As Jesse Orta stood on a downtown Sacramento sidewalk Wednesday, waiting for a bus to the Reno casinos, he exuded the cheer of someone who had already won a jackpot.
Orta had booked a seat on a new bus service, megabus.com, for just $5 each way.
"I just heard about this," he said, suitcase by his side. "I don't know how they figure prices, but $5 is OK with me."
Megabus.com, a discount service sporting bright blue and orange double-decker buses, is part of a national wave of new intercity bus companies competing not only with each other, but with cars, trains and even planes for frugal travelers.
Megabus.com opened a service between San Francisco, Sacramento and Sparks/Reno in December, offering what it calls "yield management" ticketing. For riders, that means seat prices on each bus vary depending on when a person buys - similar to airline industry pricing.
In what travel experts say is a clever - if risky - marketing hook, the company offers at least a few $1 seats on every bus. As the bus fills up, seat prices rise.
Orta bought his $10 round-trip fare two days before his trip. A few feet behind Orta in line Wednesday, Milad Nouhravesh, a UC Davis veterinary medicine student from Iran, said he had booked his tickets a day later at $17 round trip to visit family in Reno.
He had recently spent $60 on an Amtrak train trip to the Bay Area, and was excited when a friend told him about Megabus.com. "This is a good option," he said. "I'm a research assistant. My income is not high."
Nearly 50 years after giving way to cars, planes and trains, bus travel has made a comeback in the last half-dozen years, transportation experts say.
Megabus.com, a subsidiary of Coach USA, was launched in April 2006 on the East Coast and in the Midwest. It expanded last year to California and Nevada.
Greyhound's discount BoltBus service jumped coasts to Oregon and Washington last year. Greyhound, as well, has begun offering more variable pricing and some $1 fares.
A fare check Wednesday by the Bee found a $13 Internet round-trip fare on Greyhound between Sacramento and Reno next weekend. That's less expensive than the Megabus.com website was advertising for the same travel days.
The new competition helped increase intercity bus travel by 7 percent nationally last year, far more than the increases in other types of travel, according to a study by the Chaddick Institute at DePaul University.
Chaddick Institute director Joseph Schwieterman said the new breed of buses, with plush seats, Wi-Fi and electrical outlets, are at least slightly changing the dowdy image of bus travel. Many riders are retirees, but perhaps even more are young people living digital lifestyles, with more interest in spending travel time surfing on their iPad than driving a car.
For them, Schwieterman said, "It's almost foolish to blow $50 on gas, and put wear and tear on a car just to go somewhere when bus fare is less than half what gas is."
Bus companies can offer cheaper fares, he said, in part because Internet ticketing has reduced the cost of doing business. Megabus.com does not maintain an office or station in Sacramento. Riders just line up on a Front Street boardwalk in Old Sacramento, a spot shared by several bus services.
"Basically, they have a driver and dispatcher and occasional personnel at stops to help passengers," Schwieterman said.
Megabus spokesman Mike Alvich said the company is starting cautiously in California. "We believe we should walk before we run."
A 2007 attempt by Megabus to enter the California market resulted in a quick retreat. Company officials say they believe the number of potential bus riders has grown since then.
On Wednesday, about a dozen people in Sacramento boarded the Reno-bound 10:20 a.m. bus. Other customers were already aboard from San Francisco.
Officials said buses get more ridership around weekends.
DePaul researcher Schwieterman said discount bus services will probably have to increase average seat prices to be sustainable over the long haul. He said he's already seen some of that price creep on routes in the Midwest.
Megabus.com's Alvich said the company intends, no matter what, to continue to offer $1 seats on every bus. Cathy Hall and her 17-year-old daughter, Brianna Jackson, have happily taken advantage of that gimmick.
They spent $10 each for round-trip tickets Wednesday to San Francisco to visit friends. But the trip they are most excited about comes in two months when they will travel to Los Angeles, via San Francisco, for $1 each, each way. They just bought those tickets.
"L.A., on a dollar!" Jackson chirped. "That's what we're saying! We sit on the top. We text. We look at the view. It's beautiful."
Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.
Editors note: For more information on various types of intercity travel, go to www.megabus.com. For information about Greyhound, go to www.greyhound.com. For information about Capitol Corridor trains, go to capitolcorridor.org.