20 November 2013

Hotels - TrustYou.com

If you are like many other travelers, you have looked at consumer-written hotel reviews when you were planning a trip in order to get a sense of where you wanted to stay.

The best known of the consumer review sites is TripAdvisor, but Google, Hotels.com, Expedia, Facebook, Yelp, and many others can be sources of guest reviews.

The reviews you read can run the gamut from abysmal to stratospherically good, but the sheer volume of information can overwhelm a reader.

TrustYou aggregates and crunches reviews from multiple sources, and then offers a brief, mostly numbers-driven summary.

TrustYou presents an overall score (the "TrustScore") up to 100, assigns a grade (Excellent, Very Good, Good, Mediocre, Bad) and then supplies percentages (good or bad) for specific features such as location, rooms, service, food, bar, internet, etc. under a "Tops & Flops" heading.

When you want detailed reviews about a specific hotel property then you'll need to read the individual consumer reviews (or ask other travelers or a travel agent), but if you are looking for a sense of a hotel's overall score on the most important features, then give TrustYou a look.

To get a sense of the difference between TrustYou and TripAdvisor, take a look at the TripAdvisor review and the TrustYou "TrustScore" for the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

TrustYou makes money by providing reputation management tools to hotels.

05 March 2013

Travel - 10 hours, 3 buses, 1 train

As a rule I don't go out of my way to ride a bus.  Nothing against them, but they just don't move me in quite the same way that trains do.

With that said, I was intrigued when I read not long ago that Megabus had come back to California.  They dipped their toe in the water here in 2007-2008 and then withdrew, but reentered the market in late 2012.  The British company has been successful on the East Coast and elsewhere in the U.S. so I wanted to see how it worked from a passenger's perspective as well as compare it with Amtrak's Capitol Corridor service which I've used many times.

The closest route to where I live in Chico is the one between Sacramento and San Francisco.  Flipping back and forth between Megabus schedules and Amtrak schedules I put together an itinerary that, if everything worked as planned, would get me from Chico to San Francisco and back, in about 10 hours.  (And qualify me for being institutionalized, some people may think.)

Guess what?  The tight schedule I planned worked well.  I'll summarize the journey below, and if you want more details please continue reading past the summary.

Bus - Amtrak 3714 - Chico to Sacramento
leave 7:50 am - arrive 9:55 am

Bus - Megabus - Sacramento to San Francisco
leave 10:50 am - arrive 12:45 pm

(BART from San Francisco to Richmond)

Rail - Amtrak 532 - Richmond to Sacramento
leave 1:47 pm - arrive 3:28 pm

Bus - Amtrak 3713 - Sacramento to Chico
leave 3:40 pm - arrive 5:35 pm

Now for the details.  Read on if you dare.

Chico to Sacramento: (Amtrak bus 3714)
price: $25
schedule: lv 7:50 am / ar 9:55 am
actual operation: on-time departure / early arrival at 9:36 am

I've taken Amtrak buses so often between Chico and Sacramento that there isn't a lot for me to learn, but one novelty for me was that this was the first time I had ridden since Amtrak introduced its form of e-ticketing which is used now on all of the Amtrak bus routes in California.  It isn't paperless, however.
Interior of an Amtrak bus

You do need to have an itinerary with barcode, either printed on your own printer or printed at a staffed Amtrak station or an unstaffed one with a Quik-Trak machine.  
Chico is neither staffed nor does it have a Quik-Trak machine, but since I bought my ticket at Amtrak.com I printed the itinerary with barcode at home.  The barcode can also be displayed on a smartphone or tablet using the Amtrak app.  The bus driver scanned the barcode quickly and I hopped on the bus for a pleasant and uneventful ride.  (The bus stops in Oroville and Marysville to pick up passengers.)

Sacramento to San Francisco: (Megabus)
price: $6.65
schedule: lv 10:50 am / ar 12:45 pm
actual operation: left at 10:55 am / early arrival at 12:31 pm

Megabus stop on Front Street in Old Sacramento
That is not a misprint.  I paid $6 to get from Sacramento to San Francisco.  If I'd bought it two days in advance it was only $5, and Megabus promises to sell at least a couple of tickets on each bus for a buck!  Megabus competes with Amtrak and other bus operators in California and especially on the east coast, but they also compete with the car.  There is no way one person or even a couple of people can get from Sacramento to San Francisco for $6 per person including gas and bridge tolls.    The reason for the extra 65 cents is that there is a 50 cent booking fee for every transaction, and I opted to pay an additional 15 cents for a text-message notification in case of delays.

