What the New York Times got wrong about long-haul Amtrak travel

Last week’s New York Times Magazine featured a long article about long-haul Amtrak travel that somehow managed to get almost everything wrong about the advantages and disadvantages of train travel. As a life-long enthusiast of train travel, I thought it might be helpful to correct some of the more common and absurd myths perpetuated in the article.

Myth #1: Amtrak travel is expensive

Behold the feigned horror the Times Magazine author imputes to her hypothetical friends:

“Depending how you slice it — time or money — there are either 61 or 960 immediate reasons not to travel by Amtrak trains from New York City to Los Angeles. Those are the extra hours and dollars, respectively, that you might reasonably expect to forfeit if you forgo a six-hour $129 nonstop flight and opt instead for an Amtrak sleeper car. Covering the interjacent 2,448.8 miles can easily consume some 67 hours for a mind-boggling $1,089.”

Unfortunately for the Times Magazine, these numbers are easily checked. For non-stop flights between New York City and Los Angeles 6 months from now, I actually found slightly cheaper economy flights than the ones that Weaver reports, starting at just $127:

But the identical Amtrak route she took between New York City’s Penn Station and Los Angeles’s Union Station doesn’t cost $1,089. It costs just $232:

Why the difference? Because Weaver is comparing Amtrak’s sleeper car accommodation to American Airlines’s economy cabin (I actually found sleeper car accommodation on the same date in October not at $1,089 but at $914 — Weaver should start booking further in advance!):


The deliberate confusion of economy-class airline fares with sleeper car Amtrak fares is journalistic malpractice, but that doesn’t stop us from untangling it a little bit more.

First, let’s take note that an economy-class airfare between New York City and Los Angeles International Airport requires you to travel to one of New York City’s regional airports from your residence, and from LAX to your final destination in Southern California. I don’t live in New York City or in Los Angeles, so I’m not going to pretend to venture a guess at that final cost, besides spitballing that it’s in the high 2 figures, depending on your origin and final destination. Remember you’re only working with $105 in “profit“ to begin with by flying instead of taking Amtrak.

Second, what do you get for your fare in each case? In the case of the airfare, you get the convenience of same-day arrival. In the case of Amtrak travel, you also get 3 nights of accommodation on board the train. If we insist on only comparing airfares and Amtrak fares, that leaves you paying $35 per night for a place to sleep (assuming in each case that your flight and your train arrive on time — no sure thing). Amtrak also includes free checked bags and much more in-cabin storage space than the typical US airline, a potential additional source of savings.

Of course, I don’t recommend traveling on long-haul Amtrak routes in coach. The sleeper cars are far preferable! That brings us to the third piece of the cost puzzle: sleeper car accommodations include the same 3 nights of sleep, but on what an airline blogger would insist on calling “lay-flat seats,” plus 9 cooked-to-order meals in the Amtrak dining car (dinner on day of departure, 6 meals en route, breakfast and lunch on day of arrival).

For a single traveler between New York City and Los Angeles, we can finally make a clear comparison: $127 is the underlying cost of transportation, with the option to pay $262 per night for three hot meals per day and private sleeping quarters.

Is that a good deal or a bad deal? Well, that depends on how much you planned to pay for room and board in New York City and Los Angeles, which I’m in no place to judge. But the math changes a final time when you book a sleeper car with multiple people, as intended.

That’s because when you travel on Amtrak, you pay a fixed price for each sleeper car room, up to the maximum number of passengers that room type accommodates. The cheapest roomettes on this route accommodate two passengers, which means two people can buy 3 nights of room and board for a total of $892, or $446 each, $149 per day (remember we’ve assigned an underlying value to the transportation itself of $127 per person):

Suddenly it become clear that when used as intended, Amtrak long-haul travel isn’t outrageously expensive. Booked far enough in advance, it starts to look like a steal.

Myth #2: Amtrak travel is inconvenient

Weaver gave herself a bit of an unfair advantage by selecting a particularly illogical route to go by train: between two cities served by multiple airports and multiple airlines, but only an awkward train connection. Personally, I would not book an Amtrak trip with just a 5-hour connection window, as hers does in Chicago. In the waning days of the old Amtrak Guest Rewards program I booked an itinerary from Chicago to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief, connecting to the Coast Starlight. Over the next 3 days the train was predictably delayed, we missed our Coast Starlight connection, and had to be rerouted by bus and regional rail upstate to where the Coast Starlight ultimately caught up to us.

But there are lots of routes where Amtrak is not only convenient, but indispensable. Someone living in Seattle or Portland who wants to take a New Year’s ski vacation at Whitefish Mountain Resort, near Whitefish, MT, can sit down on New Year’s Day on the Empire Builder at 4:40 pm and arrive in Whitefish the next morning at 7:21 am for $77; they could be on the slopes by 9 am. The next best alternative I found is a $139 Alaska flight, not to Whitefish but to Kalispell, arriving at midnight (requiring another night of lodging), and a 15 mile car or shuttle to Whitefish. Which do you think is more convenient?

Now head the other direction: 6 months out, you can book a 7 hour, 47 minute flight from Chicago to Wolf Point, MT, for $381 per person, with (pretty tight) connections in both Denver and Billings. Or you can sit down on the Empire Builder at 2:15 pm and arrive in Wolf Point around noon the next day for $110. Which do you think is more convenient?

