Is this the world’s most underrated train journey?


Washington DC’s palatial Union Station CREDIT: AP

By: Anthony Horowitz/UK Telegraph

A book tour of America is a true rite of passage.Everything is arranged – hotels, flights, limos – and you travel huge distances but see almost nothing; mainly bookstores and schools. If what follows feels confused and a little brusque, I’ve captured something of the experience.

I arrive in New York and stay at Loews Regency Hotel, a bright, friendly place with large rooms, close to Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I spend a couple of hours before jumping in a car for the 3½-hour drive to Connecticut. The traffic is murderous but it’s a beautiful journey with the autumn leaves turning. Sadly, only two people have turned up to hear me talk. A bad start.
Then it’s off by Amtrak to Philadelphia. I had no idea American train journeys were so enjoyable. Watching the sleek, silver engine pull in at the platform with its bell clanging, I feel I’m in a Hitchcock movie. Sadly, Penn Station – which was gorgeous – was torn down in 1963, something The New York Times rightly called “a monumental act of vandalism”. Now New York has its very own Euston and it’s put to shame by the seriously handsome terminus at 30th Street, Philadelphia.

An Amtrak train pulling into Penn Station in NY

“Watching the sleek, silver engine pull in at the platform with its bell clanging, I feel like I’m in a Hitchcock movie” CREDIT: GETTY

This is, incidentally, all I see of Philadelphia. No Independence Hall or Liberty Bell for me. I have two schools and a bookshop to visit.

I leave early the next morning, back on the train. The next station, Washington DC, is more like a palace than a railway terminus. I sign stock at Politics And Prose, one of the country’s most respected bookstores, but then have 90 minutes free. My media guide drives me past the Watergate apartment block, which gives me a certain frisson, then we snatch a walk on Theodore Roosevelt Island on the Potomac river, which is lovely.

The US Capitol building in Washington DC

The US Capitol building in Washington DC CREDIT: PIGPROX – FOTOLIA

I visit an extraordinary school: Discovery Elementary in Arlington. It is very new and brightly colored, purpose-designed for the child of the future. There’s even a fairground slide from the first floor to the library below! That evening I give two talks at the Spy Museum. I manage to glimpse its exhibit on Bond villains which, since I’m writing the new Bond novel on the road, is inspiring. The nearby Kimpton Hotel Monaco is hip and zany; I love the leopard skin-patterned toweling robes.

I then have a morning off in Washington. It’s such a handsome city – no building can be higher than the Capitol – and no matter who occupies the White House, it remains a classical, cultured place.

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11 day 3300 mile Super Road Trip (Day1)


Between Late April to Early June you can rent a car from Arizona or Florida from 8 dollars a day and return it one way. I drove from Phoenix to Texas returning my car to Sacratomatoville. My last road trip was a drive from Miami to New York City. This time I wanted to visit the Great South West and Austin Texas.

Day 1 :Losing my soul to save a Buck

Frontier Airlines has joined Spirit Airlines as a no frills airlines. When it was in Sacramento it was a discount carrier . What I remember was a nice airline who flew my favorite airbus 320, which offered wider seats and more legroom for this big man then the Boeing Planes.

The new Frontier offers killer low fares but that comes at a price, which I soon learned. Frontier fly’s out San Francisco. My killer fare was $19 (not a misprint) How so never, every thing else is extra. (So bring your own toilet paper (kidding). You want a preassigned seat ?$30 bucks. A carry on? $30 bucks. A suitcase ?$65. If you do not prepay online it will cost more at the gates. So I paid 30 bucks which meant one pair of size 15 shoes for 11 days.
I took the Amtrak from Sacramento to the Richmond Bart Station. $27 ($76.) Bart $11.($87) There were one way flights via Airfarewatchdog from SMF to Phoenix for $94. This travel expert saved $10. (including the bus fare from L street to SMF).
The seats were so comfortable on the Amtrack, I wish could have taken it to Phoenix. The seat are wide and the leg room is ahhhhhh.

Being  a midday flight  security was quick at SFO.

