Perhaps there's no such thing as a free lunch, but a new Philadelphia-to-New York bus service may come close May 30 when it begins offering free or even $1 seats for a few lucky riders.
Megabus.com, a two-year-old division of Coach USA, of Chicago, intends to unveil plans today for a new service like ones it already operates in Chicago, Los Angeles and abroad. It could compete with existing low-cost bus lines in Philadelphia's Chinatown, and it capitalizes on Web-based booking systems and fuel-efficient vehicles to push down costs even in the face of ever-rising diesel prices.
Megabus says it will offer eight round-trips a day, with Philadelphia stops on John F. Kennedy Boulevard near 30th Street Station and at Fifth and Market Streets, near the Independence Visitor Center. The only New York stop is at Penn Station, at Eighth Avenue between 32d and 33d Streets.
All seats on Megabuses will be free the first week. Thereafter, they will cost from $1 to $14 each way, said Dale Moser, president of Coach USA L.L.C., a national operator of charter and scheduled bus services, based in Paramus, N.J.
Moser would not say how many of the seats would be $1, vs. $14, or something in between. The fares will be like those on airlines, with the lowest price available in limited numbers and only for those who book far in advance, he said.
The only catch to the free part is that all customers must pay 50 cents to make a reservation, which can be done only online at the company's Web site,
The service's evident popularity, and possible pitfalls, was apparent yesterday afternoon when the Web site at times displayed the following message: "Our site is currently very busy and we are unable to process your request at this time. Please click on your browsers refresh button to re-try or return at a later time."
Megabus.com will begin similar express service May 30 between New York and six other cities: Atlantic City, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Toronto and Washington. The company will operate like a hub-and-spoke airline, with all routes nonstop to and from New York. There are no plans to add other routes from Philadelphia, Moser said.
Megabus.com started with a hub in Chicago, where it now serves 17 cities in the Midwest, and one in Los Angeles that has routes to six California cities and Las Vegas. Buses have free wireless Internet service and overhead video screens.
Moser said his customers had said in surveys that they would drive or fly to their destinations if they did not have Megabus.com as an option.
"There are significant volumes to serve in the Northeast," Moser said, "especially with congestion and high gas prices."