Let’s do one more fun one. If you want to get from Mattoon, IL, to McComb, MS, you can drive 2 hours to Indianapolis International Airport, pay $94 to fly to New Orleans, connecting in Atlanta, then drive another 2 hours or so to McComb. Or you can sit down on the City of New Orleans in Mattoon and step off in downtown McComb 13-and-a-half hours later for $111. Which do you think is more convenient?

You can see from these examples the obvious convenience of Amtrak, and train travel in general: it makes the intermediate stops that other forms of long-haul transportation don’t. To put it another way, Amtrak is only inconvenient if you aren’t using it as intended. For folks without impaired mobility, It’s incredibly inconvenient to ride a municipal bus two blocks. You have to find the right stop, figure out whether a bus is a local or express, wait for it to come, then it might drop you off on the wrong end of your destination block. How inconvenient! But that’s because you’re using it wrong, not because municipal buses are an outdated or unnecessary form of transportation.

Myth #3: There is No Reason to Cross the U.S. by Train

Near the beginning of her article, Weaver notes in passing:

“The most unifying characteristic of my fellow passengers was not age (although, as a rule, the sleeping cars skewed retired), race (very mixed), income (while sleepers are astronomically priced, coach seats can be downright economical for shorter segments) or even fear of flying (no one I spoke to had it).”

This is best understood as a passive-aggressive swipe at a 2013 Times article about Amtrak travel, which explains perfectly clearly why people take Amtrak: if you have a fear of flying, you have a fear of flying no matter how much longer train travel takes. If you’re unable to fly for medical reasons, you’re unable to fly no matter how much cheaper it would be. If you’re undocumented, you’re unable to fly (and often unable to drive) no matter how much more convenient it would be. Train travel doesn’t serve those populations as a “backup” option; it serves those populations as the only option.

Conclusion: if you don’t like train travel, don’t travel by train. But don’t tell me there’s something wrong with trains

I’m perfectly aware of confirmation bias, and the fact that I love train travel obviously makes me seek out the most convincing arguments in favor of train travel. If you think train travel is a poor substitute for flying or driving, then you won’t find these arguments convincing.

Writing this post, I was reminded of my notorious screed about Galveston, TX, where I wrote extensively about how hard it is to get there, and reader stvr commented, “Do you not have a driver's license?” To stvr, renting a car for a weekend is a totally normal and good way to get around, whereas to me it’s an almost unfathomably annoying prospect.

Whether it’s flying, car rental, or train travel, issues where people have strong feelings are opportunities for disagreement, but also a chance to exercise some epistemic humility. I hate renting cars, but I’m not crusading for the destruction of the car rental industry; I know that many people believe it serves a useful function, and I’m not willing to say with certainty that those people are wrong. Likewise, even if you hate traveling by train, before destroying America’s passenger rail network once and for all, do me a favor and take the opportunity to step back and ask how certain you really are that all of us who love it are wrong.

Even more Hilton Honors IT nonsense

Back in September, 2018, Robert Dwyer wrote at Milenomics about all the real and potential problems you might encounter redeeming Hilton Honors free weekend night certificates. Having re-read that post, I thought I was locked, loaded, and ready to redeem my own Hilton Honors Ascend free weekend night certificate for an upcoming trip to New York City.

It didn’t work out that way.

Good news: free weekend night awards may have gotten easier to book

Going into this call, my assumption was that I’d run into one of the same obstacles Robert did: I didn’t have enough points in my account to book a night entirely with points, even though I didn’t intend to use any points at all.

That did not end up being my problem. After I identified myself, the phone rep was able to find and apply my free weekend night certificate and complete the reservation without any problem, even though I had less than 6,000 Hilton Honors points in my account, so they seem to have fixed Robert’s ninth obstacle.

Interestingly, the phone rep was willing to let me use my free weekend night award to book any standard room award. Now that Hilton has started charging different prices for different “standard” rooms on the same night this is potentially a big advantage, for a couple of reasons.

First, for reservations booked entirely with free weekend night certificates, it may increase the value of the certificate by letting you book a larger room or one with more beds for a single “price.”

But second, depending on the property, it may also increase the value of your points when combining a points reservations with a free weekend night award reservation. That’s for the simple reason that under many circumstances a hotel may prefer to let you stay in a “better” room for multiple nights rather than force you to move every day and their housekeeping staff to turn over multiple rooms multiple times.

Your experience will vary, but using a free weekend night award for the first night of a stay may be one strategy for working your way into a larger or better room for the entire length of your stay.

Bad news: points are not available instantly after awards are cancelled

This is not exactly a new problem, so much as one Hilton has never really figured out how they want to handle. When I wrote about the issue in 2017, I advised cancelling, instead of changing, award redemptions since changing reservations did not redeposit the price difference in your account.

But now the problem has gotten worse, with award cancellations not immediately redepositing points either. I ran into this exact problem yesterday trying to rebook a 3-night award stay as a 2-night award stay (with the first night replaced with my weekend night award). I waited patiently for the points to be redeposited so I could rebook the last two nights, but they never were (and still haven’t been).