While most airlines SAY they will limited the size a bag you can carry on (I wish they would, it wasn’t fun being struck in the head with a 27 inch American Tourister) . Frontier was serious! . A girly gurl with big eyes attempted to walk on with a large back pack. Hey babe! $30. “I fly Frontier all they time and I’ve never paid, she said in very nice, nice, nice voice. The Frontier personnel didn’t say anything but the look on her face was like “Bitch Please!” As the nice, nice girly gurl turned and reached into her back pack to get her wallet-we saw her face transform from Nice Nancy to Bad Brenda! The look from the attendant was like, fork over thirty and in a hurry, we have other victims.

The seasoned flight staff at Frontier were very professional. However, what I remembered from my last flight on Frontier was completely erased. The seating has been reconfigured. The seats were public bus comfortable. Inmate grey. No more passengers fights as the seats do not recline.. Sleeping is not an option. A foot long Subway sandwich would overwhelm the tray tables on this flight as they are two thirds smaller than a normal tray table.

Can you say agony? My legs, my wide-bodied hips (imagine wedging a size nine in a size six shoe) screaming, could waterboarding be more painful? Thank gawd the flight was less than two hours.

In Phoenix, picking up my California bound Volkswagen Passat was a snap. Finding my hotel wasn’t. Either my charger or the power outlet was malfunctioning in my car. My cell was dead and my trusty navigation couldn’t help me. I was on my own. Wandering the streets of Phoenix.

Ninty two minutes of roaming I found it. Dinner was Raising Canes Chicken Fingers which seemed popular. Chicken was good. Oil was old and fries were just okay. Lemonade was outstanding. Nite Night.

CityFella

Tomorrow Part 2 : Slave to My Electronics

 

Airline Travel: Passengers Treated Like Manure


JETBLUECEOPIC

This is Robin Hayes CEO of JetBlue Airlines.  He is seated one JetBlue’s newest plane the Airbus A321.  This picture is in current USA Today (6/29/2015) and I noticed the arm rest is up in the picture.

Mr Hayes, seems like an average size man. Yet in the seat, he looks a bit Snug.

JetBlue is one of my favorite airlines. I’ve flown them for years without incident. A big man, I chose Jet Blue (and most airlines flying the Airbus) because of its superior seating space.

In the USA article Mr Hayes says he was tasked with delivering value to passengers and the carrier’s shareholders at the same time.

Which in passenger speak,  means higher prices and tighter cabins . Passengers now pay for baggage on Jet Blue.  Leaving Southwest as the lone carrier without bag fees for now. Profitability mean the single cabin Jet Blue will have tired cabins on their coast to cost flights like the monster carriers.   With a deluxe and business and economy seating.

Beginning sometime in 2016  we will lose that precious space on the A320 as the carrier plans to squeeze in 15 additional seats.  I’m sure if were  feeling  nostalgic about the former space, we can buy it back.  This practice is common on the big three ( American, Delta, and United)

From the picture, I am convinced Hayes and other airline executives are not passengers on their airlines.

On most airlines anyone over 5.9 and 180 pounds is obese. Southwest Airlines is one of the better airlines however if your are large, you may have to purchase an extra ticket.  From my experience their person of size policy is the most aggressive.

Alternatives and the absence of competition

Before airline deregulation in the late seventies.  The average American took the Bus or the train.  Deregulation brought the cost of the ticket down.   Deregulation took its toll on interstate bus travel leaving Greyhound as the only intercity buses system and today it serves fewer cities.   Passenger rail collapsed  leaving the government run Amtrak.

At one time there were more than 25 airlines, today there are more planes in the air, but fewer airlines.  In the last few years, the giant carrier United merged with giant Continental.   Giant carrier US Airways is now apart of giant American.

With fewer airlines to choose from more than anytime in the last 50 years , the price of travel in the US has increased and the service has deteriorated.    More people are packed on smaller planes with smaller seats and with fewer services.

With high speed rail, decades away, what are the alternatives ?

One airline to watch is the Las Vegas based Allegiance Airlines.  Their fares are often much lower than Frontier, Jet Blue and Southwest.   The carrier buys and refurbish  older planes, notably  the  MD-80 have room to spare at the fraction of the cost of new aircraft. Many of their routes are in third tier airports which have lower fees.  In Northern California, they fly out of Stockton, Fresno and Oakland.    With fares as low as $100 to Hawaii.     I have found the staff is attentive and the airline clean.

This this isn’t an airline for the business traveler.   There are often one to five flights a week to a dedestination.  If a flight is cancelled, you may have to wait a few days up to a week for the next flight.    You cant plan too far ahead  with Allegiance, the carrier has a reputation of cancelling unprofitable routes.

