They were an underground hit almost from the start.
The cut-rate transportation services called "Chinatown buses" originated about a decade ago in the Northeast. At first, they were an inexpensive way for Chinese restaurant workers to commute to jobs in nearby cities. Fares as low as $10 between New York and Boston were common.
Soon Chinese students began to hop aboard, and other students followed suit. Then savvy budget travelers noticed, and suddenly Greyhound was facing a new form of competition: low-overhead bus companies that thrived on a no-frills, shoestring approach to service.
Instead of picking up passengers at terminals, Chinatown buses picked them up — and deposited them — along curbsides; instead of maintaining ticket offices, they sold space online; instead of offering numerous routes, they offered only the most popular.
The bus lines, most of which are owned by Chinese immigrants, are common in the Northeast, but similar low-cost services also can be found in the West.
The online booking service GotoBus.com, launched five years ago by Cambridge, Mass., businessman Jimmy Chen, handles reservations and helped put the low-cost bus trend on the road.
GotoBus.com now accounts for 1,000 scheduled departures a day throughout the country. Besides the low-cost players it now takes reservations for major sightseeing companies, such as Gray Line.
The expansion offers travelers a range of travel options. "Some of the tours we list are twice as expensive as others," Chen said, adding that the hotels are usually the most important factor in price: Costlier tours stay at higher-end hotels.
But economy travelers can find a wealth of cut-rate deals on the website.
Riders can choose transportation alone, paying fares as low as $25 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas or $45 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Or they can choose vacations that include accommodations, such as a two-day trip from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico, for $95; or a three-day trip from L.A. to San Francisco and Yosemite for $120.
Prices and tour components fluctuate — the $99 Las Vegas-Grand Canyon itinerary described in the accompanying story, for instance, is now available from various companies for prices ranging from $114 to $127, but a different Vegas tour is available for $99 that includes two nights in Sin City.
Info: (617) 354-2101, www.gotobus.com.