The dollar menu isn't just for restaurants anymore. These days, it's also for long-distance bus travel.
Megabus, an intercity company featuring London-style double-decker vehicles that has operated in the Midwest and Northeast for several years, announced that beginning June 19, it will operate in North Texas, Austin, Houston and other cities. Several thousand seats will be sold for $1 in the first week, and the company promises at least a handful of $1 fares on many of its routes.
A competitor, Dallas-based Greyhound Lines, is now offering Greyhound Express service, with fares as low as $1 from Dallas to Austin, Houston and San Antonio.
With gas prices parked above $3 a gallon and people still struggling to make ends meet in a tight economy, demand for affordable yet relaxing long-distance bus service appears to be exploding.
"We are introducing bus travel to a completely different generation," said Bryony Chamberlain, Megabus director of operations. He said many customers are expected to be college students, young adults and others who are looking at alternatives to driving alone.
"It's a very cheap way to travel, and also much more relaxing than sitting in your car doing the driving," he said. "It's more relaxing to read a book or do something on Wi-Fi."
Only in Dallas
Fort Worth residents will have to go to downtown Dallas to catch a Megabus or Greyhound Express.
However, Greyhound does offer its traditional bus service from Fort Worth's Intermodal Transportation Center, and Megabus' Chamberlain wouldn't rule out an expansion to Fort Worth.
Megabus, Greyhound Express and other long-distance bus services are taking advantage of leaps in technology that make spending the bulk of a day aboard a coach bearable, even enjoyable. Buses are equipped with restrooms, free online access and power ports for riders to charge their electronics.
They typically operate from point A to B without stopping at all the in-between cities that typically make long-distance bus travel so arduous.
Intercity bus service was the only long-distance passenger transportation that grew appreciably in 2011, with a 7.1 percent expansion over previous years, according to a study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago.
Station vs. curb
While Greyhound Express operates out of bus stations, Megabus typically picks up its passengers at a designated curbside in each city it serves. Nationally, curbside bus services grew 30 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to the study.
Megabus customers typically buy their tickets online, Chamberlain said. Megabus is a division of Coach USA, a company with a long history of long-distance, transit, sightseeing and other bus services.
Both companies tout promotional $1 fares on most buses -- those who book the earliest are most likely to get those dirt-cheap seats -- but a quick check of the companies' websites shows that even last-minute fares are commonly $12 to $35.
Greyhound welcomes the competition, a spokesman said. Company officials believe that plenty of customers want to escape highway traffic on the busy Interstate 35 and Interstate 45 corridors in Texas -- and leave the driving to someone else.
"Travelers are more cost-conscious, and buses can provide them with great transportation amenities," said Greyhound spokesman Tim Stokes. "One of the differences is, Greyhound operates from a facility, not a parking lot. I am from Texas, and I know the weather there can be extremely hot."
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796