Holiday trip? Consider rail travel

rail travelUnlike Europe and Japan, the United States isn’t known for its high-tech, efficient rail travel. Which is a shame because, as I recently discovered, taking Amtrak is sometimes a better way to travel this big country of ours, and generally speaking, it has a lower carbon footprint per passenger than driving or flying.

You definitely need to have time to spare for long distance trips, although with the epic waits at some airport security checks, you may well come out ahead on shorter routes. Amtrak offers a lot of promotions and deals on its website, and children two to 15 ride half-price. The train can also be more fun for kids, and help save the sanity of parents who dread the airport schlep and subsequent whine-fest.

When I lived in the Bay Area, I’d sometimes take the train from Berkeley to my brother’s place in Truckee, in North Lake Tahoe. Given that it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive in perfect weather, assuming you leave at the crack of dawn to avoid traffic, the five-hour rail journey isn’t a bad idea for a winter trip. Note: Depending upon route, make sure your trip doesn’t have a connection by bus, which can considerably lengthen your trip and detract from your comfort. That said, I’ve ridden Amtrak’s motorcoaches in the past and found them pretty nice. They’re a far cry from the filthy, stinking, hell-on-wheels that is Greyhound, and at least there are increasingly excellent options on the East Coast for short-distance bus travel.

rail travelStill, I’d never done an overnight on Amtrak, mainly because I hate to take 17 hours to travel somewhere that’s a two-hour flight away. But on a recent trip from Chicago to Washington DC, the train was running $85/o/w for a coach seat. At the time, even with the additional cost of a sleeper, it was cheaper than airfare, so I went for it.

The only part of the Midwest I’d visited prior to Chicago was Wisconsin, so the train also provided a great way for me to see a new part of the country. And it would be relaxing…a mini-vacation, if you will, where I could escape traffic and the electronic leashes of Blackberry and computer (Amtrak’s AcelaExpress commuter trains are currently the only ones equipped with Wifi).

The Capitol Limited route took me from Chicago’s bustling downtown Union Station, through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. Getting a ticket is as simple as booking online, which I recommend doing in advance if possible, although you can also purchase them at the station from an agent or kiosk, and over the phone or your mobile device. Long distance routes have various sleeping options, ranging from one-to-two person roomettes to bedroom suites that accomodate four adults. For future reference, I suggest you book at least a month ahead on the more popular routes, to ensure you get a sleeper. I selected a 3’x6″ x 6’x6″ “Superliner Roomette ($128 additional fee, including meals).” The Superliner is a double-decker; the roomette a private cabin with sliding doors and curtains, windows spanning the length of the compartment, climate control, a garment rack, fold-down table, and two very comfortable reclining seats that fold into upper and lower berths. Unlike the single-level Viewliner car roomettes, there is no sink or toilet.

Compared to the airport, the train is a stress-free snap. Arrive at station, print out ticket, go to private waiting room, check bag, read, eat free snacks. When it’s time to board, you’re led to the correct platform, and you climb aboard. Tip: If you’ve gotrail travel a lot of luggage or a really heavy bag, get some assistance. Trains are a lot longer than you’d think, and my back was giving me the metaphorical finger by the time I staggered to my car, lugging my corpse-size duffel.

The friendly conductor showed me to my cozy roomette on the second floor. There was a clean bathroom just steps away, as well as a coffee/water/juice station (included with fare). The shower was downstairs; I was expecting the worst, but it was clean, the water hot and plentiful.

The sightseer lounge cars have huge windows and tables, so I spent the first couple of hours watching the sun set over Indiana. FYI, some routes, like the West’s Coast’s Pacific Surfliner, Coast Starlight, and Amtrak Cascades, and the California Zephyr in the Rockies, are justly famous for their scenery. Amtrak also provides a stop-by-stop guide for its routes, so you can learn the historical and cultural significance of each.

As for dinner, I’m pretty sure I harbor a repressed childhood trauma from an airline chicken breast, because while I think nothing of eating dog, goat testicles, or witchetty grubs (or, probably, human flesh), I can’t deal with meals produced for mass transit. So I bypassed the dining car, because it just smelled unappetizing, and the plates of food didn’t look much better. Instead, I brought my own travel picnic with me. To do otherwise in a city with dining and grocery options as fantastic as Chicago’s would be a shame..

