Sunday, October 31, 2010

Experience Amtrak's Great Dome

Many years ago, when traveling by rail was a luxurious experience, America built the finest railroad cars in the world.  Those days are over, but many of the old cars still exist, having been handed over to Amtrak when it began operations in 1971. 

Among these amazing old rail cars is Car 10031, the Great Dome. With 90 seats, the Great Dome began its life as the Ocean View and was one of just six cars whose signature domed glass ceilings spanned their entire 85-foot length.  Today, it's the only such car left in Amtrak's inventory.

Car 10031, the Great Dome
For several years, Amtrak has brought the Great Dome into service on its Adirondack route linking New York City and Montreal.  This year, Amtrak is offering passengers a very limited chance to experience this vintage railroad car another way, as part of its Cardinal route between Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The Great Dome is being included on just four trips, one of which unfortunately was today (Train 50 from Chicago to Washington).  The other three are:
  • Nov 5, Train 51, WAS-CHI
  • Nov 6, Train 50, CHI-WAS
  • Nov 12, Train 51, WAS CHI
Amtrak's Cardinal route is featuring the Great Dome on just a few trips between Chicago and Washington, D.C.
To take advantage of this rare opportunity, passengers don't need to get a ticket for the dome itself.  Any passenger riding on the train, whether in Coach or in Sleeper First Class, may sit in the Great Dome on a first-come, first-serve basis.

As I'm writing this, ticket prices start at just $83.  Unfortunately, having found out about this slightly too late, I can't make any of the dates.  If you can and do, though, send pictures!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Continental-Amtrak Partnership

I'd like to take a moment to reveal to all of you a special opportunity -- one of those truly rare moments in time where great things are possible

Here it is: Continental OnePass members can transfer miles into Amtrak's Guest Rewards program on a 1 mile = 1 point basis.  This is phenomenal.

Why?  Let me explain.

Continental, like all legacy carriers, awards miles on the basis of straight-line distance flown.  OnePass also awards bonus miles:
  • To elite flyers (25% for Silver level, 100% for Gold and Platinum);
  • For booking with a Continental credit card (25%, plus 2 miles for every dollar spent);
  • For booking online (500 miles);
  • For shopping online with partners (up to 8 points per dollar spent); and
  • For participating in periodic promotions for buying or doing various things.
Amtrak, on the other hand, has adopted a model like Virgin America: passengers earn one Guest Rewards point for each dollar spent.

Because of this utterly inequitable relationship, a slight expenditure on airfare -- say, $300 for a round-trip ticket to Washington D.C. to San Francisco -- can with all bonuses tallied yield as many as 12,350 miles.
Transfer those miles, for free, into Amtrak, and you've instantly matched the earnings one would see from more than $4000 spent on train travel even if Amtrak is running a triple-point bonus promotion. 

Of course, the opposite is true as well: Guest Rewards members who have attained Select or Select Plus elite status can transfer their Guest Rewards points into OnePass at a 1:1 ratio. 

But why bother?  The value of those points in airline terms is negligible; even the cheapest Continental award fare is going to cost you 15,000 miles.

On the other hand, here's a brief (and incomplete) list of some things for which our hypothetical Continental OnePass member could redeem his or her 12,350 shiny new Guest Rewards points:
  • Four one-way Coach tickets on the Northeast Regional (3000 each)
  • One one-way First Class ticket on the Acela (10,500)
  • One three-zone Coach ticket, which covers a coast-to-coast three-day trip (10,500)
  • One $100 gift card with Hyatt, Hertz, AMC Cinemas, Barnes & Noble, or other top chains (10,000)
  • Five one-class Amtrak upgrade coupons (10,000)
And that's off of a single $300 cross-country round-trip airfare.  If you travel internationally, that 15,000-mile flight to Singapore could be worth more than 45,000 Guest Rewards points for a cost of about $1200.

As I write this, I don't know if the unique partnership that Continental Airlines forged with Amtrak will survive the Continental-United merger.  I hope that it does, because I'm a fan of passenger rail.

But in case it doesn't, I've just transferred 60,000 miles from OnePass to Guest Rewards.  That's enough for ten round-trip tickets in Coach from D.C. to New York, so visiting my in-laws won't cost anything.  *grins*

Monday, October 18, 2010

On the Horizon: Skycouch

Air New Zealand has an interesting new idea: Skycouch seating, where passengers can book a row of three seats that converts to a sofa bed-like space where they can lay flat.  The seating is designed for couples or small families. 
Skycouch Seating

I think that this is a great idea.

Lie-flat beds in First and Business Class cabins are great, I'm sure1, but most people are never going to be able to afford those seats.

This won't be free, of course, and I doubt it will be cheap.  But it will be cheaper, and people are often willing to pay somewhat more for improved comfort over the course of a 15+ hour flight like the one from Auckland to Los Angeles.

1 While I've had premium-class seats on numerous airlines over the years, I haven't had the opportunity to try out one of the recent generation of lie-flat beds.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Travel Registration

If you'll be traveling abroad, you may want to register your travels with the State Department at  This automated registration makes sure that the U.S. government has the ability to know that you are in-country should extraordinary circumstances require evacuation of American citizens.

It's a really nice idea.  Unfortunately, the site is slow, clunky, and entirely too cumbersome for me to bother with it.  I'm sure that I'll wish otherwise if I'm caught in a sudden rebel uprising.  In the meantime, if you really, really like typing out the details of your entire trip, you'll be glad to know that the State Department has anticipated your desires and designed a site just for you.

