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Faster, cheaper, free Wi-Fi, no TSA: How a Greyhound bus beats flying

Would you rather fly or take a bus? On this trip, bus is the clear winner for cost, speed and Wi-Fi.

Here was the question that faced me recently: Should I rent a car and drive from Miami to Sebastian, Fla., about 160 miles? Fly? Or take a ... wait for it ... Greyhound?

The answer was easy and not one that occurred to me at first blush, which makes me blush with embarrassment.

Dropoff charges for a rental car put a four-day rate at more than $200. Option 2:  I’d fly, but that was going to cost almost double the rental car rate. So I forsook coach for a motorcoach, a Greyhound, which, these days, is competing with MegaBus and BoltBus for a faster, more upscale experience.

I got a lot of weird reactions to my choice, so I created the comparative scorecard below of my excellent adventure. In the end, it was really no contest.

A little explanation is in order because this is not exactly apples to apples.

Time

Bus: One way from Miami to Melbourne on Greyhound: Five hours and five minutes. But by getting off in Fort Pierce—about 28 miles south of Sebastian (you can see its proximity on the map below at right)—I avoided the 30-minute layover there. In the end, actual travel time was about three hours, including stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Plus there was no airport security.

Plane: One way from Miami to Melbourne, Fla. (nearest airport to Sebastian), on US Airways: Four hours, 23 minutes—there’s a stop. Add extra time for getting through airport security, and your day is eaten.

Winner: Bus. By a lot. Melbourne is seven miles closer to Sebastian than Fort Pierce is to Sebastian, but getting off in Fort Pierce saved me at least 90 minutes of travel time. Is that cheating? Yes, unless you consider that stopping and getting off where you want to—not where the airline wants you to—is one of the advantages of bus travel.

Cost

Bus: One-way ticket on Greyhound to Fort Pierce: $23.50. Also, there was no baggage fee.

Plane: One-way ticket from Miami to Melbourne, nearest airport to Sebastian (about 21 miles): About $400 on US Airways or American.

Winner: Bus, obviously. As the number of airlines shrinks and demand continues to grow, anybody who wants to fly to a secondary market (or less) will pay the price, literally and figuratively.

Conveyance

Bus: The ceiling a couple of seats in front of mine looked as though someone had shaken a cola and opened the top. Also, the ceiling around the wheelchair entrance looked almost as though someone had taken a charcoal briquette and created some of sort of overhead Rorschach test. Not attractive. But I had plenty of room in my seat. Note that there was no tray table, but the ride was smooth enough that I could balance the MacBook on my lap. Plus after a recent column about germs on airplane surfaces—tray tables being among the biggest offenders—I didn’t miss it.

Plane: I flew Virgin America, with its hipster vibe, on-demand food, seatback entertainment, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., then took Super Shuttle to Miami. The plane was clean and sleek; the seats were comfy and I had leg room, although I’m so short that legroom is not an issue. I flew back to L.A. from Melbourne, Fla., through Charlotte, N.C., on US Airways, which will soon be one with American. Not as hip as Virgin, but I wasn’t the lesser for it.

Winner: Plane. But not by that much.

Wi-Fi

Bus: The free Wi-Fi that was 10 times better than airplane Wi-Fi. Working through VPN, the virtual private network that connects me to the office, wasn’t as slow, and I managed to do a couple of fairly complex things I could not have done (or done as eaily) using airplane Wi-Fi.

Plane: Go-Go in-flight Internet for a pass that lasted the entire flight cost $28.95 on Virgin on the flight east and $21.95 on the way back west on US Airways. The connection was slow and balky, due, partly, to VPN. Tasks that ordinarily take 10 minutes took more than an hour. I love/hate airplane Wi-Fi; I always think it’s going to be better than it is, then I spend the rest of the flight enraged that the football has been pulled away again.

Winner: Bus. Wi-Fi matters to me, not because I can’t stand to be disconnected (I can stand it—I just don’t like it) but because it is an uninterrupted block of time that allows me to get work done.

Waiting room

Bus: The Greyhound station is near the Miami airport. The waiting room was quiet, except for a man talking to two women about Jesus. Vending machines dispensed bad-for-you snacks and drinks, but they took only $1, $2 or $5 bills. I asked the desk agent to break a $20, and she said no. Lineup was outside in the 96-degree heat, and there was no current signage. Announcements were difficult to understand.

Plane: CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg remarked many years ago that spending time in an airport was like spending time in a dirty sock. It’s still true. I didn’t wait in the Miami airport so I can’t compare. I did wait at LAX, and it’s never like a warm hug from your Aunt Gertrude. Waiting in Melbourne was OK; it's small and modern. At airports, passengers spend their time charging their phones, texting with their phones or barking orders into phones. Snacks and drinks are available past security. Lineup to get on a plane is always an interesting dance, but at least announcements are frequent and, sometimes, clear.

Winner: Neither. Airplane embarkation may have been slightly bettter, but it's never a cakewalk. But it was compared with getting on the bus, where announcements were few and up-to-the-minute information was nonexistent.

And the winner is:

Bus. In the areas that matter most to me—money, time and Wi-Fi—the bus so outperformed the plane that I’m embarrassed I ever considered flying. Snobbery? Maybe. Thinking in a rut? Possibly.

Would I do it again? Definitely—but only for short distances. The truth is I’m not a road trip person, but when it comes to cost, time and connectivity, I’ll happily climb aboard.

What's your favorite way to hit the road? Tweet me @CatHamm

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