Friday 30th April 2021
FLiXBUS restarted British domestic express coach services last week with an extended range of destinations served from London so I thought it was worth giving the ambitious German company another road test.
My first trip with FLiXBUS was immediately after ‘Lockdown 1’ last July when the Company launched its fledgling UK express services from London to Portsmouth, Birmingham and Bristol. Readers may recall I took a trip down to Portsmouth in its first week of operation, luckily before it was abandoned as a destination the following week. I wrote about it here.
Once Lockdown reappeared, FLixBUS understandably disappeared. But now it’s back and bigger than before.
This time FLiXBUS are serving a range of destinations by including more than one town and city along a route. The five route network includes Birmingham and Manchester; Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford; Cardiff and Swansea; Leicester, Loughborough and Derby and Bristol.
It’s difficult to work out a traditional timetable with only a booking ‘engine’ available online, so I’m indebted to Scott Cooper for compiling and tweeting the summary below showing the newly expanded FLiXBUS network.
Scott also shows the three coach companies FLiXBUS are using to provide these routes – Thandi, Turners and Whippet. The company doesn’t operate any coaches itself.
As Bristol is the only single city destination and is served with a daily two-hourly frequency, I decided to go for that and last Sunday booked a journey leaving midday from London’s Victoria Coach Station for travel yesterday, Thursday.
I paid 99p with a £1 booking fee and had the option, airline style, of paying an extra £2.49 to bag the front nearside seat on the seating plan – which was showing all seats vacant as at Sunday, so treated myself to that. Any other seat would have cost another 99p to reserve. My total trip cost was therefore £4.48, but could have been as cheap as £1.99 if I hadn’t bothered about any specific seat.
Checking on Wednesday evening the ticket price was still showing as 99p for the midday departure with only two other seats on my journey seemingly taken as they weren’t showing as available for reservation (rows 2 and 12 nearside – the double seat behind the driver is Covid forbidden).
Checking the National Express website I see I could have saved myself 9p as their hourly journeys from London to Bristol were all showing a fare of 90p from 09:00 onwards although the 08:00, 16:00 and 18:00 departures were all “sold out”.
National Express as usual are not being beaten on price in a competitive situation.
Meanwhile the cheapest offer on Megabus’s two-hourly service was showing as £9.98 on the 08:30 departure with subsequent journeys at £10.98 with the 18:30 as high as £12.30. Competition savvy travellers are unlikely to be giving Megabus their custom.
However I believe the Megabus route takes in Heathrow Airport and I’m guessing that’s why their ticket prices are still relatively high.
Looking at the luggage accompanying passengers boarding in Bristol yesterday that looked quite likely to me.
While doing my price research on Wednesday evening I also had a look at the options for a journey to Birmingham for travel yesterday, Thursday. FLiXBUS operate five journeys and four of them were offering a fare for 99p with the 17:00 journey up to £2.99 (“2 seats left at this price”); National Express operate ten journeys and all of them were offering a 90p fare …..
…..while Megabus have just two journeys (at 08:00 and 16:30) and were offering fares of £25.30 (08:00) and £17.77 (16:30).
I don’t know how to break it to the guys at Megabus, but unpalatable as it may be, sadly they’re going to have to wake up and smell the price reductions now dominating the express coach market, if they want to survive.
FLiXBUS ask passengers to be at their departure point 15 minutes before coach leaving time so I turned up at Victoria Coach Station in good time yesterday morning for my midday departure. The Thandi operated 11:30 departure to Birmingham was looking rather bereft of passengers although it’s difficult to tell through the dark tinted windows. I did notice the prominent green FLiXBUS livery which definitely stands out alongside NatEx’s white.
My white liveried coach operated by Bristol based Turners Coachways arrived on the stand at just after 11:40 with the driver and dispatcher chatting for about fifteen minutes before opening up the door from the waiting area to declare boarding was commencing.
