I was only ten minutes into my BoltBus trip to Portland for the annual convention of the National Puzzlers’ League (the world’s oldest puzzling organization) when I was pretty sure I didn’t want to ride BoltBus again.
I’m disappointed because I’d really been looking forward to the ride, hoping it would be a good way for me to get to Portland for business meetings and visiting friends. Better and cheaper transportation between Seattle and Portland could help the Pacific Northwest tech corridor better compete with Silicon Valley.
Here’s the story of my journey:
7:00 AM: Why am I awake? Somehow, I never manage to get to sleep early the night before a trip and last night was no exception. 5 hours sleep and I have to head into Seattle at 7:30 to get to the BoltBus early. If you’re too late, their web site says they can give away your seat. Speaking of the web site, registration was done completely online and took only a few minutes. Total cost was $28 roundtrip — $8 to Portland and $19 back to Seattle, plus a $1 transaction fee. I could have down the roundtrip for $17 if I’d been willing to come back at a different time.
8:05 AM: We made fantastic time to Seattle, thanks to the tolls on the 520 bridge, now up to $3.59. I’m looking around and don’t see the bus anywhere or even where it’s supposed to be. Finally, I ask the driver of the Snoqualmie Casino bus, who has clearly been asked the question many times before. “It’s across the street,” she says. So I head toward 4th Avenue, thinking that’s what she means, but a helpful security guard clarifies for me — it will be on the West side of 5th Ave when it shows up. Got to the spot around 8:15, and there’s a small sign I hadn’t noticed before. About 10 people standing around.
8:25 AM: There are now 15 people and the bus is one block away.
8:35 AM: We’re underway, 21 people, including one small child across the aisle from me who I am thankful is no longer crying loudly. There’s no place to get away. The seats, by the way, are staggered, fine for individuals and couples, but not so convenient for families.
8:50 AM: I’m done checking email so I turn to writing this review.
At each seat is a clever canvas strap cupholder, a standard outlet and — I don’t understand this — a big thick horizontal bar. I learn later it’s a footrest, but it’s pretty useless for that and it takes away legroom for somebody tall like me. It’s just one of the things that makes me uncomfortable. There’s definitely more seat-to-seat room than on a standard bus or airplane. But, in contrast with an airplane seat, there’s less room to the bottom of the seat and there’s that footrest, which means I can’t put my feet under the seat in front of me.
In addition to that, there are hard plastic armrests on either side of every seat. They stick out past the front of the seat, even when the seat is all the way forward, and they’re digging into me. I’m not so large that I don’t fit, but if I move around in my seat a little, one armrest or the other is digging in. On the luggage front, there’s one thing that I appreciated that you may not. The overhead bins (small, with just a bungie cord to keep things in) are too small for a typical roller bag. That means all the luggage went underneath the bus and there was no clutter of bags coming on the bus.
The woman across the aisle tells me she likes the BoltBus a lot better than the train. She says it’s cheaper and more convenient than a train, and more spacious than a regular bus.
The WiFi is working great, even though the driver gave us the disconcerting news at the beginning that it “seems to be working.” The power is working, too, but the charger is having trouble staying plugged in to my outlet (I tried another one across the aisle and had the same problem). Even though the rest of the bus looks pretty new, the outlets look old. Fortunately, I have a full battery already. There is definitely more road bounce than the train, which makes using a laptop a little challenging, though with an SSD, I don’t have to worry about a head crash. If you’re large like me and have a large laptop (mine’s a 15″), you won’t be able to tilt the screen back unless you sit sideways, with your feet in the aisle, as I’m doing now. It’s slightly better than on an airplane, but without a seat tray.
9:30 AM: Now for some real work. Just pushed a new build of the Puzzazz ebookstore app out to our beta testers via TestFlight (great service, btw). In the process, I pushed a quick fix to our git repo and uploaded our 18MB app to TestFlight (took almost 11 minutes). The WiFi is certainly usable — and much, much better than what I get tethering to my Android phone — but not speedy. WiFi did seem to work continuously the whole trip.
I ran a speed test. Download speeds are comparable to 2G cell network speed but, surprisingly, upload speeds are closer to 3G speed. Looks like the overall bandwidth is pretty good but I’m sharing with 20 other people and probably more of them are downloading than uploading. A full bus will be worse, especially if people are using streaming audio or video.
Next up: I am running a puzzle event at the NPL convention, and the puzzles aren’t finished yet. I’ve been too busy at work. Hoping I can finish them on the rest of the bus ride, but I’m not looking forward to using Adobe Illustrator with the bouncy ride and funky laptop position.
Noon: In Portland. The BoltBus drop-off location is convenient, right in downtown, but it’s neither the Greyhound Station nor Union Station, the two locations I had directions from. But, once I knew what I was doing, the MAX Light Rail system is superb. Looking forward to when Seattle’s light rail system includes the Eastside.
Summary: For the most part, the BoltBus is as advertised. It’s a pretty nice upgrade from a standard bus. I did find the seat to be a lot more comfortable when I gave up drawing pictures while the bus was in motion, put down the armrests, and closed my eyes for a little while. The WiFi and power could be useful if you want to surf on your iPad or top off your phone’s battery. But, if you’re hoping to get solid work time in on your laptop, it won’t cut it unless you’re small and working on a netbook or MacBook Air.
Roy Leban is founder and CTO of Puzzazz, a puzzle technology company based in Redmond.