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.

Roy Leban

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.

Comments

  • David

    My wife and I use Megabus to take trips to NY from Philly. Bolt also goes the same way but we’ve never taken it. There used to be the Chinatown bus but the Feds shut it down for not complying with laws. Needless to say it made the other busses seem like Rolls Royce’s. Busses are way cheaper and easier than trains or anything else. I would say more than half the people sleep during the commute. It does take getting used to how everything works and waiting in line on the street. When we went to Russia and Ukraine last summer we took Megabus to LIRR to Airtrain to JFK with no problems.

  • guest

    For $28 bucks R/T did you really expect a cherry on top?

    At an average $14 O/W for a 175 mi trip (@ $4/gallon and 25 mpg, that cost would be $28 in gas alone; never mind cost of vehicle, insurance, wear and tear)…but, at $14 bucks each way it sounds like an amazing ride?

    It does seem as though AMTRAK should run an express service between the cities, but, in lieu of that, I’m game for trying BOLT BUS.

    From experience, Portland desperately needs more availability of tech talent – not F/T, but at least being able to attend meetings every couple of weeks – but, for the bootstrapped companies, spending money with HORIZON/ALASKA isn’t always an option – So, this seems feasible?

    Perhaps we should coordinate a BOLT BUS tech meet up – 1x in PDX and 1x in SEA to get better acquainted? October?

    • guest

      I was also disappointed in Boltbus. They promote themselves as “BoltBus, a bus line focused on providing exceptional service, luxury and convenience at an amazingly low price.” Its a decent enough bus but not a luxury bus. And damn right about those armrests. My wife and I usually put the armrest up between us but that did not work on this bus.

  • Jim

    Boo, lousy review! Next time you should sleep in, then drive…

  • http://www.forgetthesun.com courtneyj

    Honestly, I stopped taking your review seriously when you didn’t know what the footrest was.

    • http://www.puzzazz.com/ Roy Leban

      Gee, thanks. I really didn’t know it was a footrest. It didn’t look like a footrest — it’s a heavy cylindrical bar, curved in at the ends. It was in a ridiculous position for a footrest and, when I pushed on it, it didn’t move. I thought it was some sort of structural element until I saw someone else’s in the down position. It turned out mine was just stiff. In the down position, it was even worse for my legroom than in the up position.

      I have to wonder if any tall people were involved when they were designing the footrest. Car, airplane, train, and even light rail designers understand that tall people want to put their legs under the seat in front of them. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that on a bus, especially one billed as being extra comfortable.

  • joethecoder

    So to summarize, it got your there on time, wifi worked and it cost $28. For this they get a mediocre review because you got pissy about a foot rest, a crying child and arm rests that weren’t to your liking. Even your praise seemed grudging. Stick to your day job.

  • Jane

    Thought the headline was a little strong compared to the complaints raised here. As the author himself says, if you’re not a big guy trying to draw on a large computer, then you won’t have many issues with this ride, which costs only $28 round-trip. I think BoltBus, which I have never ridden, is getting a little bit of a bum rap with the headline.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Clay.Loges Clayton Loges

    Roy, thanks for the commentary and insights. With vivid memories of my days Greyhound busing it, I appreciate your posting. I’ve seen the promotions for Bolt, and I’ve wondered what the experience would be. Thanks for making the time beyond your day job to post this commentary on your experience.

  • gseattle
  • Michele

    Reminds of the commentators on the Olympics who are so critical,
    even when the athlete wins. They didn’t touch the wall perfect, they got a bad
    start…Meanwhile, I’m just trying to watch a superior athlete represent their
    country and take home the gold after many years of sacrifice. The trip cost you
    $28. This was not an effective use of your time to plug your app (the mention
    of TestFlight alone should have been a red flag for a not-so-good attempt at
    creating awareness for your company and the release of a new app). The headline misrepresents your
    experience (Personally, I think Geekwire should pull it because it’s now the 2nd
    search results on Google for “Seattle to Portland Bolt Bus”). Most ridiculous
    review of a service I have ever read and absolutely doesn’t deserve to be the 2nd
    most prominent link where people considering using Bolt should land as they
    make their decision. At least change the headline….Words matter. Reviews matter. From what soap box are you standing to slam them? How often do you make the trip per week? Per month? Do you ride the bus to and from Portland a lot? Do you take the train frequently? Do you fly back and forth?

    • http://www.puzzazz.com/ Roy Leban

      Hi Michele, I mentioned TestFlight because this is GeekWire and I thought the readers would appreciate details like that. Deploying a new build was one of the tasks I had to do that morning. I also mentioned git, Android, speedtest.net, and Adobe Illustrator. Could have added GMail, Word, and Excel to that list. I’ve got no incentive to mention any of them except being a satisfied customer.

