashville and a ticket home on the Napaway for $125.

“My friends were all making fun of me,” Mr. Rosenberg, 47, said. “You’re going to spend 11 hours on a luxury bus? ”

He was.

On a Sunday night, after spending the weekend in Nashville, Mr. Rosenberg joined five other passengers, including me, on the Napaway, which in June began taking travelers back and forth from Washington to Nashville.

The company, and other premium bus companies like it, are betting that Americans will abandon the image of the rumbling, cramped bus as the transport of last resort for the cash-strapped and embrace long-haul coach travel.

Giant sleeper buses have been a staple of travel in parts of Latin America and Asia for decades. But in the United States, the concept has never taken hold, despite our vast highway system. Around 2017, Cabin, a two-story bus with beds tucked into private pods, began taking passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco for overnight trips, but stopped in 2020. Gaetano Crupi, the founder of Cabin, declined to comment on why the service ended.

More successful have been high-end coach services that offer shorter journeys, like Red Coach, Vonlane and the Jet, a 14-seat bus that ferries people from Metro Center in Washington to Hudson Yards in Manhattan.

They advertise seats that recline far back, high-speed Wi-Fi and a feeling that even though you’re technically on an intercity bus, you are on a refined, affordably priced journey, said Andisheh Ranjbari, an assistant professor of travel behavior at Penn State.

“You don’t see the word bus anywhere in the advertisements,” she said. “They say it’s a first-class luxury experience. ”

Napaway is the only “fully flat” sleeper bus in the country, said Dan Aronov, the company’s founder and chief executive. He is aware that many travelers may be skeptical of taking a 10- to 11-hour bus ride when a flight from Washington to Nashville takes less than two hours.

He responds by pointing out how miserable the airport experience can be. Flying is faster, but a passenger will still spend several hours getting to the airport, going through security and then waiting at the gate. And that is assuming a flight is not delayed, Mr. Aronov said.

Contrast that experience with traveling while lying on a memory foam mattress pad and snuggling under a blanket, he said.

“You were going to spend seven to eight hours asleep,” Mr. Aronov said. “Now you’re just doing it in motion. ”

‘A private jet experience’

Ironically, it was companies like Megabus and BoltBus, which offered $1 rides and curbside pickup in the early part of the 2000s, that paved the way for premium coach travel, said Joseph Schwieterman, professor of public service at DePaul University in Chicago and director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, which studies intercity bus travel.

Those companies renewed interest in intercity bus travel and spurred more innovation and investment, he said.

Now, as train service remains elusive in much of the South and air travel continues to frustrate travelers, it is possible the “stars have aligned” for premium coach travel, Professor Schwieterman said.

Premium coach lines have significantly fewer overhead costs than rail and especially airlines, which have much higher fuel costs and need a “small army” of employees to operate, he said.

By contrast, a premium bus requires a crew of one to two drivers and perhaps one attendant, which means that even if a company sells fewer than half of its seats on a trip, it can still cover its costs, so long as it does not lower fares to compete with conventional bus lines, Professor Schwieterman said.

Mia Reed, a singer from Brooklyn who found trains too costly and airplanes inconvenient, said she was eager to find a luxury bus that would take her to visit her parents in Fredericksburg, Va. , after having “nightmare” experiences on other bus rides.

Ms. Reed, 29, said she learned about the Jet on Instagram and TikTok, where videos showed wide seats, powered by “motion-canceling technology. ”

Booking online was easy, and the Jet was “beautiful” and “a little bit better organized” than an ordinary bus, Ms. Reed said. An attendant came by frequently during the four-hour trip to check on passengers and pass out snacks, coffee, wine and soda.

“It’s meant to feel like a private jet experience,” said Chad Scarborough, the company’s founder and chief executive. “Hence the name the Jet. ”

Still, buses have a tricky place in the American imagination. Weird Al Yankovic warned us of them in “Another One Rides the Bus,” his parody of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust. ” In movies, more often than not, they are used as settings to show the protagonists at their most annoyed, imperiled or dead. When I told relatives that I would be riding an overnight bus to Nashville, one of them suggested I carry a pocketknife.

I arrived in Washington on Friday to catch the Napaway with my friend Theresa.

We found the bus at 9:30 p. m. at the designated meeting spot — a well-lit parking lot on L Street NE near the Wunder Garten, an outdoor beer garden where Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U. S. A. ” blared from the speakers and the sound of laughter wafted over the fence.

We were joined by three other passengers: Ammie Conner, an 80-year-old retiree who was visiting her grandson in Nashville; Guillerma Saltano, a shy, 50-year-old woman from the Dominican Republic; and Catherine Lee, a 50-year-old graduate student studying social work.

We gawked at the bus, an enormous black coach with a galaxy of stars painted on the side. Inside, there were 36 seats, two for each passenger, that convert into flat, sort of S-shaped beds.