All bookings are made online; passengers provide their booking numbers to the bus driver who checks them against a manifest of reservations.  It worked smoothly for me.  The bus driver also stows the one piece of allowed luggage per person after verifying the reservation.

Megabus saves money by not having any terminal that it calls its own.  In some cities it uses bus bays at a transit terminal while in others (including Sacramento and San Francisco) they stop at a curbside location.  In Sacramento Megabus picks up and drops off on Front Street in Old Sacramento (about two blocks south of the railroad museum) and in San Francisco in front of the Caltrain Station at Fourth and Townsend.

Megabus - upper level
The trip from Sacramento to the city went well.  The ride quality of the double-decker bus was smooth, and the driver was excellent.  She drove at a remarkably consistent speed, seldom changing lanes while remaining mostly in one of the middle lanes.  Since this was a midday ride, there was little in the way of traffic slowdowns.  But being on the highway, it would be subject to the same delays that a driver would be with the exception that Megabus can use the carpool lanes between Pinole and the 80/580/880 "Maze", and skip the Bay Bridge toll plaza with the bus-only lanes.

For the better view and airy open feeling, I sat on the upper level, which is reached by a rather steep stairway.  The lower level has less seating than the upper level but is also the location of the restroom.  The toilet is the standard bus toilet (think porta-potty) without a flush system or running water for hand washing.  However it was clean, and offered hand sanitizer.

Megabus - lower level
Megabus advertises free wifi and power plugs.  My laptop detected the strong signal and connected, though I never was actually able to get to the internet.  I seldom have trouble connecting to wifi, so I wonder if it was just a one-time problem on that bus.  It was not a big deal, as I was more interested in enjoying the ride.

In San Francisco the bus drops and picks up passengers in front of the Caltrain station on Fourth Street.  Depending on your ultimate destination, this would either be ideal or so-so.

Megabus stop at Caltrain station in San Francisco
It would be ideal if you were headed down the Peninsula to places such as San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Jose, etc.  You can walk about 100 feet and get on one of the frequent trains that Caltrain operates.

On the other hand if you need to get to downtown San Francisco you need to either get a taxi, or take Muni.  The N or T light-rai lines from the Caltrain station will get you to Market Street stops starting with Embarcadero, and several bus lines can get you quickly to Market at Third Street, and beyond.

All in all, I'd say my Megabus experience was quite positive and a flat-out bargain.  I think they have a product that could catch on especially for short and medium length distances.  In a little bit I'll compare it with Amtrak Capitol Corridor service.

South Park neighborhood - San Francisco
My schedule calculations for making this work (without getting back at a late hour in Chico) required that I get myself to the Montgomery Street BART station to make a train that would get me to Richmond in time to connect with a Capitol Corridor train at 1:47 pm.  (BART and Amtrak in essence operate out of the same station in Richmond.  Get off BART, go downstairs, pass through the fare-gates, then go up to the Amtrak platform.)

Because Megabus was early I thought I'd walk instead of taking Muni to Market Street.  I didn't know how close I was cutting it!

Montgomery Street BART
It's not that short a distance, and I took a little bit of the scenic route detouring via the picturesque South Park neighborhood and snapping a picture of a brewpub (21st Amendment) for friends who like that joint.  I got to Montgomery Street BART at 1:00 pm, got the slightly late (thank goodness) Richmond train at 1:05 pm (scheduled for 1:01 pm) and got to Richmond five minutes before Amtrak 532.  Train 532 was on-the-dot at 1:47 pm.  If I'd missed that train, my ultimate arrival in Chico would have been 3 hours later than it was.

Richmond to Sacramento: (Amtrak 532)
price: $26.00
schedule: lv 1:47 pm / ar 3:28 pm
actual operation: on-time departure / early arrival at 3:12 pm

Interior of an Amtrak Capitol train
I've been on these trains often and know the drill well, but as with the Amtrak bus out of Chico it was the first time I'd used Amtrak's e-ticketing system.  The friendly female conductor scanned the barcode and it was done.  Being as the system is still fairly new, I'm sure that problems arise, but from my limited and rather elementary experience it seemed to work well.  As a travel agent, I know it will be useful when Amtrak expands e-ticketing to travel agents.  Amtrak reservations made and ticketed by travel agents through their GDS (global distribution systems) continue to be paper tickets.  Some Amtrak issued tickets with special circumstances remain paper for the time being.

New platforms in Sacramento
The train made the usual stops in Martinez, Suisun-Fairfield, and Davis, before pulling into Sacramento about 15 minutes early.  It was a pleasant, unremarkable trip, which they usually are.  Anytime you can get between the Bay Area and Sacramento and not be in a car it's pleasant.