What I really love about Amtrak is the fact that it lets me enjoy transit for transit’s sake, which is something I don’t often experience domestically (probably because I’m always flying or driving). Like riding the bus in foreign countries (my favorite wayrail travel to travel, and inevitably a fascinating cultural immersion), the train allowed me to just zone out. I had the time and privacy to read, doze, think, daydream, and watch the world go by. At 9pm, the conductor came to turn down my bed. I slid between the sheets, and watched the starry Midwestern night slip by. The rhythm of the rails lulled me to sleep.

In the morning, I sipped my coffee and marveled at the brilliant fall foliage in Maryland and West Virginia. I arrived at DC’s centrally-located Union Station feeling far more relaxed (and free of neck-kinks) than any flight has ever left me. Thanks, Amtrak. rriving

Turkish buses versus Greyhound

Planes are fast and popular. Trains are often cheaper and romanticized. Buses, however, get a bad rap. In the States, that’s probably deserved. With the exception of some modern, swanky buses servicing the Northeast Corridor and the Midwest, the bus options throughout the United States are pretty shoddy. Yet, bus travel doesn’t have to be all about steerage class, sweat boxy hellholes. Sadly, you just have to leave the United States to find the Shangri-La of bus service. One place to do so is in Turkey.

Yes, Turkey has amazing long-haul bus service. How is it better than the typical Greyhound service that you find in the States? Let’s break it down.

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For the sake of this comparison, we’ll be looking at Greyhound and the Turkish bus line Kamil Koç (pronounced Camel Coach), which I rode from Bursa to Selçuk.

Sure, this is far from scientific. And Greyhound is introducing some new, modern buses to their fleet. But only in certain pockets of North America. The vast majority of Americans have limited bus options, most of which make overpaying for regional flights and dealing with the hassles of airports actually seem like good ideas.

Turkey has wi-fi enabled, tea-serving buses with personal televisions zipping all over the country! Why can’t we have buses that would encourage people to view ground transportation as a viable (and comfortable) option for travel?

Have you ridden a particularly luxurious bus outside of the United States? Have a funny story about Greyhound? Share your bus experiences in the comments.

Mike Barish’s trip to Turkey was sponsored by Intrepid Travel. While everyone should agree that İskender kebab is amazing, the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are strictly his own. You can read more about his trip to Turkey here.

8 tips for surviving long-distance discount bus travel

Travel by plane, despite its many aggravations and expenses, is generally quick – in a matter of hours you can be across the country or on the other side of an ocean. Train travel, while slower, has an element of romance to it. But bus travel. . . bus travel is generally the last resort. Thanks to new low-cost bus services like Megabus and BoltBus, bus travel is cheap, but it can also be slow and unreliable, and there’s no dining car where you can while away the time drinking wine and watching the world go by. Bus travel is getting better, but it can still be a difficult way to get around. Here are eight tips for making the experience more pleasant.

Book in advance
If you don’t know by now, Megabus offers seats for as low as $1 each way between select cites. But these elusive $1 fares go quickly, and the price goes up as demand increases. Don’t wait until the cost of your bus fare is nearly as much as a plane ticket – the appeal of the bus is that it’s cheap! Book as far in advance as you can to get the best rate.

Know before you go
Get the scoop on what your bus offers in terms of power outlets and wi-fi so that you can plan your in-bus diversions accordingly. On some buses, only certain seats have power outlets, so if you’ll need to juice up your electronics, you’ll want to know where to sit. On the new site BusJunction.com, you can check routes, prices and schedules from multiple bus companies, plus see what amenities are offered on your bus. You can also read Yelp reviews to see what kind of experience others have had.

Pack light and put your luggage in last
With no restrictions or extra fees for luggage, it’s easy to go crazy and pack way more than you need. But remember there is still limited space on the bus, and everyone’s luggage needs to fit in the cargo hold. Plus the more everyone brings, the longer it takes to load and unload all the bags. If you’ll be in a hurry to grab your luggage and go once you arrive at your destination, be sure to put your luggage in last so that it is the first out. If you are bringing a smaller bag, just stow it underneath your seat.

Snag the good seats
If you don’t need to be close to a power outlet, you may think one seat is as good as another. Not so. A few seats on most buses have more leg room than others. On double-decker buses, the seats just after the stairwells, and the two seats in the very front by the window have the most room. But, if you are partial to motion sickness, steer clear of the front seats – the unobstructed view may make you queasy. Avoid sitting by the trash or by the bathrooms for obvious reasons.

