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Each year, my family and I travel on the City of New Orleans, the Amtrak train that runs between Chicago and New Orleans, my husband's hometown. We like the trip because of the uninterrupted time we spend together; the train leaves Chicago at 8 p.m. and arrives in New Orleans the following afternoon. We read. We play games. We do what we do on most vacations: take time to dream about our next. What we don't do, which is different from most nights at home, is bury our respective selves in technology. There is no Wi-Fi on most Amtrak trains. This doesn't seem to be a problem for most riders. At least it hasn't slowed down Amtrak's growth. My colleague Tim Harlow reported late last week that Amtrak ridership is up again.
I read the report with interest--and then a sudden burst of panic. As a travel editor and an Amtrak rider, I know that the cost of a ticket rises as the seats fill up. None of the crazy, erratic, seemingly nonsensical price shifts you see with airlines. Amtrak's is a straightforward supply-and-demand pricing structure: the more tickets they sell, the higher the prices rise. I threw down my newspaper and got online. Fortunately, we're not traveling during the busy summer months, and prices were still relatively low. But the cost of an Amtrak bedroom between the Twin Cities and Chicago was higher than I'd ever seen (fortunately, we don't need one).
Anyone thinking of booking an Amtrak trip should do two things: 1.) Read the insightful piece about the types of people who ride Amtrak these days. It ran in Sunday's New York Times Magazine and it'll give you a good sense of who may be sitting next to you. 2.) Book as soon as you know you want to ride the rails; your pocketbook will thank you.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood (and so many others) have already spoken of the disruptions that automatic budget cuts known as sequestration would bring to air travel. So have others, including President Obama. The $600 million trim to the budget of the Federal Aviation Administration would mean furloughed air traffic controllers, which would effectively slow air travel.
Barry Liben, the CEO of Plymouth-based Travel Leaders Group, the largest traditional travel agency company in the U.S., weighs in, too. A press release issued by the group contained the following statement from Liben:
"On behalf of our more than 40,000 Travel Leaders Group travel professionals and the millions of corporate and leisure clients we proudly serve, we are calling on the United States Congress and President Barack Obama to take immediate action to resolve the deadlock over the sequestration issues before the March 1 deadline.
"Travel remains an integral and vital economic engine. Businesses can’t function without it, and millions of travelers depend on it daily for their livelihoods. If our nation’s air traffic controllers, TSA airport screeners and CBP customs agents are furloughed – which in turn may require airlines to cancel or delay flights and potentially create long delays at security and customs – our travel industry will suffer.
"To avert serious and potentially long-lasting damage, not only to the traveling public, but to the American economy, we ask our leaders in Washington to act now."
The released noted that LaHood has indicated that the furloughs and facility shut-downs referenced in the statement will not occur until April. Ah, at least spring break is safe!
An analysis of airline fees by Travelnerd, a website that offers airport parking info, terminal maps, airport shuttle directories and other ways to ease traveler's airport navigation, found that more than 50 airline fees changes in the last year. Of the fee changes, 36 out of the 52 were direct fee increases. Eighteen out the 52 fee changes were attributed to Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, "ultra low cost carriers notorious for charging fees" according to the report.
According to the online report: "These changes have had a tremendous impact on U.S. travelers, especially on families. Travelers really have to be extra cautious when booking a flight. U.S. carriers are becoming creative at charging consumers extra fees,” says Alicia Jao, VP Travel Media at TravelNerd. “A new trend that we’re currently seeing is carriers bundling and tiering services. This practice is not only more confusing for travelers, but it also complicates price comparison. Even airlines that have touted fewer fees are joining the game, indicating only more fees in 2013."
Fees are becoming an increasingly heated topic among travelers, and online sites are trying their best to keep track. Airfarewatchdog.com is one of them. Go here to download a PDF of "every airline fee you'd want to know about."
I have a whopping 230,000 miles accrued on my Delta account. That's not because I'm an exceptional jet-setter. It is because I deeply dread the frustration that attends most attempts to use the miles. As a result, I tend to let them grow ever larger with each trip to Target paid for with my Delta-branded American Express card. I determined to change that over the weekend. It was time my miles worked for me! I wanted to use them not to garner a free flight, but to land me in cushy first-class for the uncomfortably long flights to and from Maui. Seeking an upgrade 10 months ahead seemed a slam-dunk. Not so, fellow travelers. I wound up spending nearly two hours on the phone during two separate conversations with very kind and enthusiastic Delta personnel (thank you Tracy and Tanner) over the weekend. And after all that time, I'm still not the proud holder of a reservation in the posh front of the plane.
Because many of the upgrade seats were taken, Tracy and I determined a few things after much noddling and wrangling: We would fly to L.A. one day and take the morning fligh to Maui the next morning. (Upgrades for the afternoon flight to Maui had already been nabbed.) Two of the people in my party would be able to use upgrades; the third in my party was going on miles alone. (The airline holds a certain number of seats for upgrade, seperate from those for award travel). Breaking up the flight seemed appealing, especially since it would give us a day in our old stomping grounds of Santa Monica. Tracy held the reservation to allow me time to chat with the others in my party before officially booking.
Oh what a difference a few hours makes. By the time I phoned back, the upgrades on the red-eye flight out of Maui were no longer available. Turns out that Tracy could hold the seats, but not the upgrades. In the intervening time, someone else got them. My next Delta pal, Tanner, couldn't do much except suggest I return two days later. That timing didn't work, so I just passed, and then nearly passed out, exhausted.
My take-away was not a round-trip, first-class tickets to Maui. It was this: A reminder in how to use your miles. If you want to book a reward ticket or an upgrade, do it as soon as possible. And if you want to go to such popular destinations as Hawaiiduring the holiday season, book the first day a flight is available from the airlines. That, generally speaking, is 330 days out. Today, 2/13/2012, I could book a flight that returns from Maui 1/10/2012, for instance (both the flight to and the return need to be bookable, of course). Those rewards go quickly.
The experience left me both amazed at the nice Delta people who tried so hard to help--and a little sad. But not too sad because, really, to be able to plan a family trip to Hawaii is pretty first-class, no matter how we get there.
I love it when a destination exceeds expectations, especially when they are already exceedingly high.
I always try not to get my hopes up too much, but that proved to be not a problem at Powell's Books in Portland, Ore. What a soulful stroll: room after room, floor after floor, beautifully organized but with a rambling, ramshackle feel that fits like a great pair of shoes.
Powell's is the world's largest independent used and new bookstore, filling a city block and spread across four floors (1.6 acres, but who's counting).
It's certainly a place where even a non-bookish person could while away an hour or two; avid readers will want to "book" (sorry) the better part of a day. Indeed, Powell's is a perfect fit for a city that requires a lot of rainy-day endeavors.
Moseying through its countless rooms felt a lot like strolling around Venice: It's easy to feel like you're getting lost, but you're never really far from a touchstone, or at least a sign pointing to it. The rooms are color-coded, and it's no problem finding a staffer to help with directions.
There are boatloads of discounted books (the new and used volumes are intermingled), and a more than decent chance of finding that work that you loaned to someone years ago and wish you had gotten back.
If time allows, don't miss the third-floor Rare Book Room, where mahogany shelves lend an old-world air to a place that, even without that eminently tasteful space, feels like just about the most civilized spot on the planet.
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