As part of the massive (and not yet completely planned out) railyards project in Sacramento, brand new platforms and below-ground walkways have been built for Amtrak.  They are so much better than the old ones, however there is a considerably longer walk to the station than before.  Still the new platforms are bright and clean, and the underground walkways spacious and user-friendly.

Sacramento to Chico: (Amtrak bus 3713)
price: $25.00
schedule: lv 3:40 pm / ar 5:35 pm
actual operation: left at 4:03 pm / late arrival at 5:50 pm

Back in Chico ten hours after I left
This was the only leg of the trip that ran slightly late.  In its defense, the bus in fact operates from Stockton to Sacramento (and then on to Chico), and it serves to connect passengers from the northbound San Joaquin train 713.  That train was 22 minutes late into Stockton so the bus was delayed in its departure for Sacramento.  As with the morning's southbound ride, the bus was clean, comfortable, and the driver very competent.

As a final note, it's clear from this ride and the many others that I've taken that Chico is by far the most important stop on the Sacramento-Redding bus.  Except for a few that got off in Oroville, and one staying on for Red Bluff or Redding, all other passengers disembarked in Chico.

Comparing Amtrak's Capitol Corridor with Megabus

Price: Hands down it's Megabus.  Amtrak's not even close.
Frequency: Right now Amtrak's the winner with 15 trains weekdays between Sacramento and Emeryville (bus connections to SF) and Oakland.  (7 of these trains continue to/from San Jose.)  Megabus operates 4 buses each way between Sacramento and San Francisco.
Comfort: Amtrak seats are considerably bigger and there is more legroom, though Megabus is good.
Ride quality: Amtrak has a slight edge in smoothness. 
Speed: Megabus schedules are 1:55 to 2 hours.  Amtrak (with the bus connection from Emeryville) is 2:05 to 2:20.
Amenities: Amtrak is the clear winner here, since you can walk around the train, there is a well-stocked snack bar, and the bathrooms are far superior.  (The accessible bathroom is huge, and the toilets are flush toilets and there is running water.)  In my one experience with wifi on Megabus, it didn't work (and Amtrak's worked surprisingly well) but I'd have to give Megabus another chance on that.  Amtrak will likely remain more attractive to the many business people who commute on the train because of the higher level of amenities.
Other factors: A nice feature of Megabus is that there are no stops between Sacramento and San Francisco.  If you use Amtrak to Richmond (and then BART to the city), you will make 3 intermediate stops.  If you take Amtrak to Emeryville you'll have 5 intermediate stops, plus the Amtrak bus over the Bay Bridge.  On the other hand, Megabus is subject to the same traffic jams that drivers are (except for being able to use carpool lanes), while trains obviously don't have to deal with that.
Conclusion: I'm a train guy and I'm inclined to use the train, but I really thought Megabus has a good product and I'd love to see them expand their system.  I would definitely ride them again.  Isolated Chico where I live, would be a great market to add, particularly with its large population of college students.  Megabus already serves Reno and Sparks from Sacramento.  How about adding some one-stop buses that operate Chico-Sacramento-San Francisco?  I think Amtrak will remain the non-automobile mode of choice for the many business people that commute by train between the Bay Area and Sacramento, but Megabus may become the preferred choice for students and others on a tight budget, and even more so if they add additional destinations.

Useful links and info:
- Megabus
- Amtrak's Capitol Corridor

As of the writing of this post (March 2013) Megabus operates in the following markets in California and Nevada:
- San Francisco-Sacramento-Reno-Sparks
- San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose-Los Angeles
- Los Angeles/Riverside-Las Vegas

13 February 2013

Airlines - Hawaiian Airlines to Asia with a free stop in paradise

When you think of travel to Asia, Hawaiian Airlines doesn't normally come to mind.  After all, there is a lot of water between Hawaii and the islands and mainland of east Asia.

Yet Hawaiian Airlines has been slowly but surely adding service to Asia (and Australia) and now offers a nice array of destinations served nonstop from Honolulu including Tokyo (Haneda airport), Osaka, Sapporo, Fukuoka, Seoul, Manila, Sydney, and Brisbane.  Service to Taipei begins in July.

Hawaiian Airlines route map   (link to map on airline's website)

From the mainland, Hawaiian offers flights to Honolulu from all major cities on the west coast, plus Sacramento, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and a very long nonstop flight from New York Kennedy.