My pet theory having only looked into it over the course of a frustrating evening is that these developments are connected. When I opened my free weekend night award reservation, I saw that instead of simply saying a certificate or award had been used, instead my reservation stated that 67,000 points had been redeemed. If free weekend awards are being converted into points before being applied to reservations, that would mean you could theoretically book any standard night at any of the most expensive Hilton properties, cancel the reservation, and receive 95,000 points redeposited in your account.

If they really implemented free weekend night awards in such a crude way, adding a level of scrutiny to those free weekend night reservations necessarily means applying the same scrutiny to all cancelled award reservations. That is an issue that’s trivial to work around, but only if you know it exists.

And now you know.

East Coast Alaska Airlines companion fare strategies

As I mentioned last week, In order to get to Maui and back I stitched together 3 legs using a single Alaska Airlines companion ticket. While folks on the West Coast are probably familiar with Alaska and their companion ticket, now that the merger with Virgin America is complete it might be time for residents of some East Coast cities who had ruled out Alaska because of its limited route network to take another look.

Two flavors of Alaska Airlines companion fares

There are technically two flavors of Alaska Airlines companion fares. For the past several years Bank of America has offered a taxes-and-fees-only companion fare to new Alaska Airlines Visa cardmembers after spending $1,000 on the card within 90 days.

Then, on each account anniversary, you’ll receive another companion fare for $99 plus taxes and fees.

Besides the $99 co-pay for anniversary companion fares the two are otherwise identical.

What’s so great about Alaska Airlines companion fares?

Three features make Alaska companion fares unique:

  1. they can be used systemwide;

  2. they can be used on any economy fare;

  3. and both passengers receive mileage credit as if they were both flying on paid tickets.

In fact, the only restriction I’ve ever encountered using a companion fare is that the Bank of America cardholder has to be either one of the two passengers traveling on the fare or have their name on the credit card used to make the reservation.

The fare does not have to be paid for with the Bank of America credit card that triggered the fare. You can even use an authorized user card, as long as it has the name of the Bank of America cardholder, and even that isn’t required if the Bank of America cardholder is one of the passengers.

That means using an Alaska companion fare isn’t mutually exclusive with many methods of payment, for example using a Chase Sapphire or Barclaycard Arrival Plus card for trip delay insurance, or a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card for a Real-Time Rewards redemption.

A final note on fares: since the companion fare can be used to book any economy fare class, and both tickets book into the same fare class, you can use the companion fare to book tickets that are upgradeable using miles or MVP Gold guest upgrades. However, that upgrade space is extremely limited so I would not suggest paying more for an upgradeable fare speculatively if upgrade space is not available at the time of your booking; it likely never will be.

Alaska Airlines routes from the East Coast

Alaska serves a surprisingly large number of cities, especially now that Virgin America’s routes have been integrated into the system, but they are almost entirely reliant on five West Coast hubs: Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.

That means flying from the East Coast to anywhere in the middle of the country will require backtracking: flying first to the West Coast, then connecting to a flight retracing your steps. You probably won’t want to do that — Seattle is a long way out of the way if you want to fly between Washington, DC, and Cancun.

However, lots of people fly to the West Coast as their final destination, and others fly onward to points West, North, or South, and for those folks the companion fare can still provide a fantastic value.

What I’ve done is break up Alaska Eastern time zone airports into six buckets, based on which of Alaska’s hubs are served from that airport.

Seattle

  • Tampa (TPA)

  • Atlanta (ATL)

  • Charleston (CHS)

  • Indianapolis (IND)

  • Columbus (CMH)

  • Detroit (DTW)

  • Pittsburgh (PIT)

Seattle and San Francisco

  • Raleigh/Durham (RDU)

Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles

  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL)

  • Washington (IAD)

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles

  • Washington (DCA)

  • Philadelphia (PHL)

  • New York City (JFK) (plus San Jose and Las Vegas)

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and San Diego

  • Orlando (ORL)

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego

  • Baltimore (BWI)

  • Newark (EWR) (plus San Jose)

  • Boston (BOS)

Three strategies for East Coast companion fares

If you live in or near one of those Eastern cities, I think there are at least three useful ways to judge the value of Alaska Airlines companion fares: connecting onward, backtracking, and non-stops.

Connecting onward is the most obviously high-value use: if you fly to Hawaii or the Pacific coast of Mexico at least once per year, and are willing to do so in economy, the ability to book any economy fare in the system can give you enormous value and flexibility. For example, from Washington, DC, there are no non-stop flights to Hawaii, so you’ll have to make a connection somewhere. If that’s the case, why not Seattle instead of Atlanta? Over the Thanksgiving dates I checked from DC, Alaska flights to Hawaii were already the cheapest options — adding a companion fare is icing on the cake. From New York, Alaska was the cheapest option to every Hawaiian island but Kauai (Delta undercut them by $15).

