Luxury Bus

Goodbye Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Hello, Luxury Bus?

Start-up travel companies are hoping more Americans will embrace the concept of sleeper and luxury coaches. Just don’t call them buses.

John Rosenberg found a last-minute flight for $200 last month from Washington, D.C., to Nashville to see Pearl Jam. But flights home were $600 and there was no easy way to take the train.

Mr. Rosenberg started searching for buses online. He stumbled on Napaway, a company that promised premium overnight accommodations on an 18-passenger bus with seats that fold into a flat bed and come with a pillow and plush blanket.

The week before, Mr. Rosenberg and his friends had spent 18 hours at Midway Airport in Chicago after they were bounced off their connecting flight to Washington. He spent the night cold and slept a total of 45 minutes in the airport chapel before security kicked him out.

The Napaway, Mr. Rosenberg reasoned, could not be worse. And at least he would be traveling, not waiting.

He booked the flight to Nashville and a ticket home on the Napaway for $125.

“My friends were all making fun of me,” Mr. Rosenberg, 47, said. “You’re going to spend 11 hours on a luxury bus?”

He was.

On a Sunday night, after spending the weekend in Nashville, Mr. Rosenberg joined five other passengers, including me, on the Napaway, which in June began taking travelers back and forth from Washington to Nashville.

The company, and other premium bus companies like it, are betting that Americans will abandon the image of the rumbling, cramped bus as the transport of last resort for the cash-strapped and embrace long-haul coach travel.

Giant sleeper buses have been a staple of travel in parts of Latin America and Asia for decades. But in the United States, the concept has never taken hold, despite our vast highway system. Around 2017, Cabin, a two-story bus with beds tucked into private pods, began taking passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco for overnight trips, but stopped in 2020. Gaetano Crupi, the founder of Cabin, declined to comment on why the service ended.

More successful have been high-end coach services that offer shorter journeys, like Red CoachVonlane and the Jet, a 14-seat bus that ferries people from Metro Center in Washington to Hudson Yards in Manhattan.

They advertise seats that recline far back, high-speed Wi-Fi and a feeling that even though you’re technically on an intercity bus, you are on a refined, affordably priced journey, said Andisheh Ranjbari, an assistant professor of travel behavior at Penn State.

“You don’t see the word bus anywhere in the advertisements,” she said. “They say it’s a first-class luxury experience.”

Napaway is the only “fully flat” sleeper bus in the country, said Dan Aronov, the company’s founder and chief executive. He is aware that many travelers may be skeptical of taking a 10- to 11-hour bus ride when a flight from Washington to Nashville takes less than two hours.

He responds by pointing out how miserable the airport experience can be. Flying is faster, but a passenger will still spend several hours getting to the airport, going through security and then waiting at the gate. And that is assuming a flight is not delayed, Mr. Aronov said.