Nonstop flights from the west coast to Asia and Australia are very long, ranging from 11 to 14+ hours.  On the one hand it's nice to get to your destination in one big bite, but for many people it is simply too long to be cooped up in the air.  Breaking the trip into two pieces, results in two smaller bites: 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 hours to Honolulu from the west coast gateway airports, and then 9 to 11 hours from there to Asia or Australia.

Hawaiian Airlines sweetens what for some would be a disadvantage in having to make a connection (or in some cases a forced overnight due to flights from the mainland not scheduled to connect with flights to Asia), by allowing a free stopover in Honolulu both coming and going.

For those of you who haven't read my Airline Fare School chapter about stopovers this means that instead of paying two separate fares (for example: San Francisco to Honolulu and then Honolulu to Seoul) you would pay the through fare (San Francisco to Seoul).  This is good, because breaking the fare into two pieces often results in a higher total price.

Normally for international travel, a stop of more than 24 hours means that the fare must be broken, but with the free Honolulu stopover it won't matter.  (You will incur some small additional cost in extra tax, however.)

Think about how nice it would be to break a long trip with a stop in Honolulu.  Or maybe you have a business trip to Asia that on the return you would like to cap with a Hawaiian vacation.

One limitation to be aware of is that the fare routing only allows for travel through Honolulu.  If you wanted to go to Maui, Kauai, the big island, etc., you would need to fly in and out of Honolulu, and purchase separate inter-island connecting flights.

29 January 2013

Rail - The Man in Seat 61 (my go-to website)

For most of the people I know, I am the guy to ask when it comes to questions about Amtrak, having worked there as an employee and as a consultant, as well as being celebrated/notorious/ridiculed (pick your adjective of choice) for being fond of trains.

Though my knowledge of Amtrak does not translate to in-depth knowledge about other railroads in the world, I still get questions from friends and clients about trains outside of the U.S. (especially in Europe), which, except for some general knowledge, I seldom can answer.

So where do I recommend that people go to do their research?

Always to The Man in Seat 61!

The Man in Seat 61 (henceforth simply called Seat 61 - the URL is seat61.com) is simply the most comprehensive compendium of rail travel information I've ever seen.  What makes it valuable is that it is aimed at ordinary travelers, not folks that are already train-crazy.  It's been years since I first ran across it.  For anyone who is train-crazy, or has tendencies that way, it is a dangerous place to drop in - kind of like quicksand that you don't really want to get out of.

For example, as I began writing this post and was looking at Seat 61, I got trapped looking at information there about riding trains in Cuba and North Korea.  Yes, it gets that esoteric.

Recently a friend asked me for information about buying tickets for travel from Budapest to Prague.  I checked Seat 61, and as I hoped and expected, there was detailed information about that very subject.

Seat 61 began in 2001 as a personal project by Mark Smith, a train-loving Brit.  But Seat 61 grew and grew, and eventually he left his day job in the U.K. Department of Transport to devote himself full-time to Seat 61.  (Seat 61's origin reminds me a little of imdb.com.  imdb.com was created in the late 1990s by Col Needham a British movie fan.)  Seat 61 does not charge for access, but makes money selling advertising, so click on a few links while you're there.  Over the years, Seat 61 has garnered many "best travel website" accolades, and most deservedly so.

Many Americans (and American travel agents) use Rail Europe to book train travel in Europe.  (Rail Europe is jointly owned by SCNF [the French railroad] and SBB [the Swiss railroad].)  Nothing wrong with that as they make it easy to buy both passes and point-to-point tickets from the U.S. and Canada.  But they do not offer access to most of the bargain rail fares that you can buy in many instances on the websites of the individual national rail operators in Europe, and the price differences can be astounding!

For example, on a trip to Germany in 2008, I booked point-to-point tickets from Munich to Leipzig, and then on to Berlin on the German railroad website for far less than it would have cost via Rail Europe.  (Keep in mind that Seat 61 is not a travel booking site.  Rather it supplies the information and provides links to websites where you can buy rail tickets.)

But it's not just about getting deals on rail tickets.  Because Seat 61 was created by a rail travel enthusiast, you get the deep drill-down into many useful subjects that you won't necessary find even by looking at the individual railroad websites.  For example, take a look at this information about how to get from one station to another in Paris using the Metro.  Or how about this page with details on using trains and ferries to get from the U.K. to the channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey?

An interesting feature of Seat 61 is providing ways to get from Point A (usually in the U.K.) to Point B (on the continent of Europe or beyond) by means that do not involve flying.  That might include combinations of train, ferries, ships, buses, etc.  Check out this page with detailed plans to get you from the U.K. to Malta, the island in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Libya.

