I’m in the midst of a reasonably ridiculous mileage run this weekend, flying between Philadelphia and San Diego a few times over 72 hours. The originally booked flights were reasonable enough but, thanks to schedule changes and such the connection in San Diego – less than an hour between the arrival and departure which required switching from the commuter terminal to the regular terminal – became rather concerning to me. A quick call to the United reservations line had me switched from Newark-Los Angeles-San Diego to Newark-Chicago-San Diego. With a slightly longer layover in San Diego and no terminal change required I was much happier. Plus, about 15 minutes after making the change the upgrade on the Chicago-San Diego segment cleared (Newark-LA wasn’t going to happen) so that a win all around.
On the day of travel I thought things were going pretty well right up until my Amtrak ride from Philadelphia to Newark got delayed. That delay wasn’t enough to really mess me up but it was enough that I called to double-check my connections. At one point during that conversation the agent mentioned that they had a note in their system to expect delays in the Chicago area later Saturday afternoon. That wouldn’t be good at all.
Once I got to Newark I played around with trying to get on the earlier flight to Chicago; SDC worked perfectly except that the new flight started a rolling mechanical delay as soon as I was confirmed on it. I switched back and forth between the two flights a few times before deciding that neither really seemed like a good idea. Both were taking delays and my sub-60 minute connection in Chicago seemed suspect. I changed again, this time to the non-stop from Newark to San Diego. Yes, I gave up the upgrade but I had a bulkhead window seat which is just fine for me. Plus, no more worries about connections.
The thunderstorms causing problems in Chicago topped out around FL350; we detoured far south of them en route to SAN
Ultimately the Newark-Chicago flight ended up ~30 minutes late which likely would’ve blown my connection in Chicago, except that the Chicago-San Diego flight was delayed, too, thanks to the storms the agent had mentioned to me. Listening to Channel 9 as we flew through the region I heard at least one plane divert and discussion from several others about hour-long holding patterns, major storms and long delays. The second delay meant I would’ve actually made the Chicago-San Diego flight, though that still would have ended badly for me. It was so delayed that I would have lost in my original goal – making the connection in San Diego. The inbound from Chicago landed in the other terminal at SAN about 15 minutes before the scheduled departure on SAN-IAD and we closed the door a couple minutes early. I almost certainly would have missed that flight.
So, yeah, I gave up around 500 miles by changing the routing from the original LAX connection. And I gave up a first class seat when I switched to the non-stop (I finished as #1 on the waitlist for EWR-SAN). But I actually got where I was going in time to catch my next flight. And, as an added bonus, I had enough time to leave the airport for a few hours and grab some dinner. That’s always a win.
And, in case anyone is wondering, I do occasionally fly trips as originally booked. Just not all that often. What fun would that be??
Amtrak has a double points promotion which just went live this morning. And it covers EVERYTHING!
The only catch is that members are limited to only two one-way trips daily. Still, this is a pretty solid deal.
Ever since Amtrak rolled out internet connectivity on their trains in the northeast corridor the response has been a mixed bag. Passengers are happy it exists in theory but the actual performance has been less than spectacular, particularly if you believe some of the many Twitter rants out there on the topic. Amtrak is trying to improve the situation but they’re faced with many challenges, not the least of which is providing free connectivity to hundreds of people while traveling up and down the coast. The latest step in the upgrade process is to upgrade the systems on the trains to support 4G service, up from the 3G network currently supported. There’s just one small problem with that plan: the route doesn’t have much 4G coverage.
Most of Amtrak’s problems stem from the fact that they are running on tracks where they stray rather far from civilization, and the high population density areas are where the cell towers are. Combine those two factors and the cell coverage isn’t all that great. So it doesn’t matter how fast the radio is on the device; if there isn’t coverage between the train and the base station things aren’t going to work so well. The other potential problem comes from having so many users on the system. Free services tend to attract more users and heavily loaded systems tend to struggle unless they are built to support that level of use. It does not seem that the Amtrak wifi systems were built that way. And upgrading to a 4G connection won’t solve that part of the problem.
The service is great when it works. But promising connectivity and not actually providing that to customers can actually hurt the business more than the offer of the service can help. Airlines are facing similar issues as they deal with upgrading the bandwidth on their planes. The gogo service can now support 4G with an upgraded radio on the planes (ATG4). Airlines are getting these new systems installed but it is not yet clear that the additional bandwidth will solve the performance issues which crop up from time to time. It will be interesting to see if either Amtrak or the airlines can solve this problem. The current connectivity provided by both is still challenging to users in many instances.
