Friday, January 30, 2009

Another AirTran Debacle

AirTran is an airline that I really want to like. They're a low-cost carrier, but they've got bigger ambitions:
  • They're partnered with Frontier, essentially giving their route map twice as many destinations.
  • Their planes have Business Class seating.
  • AirTran's A+ Reward program offers an Elite status benefit that offers perks like complimentary upgrades typically only found on legacy carriers.
In other words, there's a lot there that should be impressive. And I'm an A+ Elite member, so I theoretically get the best treatment one can get from the airline. Yet whenever I have flown AirTran--here's one example, and here's another--and I've been disappointed:
  • Check-in lines are long.
  • Elite check-in lines are closed or not staffed.
  • Flights are late.
  • Business Class is filled with young children who spend the flight whining.
The latest comic scenario from AirTran continues this fine spirit of setting lofty goals but failing to achieve them. AirTran Flight 373 was supposed to take three hours to get from Columbus, Ohio to Orlando, Florida. There was ice on the plane, so it couldn't fly.

There are two good choices here: replace the plane, or cancel the flight. AirTran did neither. Instead, it delayed the flight for an astonishing nine hours, turning a three-hour trip into twelve.

And would you believe that when the plane did finally arrive, some of the passengers' luggage wasn't on board?

AirTran apologized, and all 84 passengers on the flight were offered round-trip tickets to destinations of their choice. But is that enough? Round-trip tickets make poor compensation when it's likely that the next flight will be no better.

I want to like AirTran. But the truth is, as an airline, AirTran consistently fails to achieve the level of service that it claims to offer. When is that going to change?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Amtrak Review: The Coast Starlight

There's little debate: the Coast Starlight is the best route that Amtrak offers. Spanning more than 1100 miles from Los Angeles to Seattle, the Coast Starlight offers its passengers a delightful range of scenery, from
crashing waves and rolling hills to snowy mountains and thick forests. Along the way, the train makes major station stops in Sacramento, Oakland, and Portland as well as dozens of other cities and towns that span the West Coast.

The Coast Starlight is a long-haul Amtrak line and offers a full range of standard amenities, including a Sightseer Lounge with Cafe, full Dining Car, and baggage service. Superliner Coach seats are quite comfortable--comparable to what one would find in First Class on most international flights before the advent of the lie-flat seat--and the large windows in the Coaches as well as in the Lounge give you ample opportunity to enjoy the landscape as it passes by. You'll also find a mini-arcade on the lower level of one of the Coach cars; this is the only Amtrak route to offer one.

With so much to be said for Coach, you might be surprised to learn that the Coast Starlight is also the route on which you probably benefit the most from choosing to upgrade to First Class, or what Amtrak calls "sleeper accommodations." There are a variety of sleeper options from which to choose, but the most affordable is the Superliner Roomette; on the Coast Starlight, these cost around $100 (per room, not per person) above Coach fare. (True Bedrooms are also available but cost much more, often around $400.)

Roomettes tend to be a good value on any Amtrak long-haul train; in addition to showers, fresh linens, and the comfort of a true lay-flat bed, your meals as a First Class passenger are included at no cost, which saves you $10-15 per meal per person. The Coast Starlight is a particularly great route on which to upgrade, though, because you also get something extra-special: the Pacific Parlour Car.

The Parlour Car is a unique treat. On one level, it's not so different from the Sightseer Lounge: there are places to sit, tables, windows, and a nearby cafe attendant. But the chairs are plush and more comfy, and the cafe offers complimentary coffee as well as reasonably priced cocktails and specialty coffee drinks. In the afternoons, there are wine-and-cheese tastings for $5--the wines are forgettable, but the cheeses are often impressive--and the lower level is a movie theater.

You'll also find tables in the Parlour Car, and you can choose to eat any or all of your meals there as an alternative to the main Dining Car. The menu is limited but specialized--nothing on the Parlour Car menu is available in the Dining Car, or vice versa--and the service is less rushed and better suited to couples.

Oh, and did I mention? The Pacific Parlour Car is exclusively for passengers traveling First Class.

All tolled, a trip from Los Angeles to Seattle (or the other way around) takes two days, leaving on the morning of the first day and arriving at around 9:00 p.m. on the second. You'll spend one night and enjoy five meals aboard this Amtrak flagship route, and tickets can be as little as $100 per person for one-way Coach. Add the Roomette and you're looking at less than $300 for two people--a small price to pay when you're also enjoying scenery and service like this.

