Next month I'll be going to Chicago, and will be taking the train there from Los Angeles. This is the second time I've made the trip. The first time was about 15 years after grad school, which I wrote about here. I got a coach seat then, and it was a wonderful trip on general principal, but all the better since around Albuquerque an absolutely beautiful German girl got on and had the seat next to me, all the way to Chicago. And it turned out she was working as an au pair in San Diego. (I tell the tale in the article, and yes, we actually did end up going on a date, though alas it didn't get any farther than that.) This time -- in part because I don't expect lightning to strike twice, but mainly because I don't want to sit in a coach seat for two days gain -- I got ticket for a roomette. It's definitely more expensive, but I look at it like it's part of a vacation, not just transportation.
For no particular reason, I'm thinking of calling this the Honorary Chris Dunn Half-Country Tour, though I'll probably settle for something significantly less divisive -- like maybe the I Hate Trump Train Ride Across America. But perhaps it will just simply be Train Fest 2018: Back on the Rails Again, This Time Though in Total Comfort.
(By the way, the coach seats are quite comfortable, and they stretch out extensively with footrests. Besides which you can move around to the club car, dining car and -- best of all -- the observation car, which I especially loved going to at night, when they darken the car as you head through the Western plains. But for two days, 40 hours actually, "quite comfortable" has its limits. Especially if you don't have a beautiful German girl sitting next to you who actually seems to like you. I'm a guy -- I'd have happily stayed in a coach seat all the way to the East Coast under those conditions...)
This here, though, isn't about the train trip but the Amtrak reservation system. As I said, the trip years before was wonderful, even going coach, and I expect it to be the same next month, all the more so traveling in a roomette. But as wonderful as the trip should be, Amtrak reservations is utterly screwed up.
And therein lies the tale.
My ticket is $520 one way. Which is fine. As I said, I look at this as part of the vacation, and you get a room for two nights and three meals included. So, $520 is absolutely OK By Me. But here's the thing: if I had decided to leave the very next day – a Wednesday, not a weekend, mind you, just the middle of the week -- the cost would $1,100!!!!. One way. And if I left the day before, on a Monday, it would have been $700. Expense aside -- and that's admittedly a lot to put aside -- it's the overwhelming inconsistency that's at issue, and the whole schedule is screwy like that. (Actually, it’s even worse if I had wanted to leave a month earlier. Not just more expensive, but with wider price swings.) That’s why it was so hard to figure out a good schedule when to make my trip. I don’t mind paying $520 – but to pay SO much more the day before or after?? No way. Especially when flying that same day is about $130 each way. So, to pay $1,100???
But here's the thing -- it’s even more odd than that.
I could have made the reservation online, but the problem is that you can’t specify upper roomette or lower level when booking that way – which is utterly nuts. You have to call. (And worse, they don't even tell you that on the website, about being able to pick a particular roomette if you phone them, but I did a lot of online searching for information beforehand, which is how I discovered that.) And selecting which roomette is pretty valuable -- not just for getting upper level or lower level, but whether you're close to the stairs, or bathrooms and showers which might be convenient, but have more foot traffic, or near the back where the car is coupled which might be a little noisier. It just seems a pretty good idea to be able to pick your roomette
So...okay, I called to make the reservation. And specify the location, I said upper level. Fine, she checked and said she got me Room 7 and it’s $670. Hmm, hold on, I said, online it shows only $520. She checked, saw that I was right and said, “Well, let me search again, only this time I won’t specify upper level. I’ll just do a search for ‘Any Room.’” She came back and said that, yes, she was able to get it for that $520. “So, it’s probably lower level, then, right?” I said to her. It wasn't my first choice, of course, but there were some okay things about lower level, so...whatever, it would be saving my $150. Oh, no, she answered, it’s the very same Room 7. Can you imagine!!! By doing a search for “Any Room” – rather than search specifically for Upper/Lower -- she got the exact same room for $150 less!!!
As I said, they are all screwed up there.
At least that's all out of the way now, though. The only thing that's left is the trip itself. Looking forward to it.
But man, the next time people in charge get around to discussing the commercial viability of train travel in the United States, they should really grasp the concept that -- forget the whole deal with actually traveling by train -- when you make simply buying a ticket THIS NUTS, you're only and always going to screw yourself.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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