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