For some time now, the French long-distance bus operator BlaBlaCar Bus has been challenging the German top dog Flixbus. Both providers want to bring their passengers from A to B at low prices. How does the challenger perform with extremely small product differences? Aviation.Direct took a close look at BlaBlaCar Bus on a domestic German trip.
BlaBlaCar Bus has been on the market under many names. It was originally launched in July 2012 as IdBus. At that time it was a 100 percent subsidiary of the French state railway SNCF. Later, the brand name Oibus came up before the provider was sold to Comuto, the operator of the BlaBlaCar ridesharing service, in 2018. In connection with this transaction, SNCF has become a minority shareholder in Comuto SA.
The long-distance bus lines were initially continued as BlaBlaBus. Due to the corona pandemic, operations in the main markets of France and Germany were repeatedly suspended and resumed. In March 2021, the brand name was changed again: It is now active as BlaBlaCar Bus. According to their own statements, the core markets are France, Germany and Belgium. Due to the fact that today's bus service emerged from an SNCF subsidiary, most lines are offered within and to/from France. In the Federal Republic of Germany, along with France, they are not only active with international routes, but also with purely domestic routes. You want to stand up to market leader Flixbus.
The route network offered in Germany is considerably smaller than that of the competitor Flixbus. France is one step ahead in this regard, because there are more routes on offer here. However, it is difficult to determine how many routes are actually active with the two long-distance bus line providers, because as a result of the corona pandemic, many lines are still paused at the two companies or are not served particularly frequently.
In principle, the products from Flixbus and BlaBlaCar Bus are not particularly different. Both providers advertise cheap ticket prices and want to bring passengers nationally and internationally from A to B with long-distance buses. With regard to the equipment of the vehicles, there are no significant differences, as both position themselves as low-cost providers and therefore the passengers expect little more than seats, WLAN and toilet.
Only small distinguishing features
Nevertheless, there are a few small distinguishing features: Flixbus relies on a mixture of free choice of seat and paid seat reservation. Depending on the line and the actual operator - many Flixbus routes are operated as a franchise - you can reserve in advance or even book a free next seat for a fee or not. The long-distance bus market leader offers a combination of free seating and paid reservations on most German routes. Exceptions confirm the rule: On the routes of Flixbus CEE, there is generally free choice of seats.
BlaBlaCar Bus takes a different approach. In principle, all passengers have an assigned seat. This can be selected during the booking for a fee. Following the example of low-cost airlines, those passengers who do not want to dig into their pockets are assigned their seat about an hour before the scheduled departure. You will receive an e-mail in which the place will be communicated. Furthermore, when scanning the ticket, the bus drivers provide information about where you can sit down. The allocation of seats is completely random and comparable to that of Ryanair and Wizz Air. This means that even people booked together without a paid advance reservation are not guaranteed to be seated next to each other. However, this shouldn't be a problem for courses that are underutilized, because swapping places is then the order of the day.
Another difference between the two bus companies lies in the principle of the business model: Flixbus arranges bus and train journeys, which you either have subcontractors carry out yourself or franchisees are responsible for the operation. In Austria, for example, Blaguss Reisen and Dr. Richard Concessionaires operating on their own account under a franchise agreement. Flixbus also brokers tickets from competitors with whom it has a distribution agreement.
Complicated perspective: Long-distance bus and ridesharing services mixed up
BlaBlaCar originally came from the area of carpooling. This means that they specialize in arranging seats in private cars. It is precisely this circumstance that makes booking long-distance bus tickets quite tedious, since you first have to filter out offers from the carpooling area in order to then only see bus offers. The company also offers tickets from some partner companies. These are then marked accordingly with the logo of the respective provider. However, the mixture of bus and ride-sharing offers makes the website quite confusing.
People who don't care whether they're traveling in a licensed long-distance bus or in a private car shouldn't really care. But not everyone who wants to get from A to B cheaply and is considering the bus as an alternative to the train or plane can imagine traveling in a stranger's private car. A clear separation of the two offers would therefore be desirable, because at the moment it is confusing.
Due to the merging of BlaBlaCar's two businesses, figuring out the actual bus route network also becomes extremely complicated. Almost every destination is offered in the selection of the booking engine, but these are often offers from the carpooling agency and not long-distance bus routes. From this point of view, too, a clear separation would make sense in order to be able to really stand up to the competitor Flixbus.
In contrast to the competition, fewer extras can be selected during the booking process. However, you can pay online for additional baggage that exceeds the allowance. Seats can also be selected for a fee, but this is not necessary because if you do not do so, you will simply be assigned one hour before departure. The spare seat option is currently not available on BlaBlaCar Bus.
No uniform bus fleet
Both Flixbus and BlaBlaCar do not have a unified fleet. Rather, both providers use many different vehicles from different manufacturers. The equipment of the coaches therefore differs enormously in some cases. However, the basic features are that there are usually toilets and free WiFi. Depending on the model and the actual operator of the vehicle, these are sometimes more comfortable, sometimes cheaper. Anyone who travels with long-distance buses from BlaBlaCar Bus and/or Flixbus must be open to surprises. Both providers want to get you from A to B cheaply and do not want to offer luxury trips.
