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Stranded in Seattle By Amtrak Mix-Up

The Best Amtrak Trip Ever!

Only now, after dozens of trips that span almost every Amtrak route west of Chicago, tens of thousands of miles of travel on Amtrak and tens of thousands of dollars spent on Amtrak travel, do I realize how lucky I was that everything went so perfect on my very first trip on Amtrak!

Everything went just perfect on that very first trip which was on the Coast Starlight from Seattle, Washington to Los Angeles, California. The Coast Starlight prides itself as being the #1 Amtrak route in terms of Customer Service. As of this writing, they continue to be the only route with a special Parlor Car just for Sleeping Car passengers. In addition to the regular breakfast served in the Dining Car, a Continental Breakfast is also served to Sleeping Car passengers in the Parlor Car. Every afternoon, cheese and fruit is served in the Parlor Car along with either a sampling of California wines of Champagne. The Coast Starlight is also the only route that features onboard entertainment. The entertainment is usually either a magician or a singer and the entertainer makes sure they find every child on the train to provide some individual entertainment and prizes to each. The Coast Starlight is also the only train that features a "Kiddie Room" with special entertainment, games, and videos just for children.

The Coast Starlight is one of the few Amtrak routes that use the new Superliner II equipment instead of the Superliner I equipment, or worse, the single level equipment that is common on routes east of Chicago. The interior of the Superliner II equipment is a professional and luxurious blue, purple and grey. Most other Amtrak routes use Superliner I equipment with a decor that is bright red and orange, something akin to decor you find in cheap fast-food restaurants. In contrast, the hues of the Coast Starlight interior make you feel like you are in a very exclusive hotel or dining establishment.

The Coast Starlight was the first Amtrak trip taken by my children and I. We immediately fell in love with travel by train!

The Exception Rather Than The Rule

After tens of thousands of miles of travel by Amtrak, I have discovered that this "perfect Amtrak train trip" was the exception rather than the rule. I still love travel by train, but I have tremendously changed my expectations. I now know that train trips seldom are so "perfect" as that first trip that I took on the Coast Starlight. I have no idea if I would have become so devoted to train travel had my first experience been as negative as some of the worst train experiences I have had! All I can say it that I was very luck to have had such a wonderful experience on the very first trip that I took on Amtrak.

Rarely will everything go perfectly on a train trip. I became use to minor deficiencies early in my Amtrak travels. Sometimes a Car Attendant will be less than courteous, sometimes the food won't be up to par, quite often the train will arrive late, and often there will be no schedules or Route Guides in your room. To me, these are all minor deficiencies and have minor impact on my enjoyment of my trip. The only time that I become really annoyed at these deficiencies is when I am introducing someone to travel by Amtrak and find that they are disappointed by the poor service.

After extensive Amtrak travel, I have come to the conclusion that about 20% of Amtrak trips will differ very significantly from what was planned! These differences can range from an unexpected change to your reserved accommodations, trains running more than 3 hours late, cancellation of your train due to poor weather conditions, or even complete elimination of the train route on which you planned to travel!

I can't fault Amtrak as being the cause of these problems. Usually the reason for delay and changes are: disabled freight trains, work on tracks outside the control of Amtrak, and severe weather conditions such as flooding. I can, however, fault Amtrak in their poor handling of passengers affected by these circumstances.

If the cause of a late, delayed or eliminated train is due to faulty Amtrak equipment, then Amtrak will make every effort to make alternate arrangements at their expense. If Amtrak deems the cause of the problem to be an "act of God", then you are pretty much on your own! Flooding or the danger of avalaches would be considered "acts of God". In such cases, Amtrak will attempt to help you complete your travel even if train are not running. But, if Amtrak can't find reasonable alternate transportation for you, they don't consider themselves to be under any obligation to you. You may have to make arrangements on your own to bypass closed segments of track and pay for them yourself. Amtrak might let you take a train back to your home and my give you a refund for unused segments of your journey, but you are not going to get a full refund for your ruined vacation trip!

Plan On It And You Won't Be Disappointed

I suggest that you just assume that about 20% of your trips on Amtrak will be a "mystery trip"! That is, 20% of your Amtrak trips will end up being significantly different than what you planned. Don't be upset when this happens. Understand that when you make your plans and purchase your tickets, the 1 in 5 chance of ending up with a mystery trip is just part of the Amtrak experience! Be prepared for the small but significant chance that you may end up at your destination hours or a few days later than expected and may ride in different accommodations or via a different Amtrak route than you had planned or even ride partially by bus.