Backtracking is a less obviously appealing option, as I gestured at above. However, for many destinations in the Mountain West, it can still make sense. For example, my hometown of Missoula, MT, is a notoriously expensive city to fly in and out of (fortunately flights are also very often overbooked, and I received my only $1200 voluntary denied boarding voucher there). Over the Thanksgiving weekend, for example, Delta isn’t selling fares eligible for American Express companion tickets, so two tickets would cost $1,596, while two Alaska tickets would cost just $1,373 with a companion fare. A $223 savings isn’t revolutionary, but it’s still more than the Alaska Airlines Visa’s $75 annual fee.

Finally, obviously a lot of people have perfectly good reasons to fly between the East and West coasts without connecting at all. If you live in Baltimore, New York, or Boston, you might simply use Alaska companion fares to pay for the occasional trip to the West Coast. It’s lovely there!

The point is, the Alaska companion fare is such a good deal it’s worth considering even if you don’t think of yourself as a “typical” Alaska passenger, which is to say someone who commutes up and down the West Coast.

Alaska Companion Fare routing rules

Here I’m leaning entirely on Scott Mackenzie at Travel Codex, who is the authority on all things Alaska Airlines:

“Although the terms and conditions say the fare must be for round-trip travel, this isn’t strictly true. You can book one-way travel. You can book open jaws. You can book multi-city travel between completely different cities. I’ve confirmed that Austin to Seattle, Portland to Maui, and Honolulu to Sacramento — all on different dates — will qualify…

What you can’t do is book travel that is clearly not anything close to round-trip. In the example of AUS-SEA//PDX-OGG//HNL-SMF we flew west and then flew east. Kinda sorta maybe round-trip, even if we never hit the same city twice.”

Since Alaska allows up to 4 entries in a multi-city itinerary (not four legs — Alaska will add connections on its own as necessary), my itinerary IND-PDX-OGG-DCA wasn’t entirely optimized. I could have added a longer stopover in Los Angeles on the way back, or a longer layover in Seattle on our outbound itinerary.

Ultimately, because of Alaska’s strong North-South axis on the West Coast, a truly optimal itinerary would need to include several West Coast stops. For example, this is a valid companion fare itinerary:

  • JFK-SEA//PDX-SFO//LAX-LIH//OGG-LAX

You can put an unlimited amount of time between each of these legs, meaning as Scott points out, these are really “four one-way fares booked on a single ticket.”

Of course, that begs the question: why would you want to book four unrelated one-way fares on a single ticket? First of all, the fares don’t have to be unrelated. Our flights from Indianapolis to Portland, Portland to Maui, and Maui back home were not “unrelated,” after all. But even in the case of totally unrelated fares, there are reasons you might consider it.

Since Alaska prices out all itineraries as one-way fares, it’s not uncommon to find a situation where one leg of your trip is expensive with cash and cheap with miles, while the other leg is cheap with cash and expensive with miles. If the dates and directions all line up properly (no small feat), you could use a single companion fare to book four one-way fares, then fill in the rest of the itinerary with miles or cash as you see fit.

Likewise, especially frequent travelers might consider “nesting” different trips inside a single itinerary. Someone traveling frequently between Washington and Los Angeles, for instance, might book:

  • DCA-LAX//LAX-OGG-LAX//LAX-DCA

If you squint at this just right you see it’s actually two unrelated roundtrips: one between DCA and LAX, and one between LAX and OGG. To make this work you’ll need to book an additional roundtrip between LAX and DCA, of course, but in exchange you get can get two companion fares for the price of one.

Conclusion

Bank of America has added some restrictions in recent years to who is eligible for certain new credit cards, unfortunately including the personal Alaska Airlines Visa card. The business card is supposedly unaffected for now, so even if you don’t have any Bank of America Alaska Airlines cards you should be able to sign up for one personal and at least one business card, naturally conditional on your creditworthiness.

The main effect of those changes should be to discourage folks who already have multiple personal Alaska Airlines cards from cancelling them, unless they’re absolutely certain they won’t be flying Alaska anytime in the near future, since it seems that it will be increasingly difficult to collect new companion fares going forward.

The Trans-Siberian Railway on the cheap

A long-time reader sent me an interesting essay from a travel agency I'd never heard of, which sent their intrepid reporter on a Trans-Siberian cruise from Moscow to Irkutsk.

I had a good laugh at this essay because unlike, say, transatlantic steamer traffic, the Trans-Siberian Railway is a working passenger railroad, with multiple departures each day, and with publicly available prices. That inspired me to put together for my dear readers my suggestions for a Trans-Siberian Railway adventure.

The European Part

Depending on your timeframe and the season, you might want to fly into Saint Petersburg and visit Tsarskoe Selo and Peterhof, and spend as much time as you can in Petersburg itself, a wonderful and vibrant city.

Otherwise, you'll want to arrive in Moscow. There's no reason to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladimir or Suzdal, since those are short day trips from Moscow proper on commuter rail trains that cost just a few bucks each.

Once you've gotten your day trips out of the way, it's time to get on a real train.

Stop in Nizhny Novgorod if you have to, otherwise head straight to Yekaterinburg

Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky) is an important city in the history of Russia but there's no obvious reason for a tourist to stop there if they're not traveling by river. I'd head straight to Yekaterinburg, the gateway to Asian Russia.

Sample Moscow-Yekaterinburg itinerary: depart 12:35 am, arrive 9:18 am the next day, $45.

