Monday, October 1, 2012

Amtrak in the Twenty-First Century

At long last, Amtrak is entering the twenty-first century!  Here are some of the changes that have occurred over the course of the last six months:
  • Electronic ticketing and mobile boarding passes are now available for use on all rail routes and most Thruway bus routes.

  • A new refund-and-exchange policy went into effect in August, which allows passengers canceling reservations to receive electronic vouchers or payment credits as follows:

    • Sleeper Travel:  If canceled 15 or more days before scheduled departure, refund fee applies. If canceled 14 days or fewer before scheduled departure, but before the scheduled departure, ticket is not refundable but the value may be applied within one year toward future travel. If not canceled before scheduled departure (“no show”), entire amount is forfeited.

    • Acela Express First Class and non-Acela Business Class:  If canceled before scheduled departure, full refund without refund fee. If not canceled before departure (“no show”), ticket is refundable with a refund fee.

    • Reserved Coach and Acela Express Business Class:  If canceled more than 24 hours before scheduled departure, the ticket is fully refundable. If canceled within 24 hours of departure or not canceled a refund fee applies.

    • Unreserved Coach:  Refund fee applies at all times.

    • Advance Booking/Purchase Fare:  Refundability is based on the rules applying to the particular fare. Some advance booking/purchase fares are not refundable

      (When more than one type of travel is in a trip, the refund policy is applied to the entire trip based on the primary travel type in the trip which is determined in the order shown above.)

  • Free wireless Internet access (Wi-Fi) is now available on many routes in the Northeast Corridor, along the West Coast, and many Amtrak stations.

In addition to these service improvements, Amtrak has been testing Acela Express trains at speeds of up to 165 mph along sections of Northeast Corridor track.  These tests are intended to find the sustainable limits of the existing infrastructure.  In the longer term, there are plans -- some might call them "dreams" in their present form, but I digress -- of an infrastructure that could handle speeds of up to 220 mph.  At that speed, taking into account all of the commuting and boarding times, it becomes consistently faster to take the train between New York and D.C. or even Boston than to fly.

There is still talk within Republican circles of privatizing the rail system (though one should always say "re-privatizing," in memory that Amtrak exists precisely because the private passenger rail network was insolvent by 1970).  Increasingly, however, people are coming to recognize the extent to which commuters depend on rail and viewing its development in economic rather than political terms.

With Amtrak, the future is always uncertain.  For the moment, however, rail in the United States appears to be... well, on track.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Greyhound: A Twenty-First Century Contender

Back in July 2009, I wrote about how the new Greyhound buses were a far cry from the cramped accommodations found on America's signature bus line for time immemorial. Patterned after the design used by BoltBus, these new buses feature roomy seats, power outlets, cup holders, and yes, free WiFi.

This afternoon (as in right now), I'm making my first trip on one of these buses, from New York City's Port Authority to Wilmington, Delaware.  I'm pleased to report back that it's a pleasant experience.

Greyhound boarding remains first-come, first-serve, with none of the priority-code seating that BoltBus uses. In practice, that meant arriving an hour in advance to have a middling spot in line. But here's the thing: where BoltBus serves half a dozen major destinations, you can take one of these next-generation Greyhound buses to places like Dover, Delaware and Salisbury, Maryland, as well as on longer-distance treks to as far away as Atlanta.

There's also price to consider, and the sharpest distinction comes when considering Greyhound as an alternative to Amtrak. Like BoltBus, Greyhound now has fares that start at one dollar. When I bought my Greyhound ticket for today's trip, I paid $20; Amtrak wanted $168.

WiFi and cup-holders won't make you forget that you're on a bus. But this really is a different way to travel by bus, and if you want to get from place to place for a low price without having to sacrifice too much, Greyhound is a twenty-first century contender.

Happy travels.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Boston ClubAcela

I was in Boston today, attending the Enterprise 2.0 Expo in Back Bay. There's an Amtrak station there, but I opted to wander down to South Station for two reasons: one, I had time; and two, I figured I'd fill up my Thermos with coffee at the ClubAcela.

Amtrak has four ClubAcela locations, one each in Boston (at South Station), New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. I had been to the other three several times. Despite a few trips to Boston, though, I hadn't been to the ClubAcela here.

When I arrived at 8:40 p.m., I was greeted by two guys cleaning the carpet. The attendant was mystified by my presenting him with a Continental Presidents Plus membership card; apparently, news that Amtrak has reciprocity with Continental for club access hasn't made its way to Boston even after being posted on the Amtrak Web site for more than a year.

Despite being utterly unclear as to the value of my membership card, he shrugged and pleasantly told me that I was welcome to wait for my train up here. I think anyone might have done the same.

Alas, he told me, he had already dumped the coffee--odd, since the stated hours go until 9:30 p.m. He did ask if I was hungry; evidently, my lack of demonstrable eligibility (in his mind) didn't preclude me from enjoying whatever he could offer. I had just had some pizza, so I politely refused and wandered a bit.

The ClubAcela in South Station is quite impressive on its merit, larger than the D.C. or New York locations and with some of the elegance of the Phildelphia club. It's elevated above the main concourse, and there are expansive views from large windows that overlook the tracks and the outside street. Furniture is comfy if utilitarian, and they have a pair fo thin-client workstations for Web access.

I didn't stay in the ClubAcela long, on account of the shampoo scent and damp floors. Maybe I'll come back again. It seems worth another try.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Have a baby and renting a car? Bring your own car seat!

Gwen and I recently took Tara with us on a trip to Orlando. 

Being less than a year old, Tara flies free on one of our laps, and I'd found a good cash fare for myself and picked up Gwen's ticket with miles.  I'd also snagged an excellent rate on a rental car, and we'd settled on the Embassy Suites for our lodging, avoiding the pesky "resort fees" so common in Orlando while getting cooked-to-order breakfasts, complimentary cocktails each evening, and free parking.