If you can't accept this possibility, then my own personal opinion is that you don't belong riding on Amtrak. Passenger trains run on rails that are on the ground and most of those rails are owned and shared by freight railroads. The breakdown of freight trains is common. Floods do happen. Avalanches are a serious risk during the winter months in mountainous snow country and trains will not run while there is any risk to passenger safety. Amtrak cannot prevent these things from happening. It is usually these circumstances that create the 20% chance that your journey will become something other than what you expected. However, Amtrak policies and acts of Congress can also affect your plans.

The Best Laid Plans

Of all the trips that I have ever taken on Amtrak, none have gone more wrong than my "Winter Wonderland" trip!

As usual, I made my reservations for this trip about 6 months in advance. Since the trip would be from December 29, 1996 to January 6, 1997, during the peak travel season, I knew that reservations would go quickly. By making early reservations for my family, we were able to get the best early booking discount and were able to reserve a family room for every segment of my trip: Coast Starlight from Fullerton to Seattle, Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago, and Desert Wind from Chicago to Fullerton.

I selected this particular time for our "Winter Wonderland" train trip because my children are off from school for 3 weeks at this time and it is the best time for my wife and I to take off from work since little happens at work during this holiday week. I selected the Empire Builder and Desert Wind routes because they both go through snow covered mountain areas. With a little luck, I figured we'd get some snow during the trip and my kids could step out into the snow at some stops. I also selected these routes because I had not yet traveled on either of these Amtrak trains and this travel would just about complete my travel of all Amtrak routes west of Chicago.

Immediately after making my reservations through 1-800-USA-RAIL, I went down to an Amtrak station and picked up my tickets. I always like to have my tickets in my possession as early as possible.

The first problem with these tickets occured in the late summer of 1996 when Amtrak decided to cancel the Desert Wind route completely. I waited several weeks to hear word from Amtrak as what there were going to do about the reservations that we had for the Desert Wind. I was getting very concerned as I know we would have to switch our reservation to the Southwest Chief and that the Family Rooms on that train might get all booked by the time Amtrak contacted me to let me know that we would have to change our plans.

I contacted Amtrak at the 1-800-USA-RAIL number myself and asked what I should do about our reservation on the no longer existing Desert Wind. The reservation agent arranged to change the Chicago to Fullerton segment of our journey over to the Southwest Chief. He said that would normally be a more expensive trip, but because an Amtrak policy change forced our change of plans, Amtrak would give us this new reservation for no additional cost. Personally, I thought this was the least Amtrak should do for us since this new route would not take my family through the Rocky Mountains which was to be one of the highlights of this trip. Fortunately Amtrak was able to give us a Family Room on this segment of the trip so that we would still be traveling in a Family Room on all segments of this trip. I went down to the Amtrak station the next day and exchanged my tickets for the new ones that had been arranged for me by the agent at 1-800-USA-RAIL.

A few weeks later, an act of Congress to provide funding to continue the Desert Wind for another 6 months meant that the Desert Wind would once again be available for my "Winter Wonderland" plans! I immediately called up 1-800-USA-RAIL the day after Amtrak announced that the Desert Wind would be running for another 6 months. My Family Room was already gone! In just one day, somebody had already taken my Family Room! Amtrak offered to put my Family back on that Desert Wind, but to give us a Deluxe Room instead of the Family Room. Although the Deluxe Room costs more than the Family Room, Amtrak would provide me with the Deluxe Room at no extra charge since it was Amtrak's cancellation and then resurrection of the Desert Wind that caused me to loose my Family Room. Once again, I felt this was the least that Amtrak could do under the circumstances. I didn't want the Deluxe Room and it would be a very tight fit for 4 people in the Deluxe Room. I didn't see any reason why Amtrak should give any thought to charging me extra for this inconvenience.

This time, however, luck was on my side! I went to the station the next day to exchange my ticket. I told the whole story to the ticket agent who was very helpful. She asked me if I still wanted a Family Room on the Desert Wind. I told her that I certainly did! She checked the computer and found that a Family Room had become available again! Thus, she went ahead and reissued tickets identical to my original set of tickets of having a Family Room for our entire journey, including the Desert Wind.