While the sharpest focus of Seat 61 is on rail travel in Europe, it includes trains worldwide.  Mark Smith covers what I know best - Amtrak - in excellent detail, and I would highly recommend his chapter about Amtrak to anyone.

Rather than go on and on about Seat 61, I invite you to look for yourself.  But I caution that you, too, might get pleasantly trapped on the site daydreaming about the train rides you could take.

15 January 2013

Airlines - United introduces bag delivery service

Other than situations where an errant suitcase is delivered to a passenger, the airlines do not get involved with shipping bags beyond the airport baggage carousel.

Image courtesy of sattva / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But now United is going to test a third-party service in which your checked bag is delivered directly to you at your destination.  For now, the service will be limited to five U.S. airports: Boston (BOS), Chicago O'Hare (ORD), Honolulu (HNL), Houston Intercontinental (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), and Orlando (MCO).  One's originating city may be any U.S. domestic city, however.  (Example: flying from Chico to Boston on United connecting in San Francisco.)  (Author's note added 19 Feb 2013 - the initial test of this service must have been successful because as of today the service is now offered at 36 airports.)

For delivery within 40 miles of the airport the cost is $29.95 for the first bag, $39.95 for two bags, and $49.95 for up to 8 bags to the same location.  Beyond 40 miles an additional fee applies.

Lest you think that this would be a way to avoid paying United's own fees for checked baggage, it won't be.  But if you have a United Explorer VISA card like I do, or are a high-status Mileage Plus traveler, or are flying first-class, you don't have to pay to check the bag - you just pay for the delivery service.

Airlines are getting heat for adding fees for services previously provided for free, but this is not the same; it's a brand new service that has real value for passengers who are checking luggage.

Here are a few situations that occur to me where this would be of great value.

You're a business traveler headed to Chicago who has to go directly to an important meeting but you do not want to schlep luggage around all day.  You arrange for your bag to go directly to your hotel.

Your family of five (and five pieces of luggage) are going on a trip to Disneyworld and the last thing you want to do is ride the car rental shuttle with the Gang of Five and the Gang of Five Suitcases.  You arrange for the Gang of Five Suitcases to have their own ride to the hotel where you are staying.

You are traveling by yourself to spend a month in Boston.  You are not renting a car and you do not have someone to meet you at the airport.  The idea of lugging two giant suitcases on the Boston subway system to get from the airport to your lodging doesn't charm you, so you arrange for the bags to be delivered to you after you arrive.

If you can afford to pay a little money to make a problem go away, then you should do it, and this service can really make some travel problems go away.

I hope the service is so successful that not only United expands it to many other airports, but other carriers copy it.  It's an idea whose time has come.

Useful links:
- article from Frequent Business Traveler
- United Airlines website page with complete information about the service

03 January 2013

Rail - A ride up the coast and back in time

The South Coast Railroad Museum (in Goleta, adjacent to Santa Barbara) is sponsoring an excursion on Saturday, 19 January 2013, from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo and back.

They are chartering two restored classic passenger club lounge cars which will be attached to regular Amtrak runs between Santa Barbara (SBA) and San Luis Obispo (SLO).  The train leaves SBA at 10:22 a.m., arrives in SLO at 1:00 p.m., and then leaves less than an hour later to return to SBA at 4:32 p.m.  (Passengers may also board and detrain in Goleta.)

The two cars are the Overland Trail (from Southern Pacific's Overland) and the Acoma (from the Santa Fe's Super Chief).  As I write this it appears that seats on the Acoma are sold out, but space remains on the Overland Trail, though it no doubt will sell out soon, too.

The cost of the excursion is noteworthy for its reasonable price: $79-86 roundtrip depending on which of the cars you book.  (The regular round-trip fare on Amtrak is only slightly less.)

Amtrak photo of Coast Starlight along the coast
The South Coast Railroad Museum operates this type of excursion often under the Central Coast Flyer name; two more are on tap for 16 February ("Sweetheart Special") and 23 March.  Check out their website for future trips if you would like to coordinate a trip to the area in conjunction with one of these excursions.  They also operate the Santa Barbara Vino Train, a round-trip day excursion from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara using the Overland Trail.

In case you are not aware, it is this portion of the route between Los Angeles and Seattle that puts the "Coast" in Amtrak's Coast Starlight.  From Santa Barbara to Grover Beach, most of the trackage is in sight of the ocean and includes beautiful vistas you'll never see otherwise, because U.S. 101 runs inland.  It's considered one of most scenic train rides in the world.

Useful links:
- Trains Magazine post about the excursion