Traveling in the height of c. 1910 luxury!

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We've been hoping to take a trip to Montana in the next couple of months, once Cara is free of classes for more than a week at a time. Plane tickets don't seem to be getting below about $550/ea, though, and, since N'western is just about the only way to get there, there's no guarantee our flight would actually go anyways.

So I decided to look into Amtrak. I've taken Amtrak to MT and back before, and it's not a bad trip - really, more relaxing than the same trip by car, and much more comfortable than flying (the fact that it takes 32 hours by train, compared to 8-10 flying, makes the two modes about equal in my book, assuming I'm planning a decent vacation). One Amtrak trip was, in fact, where I met my friend Kenzi - nothing like sharing a seat for the 8 hour Mini-no-place to Chicago stretch with someone to get a feel for whether or not they are a psycho killer. (My vote: not, hence my first foray into blogging activism, five years ago now.)

Amtrak, round-trip, for both of us, would be about $660. Sweet. However, this involves sleeping in a train seat, and, while a train seat is about three times the size of a plan seat, certain travel companions who shall be identified only by the fact that they fall into the category of "people I'm married to" are less tolerant of adverse sleeping conditions than I. To head off cranky camper syndrome, I checked sleeper mini-cabins. Holy moly! $1,700+ round-trip! Okay, maybe not for this trip. We'll just take enough vacation to make up for sleep lag.

But, meanwhile, I noticed that Amtrak has a "guest rewards" program - like frequent flyer miles on the train. A trip from here to MT, sleeper mini-cabin, costs 20,000 points. And they're coming out with a credit card this fall. Assuming a point-per-dollar deal, that means I can get an 8% refund on anything I spend on the credit card by buying tickets to Montana? (At about this point, I'm wondering if I can have my mortgage auto-payments go to the credit card, rather than the bank account...)

As bonus observation 1, it's 1 point per dollar spent on Amtrak trips, within minimum 100, meaning that Chicago is two $20, 100-point trips. As bonus observation 2, I notice that the Ann Arbor station is in the "central" zone, but Toledo is in both central and eastern zones. If you know Amtrak, you know that, from here, you go to Ann Arbor for trips west, and Toledo for trips east - meaning that the zone breakdown is as good as it gets, aside from living in Atlanta or Denver.

If you're reading this and your name is something other than "Esther", or "Dale", your eyes have probably long since glazed over. And if your name *is* one of those things, well, please tell me if you have any success signing up. Nothing kills a good buzz like a malfunctioning website.

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national park geekery

The title is, of course, a reference to the fact that Glacier Nat'l Park was essentially created by the Great Northern Railroad in the 1910s as a tourist destination, in order to sell train tickets. Take a train out, spend a week riding horses between mountain chalets, take a train home.

(We generally skip the part involving horses, kthx.)

national rail system snarkery

Considering that it's /Amtrak's/ website, I should probably expect the guest rewards program enrollment page to finally load two or three hours from now.

(Actually, I've had problems with Amtrak's timeliness more or less never.)

Guest Rewards

I had no problem signing up for Guest Rewards about a year ago, so it must be some blip with their web site. With Amtrak on the Chicago to Ann Arbor line, about a third of the time I arrive within about 20 minutes of the scheduled arrival (on time), about half within an hour (pretty good), and the remainder an hour or more late. That's still better than the airlines. I took the Philadelphia to Chicago overnight a couple years ago and found it fine. On overnight trains the seats are more like LaZBoys, with a flip-up ottoman.

on-time performance

Certainly, Amtrak's on-time performance has been much better for me than the airlines'. (Unless canceled flights and flights that leave you stranded overnight in MSP or DFW don't count as late?) Additionally, I've never lost anything on Amtrak, while I've lost baggage appx. 33% of the time that I check anything on a plane. I don't know how Amtrak gets such a bad rap...

The seats on the Empire Builder are certainly spacious enough for halfway decent sleep - I've additionally found that I can sleep on the floor under a pair of seats fairly well, leaving the seats to my tripmate. My dad recommends staking out a table in the lounge car a little before bedtime, and sleeping on the floor there.

on-time

I have not signed up for amtrak rewards, I should but I always assume things like that are more hassle than they are worth.

