Friday, November 28, 2014

The Rocky Mountaineer: Is It Worth the Money?

My wife and I rode the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver through the Canadian Rockies to Banff three years ago. Truthfully, I don't remember what we paid, but the same two-day trip today will set you back about $4300 for two people.
That's for their top-of-the-line "Gold Leaf" service which includes two full days on the train with seats in the upper level of a rail car that has huge windows for optimal viewing. Live commentary is provided throughout the trip, and excellent meals are served in a traditional dining car setting on the lower level. Drinks of your choice are provided at any time, and they put you up in a hotel room in Kamloops on the first night. Bus transportation to and from your hotel is also included.
 Yes, it's an attractive itinerary through magnificent mountain scenery and they do an all-'round fine job. But 4300 bucks (plus tax) for two people over two days is a chunk of change and it does beg the question: Is it worth it?

I asked that very question to at least a half dozen couples at the conclusion of our trip and most were satisfied that they had gotten their money's worth. I certainly agree that the scenery along the route was spectacular, the food was very good and presented nicely, and every detail was handled courteously and efficiently.
That said, it was clear that the people who enjoyed the experience the most all had two things in common: they had never before seen mountains anything like the Canadian Rockies and they were new to train travel. In other words, it was all a completely new experience for them.
There is, in my opinion, an alternative experience to consider: VIA Rail's premier trans-continental train, the Canadian. It leaves Vancouver in the evening on its way to Toronto, passes through the same maintain range that night and the next day, and arrives in Jasper, Alberta, late in the afternoon. The fare includes a private cabin for two with real beds, excellent meals in the dining car, a wonderful lounge car at the end of the train (photo, right) and a seat in one of VIA's classic dome cars for viewing all those spectacular mountains. The cost? About $1,000 per person during the high season … in other words, half the cost of the Rocky Mountaineer.
Bottom line: there are a lot of similarities, with the VIA Rail train offering a more traditional rail experience, while the Rocky Mountaineer has a slight edge on the food and pampers you more. For me? Personally? I'd pick VIA Rail, especially at the significantly lower cost.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Are Amtrak Dining Cars Too Close to the Edge?

Let's talk food … and this is certainly the day for it. As you probably know, Amtrak's food service has been under constant scrutiny, not to mention criticism, from some of the lesser lights in Congress. People like John Mica (R-Florida) and Phil Gingrey (R-Georgia) have their shorts in a knot because Amtrak loses money on food service.

(Apparently these two guardians of the public trust come up with their recommendations based on numbers generated from Amtrak's accounting system. That alone should cause us to question their judgement.)

The reality is that food service in Amtrak dining cars is quite good, albeit a little on the pricey side. There's adequate variety, the quality is acceptable, and it's usually reasonably well prepared and served. For instance, this is what I usually go for ion one of my cross-country train trips:

 An omelette for breakfast, with bacon and a croissant … 

 … or traditional railroad French Toast.

 A cheese burger with chips is good for lunch (I often have a cold beer with it) …

… and one of Amtrak's signature steaks for dinner, usually with a half bottle of red wine.

BUT -- and this is my concern -- there really isn't a lot of room for more cost-cutting. Cut out some of the options? For example, which ones from the dinner menu would go? The vegetarian choice? The chicken? No more desserts? Plastic knives and forks? Paper napkins? How much more cost-cutting can Amtrak do before those of us who choose to travel in the sleepers (and are responsible for probably 80% of the dining car's patronage) decide we've had enough and cut back on our train travel? It is a valid concern.

All that said, and on a much more cheerful note, a Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Amtrak's Cardinal: Three Times a Week Just Doesn't Cut It.

From time to time, I've complained here about the folly of operating trains on a less-than-daily schedule. Amtrak has two such trains in its long-distance system: the Sunset Limited running between New Orleans and Los Angeles, and the Cardinal, which takes a southerly route between Chicago and New York. Both trains run in each direction, but just three days a week … and ridership for both suffers as a result.