Ms. Conner, who sky-dived for the first time at 70 and went zip lining at 80, said she booked the bus “for the novelty of it. ”

She said when she told a friend about the bus, the friend replied, “‘What a great idea for a bachelorette party. ’” But rowdy partygoers run counter to the ethos of the Napaway, which asks passengers to refrain from loud talking or playing their devices out loud.

No one under 8 can ride the Napaway, said Mr. Aronov. The Jet, which charges fares starting at $99 for a one-way ticket, has an age minimum of 6.

“I’m very sympathetic to parents,” Mr. Aronov said. “But right now, for the comfort of the other passengers, we have an age minimum. ”

Mr. Aronov, 29, said he chose Nashville because it’s a busy urban hub popular with tourists in an area of the country with few public transit options.

Mr. Aronov, an Oxford University graduate who worked at Barclays Investment Bank and Loews Corp. , said he started Napaway with the help of “individual” investors, not large institutions. He declined to say how much it cost to start Napaway but said the company is not breaking even yet.

“It’s a new concept and it takes time for the word to get out,” Mr. Aronov said.

He is hoping to add more routes — passengers have requested trips from Washington to Atlanta, New York and Boston. The bus has added stops in Knoxville on the Washington-Nashville route and in November will add Wednesday and Thursday to the weekly schedule.

Travelers have ranged in ages from 9 to 93, Mr. Aronov said.

Mr. Aronov joined us on my trip — he said he tries to ride the Napaway as much as possible. As the bus pulled away, he described how to lower the seats and pull down the black privacy screen. Each passenger received a sleep mask, toothpaste and a small toothbrush, ear plugs, and a disposable towelette.

Ms. Saltano struggled with her privacy screen and Mr. Aronov rushed to help her. She burrowed under her blanket, looked at her phone for a few minutes, then quickly fell asleep.

I lowered my seats, laid the mattress down, curled into the fetal position and drifted off to sleep, wondering if someone over 6 feet tall would be as comfortable. (Mr. Aronov said the beds are long enough that anyone up to 6 foot 4 inches tall should be able to lie flat without having to curl up their knees. )

I woke up briefly at 2 a. m. If anyone was snoring, I could not hear it over the soft whirring of the engine and the rumbling wheels. The bus jostled, but the rocking motion was lulling. As I drifted back to sleep, I imagined this was how a baby nestled in a carriage feels.

I awoke at 7, surprised by how refreshed I felt.

The bus dropped us off in downtown Nashville, where my friend and I spent about 36 hours — plenty of time to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and RCA Studio B, catch live music at Rudy’s Jazz Room, and overeat at Biscuit Love, Peg Leg Porker and Monell’s.

I met Mr. Rosenberg, the Pearl Jam fan, on the ride back to Washington, where we were joined by Ms. Conner, Ms. Lee and Mr. Aronov.

The trip home was as peaceful as the trip down. An accident on Interstate 81 created a five-mile backup around 5 a. m. , delaying our arrival by about an hour.

No one seemed annoyed.

“I would go anywhere on this bus,” Ms. Conner said, as she stretched and rose from her seat.

Mr. Rosenberg said he slept well — about four hours, a typical night’s sleep for him.

“This was fantastic,” he told Mr. Aronov as he stepped off the bus and shook his hand. “Most comfortable I’ve ever been on a bus. ”

I asked Mr. Rosenberg if he would ride the Napaway again.

Yes, he said, but only if a one-way plane ticket cost more than $300.

If you go:

Tickets on the Napaway start at $125 each way. The Napaway travels from Washington to Nashville, with stops in Knoxville. It currently leaves only on Friday (with plans to add Wednesday and Thursday) at 10 p. m. from 180 L St NE in Washington and arrives in Nashville at 8 a. m. Central time the following day. The bus will drop you off at 421 Rep. John Lewis Way N, about half a mile from Broadway.

The Napaway leaves Nashville on Sunday at 7:30 p. m. and, barring unforeseen traffic, returns to Washington the following day at 7:30 a. m. If you have time before meeting the bus and feel like spending $15 to $18 on a cocktail, stop for a drink at Skull’s Rainbow Room, a bar and restaurant with friendly, skilled bartenders that is a 7-minute walk from Napaway’s meeting spot.

There are no snacks on the Napaway, though every passenger gets a bottle of water. The bus has free Wi-Fi fast enough to stream Netflix or Hulu on your own device. Napaway offers a free online library of movies like “The Joker” and “Ratatouille. ”

There is a bathroom on board, but it is tiny, so wear clothes you are comfortable sleeping in or use your privacy screen to get changed at your own seat. The bus stops twice briefly, once for pickup and drop-off in Knoxville and for roadside rest stops. The hope, said Mr. Aronov, is you won’t notice because “you’ll be fast asleep. ”

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