Visions of friends and family comfort Benjamin D. Macklowe during the rigors of holiday bus travel.

Of course, it helps that he is about to be shown a movie. And the Baltimore resident appreciates the fact that the bus is new and clean.

Above all, he likes the price. The private-school French teacher paid just $25.95 for his round-trip fare to New York on Peter Pan, $7.05 less than the Greyhound fare.

"It was the fare and its relationship to the cost of driving that made me decide to take the bus," said Mr. Macklowe, who is headed to his 23rd-birthday celebration on the Upper East Side.

"If they continue to offer a $25 round-trip fare, I'll keep riding Peter Pan."

Forget the airline industry's high-flying fare wars, the real travel contest in Baltimore is running closer to the ground.

Since moving into Baltimore a year and a half ago, Peter Pan has played a similar role to that of Southwest Airlines at Baltimore-Washington International -- driving the competition crazy with low fares.

"We're here to capitalize on Greyhound's mistakes," said Peter Picknelly Jr., chief executive of the Massachusetts-based carrier. the new kid on the block, and I think we're gaining rapidly."

This weekend's holiday travel provides a spike in traffic for fixed-route intercity carriers like Peter Pan and Greyhound. In the midst of the winter travel doldrums, bus terminals feel the crush of crowds.

Greyhound Lines Inc. is the only national carrier in the United States. The Dallas-based company owns 2,050 buses and carries 16 million passengers a year to 2,600 destinations nationwide.

Peter Pan is a family-owned regional carrier that is part of the Trailways system, an association of independent companies that kept the Trailways name after Greyhound absorbed one of its largest members, Continental Trailways, in 1987. Peter Pan owns 175 buses.

For 60 years, the Picknelly family has operated the company, mostly in New England.

But all that changed in June 1992 when Peter Pan inaugurated service from New York to Washington and Baltimore, triggering a fare war that brought prices to as low as $5 one-way from Baltimore to New York. The company's goal: To wrest control of the lucrative Northeast market from Greyhound.

The fares crept back up by fall 1992, but Peter Pan still consistently beats Greyhound on ticket prices to Washington, New York and, since September, Philadelphia.

"You're living in the right spot at the right time," said George T. Snyder Jr., executive vice president of the American Bus Association in Washington. "There's a fare war in Baltimore that's not going on in other cities."

A reporter's trip Wednesday to New York on Peter Pan, with a return to Baltimore on Greyhound, offered a glimpse of the battle.

The 10:10 a.m. bus departs Peter Pan's terminal at Baltimore Travel Plaza along Interstate 95 in East Baltimore 15 minutes late, delayed by a backup at the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

All 47 spaces on the 40-foot coach are filled. About half the crowd boarded in Washington.

By the Moravia Road exit from I-95, the PG-rated movie "Beethoven" starts on the four overhead video monitors.

Georgette Atkinson, 19, a Howard University sophomore going home to Danbury, Conn., watches the big Saint Bernard lick an ice cream cone outside Aberdeen. By the Delaware Memorial Bridge, an evil veterinarian played by Dean Jones has staged a fake attack to get Beethoven for lab experiments.

At 11:55, the vet's true intentions are unmasked, and he gets his comeuppance just past the New Jersey Turnpike exit for Chester, Pa.

"Last time, they had 'Bull Durham,'" said Miss Atkinson. "The movie's a perk, but the prices are better."

The bus reaches the Lincoln Tunnel shortly after 1:35 p.m.

Greyhound's 3 p.m. express from New York to Baltimore is the same model coach, but older. It's a letdown from the Peter Pan. Even the Peter Pan bathroom was cleaner, although there's no running water in either, just moist towelettes.

Both buses take about 3 hours and 20 minutes to navigate the route. The Greyhound, which passes Camden Yards at 6:35 p.m., is less crowded. But it's rugged. No doors on the overhead baggage containers. And the maroon and purple interior has seen better days.

Nigel Brown, 25, an unemployed chef from the Bronx, N.Y., is convinced that the seats on Peter Pan are more comfortable. But it is the price that means the most.

"If it's cheaper, I'll choose it every time," he said.

David W. Batchelor, Peter Pan's vice president for business development and a former Greyhound executive, said that a small company like Peter Pan can compete effectively by offering friendlier service, cleaner buses and bargain fares at target markets.

Company officials believe that their fares are so low that they are literally drawing people out of their cars -- attracting budget-minded motorists who feel the pinch of highway tolls and gasoline prices.

"Not only do we take riders from the competition, but we create new ones," Mr. Batchelor said. "I think we're getting close to a 50 percent market share between Baltimore and New York."

Greyhound officials doubt that. While the intercity bus business has been through difficult times over the last two decades -- Greyhound spent 17 months in bankruptcy in 1990 and 1991 -- fourth-quarter ridership totals have been more encouraging.

Over the last 10 weeks, business out of Greyhound's terminal on Howard Street in downtown Baltimore has been up 23 percent from a year ago, said Ralph J. Borland, Greyhound vice president for customer satisfaction.

"Our business in the Northeast is up decidedly this year," he said. "Where is [Peter Pan's] in-road? We've been putting a great deal of energy in the Northeast."

Mr. Snyder of the American Bus Association said that the disadvantage for Greyhound is that the company must worry not just about Peter Pan, but about the more than 100 regional carriers nibbling at its heels.

Since the industry was deregulated in 1982, it's hard to tell how big a bite the private companies have taken, but Mr. Snyder guesses it's been significant in the selected markets.

"We keep somewhat of an eye on Peter Pan, but we're not obsessed with them," Mr. Borland said. "We don't keep a room in the building devoted to watching them, but only a fool ignores the competition."

Mr. Borland noted that Greyhound has expanded its schedule in the Northeast, is buying new coaches, and is considering adding movies. He said prices will also go down after the holidays -- by $3 on the New York route on Jan. 6.

Those plans don't seem to faze Mr. Picknelly, who notes that Peter Pan prices also will go down -- on Jan. 5.

He is ready to make a bold prediction that his company will be the dominant Baltimore carrier before the end of 1994.

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