There was no further activity on my tickets until the day before our journey was to begin. Then, problems started again!

My children had a friend visiting them the day before our trip while we were all packing to leave. We found out that their friend had never been on a train or a plane and had never even been outside the state of California in their life! We thought it would be a great experience for their friend and even enhance our own children's enjoyment of the trip to have their friend along. Also, I try to take advantage of every opportunity to introduce friends, family and work associates to Amtrak train travel.

Since I often travel alone or in the Family Room with my family, it only costs me railfare to add one more person to our ticket. As long as we don't exceed the maximum room capacity, it doesn't cost any extra money for the room on the train. Thus I have personally paid for many of my friends, relatives and work associates to travel with me in my room on the train. Some people that have riden on the train with me did not like it and others did like it. Those that did like it have become active rail travelers themselves and most have taken trips by themself or with their families after their rail experience with me.

Last year when my family traveled to Disneyworld on the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles, we added another friend of my children to the ticket. Unfortunately, her mother became uncomfortable with the idea of being away from her child for so long and changed her mind at the last moment. Since we hoped up to the last moment that the mother would have a change of heart, we never cancelled the reservation for this additional person. Thus, Amtrak ended up ahead of the game on that one. They had the railfare for an extra person and didn't have to provide any meals or other services in exchange for the money that they received from me.

The point is, it is not unusual for me to add an extra person to our room after I've made reservations. This friend's mother didn't have any problem with her child taking this trip and felt it would be a wonderful and unique experience for her child. Once I had permission from the child's mother, I called up 1-800-USA-RAIL to add the child to our Family Room. The reservation agent told us it would cost an extra $133. That was about what I expected it to cost. This was definitely a "win-win" situation for us and for Amtrak. Our children would enjoy having a friend along and Amtrak would have another paying passenger without Amtrak needing to provide any additional seats or rooms for the money Amtrak received. The only thing Amtrak would need to provide is a few extra kid's meals for this one extra child on board. However, I believe Amtrak got even a bigger advantage out of this than just the money. They got a new traveler that would tell their family and all their friends about their Amtrak trip. From this experience, this child, her family and some friends will be aware of Amtrak train travel and these people might become passenger rail travelers themselves.

After adding my children's friend to our reservation, I headed down to the Amtrak station to pick up my updated tickets. I was in for an upsetting surprise when I got to the station. The computer showed the updated tickets were ready to be printed, but the computer would not release the tickets without charging me a last minute change penalty of $20 per adult and $10 per child for a total of $70! This didn't make any sense to me. The 2 adults and 2 children already on my ticket weren't making any changes. Our plans were staying the same. The only change was the addition of one child. If any penalty should be assessed, which still seems questionable to me, it should be for the only change made to our ticket which was the addition of one child. In the end, it cost me $133 plus $70 or a total of $203 to add the one child into our Family Room.

I do not want to conclude from this experience that Amtrak wants to discourage me from introducing new people to rail travel. Instead, I have to conclude that the programming in Amtrak's reservation system just isn't sophisticated enough to differentiate a last minute change that is to Amtrak's financial and promotional advantage from one that is to Amtrak's detriment. To make any change less than a day before the start of a trip is automatically penalized! If you are keeping score, this put the total cost of this trip at over $2700, the most expensive trip I have ever taken on Amtrak.

This wasn't the end of changes to this ticket. However, all future changes were due to the weather and to the misleading and false information that was given to us by Amtrak and improper action taken by Amtrak agents.

I got the snow that I wanted for this trip, but more than I ever wished for! The northwest received the largest snowfall in the shortest period of time than they have received for many years. The state of Washington was hit by a series of snow storms that closed just about every road north and east out of Seattle. South of there, Portland was hit by rainstorms causing flooding in many communities. After days of snow, Seattle was also then hit by rainstorms that melted much of the previous snow in the city, but not in the remote areas of central and eastern Washington state. The weather conditions created a high risk of avalanches. Avalanches had already trapped an eastbound Amtrak Pioneer that took many hours to free and get back to Portland.

