Amtrak opens rail pass sales to US residents, makes it hardly worthwhile

Perhaps some of you are familiar with European rail passes that are available for sale – they are sold to non-European residents in varying numbers of quantities and lengths – but the general idea is that foreign tourists can purchase these passes and ride around on the European rail network for cheaper than if you purchase a handful of train tickets separately. Amtrak has also maintained a USA Rail Pass program for non-US residents, for the, you know, person-and-a-half that visits the US for the sole purpose of riding our stellar train system.

Well, fear not, loyal US readers, because you too can now experience the joy of owning a USA rail pass. You can buy a pass good for 15 days or eight travel segments ($389); 30 days or 12 segments ($579); or 45 days or 18 segments ($749). A segment is defined as getting on and off one train or Amtrak-operated bus. The pass is good for coach travel only, although you can upgrade for a surcharge if space is available. Also, you can’t just ride a train with a pass; you must also get a ticket from an Amtrak ticket office. Finally, the pass can’t be used on the Auto Train or high-speed Acela Express.

So that’s the sum of the deal – but would it ever be worth it for anyone? Read on for my incredibly detailed and researched (well, not really) analysis.

Okay, let’s say you’re a US resident actually interested in buying one of these things. Any of the three passes works out to about $48 per segment, if you use them all (the most expensive pass is a little cheaper per segment, but negligibly so.) A quick few queries in Amtrak’s reservations system, however, reveals that a short-distance trip usually only runs about $30. So to really take advantage of the pass savings, each of your segments needs to be longer, say, more than 500 miles.

Problem is, trips of more than 500 miles on a train take at least 12-18 hours – some running upwards of 24-48 hours if you take a real long-distance train. Granted, in a real life situation, some of your segments would be shorter and some would be longer. Realistically, if you want to actually save money with a pass, your average trip length would need to be about 15 hours or so. That’s 120 hours – or five straight days – of train-riding in 15 days. You could do it, but you wouldn’t have time to do much of anything at any of your layovers. On the bright side, you would save at least $500 off of buying all those segments individually.

The question remains, though: who would ever actually buy this thing and save enough money to make it worthwhile?

(Via USA Today)

See the world’s largest cruise ship (again)

Man, it seems like just a couple years ago that Royal Caribbean took home the “world’s largest cruise ship” award (oh, wait, it was.) Well, they’re at it again, with construction of the new Oasis-class of cruise ships. Ships, in case you didn’t know, are measured by their gross tonnage. Back in 2006, Royal Caribbean held the aforementioned title with the Freedom of the Seas, which weighed in at 160,000 gross tons. And actually, I went on a cruise in (if I recall correctly) 2001 on a Royal Caribbean ship called Voyager of the Seas, which at the time was billed as the “world’s largest cruise ship.”

Well, kids, they’re at it again, only this time the ship – the Oasis of the Seas – weighs in at 222,900 tons. That’s a horrifying 39% bigger than the Freedom, in case you didn’t feel like doing the math yourself. (Well, horrifying depending on your point of view, I suppose.) Now, Royal Caribbean has a lot of practice with this whole “biggest ship” thing, and as is typical with a new launch, they’re debuting a number of “firsts at sea” on-board amenities. There’s Central Park, a six-deck-tall open-air atrium. The Boardwalk features a full-sized carousel. The Sports Deck has pools, basketball and volleyball courts, a rock climbing wall and a mini-golf course. And, oh yeah, there’s apparently a zip-line ride over the Boardwalk.

Now, I’m not as opposed to cruises as other Gadling bloggers, but this is a pretty ridiculous ship.

Paris says no to crime, going to quadruple number of CCTV cameras

Paris, in an apparent effort to reduce crime, has taken a page out of London’s book and decided to step up installation of CCTV cameras around the city. According to the Telegraph, while the Paris metro and rail networks already operate over 9,500 cameras, police apparently only have access to about 330 of them. They hope to install bunches more to bring the total up to over 1,200. (France’s 340,000 cameras still pale in comparison to Britain’s estimated total of four million.)

Officials want to beef up security outside Gare du Nord, where the London-Paris Eurostar arrives, where there have apparently been a number of gang battles over the past few months. Also on the target list for more camera coverage include Sacre Coeur and Montmartre. Interestingly enough, French security officials also hope to deploy a mini spy-in-the-sky drone to track rioters and fight crime. Hopefully we’ll get more on that story soon.

Amtrak celebrates Auto Train’s 25th birthday, has (very limited) fare sale

Ever heard of the Auto Train? Yeah, I didn’t think so – it’s not too well-known outside of railroad and frequent-Amtrak-passenger circles. The Auto Train is actually Amtrak’s most unique long-distance route. For one thing, it doesn’t make any stops between its terminals in Lorton, VA (suburb of Washington, D.C.) and Sanford, FL (suburb of Orlando). It’s solely an overnight trip, meaning that you board in the evening and, if it’s on time, you arrive at your destination in the morning. Both dinner and continental breakfast in the recently-revamped Dining Car are included, no matter what class of service you travel in. And, oh yeah, there’s the small matter of bringing your car with you. That’s right, you get to store your automobile in a special car-carrier rail car and bring it with you, so you can use it on the other end.

It normally runs about $100 per person in off-peak season for coach tickets – plus the $200 vehicle charge. But, to celebrate 25 years of Auto Train service, Amtrak is selling 25% off tickets. Not too bad, eh? Oh yeah… the catches. First of all, your travel must begin on a Tuesday or Wednesday in February 2009. Additionally, you must purchase your tickets on October 25. (That’s on October 25, not “around” or “by” October 25.) And, the sale is on the ($100 per person) rail fare, not the $200 vehicle charge. So you really save about $25 per person. Which isn’t chump change, I’ll admit… if you’re already planning on traveling on a weekday in February and you are going to finalize your travel plans by Saturday.

Ah, well, maybe we’ll just have to wait for the 100-year anniversary and snatch up the discounted tickets then.

Chicago’s CTA to launch new transit fare card – ride the rails and… rent a car?

The board of the Chicago Transit Authority last week approved a new partnership with I-GO, ironically enough – it’s a Chicago-based non-profit company that rents short-term, fuel-efficient cars by the hour to people who don’t own a car, but may need one temporarily. The idea is to create a combo fare card that allows you to use your pre-loaded fare money to also rent cars from I-GO.

Actually, it seems like a pretty good idea, in theory – it gives urban-dwellers an additional way to live without actually owning and driving their own car everywhere. According to the I-GO website, once you sign up, you can reserve a car by phone or online. There’s even a nifty Google Maps mashup of all the vehicle locations. To actually pick it up, just take your smart card, swipe it over a reader on the actual car, and then grab the keys out of the glove box. And then you are billed by the hour. Seems pretty simple.

Live in Chicago? Maybe you should consider ditching your car. Ride the CTA around, and if you really need a set of wheels, rent one for a few hours. It apparently takes 3-5 business days to register as a member – so I suppose it would take a bit more planning – but with some tweaking it sounds like the system would work quite well with the leisure traveler as well. Not a bad idea…

(Via Chicago Tribune)