Megabus and the Bolt Bus (Operated by Greyhound)  offers real a alternative to air travel.   A Bus?  Yes.  These buses are equipped with free WiFi and they have power outlets to charge your phone and PC.

Unlike Greyhound, their are no brick and mortar stations.  Only a designated bus stops.  Tickets are pre purchased online and a boarding pass is required for travel.     The buses are generally non stop and is very popular with college students.

Pricing is much like the airlines.  You save $$$$ by purchasing tickets in advance.  It is possible to travel for as one dollar.   Megabus has grown by word of mouth.  All my experiences in the south, here in California and last year on the east coast (The Picture Below is their mammoth bus stop in New York City)  has been positive . The Buses are clean and on time.

NycMega2014 059

The Los Angeles-San Francisco corridor is one of the busiest in the world.  Its an hour flight. When you include wait time its about  3hours and 15 minutes* each way.   Average cost  of an advance ticket is $111 each way.

Travel time on Megabus : Seven hours and 30 minutes. Average Cost $40 each way.  The seats are wider, more legroom and no baggage cost.

A long time ago, there was only one real phone company in America AT&T

 The giant airlines really don’t care about customer service scores.  They are not concerned about the high scores of smaller Carriers  like Virgin ,Alaska and Jet Blue.   A few years ago, the airlines said they needed to charge to baggage to off set high fuel costs.   With fuel cost at their lowest in years, have the airlines reduced costs or eliminated baggage fees?

NO they don’t have to!

CityFella

Moo-vin a little closer Airlines will offer less room this fall


Cattle are treated better than airline passengers.    Today every pour of the aircraft is filled, gone are the days of the airlines boasting about large planes and extra room.  If you want extra travel space, try Greyhound or Amtrak.     

Gone are the 747, Dc 10  and other jumbo jets on domestic routes. The aircraft of choice is Boeings 737 these small fuel effient plains with 17 inch wide seats(6 across) dominate the skys and the airline are filling them on each and every flight.  

A record  setting 86.4% of all seats were filled by paying customers  in July and August.  Denver based Frontier Airlines filled  91% of their seats in Ausgurst  seting a record.  Making if difficult for travelers  redeeming their free miles and for airlines staff traveling. Airline excuttives  once added flights to their routes to protect market share.  Not anymore.  Full or empty airlines has to pay, pilots and flight staff and the airlines lose money on those empty seats.

Traveling this holdiay season could be a challenge should a flight or flights get cancelled.   If the enconomy slows, even fewer seats may be available.        

Note if your a tall  traveler, spending a few extra dollars is well worth a few inches of leg room on  flights two or more hours… Frontier charges $15 (per leg).  United $65.  If your a stout or wide traveler you may be asked to purchase another seat on Southwest and a few other lines.   To avoid last minute suprises check with the airline before purchasing your ticket.  

If you are a member (and everyone should) of their mileage programs,  ask about free or reduced price upgrades.   

 Another helpful option is  seat  guru,http://www.seatguru.com/  it has the seating measuments of most domestic and international aircraftt

CITYFELLA

THE OBESE TRAVELER SPEAKS


 

Lucky you, your a part of the first group boarded on the airplane,  putting away your carry on was a snap, you’ve open you book and all is right with the world until……..You see me, you notice the empty seat next to you and you start to pray…oh gawd, please not here.

At 6.4 and 377 pounds I am your day mare.

I know the look, the look of  terror!

Sometimes (when I’m in a devilish mood), I taunt the passengers, walking slowly, I look at all the middle seats, I walk by, then throw it in reverse, look at my ticket and then at you.  For some reasons male passengers are more effected by this, than female passengers.

For an oversize passenger, nothing is more stressful or uncomfortable than air travel,sitting in plastic chairs and director chairs are a close second.

WATERBOARDING OR THE SEAT

If you weigh less than 180 pounds and under 5.10 you may be thinking  that the obese should be banned from the seat next to  yours.

First lets examine the seat, in the last twenty years, what was four seats across is now six seats.   The average width of an airline seat is 17.5 inches, if you ride RT the width of the bus seat 19inches, Amtrak 20 inches.

Here’s the fun part.  Anyone over 5.10 can relate.   The seat pitch (legroom) average on domestic planes (with Boeing’s 737 being the favorite) 31 inches compare that with RT and Am track’s 35 inches.  In some cases you you have more leg room in rear seat of  a Ford Focus.