We received this unhappy news while we were on the train on our way to Portland, Oregon on the Coast Starlight. Our Coast Starlight would not be going any further north than Portland because flooding and debree had made the tracks unpassable. We were transferred to a bus in Portland and took about three hours to be taken by highway to the Seattle station.

Just as we arrived into Seattle, Washington, my pager fired off indicating a message was waiting for me on my answering machine at home. I checked the message and found it was from Amtrak regarding the rest of our trip. I knew this wasn't going to be good news. I called Amtrak. They said that the Empire Builder would not be leaving out of Seattle the following day. They said it would be leaving out of Spokane, Washington, but that Amtrak was not providing alternate transportation to get from Seattle to Spokane, Washington. I asked the reservation agent what were we suppose to do. He said that we had to arrange our own transportation to Spokane and then could continue on our trip or we could get a refund for the unused portion of our trip.

We were not happy with the options that we were given by Amtrak. The ONLY reason we went to Seattle on the Coast Starlight was so that we could get to the Empire Builder which starts in Seattle and then on to the Desert Wind that starts in Chicago. The whole purpose of our trip was to experience the two Amtrak routes that we had never traveled before, the Empire Builder and the Desert Wind, and to experience the snow in the mountains along those routes. My family would never have expended our vacation funds just to go up to Seattle and back on the Coast Starlight since they had taken then trip before and I have personally taken the Coast Starlight over a dozen times in the last year! If we just headed right back to Los Angeles, a large portion of our ticket price would not be refunded and our entire "Winter Wonderland" vacation would be ruined!

I do understand that the danger of avalanches is not the fault of Amtrak and that the closure of all interstate highways between Seattle and Spokane made it impossible for Amtrak to provide alternate transportation, but what follows was definitely the fault of Amtrak.

We called Amtrak at thier 1-800-USA-RAIL phone number to explore our options. We found that no rooms were available on the next two Empire Builder trains leaving Seattle on Thursday, January 2, 1997 and Friday, January 3, 1997. There was some confusion at Amtrak as to the reason for lack of availability. The reservation agent did not know if it was because the train was sold out or if reservations were blocked because the trains were cancelled. There were some rooms available on the Empire Builder leaveing Seattle on Sunday, January 5, 1997. We did not want to be trapped in Seattle for 5 extra days, especially with the cost of hotels and meals for 5 more days vacation, but if were going to be trapped here, we wanted to get out as soon as possible. We asked the reservation agent if it would be possible to temporarily hold those rooms on the Empire Builder for January 5, 1997 while we continued to check our options. We told the agent we'd get back to him within a few hours after we had a chance to check our others options and make a decision. The reservation agent said he could put a hold on those rooms.

This is where things get very tricky. We did not tell the reservation agent to cancel our Empire Builder December 31, 1996 reservations. We had no idea that asking the agent to place a temporary hold on rooms for January 5 would automatically cancel our reservations for December 31! Unaware of this fact, we called Greyhound to see if we could get a bus from Seattle to Spokane. They said that no buses were running at this time and they did not know when the freeways would be open. Then we called Southwest Airlines and found that we could fly from Seattle to Spokane for $69 each. We decided this would be the best and least cost way to keep our vacation from being completely ruined. We made reservations wiht Southwest Airlines for the 5 of us to fly from Seattle to Spokane so that we could meet our train to continue on our journey.

We then called up Amtrak to let them know that we were going to take the first option that they gave us and had arranged our own transportation to Spokane to continue on our journey. To our surprise and our distress, the reservation agent at 1-800-USA-RAIL told us that we no longer had a reservation on that train! We spent hours on the phone with the agent and the agent contacted the Amtrak Help Desk, but all to no avail. Our reservations were gone and the computer was blocked from placing any new reservations on that train. We were still holding printed tickets for that train and we asked the reservation agent if we should just fly to Spokane anyway and show up at the train. They instructed us not to do that as the computer no longer showed us on the manifest and that no room would be available for us! No matter how much we insisted that we did not cancel our reservation and were still holding the printed tickets for our trip, they still insisted that our room was no longer available.

