Company works to get U.S. visitors on the bus

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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Planes, trains and automobiles. When independent travelers think about traversing Europe, those three options seem the obvious transit candidates.

What many clients rarely consider -- and some agents don't bother to mention, given FITers' aversion to escorted motorcoach tours -- is crossing the Continent by bus.

But Busabout here, which operates Europe's only hop-on, hop-off bus system for independent, mainly young, international travelers, has worked for six years to change all that.

"As more and more people in the trade learn Busabout is out there as an alternative for their clients, we're seeing more independent agents and larger consortia looking at selling our product," said Scott Khile, Busabout's director of sales and marketing for the U.S. and Latin America.

Busabout drove 15,000 peak-season travelers -- mainly Australians and New Zealanders -- across Europe in 2002, but only 1,000 of those clients hailed from the U.S., a market the company has operated in for only the past five years.

"We haven't cultivated the American market yet or gotten the exposure that will produce the numbers I know we can get out of the U.S.," said Khile.

Reaching out even more to agents may help; up to 80% of the company's U.S. sales already originate in travel agencies, he noted, mainly via student outlets such as STA Travel and Travel Cuts.

"We love Busabout and our clients love Busabout," said Shari Chrissis, an office manager at STA Travel in Eugene, Ore., who said the company now accounts for a growing third of her travel pass sales.

"The first year, we sent test cases over to get clients to try Busabout, and they actually ended up refunding their rail passes and extending their bus passes," added Chrissis.

What's it all about?

Busabout -- owned by TravCorp, which also counts Contiki Holidays, Insight Vacations and Trafalgar Tours among its holdings -- markets two commissionable discount passes good for travel to the 50 destinations in Europe served by the company's fleet of luxury motorcoaches.

Both its Flexipass and Consecutive Pass, commissionable to agents at 10%, enable clients to get on and off its buses at will at designated stops in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, mainland Italy, London, the Netherlands, Portugal, mainland Spain and Switzerland, as well as on public transit networks in Great Britain and Ireland.

In addition, the company markets add-on coach and boat trips to Corsica; Croatia; Greece; Hungary; Ibiza, Spain; Morocco; Sicily, Italy; and Turkey, and offers online accommodations booking at www.busabout.com and www.mybusabout.com.

Each network destination is serviced every other day during Busabout's operating season, from April 1 to Oct. 31.

Pick-up and drop-off points usually are city-center hotels or hostels, which eases accommodations procurement, and buses stop for service breaks every two to three hours.

Busabout's Flexipass lets clients choose the number of travel days, from seven days in a month to 24 days in five months or a full-season pass.

Meanwhile, the Consecutive Pass offers unlimited hop-on and -off travel for periods of two weeks to a full season.

Prices start at $309 per person for either a seven-day/one-month Flexipass or a two-week Consecutive Pass.

Youth, long in the tooth

As bargain-hunting backpackers make up a good part of Busabout's market base, its average client age ranges from 23 to 27, said Khile, but more and more older travelers are opting for bus passes.

"Because there's no age restriction at the upper end, we do receive a vast number of older clients who prefer to travel independently and use us as a transit network," he noted.

One market Busabout's not geared to is family travel; agents should keep in mind that no one under age 18 is allowed to ride the network.

To bus or not to bus

Despite increasing interest from agencies and consumers, the biggest challenge for U.S. growth at Busabout appears to be the longtime lore and lure of European rail travel among both the young and old.

"The European railpass trip always has been a rite of passage for Americans, and they don't know there's any other option," said Khile.

However, Busabout claims its travel passes cost about 20% less than comparable rail passes and that its clients don't encounter surprise charges -- such as seat-reservation and other supplemental fees -- that often perplex U.S. travelers using unfamiliar European train systems for the first time.

Busabout also says another plus is that clients on its buses travel only with other international vacationers.

Another hurdle for Busabout is the stigma attached to bus travel in the U.S., said Khile.

"People think traveling by coach in Europe will be like a [bus] trip here," he said. "But our standards make it the difference between a stay in a [cheap] motel and a Hilton."

Although Busabout marketing targets backpackers, travel via its coaches hardly seems to qualify as "roughing it." The firm operates nonsmoking, luxury coaches with cloth reclining seats, air conditioning, video entertainment and onboard toilets.

In addition, English-speaking company representatives provide sightseeing, accommodations and service tips for cities in the network.

"They're not going to conduct a tour session or hold your hand, but they will tell you where an Internet cafe or a laundry facility is," said Khile.

For STA Travel's Chrissis, that adds up to client satisfaction. "We've never had a client come back and complain about the product or service," she said. "Often with rail they come back and are whiny; that's never happened once with Busabout."

Online, Britain moves

In its latest drive to grow business, Busabout announced several new initiatives, including a pre-booking Web site with personalization functionality and complimentary travel to and from London.

The new www.mybusabout.com site lets clients book bus seats, download travel tips, reserve accommodations and keep an online travel journal.

Busabout also made its London Link service -- roundtrip transport between Paris and the British capital via bus and English Channel ferry -- a standard component of passes.

For more information, call Busabout at (800) 664-4046 or visit www.busabout.com.

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