Yekaterinburg to Novosibirsk

The next leg is 19-24 hours, so you'll need to decide whether you want to leave in the morning and arrive in the morning or leave in the evening and arrive in the evening the next day.

Novosibirsk was a "closed city" during the Soviet period, but has an opera house and a prestigious university located in nearby Akademgorodok.

Sample Yekaterinburg-Novosibirsk itinerary: Depart 7:49 pm, arrive 20:09 pm the next day, $40.

Novosibirsk to Irkutsk

Often described as the "capital" of Siberia, Irkutsk is located on Lake Baikal and in the winter features all sorts of antics on the frozen surface of the lake, while in the summer you can stay at lakefront resorts. Most "Trans-Siberian" journeys end here.

Sample Novosibirsk-Irkutsk itinerary: Depart 11:56 pm, arrive 7:04 am the next day, $45.

Irkutsk to Vladivostok

Now we've come to the "Trans-Siberian" part of the "Trans-Siberian Railway." Siberia is big — really big. Khabarovsk, like Nizhny Novgorod, is an important city in Soviet history but there's no obvious reason to stop there or anywhere else between Irkutsk and Vladivostok. But, you're more than free to, and you're very likely to find a local willing to take you in and care for you if you're so inclined.

Sample Irkutsk-Vladivostok itinerary: Depart 4:17 pm, arrive 11:34 pm 3 days later, $93.

Conclusion

I've always planned to ride the whole Trans-Siberian Railway someday, but when I lived in Russia I was too busy and too poor to take the time off to do it. But you can do it any time you like! The itinerary above comes out to $223. If you roughly quadruple that (Russian train compartments have four beds each), and have a little flexibility in dates, you could ride in a private compartment all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok, on your own schedule, taking as much time as you like in each city along the way.

If you call that $1,000 in rail fares, that means you've got a whole lot of money left over compared to a bespoke tour package.

Plus, your humble blogger is always available to serve as interpreter.

The right ways to get to Evian-les-Bains

I recently wrote about my trip to Europe which involved a very expensive cab ride about 50% of the way around Lake Geneva, from Lausanne, Switzerland, to Evian-les-Bains, France.

The basic mechanics of the problem were simple, and I knew them in advance: we were flying into Munich because we booked very cheap tickets pretty far in advance, long before we had any plans on how to spend the vacation. From Munich, the best train connection to Lausanne arrived at 7:40, giving us 20 minutes to catch the final 8:00 pm ferry to Evian-les-Bains.

The train arrived late, we missed the ferry, and that was that.

But Evian-les-Bains was a delightful little destination and we have talked about going back in the summer when it might be a little more lively. That begs the question: after doing it wrong the first time, what's the right way to get there?

Don't fly into Munich

It may seem to go without saying, but obviously don't fly into Bavaria, Germany if you want to go to Haute-Savoie, France.

Flying into Zurich

From Zurich Airport you can get a direct train to Lausanne on one of the commuter trains that leave roughly every half hour. The train takes up to 2 hours and 40 minutes, and if it's your first time finding the ferry terminal in Lausanne I would suggest arriving at Lausanne-gare no later than 40 minutes before the last ferry of the night.

You can search an entire itinerary between Zurich Airport and Evian using the website of the Swiss state railway company, SBB CFF FFS.

Flying into Geneva

Another option is to fly into Geneva and take the intercity train from the Geneva airport to the Geneva train station, and connect to the regional TER train system. Although it takes about 3 hours to get from Geneva's airport to Evian-les-Bains, this method has the great advantage of allowing you to arrive somewhat later at night. The last train that would let you connect to Evian-les-Bains leaves Geneva airport at 8:32 pm, which would get you into Evian's train station around 11:38 pm.

The best tool I found to plan this itinerary is the website of SNCF, France's national state-owned railway company.

Note that the train station in Evian-les-Bains is not in the town centre so you should arrange a taxi or hotel shuttle in advance. It's not a long walk, but again, if it's your first time you'll have no idea what you're doing once you arrive.

Wait, why do you want to go to Evian-les-Bains?

For the waters! Evian is a funny little town built around the theme of a mineral water source "discovered" there by a bankrupt nobleman with liver and kidney problems. Best of all, once you're there you get all the mineral water you can drink for free.

But seriously, I found it interesting as a once-glorious tourist destination that has managed to hang on due to its magnificent views and the skiing, hiking, and water-sports infrastructure it has accumulated over the years.

It also has a Hilton property which features strikingly low award redemption rates throughout the year, an excellent breakfast buffet, and a generous evening cocktail, hors d'oeuvres, and dessert spread in the executive lounge, which also exits onto a rooftop terrace. I imagine that during the high season that rooftop turns into a pretty solid party every night.

Sleeping the rails

As some readers may know, in a former life I worked as an English language teacher in Russia. At that time, it was typical for expats to arrive on a business visa, which as a rule only allowed you to be present in the country for 91 out of every 180 days. The idea was, you'd arrive on a business visa, get a job, and then switch over to the appropriate visa at some later date (I think of this whenever I hear about unauthorized immigrants who "overstay" their visas to the United States — that was me and most of my friends, and it was simply the way things were done).