We thought of just taking the chance of flying to Spokane and showing up at the train. We dreaded the thought that we might end up spending the rest of our trip in Coach seating after having planned 6 months in advance to make sure we had a Family Room, or even worse, being stranded in Spokane for several days! We decided to take that chance. But first, we decided to call Amtrak and just try to get the matter straightened out with another sales agent. Things went from bad to worse! This sales agent told us that our train from Spokane to Chicago had been completely cancelled! We called Amtrak 1-800-USA-RAIL several times to confirm this fact. Each time we got the same story. The Empire Builder had been totally cancelled, not just the segment from Seattle to Spokane. Thus, there was no point in flying to Spokane to meet up with a train that didn't exist.

We called up Southwest Airlines and cancelled our flights from Seattle to Spokane. We waited till after midnight when Amtrak clears the computer and makes all cancelled rooms available. The story was still the same for our Empire Builder ... Amtrak continued to say that the entire trip had been cancelled. However, the reservation agent could now book us rooms on the Empire Builer leaving on Thursday, January 2, 1997. There were no Family Rooms available, but they could give us Economy Rooms 9 & 10 from Seattle to Spokane. I'd then have to wake up my kids and move them and our luggage to another Sleeping Car at 1:15AM in the morning. I believe that Sleeping Car is coming up from Portland. We would be in Economy Rooms 23 & 24 which I believe are in a Transition Sleeping Car. From Chicago to Fullerton, the 4 of us would have to fit into one Deluxe Bedroom which is only meant to sleep 3 people. Worse than that, it is Deluxe Room number "A" which is smaller than the other 4 Deluxe Rooms because of the different orientation of the show in that particular room.

I then called the desk at our hotel and extended our stay to January 2, 1997. My wife can't be away from the office that many days, so the trip was ruined for her. She called Alaska Airlines and made reservations to fly back home on January 2 from Seattle, just a few hours before we'd be leaving on the Empire Builder.

On December 31, 1996, we went to see a couple of sights in Seattle as we had originally planned to do before catching our Empire Builder in the late afternoon. Then, we went to the Amtrak station; not to catch a train but to pick up our tickets for Thursday, January 1, 1997.

We were in for another shock. The ticket agent at the counter asked us why we just didn't take Horizon Airlines to Spokane for $29 per person and catch our train in Spokane. That price was much lower than what we were quoted by Southwest Airlines, but we told the Ticket Agent that repeated calls to 1-800-USA-RAIL told us that the Empire Builder was totally cancelled, even out of Spokane. The ticket agent checked their computers and told us that the train was going to go out Spokane as scheduled!

This left us in a real quandry. We were caught in the middle of a dispute between information from the local ticket agent and the 1-800-USA-RAIL reservations agents. If we hadn't been given misleading information from 1-800-USA-RAIL we would have flown to Spokane. Now, however, it was too late to cancel our hotel reservation and it was too late to pack everyone up and get to the airport. Also, the Amtrak Ticket Agent still showed on the computer that we no longer had reservations on the train. The ticket agent told us that didn't matter. As long as we had the printed tickets they would be honored on the train. But, who were we to believe? The reservation agents at 1-800-USA-RAIL told us the train was not running and even if it was, our tickets would not be honored.

We decided to not take any more chances and just go with the new reservations for Thursday, January 2, 1997. Now the problem was figuring out pricing. We originally had a Family Room booked for our entire journey. Our journey had already been distrupted by shifting us to a bus from Portland to Seattle and it would now be extensively disrupted. One person was being forced to cancel their trip. The rest of us were being moved into a pair of Economy Rooms of which we would have to change in the middle of the night with kids and suitcases and all. Then, we'd all have to squeeze into one Deluxe Bedroom meant for a maximum of 3 people. To add insult to injury, we were told that the Deluxe Bedroom only included meals for 3 people and I'd have to pay for meals for the fourth person!

To figure pricing, the Amtrak ticket agent subtracted one adult from the rest of the journey on my ticket. But that created a further problem. Two children can travel half price with one adult and I was now traveling with three children! Thus, full price would have to be paid for the third child (the one who gets no meals included in the Deluxe Room segment of our trip?). All in all we ended up with about a $200 refund. That was enough for airfare for my wife to get home, but not even enough for the taxis at each end.

I don't hold Amtrak responsible for the rain, the snow, and the danger of avalanches. I do hold them responsible for giving me false and conflicting information about whether or not the Empire Builder would be leaving from Spokane and for cancelling our reservations on that Empire Builder without any authorization for them to do so from us. Without that mixup on the part of Amtrak, all 5 of us would have been able to complete our "Winter Wonderland" train trip with only a minor inconvenience. I would have paid the airfare for the 5 of us from Seattle to Spokane and we all would have continued our trip in the Family Room as planned.