On a test drive with the BlaBlaCar bus from Munich Hackerbrücke (ZOB), a one-story Setra bus licensed in Croatia was used. With a few stopovers in Germany and France, he made his way to Paris. On the positive side, the coach appeared freshly cleaned and washed at the bus platform. Negative: Despite the fact that the vehicle was not in use immediately beforehand, the two drivers and their bus only showed up ten minutes after the scheduled departure. The operator of the ZOB had meanwhile removed the journey from the display board. Since BlaBlaCar Bus did not send any text messages or e-mails, the almost exclusively French-speaking passengers became very nervous, but the tension eased when the colorful Setra bus with the BlaBlaCar Bus lettering "suddenly" pulled into the bus stop.
Seats will also be communicated upon boarding
The passengers then had to place their luggage in the designated areas of the bus trunk under the supervision of a bus driver. It seems to be a system created by the two drivers themselves, because handwritten notes with the respective city were attached. Sense and purpose: During the stopovers, travelers should be able to unload their suitcases more quickly – always under the supervision of a driver. For older passengers and mothers with small children on their arms, the friendly drivers proactively took care of the luggage as a service.
In the course of scanning the QR codes on the tickets, the seat numbers were said again by the drivers. This should be quite important because BlaBlaCar Bus also sells tickets at counters and then no e-mail address is stored. And on the other hand: Shortly before departure, many passengers have other worries than checking their e-mails regularly.
The BlaBlaCar bus used on the test drive from Munich was spotlessly clean. This also applies to the toilet, because this can develop into a not exactly nice place on longer long-distance bus journeys. However, the passengers themselves are “responsible” for this and not the provider and certainly not the bus driver. The one-story Setra bus was equipped with footrests, but there were no folding tables. This is a bit of a disadvantage, because they are very useful when taking a snack or for storing a tablet PC or laptop, especially on longer journeys.
WiFi without data limit
Interestingly, the BlaBlaCar Bus homepage is conflicting as to the availability of WiFi on board. On the one hand, there are clear statements that every bus has internet on board and, on the other hand, that this is currently not available. There was free WiFi on the test drive, but a password was required for this. The bus drivers announced this several times in English, German and French and who didn't understand it? In the end, everyone who wanted to have internet access got the password by passing it on to the passengers.
In contrast to Flixbus, there are no onboard streaming offers and no separate WLAN interface. You enter the password in the classic way and you are connected to the Internet. Also, there is no data limit. The competitor regulates the free Internet on some routes to a maximum of 150 megabytes per person. Not much can be said about the speed of the WLAN at BlaBlaCar Bus. It depends on how strong the mobile signal is and what type of network is currently available. In Germany, 4G and 5G are only insufficiently developed outside of the major cities, so that there is often a fallback to the outdated 2G network. Since the German mobile operators were of the opinion that 3G was no longer needed, it has already been switched off nationwide. Of course, this also has an effect on the Internet in long-distance buses, because everything from lightning fast to "doesn't work at all" is pretty much there. It just depends on how good or bad the reception is.
In principle, long-distance buses depend on the current traffic situation. Although the providers already plan for possible traffic jams, it can still happen that you arrive late at your destination. In this specific case, the arrival was ten minutes behind schedule because the bus drivers had to make an unscheduled stop to fill up the AdBlue tank. If you don't have to catch a connection, you won't be dissatisfied with a ten-minute delay.
Conclusion: Hardly any differences, but price comparison is always worthwhile
In terms of price, Flixbus and BlaBlaCar Bus don't give each other very much. Sometimes one provider is more expensive or cheaper, sometimes the other. If you just want to get from A to B cheaply, you should simply compare the prices on both websites and be careful with BlaBlaCar Bus that you don't accidentally become a customer of the carpooling agency. The included services are almost identical.
Only with the additional services that are subject to a fee and the fact that you can book a free next seat with Flixbus for an extra charge, but with BlaBlaCar Bus you get an assigned seat number (as an alternative to the paid seat reservation), is there a significant difference. When it comes to transportation, there aren't really things where the two providers would differ significantly, as the vehicles vary widely and whether or not there is a branded Wi-Fi portal really doesn't matter as long as the internet works. Both providers have sockets on board anyway, in case a mobile phone, tablet or laptop gets thirsty for electricity.
It doesn't matter whether you choose BlaBlaCar Bus or Flixbus for a route: Both providers do not carry out a single trip themselves. Subcontractors are used to operate the respective line for the client. At Flixbus there are some lines that are operated by bus companies under a franchise agreement on their own concession. This also easily explains why there are enormous differences in the equipment of the vehicles. Anyone expecting luxury bus rides from Flixbus and/or BlaBlaCar Bus is wrong anyway. Both companies have positioned themselves as providers to get from A to B as cheaply as possible. So there is no such thing as excessive comfort. Comparing the prices of the two long-distance bus line operators can be worthwhile in order to get from A to B cheaply.