In the winter of 2007-2008, rumors started to spread that the Russian Foreign Ministry had issued a new decree that visas could only be issued in the home country of foreign passport holders. While previously people had hopped over the border to the Baltic states, those Russian embassies were refusing to issue visas to third-country passport holders. However, we were hearing reports that the Russian Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, was still issuing visas to third-country passport holders — for now.

With that in mind, my company bundled me off to Kiev to spend the Christmas vacation waiting for a visa. The embassy was no longer issuing one-day visas, so I would have to spend 10 days in the country while my visa was prepared. In Kiev, the hostel I ended up in was owned and operated by a fanatically racist Englishman (this is a common problem in expat communities), and after a day or two I decided I couldn't stay there any longer. But where to stay? Having just gotten off an overnight train ride, I quickly arrived at a solution. Here's a map of Ukraine:

Glancing at this map, you can immediately see there are four cities located roughly equidistant from one another: Kiev, Lviv, Odessa, and Dnipro (still called Dnepropetrovsk while I was there). Not only are they roughly equidistant, but they're also all about 7-9 hours apart by train. The solution to my housing problem was obvious: I'd board a train about midnight each night, sleep on the train, and arrive in a new city around 8 am. I could spend the day exploring the city and get back on the train that evening.

I eventually got back to Kiev, got my visa, and headed back to Russia. But that adventure has always left me wondering: could it work here?

Using Amtrak for both housing and transportation

Trying the same thing in the United States poses several difficulties:

  • our trains are far less frequent than trains in Eastern Europe, often passing through a given community as rarely as once a day;
  • our trains are more expensive than trains in Eastern Europe (although often less expensive than you think, and very often less expensive than flying);
  • and our network of train stations is more limited, with routes that typically either feature very frequent stops or very infrequent stops.

So, I decided to investigate if it's possible to replicate something like what I did in Ukraine, and if so, at what cost?

Back and forth

Due to less frequent US train schedules, the easiest way to do what I'm describing is simply to go back and forth on the same route. Head north, south, east, or west one night, and head back the next night.

For example:

  • Northeast Regional 65/67 southbound from Boston to Richmond, leaving 9:30 pm and arriving 9:29 am, and Northeast Regional 66 northbound from Richmond to Boston, leaving 7:00 pm and arriving 7:58 am, roundtrip (2 nights) from $166;
  • or City of New Orleans 59 southbound from Chicago to Jackson, MS, returning on City of New Orleans 58, roundtrip from $196.

This is, obviously, a pretty boring way to travel since you'd be bouncing back and forth between the same cities. It is cheaper than a typical downtown hotel, though, at less than $100 per night.

Hub and spokes

A more interesting way to sleep the rails would be starting at an Amtrak hub and taking individual routes out and back each day. This would give you the benefit of a little variety in your site-seeing. Amtrak, unfortunately, is a little short on hubs, with the only ones I can think of worth mentioning being Chicago (11 routes), Los Angeles (5 routes), and New York (14 routes). New Orleans is another possible option with 3 routes.

I think all three hubs are fairly promising, depending on the part of the country you want to see. For example, from Chicago you can overnight to Denver on the California Zephyr ($97), Pittsburgh on the Capitol Limited ($57), West Virginia on the Cardinal ($62), Memphis or Jackson on the City of New Orleans ($86), North Dakota on the Empire Builder ($102), Buffalo or Rochester on the Lake Shore Limited ($59), Colorado on the Southwest Chief ($102), or Texas on the Texas Eagle ($98).

Circle the country

To circle back to my original anecdote: is it possible to spend time around the country while spending every night on a train, instead of in a hotel?

The short answer is no: long-haul train schedules are too infrequent in the United States to give people the opportunity to arrive in the morning and leave the same night on most routes. Here's one option I found that illustrates the network's limitations:

  • Empire Builder westbound from Chicago, leaving 2:15 pm and arriving in Portland 10:10 am 2 days later;
  • Coast Starlight southbound from Portland, leaving 1:50 pm and arriving Los Angeles 9:00 pm one day later;
  • Sunset Limited eastbound from Los Angeles, leaving 10:00 pm and arriving in New Orleans at 9:40 pm two days later;
  • Overnight in New Orleans;
  • City of New Orleans northbound from New Orleans, leaving 1:45 pm and arriving in Chicago at 9:00 am the next day.

The route described above would cost, if booked sufficiently far in advance, about $483, and would take 7 nights to complete, from beginning to end, although you'd be on the hook for one night in New Orleans. That would give you a cost per night spent in the coach car of a train of $80.50. Not a bad deal, and a much better set of views than a roach motel in Chicago (I've seen my fair share).

Don't forget Amtrak unreliability

Of course, the stylized route above assumes that four different Amtrak trains all run on schedule. This will not happen, because Amtrak trains don't run on schedule. On most versions of this run you would end up spending many more nights on trains than I indicated, which would drive down your per-night cost of sleeping on Amtrak trains.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, American cities and Amtrak routes aren't very accommodating to the kind of tour I was able to take of Ukraine. Only rarely are cities served by the kind of morning and evening trains that are typical in Eastern Europe. But if you have to spend 10 days in the United States waiting for a consular official to stamp a visa in your passport, remember that we do have trains, and you can see a lot of the country in 10 days without spending very much money.