I have never asked anything of Amtrak prior to now. However, in this case, I do plan to try to make Amtrak aware of how the conflicting and false information from their agents and system did significantly degrade our "Winter Wonderland" trip and totally ruin it for one of us. It was not the weather or the avalanche danger that spoiled our trip. Those events only created a mild inconvenience. It was the false information from Amtrak and the unrequested cancellation of our reservation that spoiled our trip. I am going to see if Amtrak is willing to make up for their mistake by issuing us reservations for 5 in the Family Room over the same Fullerton to Seattle, Seattle to Chicago, Chicago to Fullerton route for next year so that we can have a successful "Winter Wonderland" vacation for me to write about. Or alternatively, if it is easier for Amtrak, just to issue a $2700 credit toward future rail travel. After the tens of thousands of miles I have traveled on Amtrak this year and the tens of thousands of dollars I have spent with them just in 1996 alone, I don't think this is too much compensation to ask for their mistake and the disappointment they have cause my family. I will definitely write about the outcome of that request.

The Saga Continues!

Well... It is now January 2nd, 1997 and we've now spent an extra 2 days in Seattle, and another couple hundred dollars for a hotel room, waiting for the tracks to clear so that we can take the Empire Builder out of here. Unfortunately, NOTHING is leaving Seattle yet! Amtrak isn't sending any trains north, east or south. We can't continue on our journey and we can't go home by train.

The Ticket Agent at the Seattle Amtrak Station suggested that we just cash in our tickets and find another way to get home. We cashed in our tickets as the agent suggested. To our shock, we only received $1500 refunded out of the $2700 that we paid for this trip! Combined with the $200 that I was refunded yesterday when my wife dropped out of the vacation, that makes a total refund of $1700. In other words, we made reservations with Amtrak many months in advance and it ended up costing us $1000 for a one-way trip in the Family Room from Los Angeles to Portland and a bus from Portland to Seattle and then to be stranded in Seattle!

To be fair, the Seattle Amtrak Station staff were very helpful and tried every angle they could to get the reservation system to issue us the maximum refund possible. They are limited by what the system permits as far as what they can do over the counter. We even spoke to the Station Manager and he gave us the phone number of Amtrak West Customer Relations in the hope that they might be able to do something about our unfortunate situation. He immediately realized that having paid $1000 for a one-way trip in the Family Room from Los Angeles to Portland was quite excessive, especially after all we had been through and considering that we had made the reservation many months in advance.

Because of the false information that we were given by Amtrak about train 8 not running out of Spokane on January 1st as described above, we didn't fly from Seattle to Spokane to continue our vacation. That resulted in several unnecessary nights in a hotel in Seattle, airfare for five people to fly back to Los Angeles, taxi fare back to our house, and cost us $1000 for a one-way trip from Los Angeles to Portland in the Family Room!

As of Thursday night, January 2, 1997, we are still trying to figure out what to do next. If the tracks south of here clear up over the next couple of days and if we can obtain a Sleeping Car accommodation, we will try and take the Coast Starlight home. If not, then we will just fly home. That airfare will probably cost us almost another $1000.

Tomorrow we are going to try to contact Amtrak West Customer Relations. If they are willing to cover our trip from Seattle back to Los Angeles, then we will consider things even. That would make our trip closer to the value of the $1000 that Amtrak has retained from us. I wouldn't be totally happy with that result, but I would accept it as the best resolution that Amtrak could provide at this point.

Know What To Expect And You'll Enjoy Your Travels!

I've been told that there are parts of the world that only an experienced and hardened traveler can appreciate. In some parts of the world poverty, sickness and death is common as well as corrupt police and customs officials. Many people cannot endure these circumstances and can not enjoy touring such parts of the world. Some travelers desire to visit places in the world that are off the beaten path and are willing to endure such environs to satisfy their travel desires. These travelers even learn to avoid corrupt government officials or how much to pay to who to avoid trouble.