I am a huge fan (no pun intended) of Jet Blue.   I choose the airline because the airline fleet.    On the Airbus 320 passengers  are treated to seats that have 34 to 38 inches in legroom AND the seat are wider.

Before the airlines began assessing fees for everything, I used to request the exit rows.  Now airlines charge up to $50.00 per leg for the privilege of sitting in that row.  This could mean an additional $200.00.

 INCIDENT AT DFW

The first leg of my flight to New York was perfect out of Sacramento, they were able to confirm exit  row seats on both legs, generally people are nice if your nice.  In Dallas, my wait was less than an hour.  For comfort I generally ask for an belt extension as I board, usually within seconds the attendant discreetly hands me the belt.

Again, the day was perfect, I was part of the first group boarded, I took out my book and began to read.  Minutes passed and this man poked me on the shoulder and told he I couldn’t sit in the exit row, before I could question him, he was gone.  A few minutes went by and a stewardess stopped by and said you cant sit there and left.  She returned and said that the flight wasn’t full and I would have to take a seat in the rear, I explained to her that I am a frequent traveler and usually request the exit row.  “I’m sorry you will have to move” and she left.

Passengers are now unbuckling to see whats going on.   The first man returned with a book, it seems there is a rule, that says if you need an extension, your not able to assist other passengers in the case of an emergency.

My demeanor changed as I was exiled to the rear of the plane.   Other passengers watched as I was escorted by five employee.  One good intentioned but very loud steward, announced, “oooh, you get the whole row to yourself.  The humiliation continued as this man announced that he was bringing me extra food, because I looked hungry.   I clearly remember this young pigtail child tapping her family turning around and watched me eat.

Like an embarrassed second grader,who said Is-land instead of  island.   I sat in my seat and waited for every one to leave.  Hoping never to see those passengers again.  The mean stewardess said good bye through her teeth, the good intentioned steward waved enthusiastically as I was leaving.

Like the embarrassed second grader my plan wasn’t completely thought out as forgot about the luggage carousels   There they all were, some looked down as I found a place to wait.    I over heard one women ask , I wonder what he did?

In New York, I Fed Ex a letter to the Airline. Who added extra mileage to my account, and sent. me a free ticket

A  LOT OF PEOPLE FEEL THE OBESE SHOULD PAY MORE

73% of U.S. Population Overwieght or Obese

The latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in the United States has found at 72.9% of the country’s population is overweight, obese, or extremely obese. The big news from this study is that more people over 20 years of age are now obese (34.3%) versus those who are simply overweight (32.7%)

Yes and no.

When I go to the theater, I buy a orchestra ticket or a lodge ticket because I have long legs its a small premium but worth it to me..

Southwest is a well run airline, they are  efficient and on time.  Several years ago they instituted a (POS) Person of Size to purchase a second ticket.  I discovered this on the A&E reality show Airline, where this poor  man called his girlfriend or family member for a credit card to purchase  another ticket , the man was in tears.

For several years  I’ve flown  Southwest without incident, then on one flight to Portland I was asked to purchase an additional  ticket on a flight that wasn’t full.  Southwest did refund my money when I returned to Sacramento   Today, I no longer fly Southwest..

I’m not sure if there is an immediate solution airlines are strapped for cash.  They have chosen to fly smaller fuel efficient planes, filling every inch with a human being.

My reality is at 6.4 and 377 pounds, I should pay more.  But I should get more, a wider seat with extra leg room. Would I would have no problems paying an extra $50 to $100 on a domestic flight? absolutely!    Problem is  many airlines want twice that amount and if there is a connection, you are charged for each leg.   If your flight has three legs, that extra comfort could cost you an additional $600.  Worse. they consider an extra inch and a half of leg room luxurious seating.

If you are not obese, and over 5.10 and two hundred pounds, how comfortable is your seat?

Everybody inhale.

 

Update(2012)

Southwest Airlines is in midst of a 60 million dollar overhaul.  The Airline is adding slimmer and thinner seats increasing its seating capacity from 137 to 143 seats. The airline says” passengers will hardly notice”

Fewer flights, and fuller planes is the rule.  Last summer the average flight was over 84% full.

There are options:

Seatguru  www.seatguru.com