The Amtrak Guest Rewards program is adding a new tier to its elite program. The new Select Executive status will be the highest status level in the program, requiring 20,000 tier points to qualify; the previous top tier of Select Plus was available at only 10,000 points.
The features of the Select Executive program are reasonably solid; here’s the list Amtrak is using in their promo materials:
- 100% tier point bonus on Amtrak® travel
- Select Executive Earned Upgrades
- Unlimited access to ClubAcela®, Amtrak Metropolitan LoungeSM, First class lounges and United Club locations for you and one guest, or your spouse and children under the age of 21
- Unlimited Buy and Share points
- No annual Transfer points limits
- Auto-registration for promotions
- A new priority customer service phone line for Select Executive members
Of these, priority customer service and the ClubAcela offers are also available to the Select Plus level members. And Select Plus gets a 50% bonus on Amtrak travel. The main benefits where Select Executive seem to be the upgrades – one per 3000 tier points which is 1 per 6 Acela segments – and the unlimited transferring out of points to other programs. The extra 50% bonus points doesn’t hurt either.
Getting to Select Executive status means spending $10,000 (ignoring the 100 point minimum per trip) or taking 40 rides on Acela. Not cheap at all but for regular commuters or folks with a decent Amtrak budget this is a pretty good deal. And the costs to add the few extra features don’t seem all that significant. Seems like a win all around.
It has been more than 15 years since passenger rail traffic rolled through Las Vegas. If the Las Vegas Railway Express company is successful that drought will end in late 2013 as they introduce a luxury train service from Fullerton, California to Sin City. The company expects that the ride will take about 5 hours and hopes to price tickets in the $99 range each way. The service will operate with specially configured rail cars featuring bars, big screen TVs and recliner seats. Unlike the other proposed train service linking the two cities the "X Train" will run at regular speeds, avoiding the need to build new tracks which proposed high speed service would require. The service will run partially on Amtrak rail lines and partially on rails operated by Union Pacific. The 576-seat train will be crewed by Amtrak employees but the rest of the operation will be privately maintained and funded.
Hopefully this service is more successful than the short-lived "Aces" operation between Atlantic City and New York City. That service was pretty awful and didn’t last long. The part where this service is actually going to terminate 30-45 minutes south east of LA proper in Fullerton certainly isn’t a good start to the situation.
What happens when you show up in Europe on a three night trip and you have no idea what you want to do? This is probably a question few ever consider, much less actually face in real life. At the end of October, however, I found myself dealing with precisely that scenario. I was sitting in the arrivals lobby of Geneva’s airport having just stepped off the plane in from Washington Dulles and I had absolutely nothing planned other than a flight home three days hence. What could possibly go wrong??
I needed a plan and that meant I needed somewhere to sit and figure out a plan. Also, having just arrived on a redeye from the east coast I needed a shower and somewhere I could change into clean clothes before setting out on my adventures. Fortunately the United Airlines reps at the Geneva airport were well informed of the arrivals room service that the company offers (though the SwissPort contract agents were not). I quickly found myself on a shuttle bus headed to the Movenpick hotel where I was given a room for a few hours; plenty of time to freshen up and put together my itinerary.
I had considered heading south, across the border into France. I could visit Chamonix and see Mont Blanc. Maybe even visit the spas at Evian. That was slightly tempting, mostly because I knew it would be a bit easier on the budget to be in France spending Euros than in Switzerland on the Swiss Franc. But I’m also intrigued by UNESCO World Heritage Sites and it occurred to me that I had not yet checked to see if there were any in the area. A quick visit to my UNESCO visits tracker and I discovered that there were several in Switzerland, including two quite easily accessible on the train from Geneva. My plan was starting to form up.
Before I could commit to visiting Berne and Lausanne I had to make sure that the other logistics would work. I would need somewhere to sleep and to be able to get between the cities reasonably quickly and affordably.
First I checked hotel prices. Hotels.com was showing rooms in Berne and Lausanne to be 15-20% cheaper than staying in Geneva and not all that much more expensive than heading into France. Add in the 15% return between the Welcome Rewards program and my online booking portal and it was clear getting out of Geneva was a good idea. Plus, the two cities I chose weren’t bad places to stay, at least from the perspective of the hotel prices. So one of the factors was settled.