      In terms of your question on my soap box, I don’t have one. Do you really think I’d spend four hours of my time on a bus I didn’t like just to write a bad review?
      I decided to take BoltBus because the publicity made it sound really attractive. I liked that it would be less than half the cost of the train and it sounded like it would be almost as nice. I even recommended to a few other people that they should try it out. Since I’d learned about BoltBus on GeekWire, I contacted them to ask if they’d like a review. Before I got on the bus, I was fully expecting to write a very positive review. It just didn’t work out that way.

  • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I worked with Roy on this piece and wrote the headline. After reading your comments over the weekend, I went back this morning and took another look with fresh eyes.

    Keep in mind that our main purpose in reviewing the Bolt Bus is to get a sense for whether it will work for tech workers making the trek between Portland and Seattle, hoping to get some work done along the way.

    From that perspective, it’s clearly a beta. A bus will always be a bus, but they’ve got some basic bugs to work out, including the seat configuration and fixing the on-board outlets, before someone like Roy will use it regularly.

    Roy’s review was critical but also exceedingly fair, giving specifics on why it didn’t work for him but also explaining how the service could still work for people in other situations. He even shared the favorable perspective of a fellow passenger. People who read this review will be able to decide whether the Bolt Bus makes sense for them.

    Hope that helps explain things. I’d welcome your feedback if I’m missing something.

    • Follow Up

      It would be great to hear a perspective that compares it to the alternatives for tech folks (how does it compare with to taking the train, flying, taking a bus or driving…..especially from a startup’s perspective where time and money are so critical). How does it compare with having to make the trip in a car (major loss of productivity), paying the parking fee at the airport/going through security, or taking a normal bus. If a startup doesn’t have the budget for flights, would he suggest driving, the train, a bus or a mad push for a conference call?

  • Tim Reha

    My experience was great for a quick trip to Portland a few weeks ago. The time saved w/o driving and basic internet access is well worth the small price. Test drive BOLT yourself at least once.

  • gimmer

    Good Lord, folks, it’s just his take and experience. Too bad he’s not the grizzled/seasoned road warrior, and wordsmiths, all you critics are. Perhaps you should take a trip on the Bolt yourself and write up your experiences? I’m sure Todd would be happy to read and maybe post them.

    Otherwise, save the long knives for the real knaves.

  • Seattle Transit Blog Reader

    Hello, I’m a transit rider/enthusiast who’s stopping by after following a link to this article on the Seattle Transit Blog.
    It’s worth noting that Bolt Bus is owned and operated by Greyhound (which in turn is owned by First Group), and Bolt is definitely a 1-up from traditional Greyhound service (Bolt has wifi, more legroom and a sturdier leg rest than the plastic ones on regular Greyhound buses, plane-style seats, and service in Seattle doesn’t board at the Seattle Greyhound Terminal, which is probably Bolt’s largest advantage). Also all the service is express between Seattle and Portland (and Seattle and Vancouver, BC), no interstitial stops.
    Screaming children can happen anywhere (this is a parenting issue, BTW), I’ve had it occur while riding trains, airplanes, and local transit as well.
    I’m about 5’5″, in reasonable shape, and own a 14″ 4:3 notebook; I haven’t had problems with legroom or using my notebook while on traditional Greyhound. I even have–gasp–a “Road Rewards” Membership. Chances are extremely good that the next time I travel between Seattle and Portland it’ll be on Bolt.

  • Christopher Crawley

    I like this guy and The Bolt will be a big hit IF it keeps top notch operators take it from Kolbe been doin the 5 corridor for 23 plus years~www.apollios.com and tell JCook we need to interface keep up the great editorials this guy needs more cynicism,
    hehe~CWC

  • FirstTimeGamingPCBuilder

    Hi, Roy and GeekWire readers.

    I’ve just learned of the Bolt Bus today. I appreciate the hi-res pics of the bus’s interior.

    From Portland to LA, does anyone have any suggestions for transportation that is equivalent to Bolt Bus? (cheap and not too many stops)

  • Dan

    Its 9:30 pm Pacific Time Zone. I just received a telephone call from my 20 year old son who was taking the BoltBus from Portland to Vancouver, BC. While having his documents checked at the US-Canada border crossing, the bus left. He is now sitting at the border crossing station trying to procure another ride. The Canadian Officers were very apologetic and are trying to help him. They told him this happens with Bolt every few months. I will be in contact with Bolt tomorrow. Please post here if you’ve had a similar experience or if you have any advice on what action to take against Bolt. Thank you.

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