America has a long way to go before its rail system will be the equal of those found in Western Europe, Japan, and Canada. We all know that. On the Coast Starlight, though, you'll experience the very best that Amtrak has to offer. It's a trip worth taking.

Amtrak Review: The Pacific Surfliner

Amtrak California's Pacific Surfliner route runs from San Diego to San Luis Obispo and serves as a major link between San Diego's Santa Fe Depot and Union Station in Los Angeles. Surfliner trains are made up of
double-decker cars similar in size to the Superliners found on Amtrak's long-haul routes but configured almost exclusively as coaches.

The cost of a basic ticket starts at around $30, reflecting the subsidies inherent in the Amtrak California partnership. For about $15 more than the Coach fare, though, passengers can upgrade to Pacific Business Class, and I recommend it; the perks of the Business-class car include roomier seats with tables reminiscent of the East Coast's Acela Business Class, power outlets for every seat, and self-serve coffee and snacks on both levels. For passengers in Coach, there is also Cafe Car on the train that sells snacks and beverages.

In my opinion, the Pacific Surfliner is an outstanding train. The extremely low cost of the trip combined with the comfort and convenience of being able to read or work en route without worrying about traffic makes this the way to get to Los Angeles. If you're planning to travel during peak times, though, be aware that the standard Coach seats are unreserved, which means you are not necessarily guaranteed a seat. (Pacific Business Class tickets do guarantee seating.)

Traveling from San Diego to Los Angeles takes about two and a half hours on the Pacific Surfliner, with service offered between those two stations at most times throughout the day. The entire route from San Diego to San Luis Obispo takes much longer--a total of around eight and a half hours--because of the many stops along the way and is offered only once per day without requiring a transfer to a connector bus or another Amtrak route.

For the non-commuter, probably the best use of the Pacific Surfliner is as a means to reach Los Angeles Union Station, the southern endpoint for Amtrak's famed Coast Starlight route. Spontaneous Tourists will appreciate the opportunities afforded them by flying into what may be cheaper airports in Orange County or San Diego and reaching Los Angeles by rail rather than flying directly to LAX--not always a savings, but always worth considering.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Amtrak cancels some train service for Inauguration Weekend

I'm getting married next weekend. My fiancee and I live in D.C., but we chose Philadelphia--midway between our home and her parents' home in New York, and adjacent to my family in Delaware--in part to help everyone avoid the craziness of Inauguration Weekend.

Imagine our surprise when we learned that President-elect Obama is kicking off his inauguration travels on Saturday, January 17 from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia!

Don't get me wrong: I'm a big supporter of Amtrak, and I think that it's great that Obama and his Vice President-elect--my home state's own Joe Biden!--are putting the spotlight on our nation's rail infrastructure. But there's a problem.

For security reasons, Amtrak is cancelling some train service next weekend. Among those trains cancelled is the one that my parents and sister's family were scheduled to take to Philadelphia from Wilmington. That means they'll arrive later than expected, and since my niece is our Flower Girl, it throws everything into a flux.

Things will probably work out. Amtrak did rebook them on a later train that still arrives about an hour and a half before the wedding. But for anyone who might have time-sensitive plans that involve East Coast rail travel next weekend, be forewarned: your plans may be subject to change.

New rules for the Visa Waiver program

Dozens of countries participate in the U.S. Visa Waiver program. Under that program, someone coming from a participating country--say, the United Kingdom--does not need a visa to come to America.

That program has been in place for years, but effective today, there's a new twist: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requires anyone planning to travel under the Visa Waiver program to submit an electronic application to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) no fewer than 72 hours before the trip.

This is a huge change. Up until today, anyone traveling under the Visa Waiver program could fill out a green I-94 form while on his or her flight to the U.S. No more; show up today without a pre-approved ESTA authorization, and you'll be sent back.

The good news? Most ESTA authorizations are granted in about four seconds.

The bad news? If yours is rejected, it can take up to six weeks to get an appointment at a U.S. embassy to obtain a formal visa.

The really bad news? ESTA requirements apply even to those who are traveling to America only incidentally in transit to another country. Since so many flights bound for Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean include U.S. connections, this latest change is bound to affect quite a few people.