Trip delays and trip delay insurance

If you follow me on Twitter you may have noticed that I had a bumpy couple days coming back from my family's camping trip back in my ancestral homeland. As always, a disastrous itinerary for me means a blog post for you!

What is a trip delay?

When you buy an airline ticket, you receive a promise that you'll be delivered from your origin to your final destination — and not much more. If you're involuntarily denied boarding or you're delayed on the tarmac for over 3 or 4 hours you may be entitled to some cash compensation (depending on the size of the aircraft and other factors).

Of course airlines do, under some circumstances, some of the time, do more to accommodate passengers: if a flight is delayed or cancelled, they may be willing to reroute passengers on other airlines or to different airports. If a delay or cancellation requires an overnight stay, they may be willing to pay for overnight hotel accommodations and meals.

Note that "may" is the operative word here.

What does a trip delay cost?

Before I get to trip delay insurance, I want to be clear about our terms. A trip delay has a lot of costs, only some of which can or should be formalized into dollar terms.

During a long delay, you may have to pay for:

  • meals;
  • hotel stays;
  • clothes;
  • toiletries;
  • transportation.

These are your "out-of-pocket" costs during a trip delay.

But it's essential to understand that those costs do not come close to encompassing the costs of a trip delay.

If you miss a job interview because of a trip delay, you're out of a job. If you don't make it to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Pesach, or Eid-al-Fitr because of a trip delay, you lose out on precious time with your family (not to mention the food). If you arrive late to a deathbed because of a trip delay, you may not make it there at all.

These are the real costs of a trip delay, even they don't cost you a penny out of pocket.

Trip delay insurance doesn't promise to make it right

It's possible to imagine a product that immediately goes to work for you in case of a trip delay to ensure that your trip is minimally impacted. As soon as a delay is announced, such a trip insurer (or ensurer) would swing into action, proactively booking you tickets on substitute flights — no matter the cost — that get you to your destination as close as possible to your original arrival time.

That product doesn't exist. You can't buy it alongside your airline ticket when making a reservation, you can't buy it from Berkshire Hathaway Trip Protection, and you don't get it when booking a reservation with your Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

Trip delay insurance just promises to pay for your out-of-pocket expenses

That doesn't make trip delay insurance worthless. Since there are out-of-pocket expenses incurred when a trip is unexpectedly delayed, trip delay insurance is a way to recover those costs so that trip delays don't add expensive insult to inconvenient injury.

Being able to pick your hotel of choice during an overnight delay, and be reimbursed later, has real value (especially to a travel hacker). Being able to eat at your restaurant of choice, rather than wherever agrees to take your airline's funny money, has real value. Being able to buy a real toothbrush and your preferred toothpaste instead of the garbage airlines hand out to delayed passengers has real value. Hell, you can even get a couple free pairs of socks out of it if you play your cards right.

But trip delay insurance won't get you to your job interview on time and it won't get you any more time with your family. It covers your out-of-pocket expenses, but there's no trip delay insurance product out there that even tries to make you whole.

Conclusion

As I mentioned on Twitter, my delayed trip was paid for with a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, and I've already submitted my trip delay insurance claim.

In 5-60 days (it's insurance, after all), I'll have a post dedicated to that process.

In the meantime, just remember: your trip delay insurance covers the costs, not the consequences, of your delayed flights.

Microhacking: ATM fee refund edition

Even before most travel hackers' American Express prepaid cards were shut down last year, American Express had restricted Bluebird and Serve cash withdrawals to ATM's in the United States. That was a shame since they had previously worked as fee-free ATM cards around the world, and with reasonable exchange rates.

Fortunately, I have a Consumers Credit Union Free Rewards Checking account, which offers as one of its rewards "No ATM fees - CCU will reimburse all ATM and surcharge fees." I'd never actually made an ATM withdrawal with the card (I bank with a local credit union), so I was eager to see how this benefit works.

My experience withdrawing money in Europe

It works really well!

I made three ATM withdrawals during the two weeks we were in Europe, and incurred ATM fees on each withdrawal:

  • 30,000 Hungarian forint ($109.40), $0.87 ATM fee;
  • 200 Euro ($226.85), $1.81 ATM fee;
  • 200 Euro ($225.96), $2.26 ATM fee.

On the first of July, I received an ATM fee credit of $11.19. Since only $4.94 had been charged to my account in separate ATM fees, that leaves $6.25 in ATM fee refunds unaccounted for.

That $6.25 happens to be the sum of the difference between the first two ATM withdrawals in dollars and the next lowest multiple of $5 ($109.40 minus $105, plus $226.85 minus $225).

Now, maybe that's a coincidence ($6.25 is the sum of a lot of numbers, real and imaginary). But it's my current best hypothesis, although it doesn't explain why the odd $0.96 on my final ATM withdrawal wasn't refunded.

Microhacking ATM fee refunds?

If my hypothesis is correct, that means a simple hack is possible: intentionally make ATM withdrawals that are at least $1 more than a multiple of $5, getting the additional amount refunded the following month.

The only ATM's I've ever seen that allow such odd withdrawals are TD Bank ATM's, which allow you to specify the exact composition of a withdrawal, including $1 and $5 bills.

