Fuel Prices, Economy, Party Buses Hit Limos Hard

Limousine companies are suffering from high gasoline prices like most Americans. But it isn't just the economy and the cost of fuel that has stretch limos and Hummers sitting in lots. What once was the most fashionable way to get to the prom is out. Today, kids want something bigger and better.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

So it's prom season, and a teenager's got to have all the essentials. Tuxedo: check. Corsage: absolutely. Limousine: Well, with the high price of gas and all, you don't want to blow your budget on such a short trip. Luckily, some limo companies are offering a swanky form of group transportation for the kids. Amy Costello takes us for a ride.

(Soundbite of car engine, kids shouting)

AMY COSTELLO: The town green in Wethersfield, Connecticut is packed - boys trying out tuxedos for the first time awkwardly greet girls in gowns.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, Bobby. How are you?

BOBBY: You look beautiful.

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, you look handsome.

BOBBY: Thank you.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, that's cute.

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh.

COSTELLO: Parents stand on the periphery, waving cameras in the air, demanding smiles. Getting their children here tonight was expensive. Anyone who's ever had a teenage daughter can probably relate to Eva Nasamento(ph), the mother of 17-year-old Kayla(ph).

Ms. EVA NASAMENTO: Her dress, shoes and pocketbook and all that was $325. She got her hair done. That was 60. She got her nails done. That was $80. The ticket to go to the prom: 50. Pictures that they're going to take at the prom: another $72.

COSTELLO: And her daughter asked for more.

Ms. NASAMENTO: At first, she wanted to go three couples in a limo, and once we found the price of that, then I was like no, Kayla, there's a better way.

COSTELLO: What they found was a party bus. They're the favored mode of transport for many prom-goers this year. They cost $1,400 for the night, but hold up to 28 people, who split the cost between them. It's a cheaper alternative to the traditional stretch limo, which can run $700 and holds far fewer people. But if the party bus is cheaper, inside, it's all luxury.

Mr. ROBERT FLEET (Premier Limousine, Berlin, Connecticut): As you can see, it has a restroom. It has a 42-inch plasma television. There's also satellite TV on this particular bus. You've got three bar stations.

COSTELLO: Robert Fleet is with Premier Limousine in Berlin, Connecticut. His company recently invested in four party buses. He says lugging all that luxury around has a price.

Mr. FLEET: Our cost for fuel right now is double what it was a year ago.

COSTELLO: The party bus has a 100-gallon tank and runs on diesel fuel and gets just five miles a gallon. Even so, Fleet says his company is actually growing. But smaller companies that have invested in more-traditional Town Cars and stretch limos are struggling to compete. One limo owner noted with shock that he found more than 100 limos for sale on eBay last time he checked. He says normally, there's a fraction of that.

Fleet says no company can afford to have cars sitting idle.

Mr. FLEET: These vehicles have to be out every day. They're not to sit here and just wait for the weekend. They have to be out consistently.

COSTELLO: Limo companies say the younger set's preference for togetherness over romance is transforming their business. Next to the party bus, the old-fashioned stretch limo or, heaven forbid, the Town Car, seem, well, lonely and isolating. Fleet says even the bride and groom no longer want to be alone.

Mr. FLEET: They want to travel as a group, the bride, the groom and the wedding party. They want to be together. Everything is about sharing that particular special moment.

COSTELLO: Once all the pictures are taken, Kayla and her date finally get on the bus. Then Kayla remembers the must-have for any party bus.

Ms. KAYLA NASAMENTO: Where are the CDs? Where are the CDs?

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

COSTELLO: This is the final and clearest benefit of the party bus. Forget fuel prices and family budgets. The best thing about traveling together is that the prom can begin the minute the doors close on the parents standing outside.

(Soundbite of music)

COSTELLO: For NPR News, I'm Amy Costello.

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