Case in point: The Cardinal.

I'll start by saying this is one of my favorite trains. It passes through some absolutely beautiful areas - the New River Gorge, the Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains - and stops at the Greenbrier Resort, Charlottesville and Washington along the way. 

But the Cardinal's three-days-a-week schedule makes it difficult to book. Chances are literally four to three that it's schedule won't mesh with yours. For example, the annual Fall meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers will be held next October in Indianapolis, which is one of the Cardinal's station stops. 

The meetings will be held on a weekend, concluding on Sunday afternoon. The eastbound Cardinal doesn't get to Indianapolis until midnight, but the problem is the three-days-a-week schedule: it doesn't run on Sunday. Or Monday either. So NARP members, finished with their meetings on Sunday afternoon would have to wait until Tuesday night to take the Cardinal back east.

Instead, they will have to go back to Chicago and take the Capitol Limited or the Lake Shore Limited. A daily Cardinal would make all the difference and get everyone home a day earlier. It would certainly boost the train's ridership.

Photo above: Highlight of the Cardinal's route is its run through the New River Gorge.

I went out of my way to book the Cardinal when I travel to NARP's meeting in Washington, DC, next April. Of course, the three-day-a-week schedule would get me to Washington two days before our meetings begin and, with the sky-high cost of hotel rooms in Washington, that was a real consideration. I came up with a good solution, however: I'll get off the Cardinal in Charlottesville, Virginia, and take a day to visit Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home, which is located there. The next morning, I'll hop on one of Amtrak's Northeast Regional trains right into Washington.

My visit to Monticello will be an interesting experience and I'm looking forward to it. But a daily Cardinal would be a lot more convenient and, by the way, it would without doubt have a positive impact on ridership and, of course, on revenue.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Do As I Say … Unless It Means Five Hours in a Lousy Seat.

Everyone knows that more and more airlines are stuffing us into narrow seats with less and less legroom. No wonder people are mad: for years they gave us something for free, then they took it away, and now they're selling it back to us.
We all grumble, but we're going along. Well, I am, anyway … and it pains me to admit it. 
I'm now working out the details of a couple of trips - one to Canada in February, the other to Italy in June - six flights in all.
I used American Airlines mileage for two of them and paid cash for the other four. In each case, I was offered the option of "upgrading" into supposedly more comfortable seats with additional legroom. In each case, my response was, "Hell, no!" It was a matter of principle, doggone it!
Then, a couple of weeks later, in the wee hours of a night when I had trouble sleeping, I was at my computer going over one of the itineraries when I stopped at a red-eye Delta flight from here to Seattle. I swear that "Seat 41B" was blinking at me. Ugh!  Way in the back and a middle seat, to boot! Strictly as a matter of curiosity, I went to the Delta website to find out what it would cost for an upgrade to a better seat.
Ten minutes later, I had switched to a seat that is a little wider, has three inches more legroom, and is 21 rows closer to the front of the plane. And I was $79 poorer.
Then last night, I did it again. In late June I'm returning to Boston on a British Airways flight from London. It had originally been booked with mileage through American Airlines, so there was no seat assignment. On the BA web site, I discovered that their computer would generate seat assignments 24 hours before departure. Of course, I could choose whatever economy seat I wanted right now for a £35 fee. (Thirty-five pounds? That's $55 to you and me.) And, yes, I confess I did it.
I feel no less indignant that these airlines are squeezing me - both my butt and my wallet - but the sad fact is that I end up aiding and abetting them by going along. I guess it's a little easier if there are a couple of weeks between the aiding and the abetting.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bridges, Airports and Roads Get a Failing Grade. And So Do the Politicians.