Travel by Amtrak is a bit like traveling in these third world countries. I'm not saying the travel conditions are the same. Quite to the contrary. With a Deluxe Bedroom, you can travel in the lap of luxury! The similarity is in the unpredictability of travel. A third world traveler has to adapt to circumstances. The expected bus, plane or train may not leave on time, arrive on time, or might not run at all! You might not get the accommodations that you had reserved at your hotel, plane or train. Now that is a lot like Amtrak!

Make your reservations as far in advance to get the lowest price and to get the accommodations of your choice. But, if you prepare yourself to not be dissapointed if your train leaves or arrives on a different date and time than you planned, or are transferred to a totally different train, or have to travel part of your route by bus, or end up with a different room or a different level of accommodation than you had planned, then your trip is guaranteed to be a success!

You might ask: "How can my travel be a success if all my plans fall apart?". That is exactly how travel by Amtrak is like travel in a third world country! If you are prepared for the unexpected, then you can enjoy your journey no matter what happens. When I make my plans for Amtrak 6 months in advance, I know I have a 80% chance that everything will go as planned, but a 20% chance that my travel will be significantly different than what I had planned. As long as you make your plans with this understanding and accept that unexpected changes can occur, then you can enjoy your travel on Amtrak just as much as devoted travelers enjoy their travel to third world nations!

A Glutton For Punishment

To follow my own example, I've already made new reservations to replace the above trip that self-destructed. I had planned to have traveled just about every Amtrak route west of Chicago by the end of 1996. Amtrak's untimely cancellation of my "Winter Wonderland" trip has thrown a monkey wrench into those plans. With the refund that I received from Amtrak I have already booked a repeat of the "Winter Wonderland" trip 2 weeks from now on January 17th, 1997. Unfortunately, my children will be back in school and my wife won't be able to be away from the office at that time. So, I'll be making the journey alone this time. Hopefully, the avalanche danger will clear up by then and the trains will run!

In making these new plans, I've learned another important item of travel by Amtrak and have a significant new recommendation to make about making reservations on Amtrak.

This time I made my reservations through Amtrak Vacations at 1-800-321-8684 instead of 1-800-USA-RAIL. Working with Amtrak Vacations is the same as working with a travel agency, which is really what they are. Not only can they make your rail reservations, but they can also book hotels, rental cars, and arrange other tours at your travel destinations. They can also do a few other things that can not be done through 1-800-USA-RAIL: (1) they can book air-rail travel, (2) they can sell you the "Trip Protection Option", and (3) they can take a deposit of $100 per person within 7 days with the balance due 45 days before departure.

If you make your reservations through 1-800-USA-RAIL, you usually have to pay in full within 10 days regardless of how far in advance of your trip you make your reservation. Thus Amtrak Vacations at 1-800-321-8684 makes it possible to hold advance reservations for a long time with just a deposit of $100 per person and then pay in full just 45 days before your trip. One word of warning though: until you pay in full, the price of travel can change. Once you have paid in full, the price you paid will not go up. I have had money refunded to me when I paid early this way and the price went down, however.

Since I've already taken the Coast Starlight many times, I did not need to do that route again. To save time, I wanted to fly to Seattle and then take the Empire Builder to Chicago and the Desert Wind back to California. The important item that I learned this time is that you can only fly on the LONGEST segment of your trip! Amtrak would only allow me to fly to or from Chicago. I was not allowed to fly to Seattle! Thus, the air-rail vacation would not work into my plans. I was forced to make a reservation on the Coast Starlight in order to get to Seattle.

The most important reason that I booked my trip through Amtrak Vacations at 1-800-321-8684 is that I could purchase the "Trip Protection Option" for $40. As described in the Terms and Conditions of the "1997 Amtrak Vacations" brochure:

I don't know if this would have helped with my previous problems, but I'm now paranoid enough to buy whatever protection is offered!

I believe you can also obtain the same benefits from your local travel agent that you get from Amtrak Vacations at 1-800-321-8684, but I have not confirmed that yet.

What Happens Next?

I don't know. I'm in the Pioneer Square Hotel in Pioneer Square in Seattle. We are suppose to check out by 11 A.M. I doubt any trains will be running out from Seattle by tomorrow morning. We'll probably hang in here another day and keep trying to book a reservation on the next southbound Coast Starlight out of here, or even take a bus to Portland and take the train from there. But, I don't yet know when the trains will run again and if we'll be able to get a reservation. Keep checking and I'll post how everything turns out!


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