bus

The wheels on the bus are becoming increasing appealing as providers offer their passengers Internet access and plushy seats on trips that are often cheaper than train rides or flights. DePaul University reports that intercity bus travel increased 7.5 percent between 2011 and 2012, the most growth the industry has witnessed in the last five years.

That’s despite the industry’s reliance on outdated, maddeningly frustrating websites that are often difficult to navigate on smartphones. Finding the proper route, learning more about the trip — does this particular bus offer WiFi? how environmentally-friendly is this ride? — and actually buying the tickets is a veritable nightmare on many sites. It’s often easier to simply purchase a ticket at the station and hope for the best than it is to plan a trip in advance online, despite it being 2013 and not 1999.

Startups like NickelBus, Busbud, and Wanderu — which today announced the closing of a $2.45 million Series A — all promise to make the online bus ticketing experience a bit easier by allowing passengers to find bus routes and search for buses with specific amenities. But do they really work?

Part of these services’ appeal is their ability to string multiple trips together to allow travel between two cities that wouldn’t otherwise be connected like, say, Boston and Washington DC — a trip that can’t be booked on many providers’ websites. A passenger would have to purchase a ticket from Boston to New York, figure out when the next bus leaves for Washington DC, and buy that ticket separately.

Wanderu was able to find a route that allowed travel between Boston and Washington DC without a hitch. Busbud wasn’t. (NickelBus, because it’s in a private beta, couldn’t be tested.) When I tried to book a trip from Ithaca, New York to Boston, however, even Wanderu was stumped. I would still have to go throw the rigmarole of finding and purchasing two different sets of tickets on my own if I wanted to make such a trip.

Neither service was particularly small-city friendly, either. Trips from Boston to New York were plentiful — anything having to do with Ithaca either failed to load (Busbud) or was routed through a different city (Wanderu). Whether this is their fault or the providers’ is unclear, but it’s frustrating either way.

Then there’s the ability to easily book trips via smartphone. Wanderu offers a mobile-optimized website and says that it will ship an app in the future; Busbud links to its iPhone app directly from its website, which doesn’t appear to have been designed for small screens but would likely be easier to navigate in a pinch than, say, Greyhound’s site.

Paying for the tickets might be the most frustrating aspects of using any of these services, not because of anything particularly wrong with them in particular, but because of the hassle involved with entering payment information on a smartphone, period. It’s easier to enter credit card info via Wanderu and Busbud than it is by a providers’ mobile website, but it’s still easy to mistype information, accidentally submit an unfinished form, or throw the smartphone out a window in frustration.

Perhaps the greatest drawback for any of these services is the lack of control they have over the ride itself. Purchasing a ticket for my fiancée via Greyhound required that she bring her driver’s license and present it to an attendant — and, for extra security, provide a password I set — and cost more than if I had purchased the ticket for myself. (I like to call that practice “being a greedy dick,” though I’m sure there’s another name for it.)

Busbud and Wanderu don’t have any control over that aspect of the trip. Passengers search for their tickets, hope that they can find what they’re looking for, fumble to enter their payment information, and that’s it. But that’s to be expected, really — it’s not like Kayak, the company after which these startups are modeling themselves, has much to do with someone’s flight experience after the initial search.

So, yes, it’s easier to buy a bus ticket through these services, especially on a smartphone. But if can’t shake the feeling that it would be easier still to just put the phone away, head to the station, and take a chance on whatever buses are there.

[Illustration by Halllie Bateman for PandoDaily]