Visas: An introduction.

It comes as a surprise to many Americans that we need visas to travel to some countries.  At least half of the people who are surprised are simply unaware that visas even exist; usually, these are folks who either don't have passports (a huge number of Americans) or who got them only for a trip to Europe or, more recently, Canada.

But among those who do understand the concept of a visa, a relatively large number of Americans whose travels haven't taken them to visa-requiring countries assume that American travelers are exempt from visas.  Their logic is that since we come from the most advanced nation on Earth, it'd be extremely unlikely that we'd be going somewhere to try and slip onto the social welfare roster or take away a job from the local populace.

It's not bad logic on the surface, because Americans tend to view control over immigration as a way to keep people off of social services.  But it's wrong.

Americans need visas to visit a range of countries, including a few developed nations like Australia but also the larger developing countries that our media regularly cites as industrial powerhouses -- Brazil, Russia, China[1], and India -- and an array of smaller developing nations.

For the most part, it's not that these countries worry about Americans slipping into their countries unnoticed and lining up for free food or subsidized housing.  Actually, it's precisely that Americans have money.  So, if they want to visit, why limit the take to whatever sales taxes are collected on their purchases?  It's easy to collect additional money by requiring a visa.

There's also a degree of tit-for-tat to the process.  Americans pay more for visas in Brazil, for instance, than do the citizens of many other countries, because the Brazilian government decided to charge American visitors the same price of a visa that the American government charges Brazilians.  Makes sense, right?

You can look up the visa requirements for any country based on the passport on which you travel using sites like VisaHQ.  Americans are often better served by the Department of State's travel pages, though, because in addition to the visa requirements that Americans in particular have for each country, these pages also include travel advisories and medical information.

In most cases, when a visa is required, it means filling out paperwork that includes when and why you intend to visit, providing two of those passport-sized photos, and paying the fee.  Some countries may require interviews at their consulates or other security measures.  Visas of this sort are usually pasted into one's passport.

There are also countries that provide visas either electronically (as is the case with Australia) or upon arrival (such as Bahrain).   These visas are included in the entry stamp (which is really unto itself a visa, demonstrating permission granted by the border officer for the traveler to enter).

In a few rare cases, visas may need to be processed outside of the United States; for instance, Americans are not forbidden by the U.S. government to visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, but there isn't a North Korean embassy in the U.S.  Tours of North Korea are tightly organized, though, so in these instances, the process of getting visas will almost certainly be handled by the tour provider. 

Whenever you travel, it's absolutely essential that you know whether you'll need a visa and what kind of visa you need.  For most people, the basic tourist visa is sufficient and appropriate.  Anyone planning to have a job of any kind while in a country will need a work visa.  Students generally have their own special visas, and some countries regulate the presence missionaries through visas issued solely for religious work.

You should photocopy any visa that is pasted into a passport in advance of travel.  Leave one copy left at home in case there are problems and another carried on you while you're in country.  This is especially critical in countries that require an exit visa, without which you will not be allowed to cross the border to go home. 

One piece of good news for American travelers: we usually have access to multiple-entry visas, which are good for access for an extended period of time that may range as high as five or ten years from the date of issuance. 

There's often a minimal price difference between a single and a multiple-entry visa, so save yourself the hassle and get the longest-duration visa you're allowed to obtain.  You never know when you might have the chance to go back!

[1] Travelers to the Chinese mainland require entry visas.  Hong Kong and Macau are Special Administrative Regions (SARs) that at this time do not require visas for American travelers.  Travel to Tibet requires special permission beyond an entry visa.

Friday, October 1, 2010

United marks merger with a new benefit

United and Continental closed their merger today.  Effective immediately, the shares of both companies have been consolidated (CAL 1.05:1 with UAUA) and are trading as United-Continental Holdings (NYSE:UAL). 

 The return of the UAL symbol, which was lost during United's most recent bankruptcy, is a sign that Continental's strength is both a hand up and way forward for United, whose employees have long wanted to do a better job than their lackluster, clueless management team would tolerate.  (Most of those folks, like the UAUA symbol, are now out the window.)

Most of the two former partners' operations will remain separate for some time.  Consolidating airlines is, after all, a huge undertaking.  But for members of the United and Continental airport lounges, there's one benefit that takes effect right away and will matter to both groups:

Effective immediately, the United Red Carpet Club offers a selection of complimentary alcoholic beverages.

Other benefits, including integrated elite upgrades and access to one another's premium economy seats (i.e. Economy Plus on United), will come later in October.  The switch to complimentary alcoholic beverages in the Red Carpet Club, though, is a "tone-setter" for the whole merger.  Presidents Club members had long enjoyed free drinks, which United's club charged for bar service.  Post-merger, things might have gone either way.  But "the new United," under the leadership of former Continental CEO Jeff Smisek, has chosen the right path, putting the customer first the way that Continental has done for years.

These days, mergers mean cuts.  Wall Street expect them, and employees and customer alike fear them.  The days of building a company so that it was generate consistently strong profits from satisfied customers are over.  It's all about driving up share prices and selling off the assets for a high return before throwing the workforce out on the street -- what did those folks do, anyway?  They sure weren't important executives! -- and finding a new target for the same treatment.

But it doesn't have to be that way, and while we'll have to wait and see what the months ahead hold for the world's new largest airline, today's close of the much-awaited Continental-United merger to create "the new United" is off to a good start.