Maybe it's just my imagination, or my luck but Amtrak has been doing better the past year than the first 2 that I lived in chicago (at least on the michigan routes) For daniel's wedding I was on-time-on-time, not amtrak on-time (within a half an hour or so) and most of my other michigan trips in the past year, 3 or 4 round trips we've been amtrak on-time.

On overnight trains I've also sometimes slept in the observation car. It can be annoying because people go there to hang out if they can't sleep but you get a little more space and aren't sitting next to snoring guy anymore. :) I dunno, I'm probably not making it sound more appealing to Cara. I like taking the train for a lot of reasons but one is, I find the ride soothing. In part because of the train itself and the rumble but also because the lack of "on-time-ness" I've learned to be less concerned about time, patient, one might say.

Relaxing on trains

Train travel is the most chill way to go. It takes minimal attention, so you don't get tired like driving, and it's smoother/quieter/more comfy than flying. And train stations are far more relaxed than airports.

Both the general environment of a cross-country train and the eventuality of getting there make it easy to relax.

Mmm, Amtrak.

I do the Chicago run every

I do the Chicago run every month-and-a-half or so. It's always comfy and a great place to catch up on reading or whatever program I'm into. The high-speed portion has cut a fair amount of time, but it's not uncommon for the train to be 15 minutes late, often more in the winter or if you get stuck behind a freight train. Still, I wouldn't trade it for driving.

(as other people have said, Guest Rewards usually works just fine)

Guest Rewards

Actually, Amtrak has had a Guest Rewards credit card for a while... but, Bank of America decided to continue it this past May, which left Amtrak scrambling to find a replacement. They finally found Chase. I've been a Guest Rewards member since September. I've actually used it once to get reimbursed for a hotel room, and we hope to use it soon on a trip to Michigan.

Don't think of it as a train ride.

Think of it as a cruise. $1700 for 3 days at sea for two would seem like a good deal, wouldn't it? And trains is cooler than boatse.

Cruises

I don't think I'd pay $1700 for 3 days on a cruise. Cruise boats seem kinda lame. (OTOH, I was recently talking to somebody who spends two weeks sailing a rented catamaran in the Caribbean every summer - something like $1000/day for 6-8 people. That I might pay for. (If I had money, I mean.) But otherwise, yeah, trains >> boats.)

Go Rail

Have fun, you two. It's the only way to fly.

The way to travel

We take at least one long trip on Amtrak to Colorado every year and it is definitely the way to go. Yes, the cabin is worth it, if you can swing it. (Or you could really go in style.) You have to figure that Amtrak does give you all your food (and it is quite good actually), water, juice, etc. plus lodging. So you can kind of rationalize to a point. You also get first class treatment if you are in a cabin because, well, it is first class. So you get your choice of dinner times, don't have to wait in lines, that kind of thing. You can bring in alcohol to your cabin, so we usually take a bottle of wine or a growler of something for a nightcap or two. If you are willing to chance it, one tip which I have never tried but I know several people who have, is to ask about cabins when you get on. If they do have a cabin available, you get it at the lowest price (as if you had reserved months in advance). The cabins increase dramatically in price as the travel date approaches so there can be several hundred dollars between the high and low price. Worth a shot anyway.

On our last trip back from Colorado, we were eight hours late to Chicago (derailment in Nebraska which slowed down the freights, which slowed down our train) and being in the cabin was, well, a lot nicer than being in coach. So even if you take coach out, I recommend doing a sleeper back because coming east seems to be more likely to be delayed. But Amtrak was great, they gave us a voucher for dinner in Denver before the train, dessert on the train, an extra dinner on the train the next day, an overnight stay in Chicago in a nice hotel, breakfast money, cab money, and effusive apologies. Plus we had a lovely ride on the train, didn't have to submit to any searching or silly rules, and met a lot of nice people. So even with being late, it was far better than flying would have been.

The Guest Rewards program is good. I signed up online no problem. Then I sent them an e-mail asking if I could apply my previously scheduled (but not yet taken) trip. They said "no problem" and set it all up, then called me to make sure I knew everything was set and told me about a change in the train schedule.

swinging it

> Yes, the cabin is worth it, if you can swing it.

As we're currently on one income + one tuition + one student loan payment (except with minuses where those pluses are), the $1100 upgrade is a *lot*. Maybe next year, when that math has changed, it'll be more swingable.

(Though, next year, we'll have people with crash space available in Switzerland and the Czech Republic, so...)