Which was handy for me and the one other passenger who’d also been waiting to board. She told me she’d previously used National Express and had been attracted to the 99p fare. When I asked if she knew NatEx were now charging 90p she agreed it was all “totally crazy”.
Obviously I needn’t have worried about bagging the front seat, or any seat for that matter, as my travel companion chose a seat behind the midships sunken toilet meaning I had a free choice to sit anywhere.
The coach was equipped to take a wheelchair but there were no power sockets as advertised on the FLiXBUS website, nor was there any Wi-fi, but it was perfectly comfortable to travel in and was well driven by Adam, our driver.
We left Victoria spot on time at midday and Adam gave a very professional “welcome to all passengers” (!) explaining the necessary requirements about seat belts, face coverings, seating arrangements, toilet availability etc. He explained as no one had booked to alight at the University of West of England we’d be going straight into central Bristol so should arrive ahead of our scheduled 14:45 arrival time.
We made good progress along the Chelsea Embankment by the River Thames towards Earls Court before taking the A4 crossing Hammersmith flyover at 12:24 and reaching the start of the M4 at the Chiswick Flyover five minutes later at 12:29.
The first long stretch of the M4 is being upgraded to what the sign calls a “digital motorway” whatever that means with “all lane running” so there’s an ‘average speed camera’ enforced 50 mph limit as far as Maidenhead rising to 60 mph for the next section as far as Junction 12 for Reading, as that stretch is pretty much finished with only road cones yet to be removed.
As soon as you pass the end of that stretch of roadworks the speed limit reduces back to 50 mph again to allow for repairs to a bridge west of Junction 12, but after that it’s a clear road westwards and we hit the northern end of the M32 exactly 110 minutes after joining the M4 at 14:19. Not bad for a distance of just over 100 miles and considering the first 35 miles had a speed restriction of either 50 or 60 mph.
We had the benefit of the M32 bus lane as we approached Bristol city centre as Adam came on the PA again to welcome us all (!) into Bristol with a very professionally delivered announcement which any airline would have been proud of.
It was precisely 14:30, two and a half hours after leaving Victoria, and fifteen minutes ahead of schedule.
If journey time is not your number one priority then you can’t beat a nice smooth express coach ride at virtually give-away prices on these hotly contested routes. It’s an impressive travel option.
But, so too is the train. I took advantage of GWR’s bargain rate advanced purchase tickets to book my return journey by train from Bristol all the way to my home station at Hassocks on the Brighton Main Line via London for just £18.65 (with a Railcard). Journey time from Bristol to Paddington an impressive 1 hour 34 minutes; an hour quicker than by coach.
As the day had gone so well I decided to treat myself to a First Class upgrade using the Seatfrog app which I wrote about last December. Luckily no one else was bidding, or travelling, so I got a whole First Class carriage to myself for just a £10 premium.
Back to FLiXBUS. The company has boasted in their publicity they’re on a mission to “become Britain’s dominant coach operator by 2025”. That indicates there’s going to be one hell of a protracted price war with National Express. It’ll be interesting to see who’s got deeper pockets.
I reckon Megabus will be an early casualty. I stand by my previous prediction that FLiXBUS will buy Megabus from Stagecoach just as they did on mainland Europe. It seems to be their modus operandi along with ridiculously cheap loss-making ticket prices – in the short term and while their venture capitalist funders are happy to keep piling in the money. These investors are clearly in a different league to the likes of Dragons’ Den Deborah Meadon or Peter Jones. They’d be “out” for sure.
My last coach trip to Bristol was in October 2018 trying out what was then the relatively new Snap operation. So far Snap hasn’t reappeared after Lockdown although it’s website is still open for enquiring travellers to try their luck at entering a desired destination.
Bearing in mind the blood letting now inflicting the express coach market it looks like a wise move to stand out of the fray, although I notice FLiXBUS haven’t included Snap’s favoured destination, Nottingham, in their network….. yet.