Another cost that we avoided: $39 to rent a car seat from the rental car company.

Parents often rent car seats because they figure that it will be less of a hassle than bringing them.  And that can be true: we had to coordinate how I could drop Gwen off at the curb with Tara and park the car without Gwen having so much bulk that she couldn't get the car seat checked in.  We also had to get the car seat in and out of the car, which I've learned can be a hassle.

But we did it, and it really wasn't that hard.  Here are some things to consider:
  • Most of the legacy carriers -- we flew United-Continental, as always -- still have curbside luggage checking available.  There may be a small per-pag fee and it's customary to tip a few dollars per bag, but if you have one piece of rolling luggage (as we almost always do) and then a car seat, it's much more convenient to check these curbside then to try and navigate crowded terminals.

  • Although baggage fees have become the norm for most airlines, a carseat can be checked for free because it is safety equipment, like a wheelchair.

  • Even if your car at home doesn't have the modern LATCH system (and ours does not), any rental car in the United States almost certainly will.  LATCH makes it reasonably easy to attach a car seat, and particularly if you don't use it at home, you won't have to resize any of the non-LATCH connections to install the seat in your rental car.
Orlando was Tara's fifth destination by plane -- joining Anchorage, Orange County, Atlanta, and Reno.  Traveling with a baby has plenty of quirks, but it's not impossible.  With planning and patience, it doesn't even need to be difficult, and since children under two years of age travel domestically for free (and internationally for very little), it's not expensive. 

Bring your own car seat, and having your little one(s) with you on a trip can turn out to be no more costly than having them at home.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lower fuel prices? For how long?

Just two weeks ago, I wrote about the high price of oil and predicted that fuel was going to be pricey for as long as we would care to imagine. Here it is, fifteen days later, and oil has dropped from $114 per barrel to barely $96.

Does that mean that I was wrong? Yes... obviously. ;-)

But I don't think that I'm going to be wrong for long. While this latest speculator bubble was popped in part by a rising dollar (which makes it more expensive to short dollars and buy oil priced in dollars, a common way for financial wizards to manufacture money) and in part by higher margin standards (which made those wizards put up more cash to cover their bets), the idea that the world economy will do as badly as is suddenly forecast today is as silly as the idea that it was going to do as magnificently well as it was suddenly forecast a month ago.

Look, jet fuel is made from oil, and oil is controlled by governments that are almost universally oppressive. Long-term stability in oil-producing countries has never been likely and is even less so now that the so-called "Arab Spring" is occurring. Instability doesn't actually cause shortages these days, because we never get that far, but speculators do place bets on assumed future shortages and drive up the prices as if the oil is already running out. It's a game, and we're the losers.

Today is a good day. Oil is lower. Gasoline and jet fuel prices are dropping. Enjoy it while it lasts, because it never does.

Smartphone Boarding

Last week, on a trip to Vegas, I had my first opportunity to use a boarding pass sent to and displayed on my Droid 2 Global. Having been underwhelmed by the idea of printing my own boarding pass at home, I expected to be equally disenchanted with this new technological solution.

Wow. I was wrong; electronic boarding passes are awesome!

For one thing, you can't lose an electronic boarding pass (unless you lose your phone, which is reasonably difficult for the average traveler). You can bring it up and see the details at any time.

Then there's the convenience of not having to wave your boarding pass as you go through security screening. Once you've been checked, it goes in the bin, and that's it.

Maybe the best part, though, is that you can check in while on the road, get your boarding pass wirelessly, and head straight to the gate if you don't have a carry-on (which, as my Vegas trip was a single-day affair, I did not). That's really convenient, especially if you're running late (which, as my flight left at 6:00 a.m., I was).

I'm sold on electronic boarding passes. This is the future.

Red Carpet Club versus Presidents Club: Closer, still not equal,

I'm heading out to Rome in about two hours, passing the time in the Red Carpet Club at Washington-Dulles International Airport. Back when I used to fly United all of the time, I was here... well, pretty much all of the time.

I haven't been around nearly as much since moving to Continental, as I fly out of Washington-Reagan instead. Since I was last here, though, a few changes have come about in light of the United-Continental merger.

First, Wi-Fi is now free to Presidents Club members. It's always been free for RCC members, but for a while, United wasn't giving daypass cards to PC members. Since United uses T-Mobile for its Wi-Fi, anyone without a card has to buy a daypass for $7.99. Not cool.

Getting the cards for free is cool, but it's still a hassle. Why not just make Wi-Fi open use for anyone in the Club? In a Presidents Club, there's no card or silly login prompt. A user just selects the Continental network, and poof! Online. I like that model better.

Drinks are free too, sort of. Continental has had complimentary drinks in its Clubs for as long as I've been flying with them. They did recently add a "premium" wine selection, but that was a step up from what used to be available (and the house wines are still available). Spirits and beers are all free in the Presidents Club.

United, on the other hand, used to charge $5 in the Red Carpet Club for any alcoholic beverage: wine, beer, or liquor, it didn't matter. Post-merger, they adopted a stance similar to their new partner. Members and guests can get beer, wine, or liquor for free -- but it's a limited selection. Thus, when I first ordered a Bacardi and Diet here, I was cautioned that it would be $7.50; I opted instead for the "house" rum, which was free.

The drink is fine. I mean, rum mixed with soda only has so much nuance. But she forgot my lime, and she didn't put down a napkin. Does that matter? Only if you compare the two clubs, and that's my point.

The Red Carpet Club has improved. Post-merger, it's closer to its Continental counterpart. But they're still not equal.