On CBS's 60 MINUTES this past Sunday, there was a report on the crumbling infrastructure in this country. It was shocking … and sobering … and frightening … and infuriating. But it's a "must see". If you missed it, here's the link:
We have an estimated 70,000 bridges in this country that are literally unsafe and potentially dangerous. In particular watch for the segment toward the end in which Amtrak president Joe Boardman is interviewed about the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey over which literally hundreds of passenger trains pass every day. It's a "swing bridge" which opens to let boats through. It's more than 100 years old … and it frequently doesn't close properly … and one of these days it will simply break down, which will cost the whole northeast economy hundreds of millions of dollars every single day.

Watch this report. And then contact your two senators, your member of Congress, and any other person in public office who represents you. It is a disgrace that our elected representatives have allowed this to happen. But they have … and it's for the shallowest of reasons: they don't want a political opponent to be able to attack them for raising taxes to pay for these repairs.

I'm willing to bet that the relatives of the thirteen people who died and the 145 people who were injured when the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis seven years ago would have some pretty strong opinions about that.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Get an IDP at AAA in SEA … and make it PDQ.

Do you have an International Driving Permit… an IDP? Have you ever needed it? For a French traffic cop? For a desk clerk at a hotel in Norway? For any reason at all … ever?

About two months ago, I had occasion to call the Customer Service Department at Avis on a billing question. As I finished the conversation, I mentioned to the woman on the other end of the line that I was leaving for France in two days and had reserved Avis cars in the two towns where I would be staying. That was when she asked if I had an International Driving Permit.

I said I did not. Well, she said, some of the rental car companies in Europe, Avis included, are now requiring an IDP in addition to the normal driver's license and I should consider getting one before I left on my trip.

I immediately had visions of being turned away from the Avis counter in Brive-la-Gaillard and finding myself stuck without wheels, 40 miles from the hotel where I was expected and had already paid for the first night.
International Driving Permits are issued by AAA, but they don't have an office on Maui. However, I was going to have a full day in Seattle before my flight left for Paris … plenty of time to find a AAA office and get the permit.
And that's the way it worked out, too. There was, however, the 30-minute cab ride from my hotel at SEA-TAC to the AAA office in downtown Seattle, the $40 fee for the license, and the cab ride back to the hotel. Total? A hundred and twenty-eight bucks. Plus tip.
And did anyone ask me for my brand-new International Driving Permit? Of course not.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Here a Shark, There a Shark, Everywhere a Shark Shark.

This morning over coffee, my wife mentioned a conversation she had the other day with one of her lady friends. The woman, who is a relative newcomer to these islands, was saying that she loves snorkeling a couple of hundred yards out from the beach off Kihei on Maui's south shore because that's where the sea turtles hang out. They're not particularly afraid of humans and she gets a thrill swimming amongst them.

My wife asked her friend if she knew the other name for those turtles … and got a blank look in response.

"Bait!", said my wife. "Sharks love to feed on those turtles and you're swimming right out there with shark bait."

The woman seemed to shrug it off and it's quite true that, statistically, your chances of being bitten by a shark in Hawaiian waters are very low. Nevertheless, there were 14 confirmed shark "incidents" in 2013, eight of which occurred in waters off Maui and two of those were fatal. It's hard to know for sure, but the assumption is that tiger sharks, known to be more aggressive than other sharks, were responsible for most, and maybe even all, of those incidents. 

Marine experts at the University of Hawaii have detected "heavy clusters" of sharks in waters off Kihei and Makena here on Maui, especially where the coastal shelf drops off into extremely deep water. So far, there are a couple of dozen tiger sharks swimming in Maui waters that have been tagged with satellite tracking devices. This kind of shark is of great interest to these scientists who are in the middle of an interesting two-year study. Among other things, it involves catching tiger sharks and attaching a small camera - apparently about the size of a hotdog bun -- to the dorsal fin. For about 10 hours, the camera will record essentially whatever the shark sees, then it drops off and floats to the surface to be retrieved by the scientists. 

Let's hope, when they're checking the video from one of those cameras, they don't find a close-up of my wife's friend.