According to this CNN article, Chase and PNC were rolling out ATM's with this function back in 2013, but some light Googling didn't turn up any more recent information than that.

Have you tried this? Does it work? And do you have a better explanation for my mysterious $6.25 ATM fee refund?

Quick hit: things I've learned about German trains

On our trip to Italy in 2015, I reserved all our train tickets in advance, thinking by analogy to airline tickets and hotel rooms that I was locking in the best prices ahead of time. That turned out to be totally unnecessary, as Italian train tickets seemed to cost the same whether you book 6 months in advance or just walk up to the ticket counter on the day of travel.

Having learned from that experience, on last month's trip to Europe I didn't book any of our train tickets in advance, planning to maintain flexibility in case we wanted to spend more or less time in a particular city. That worked great until we got to Germany.

Buy at least a day in advance

Unlike the Hungarian and Slovak trains we took, the German national railway service Deutsche Bahn offers multiple fare types on many of their trains. The price differences aren't always very large, but if you don't know about them you might find yourself overpaying. Here are the fare options for a non-stop train from Vienna to Berlin:

Here's the train we actually took from Vienna to Regensburg to visit my partner's relatives in Bavaria:

And here's the train we took from Schwandorf to Berlin:

While the fares are reasonably close, the fixed-date and fixed-routing tickets purchased in advance would save 36.50 Euro per ticket on our routing, or 28.50 Euro per ticket on the nonstop routing.

So if it's at all possible, buy German Deutsche Bahn train tickets in advance!

Reserved seats

Like coach class tickets on Amtrak, second class tickets on Deutsche Bahn do not come with assigned seats. However, for an extremely modest charge (4.50 Euro on a sample trip), you can request a reserved seat.

You can decide whether or not this is confusing (we were extremely confused), but reserved seats on Deutsche Bahn trains are indicated by a pair of cities listed above each pair of seats. For example, seat 65 on this train is reserved by someone boarding in Leipzig and leaving the train in Hamburg:

In other words, if you are departing the train before Leipzig, or boarding after Hamburg, you're free to sit there. If you are sitting there between Leipzig and Hamburg, you'll have an irate German standing by your seat angrily gesturing at his ticket and at the digital panel above your seat.

Going by train

I've now travelled on a substantial minority of long-haul Amtrak routes, depending on your definition:

  • Empire Builder (entire route, both directions)
  • Coast Starlight (entire route, both directions)
  • Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles)
  • City of New Orleans (Chicago to New Orleans)
  • California Zephyr (Chicago to Emeryville)
  • Acela Express (Providence to New York City)
  • Northeast Regional (all over the place)

This doesn't make me anything close to an expert in Amtrak train travel, but it's given me a lot of experience. Here's what I've learned.

If you can't get to an Amtrak station, Amtrak will probably take you

I've written about this before in the context of Amtrak thruway bus cabotage, but the overall point is that Amtrak contracts with a wide range of local bus carriers in order to ferry people from cities and towns that aren't served by Amtrak to cities and towns that are serviced by Amtrak.

The one thing you need to know about Amtrak sleeping accommodations

There are three (primary) types of Amtrak sleeping accommodations: roomettes, bedrooms, and family bedrooms.

These are basically ordered by size, with roomettes being the smallest (a tiny room with two fold-down beds), bedrooms having some room to stretch, and family bedrooms being the largest, capable of accommodating up to 2 adults and 2 children.

That's all academic: the key thing to know is that only bedrooms (the middle category) have en suite toilets and showers.

Now, maybe that's a big deal for you or maybe it isn't. But either way, it's the primary difference between the room types (besides square footage).

If you choose a room type without en suite toilets and showers, you can use the toilets and showers downstairs in each sleeping car.

The food is pretty good, with limitations

As a sleeper car passenger on an Amtrak train, everyone in your compartment is entitled to breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dining car.

These meals are pretty epic. You can order anything off each menu, and each menu has very elaborate offerings: omelettes, french toast, or pancakes for breakfast, burgers and sandwiches for lunch, and steaks, pasta, or specialty items for supper.

Of course, since you're confined to a train for anywhere from 24 to 70 hours, you should definitely not be eating that much food.

Did I mention dessert is served with both lunch and dinner?

Basically, your best move is to pick a few entrees you'd like to try over the course of a long-haul trip, and order one per day. Other than that, eat salad.

The views are completely unique

This is where you accuse me of burying the lede. Traveling by train gives you a view of the terrain of the United States that you literally can't get anywhere else.

These train routes are carved through landscapes that don't have any roads, sidewalks, or even hiking paths.

You will never see this view of the Colorado River anywhere except on an Amtrak train:

That's because there's a mountain on one side and train tracks on the other. If you're not on the train, you're out of luck.

Conclusion: go by train, while you can

Long-haul train routes in the United States are an endangered species. Some of them are subsidized by local governments seeking tourism revenue, some are subsidized by Congress, and others are subsidized by redirecting revenue from the few profitable routes, primarily on the coasts.

But that's a far cry from suggesting that such long-haul passenger train routes are "a waste." They're remarkable and unique ways to view parts of this remarkable country which are inaccessible by any other means of transportation.