Transit between the cities was incredibly easy. The Swiss rail system is terribly efficient and their website easy to navigate. It supports English, German and French without too much trouble; I mostly chose English but the French was fun every now and then. The bad news on the Swiss rail system is that, like most things in Switzerland, it isn’t particularly cheap. That said, after I stopped to think about the situation I wasn’t all that upset by the prices. At first blush it seemed a bit crazy to pay $50+ to ride the 160 kilometers from Geneva to Berne. But Amtrak charges a similar rate for a walk-up ticket on the New York – Philadelphia route which is about the same distance. And the Swiss version of train travel is quite a bit more pleasant and reliable than the Amtrak version. The sticker shock wore off and things started to come together. Looks like I’ve got a plan:
- Day 1: Train from Geneva to Berne. Explore.
- Day 2: Train from Berne to Lausanne. Explore.
- Day 3: Train from Lausanne to Geneva. Explore.
It might not seem like much of a plan but by my standards it was pretty detailed. Having settled that I headed back to the airport on the hotel shuttle and directly to the train station part of the building. I managed to get a ticket on the next departure to Berne and even had time to stop at the grocery in the terminal to pick up a few snacks to make a picnic for the ride.
Let the fun begin!
I just completed a rather interesting survey sent to me by Amtrak‘s Guest Rewards program. I started in on it because they promised me 250 points to and the conference call I was dialed in to wasn’t particularly exciting. As I started clicking through the survey it became clear to me that the survey was quite a bit more interesting than the conference call.
The focus was on travel to Europe. Things like how often I visit (very!) and if I visit more than one city on an average trip (definitely) and if I was familiar with any of the train services offered in Europe. There were actually a bunch I don’t recognize so I’ve started building a list for future adventures. But after getting through the background the topic focused quickly on the EuroStar service between London, Brussels and Paris.
EuroStar has their own eponymous Frequent Traveller program but it is only available to travellers with a mailing address in Europe. It seems that Amtrak and EuroStar might be chatting about offering up some sort of reciprocity between their programs. Here are a few of the questions from the survey:
- Amtrak is considering offering Amtrak Guest Rewards points to members who take future trips on Eurostar. If you were able to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points from trips on Eurostar, would you consider this offer to be…?
- Now, if you were able to redeem your Amtrak Guest Rewards points toward travel on Eurostar, would you consider this to be…?
- If you were able to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points from trips on Eurostar, how likely would you be to travel on Eurostar between London and Paris (either direction)? Would you say you would be…?
Needless to say, I responded quite positively on these and the other, similar questions posed. No idea if it will be a good value or not, but the opportunity to expand the earning and redemption options is something I pretty much always enjoy. Here’s hoping it comes to pass.
Amtrak has announced their fall promotion, offering double Amtrak Guest Rewards points on ALL train travel.
The promotion covers travel between September 5 and November 16, 2012 and registration is required. The only slightly limiting bit in the fine print is that customers are limited to only two points-earning one-way tickets daily. Other than that this one is wide open. Very nice, indeed.
Airlines have been making the move towards a paperless ticketing experience for several years. Amtrak has caught up and surpassed the airlines this week with the announcement that electronic ticketing is now available throughout their train network. Not only does this mean that nearly all trips can be issued as electronic tickets, something that airlines have been doing for some time now, but boarding passes can now also be managed digitally rather than with paper. Passengers using the Amtrak iPhone app or any device capable of reading PDF files will be able to present the barcode from the reservation to conductors on board rather than depending on a printed ticket or boarding pass.
Of course, there are still a few exceptions to the "all" designator on the eligibility. Most significant is that tickets booked through travel agencies or corporate travel offices will not be eligible. Multi-ride tickets are also ineligible and trips involving bus service connections outside of California are ineligible. This certainly excludes some passengers but the vast majority will now have increased flexibility and functionality with their bookings.
The new ticketing scheme allows passengers to change an itinerary without reissuing their ticket. It also allows for multiple passengers to travel on a single ticket; this will ease family trips among other things. Perhaps most significant, however, is that the boarding pass no longer will hold any value. This is a huge benefit for both passengers and the company alike.
Passengers who lose a printed boarding pass can now simply print another one, just like with the airlines. No longer will losing the piece of paper be a costly event. The eTickets also cover an entire journey with a single pass, again easing the travel process for customers.
These changes represent tremendous improvements for Amtrak passengers across the country.
Amtrak has launched a 3-day sale for travel between New York City and either Baltimore or Washington, DC. The deal has one-way fares at $36 or $40, depending on the southern destination. Tickets must be purchased by July 26 and it is valid for travel from September 11 – October 4, 2012.
I haven’t seen fares this cheap in a long time. Definitely a deal!