Try to get on first so you have more time to pick your seat. If you are traveling with someone else, have them handle the luggage while you get seats, or just stow your stuff under your seat so you can get on before the rush. Check to make sure that your seat reclines and move if it doesn’t. If your seatmate has an odor issue, doesn’t understand the concept of personal space, or has his or her headphones on so loud you can hear the music clearly, get up and move to another seat to save yourself the inevitable hassle later.

Watch your valuables
Petty theft seems to happen more in and around buses than other forms of transportation. Use common sense and keep an eye on your valuables at all time. Keep your purse or bag at your feet rather than putting it above your head, especially if you plan on dozing off, and avoid showing off your valuables at any time. If you get up to go to the bathroom or get off the bus, make sure to bring anything of value with you.

Bring a snack for emergencies
Buses on most log-haul routes (generally of 5-6 hours or more) will stop for a short break at a rest stop so that passengers can get something to eat. Usually this will happen half-way through the ride, but buses sometimes break down or get stuck in traffic. If you get cranky when you don’t eat on a regular schedule, bring a snack that travels well, like some almonds or a granola bar. The dining options available are often limited, so consider that if you are on a special diet. Bring water, but go easy on the liquids. As the ride goes on, the condition of the bathroom deteriorates, and you don’t want to be forced to use it when you are almost to your destination.

Bring distractions, but be polite
Just as you would for a long plane or train ride, bring an arsenal of things to keep you busy. If reading in a moving vehicle makes you nauseous, bring a portable DVD player or laptop and watch movies, listen to an iPod, or plan to take a nap. But keep your entertainment to yourself. Use your headphones and keep the volume low, and keep your phone calls to a minimum. No one wants to listen to your 3-hour long conversation.

Know that you get what you pay for
Bus travel is cheap, but it can try your patience. Remember that the service is often cheap for a reason, and that by saving money, you do run the risk of being bored, stuck in traffic, listening to someone’s obnoxious music blasting from their headphones, with your only option for dinner the $1.99 steak and eggs special at the roadside truck-stop diner (okay, I’ve never had it that bad!). Consider what your time is worth and you may opt to pay a little extra to fly next time. If you do decide to take the bus, just remember to pack the most important thing of all – your patience.

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BusJunction offers comprehensive one-stop shopping for budget bus lines

We’ve covered budget bus lines before here on Gadling. One of their biggest disadvantages was always the lack of a central booking site like you’ll find for airline tickets.

That just changed with the launch of BusJunction.

This convenient site offers easy to use booking tools for 12 different bus lines (Megabus, Bolt, Vamoose, DC2NY, Greyhound, Trailways, Peter Pan, Lakefront, Fung Wah, Lucky Star, Eastern Travel and New Century).

The site tells you which lines depart from your city, and to which destinations. You can link directly to the booking page of the bus service, get maps of the terminal location and even find which services are available on the bus (like Wi-Fi and power outlets).

All in all a very convenient service for people who have become bus addicts, or for people who are looking for a more affordable alternative to the car or airlines.

Budget Travel: Hop on a bus

Depending upon the time frame you have to go from one point to the next, bus travel is a worthy option when looking for a bargain. Last summer, I opted for Greyhound as a way to get back from New York City to Columbus with my son. It was a perfect trip with few kinks. At the time, the bus fare was much cheaper than a flight, and I didn’t want to drive myself.

A few years back, I made a similar trip (from Cleveland to New York City) with my daughter when she was five with equally favorable results. And, well before that, I traveled with a friend for three months across the United States, criss-crossing from Kentucky to California–mostly by bus.

Here is a look at bus options in addition to Greyhound as a way to save money. Plus, a bus gives you the opportunity to watch the scenery glide by and hear songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” playing in your head. [The photo posted by bobster1985 is of the Greyhound bus terminal circa 1936.]

First up, Greyhound: With a network that stretches across the United States to 2,300 different destinations, Greyhound is more likely to get you closer to the places you might want to go. If you’re heading to a major city, golden. If you have a small town in mind or a national park, lots of luck.

When my friend and I were mapping out our trip, we nixed several places because getting there was impossible, or too inconvenient. We also found out that the further west we went, the later a bus departed–or the earlier it arrived. However, we spent a whole day Salt Lake City and Denver without staying overnight by arriving early in the morning and leaving after midnight. Granted, it’s not a picnic at a bus stop in the middle of the night, but it’s not awful.

Because a Greyhound bus tickets can be purchased the day of a trip at the station, you can build flexibility into a vacation. When we bought our tickets, we figured out the route we wanted to take and the stops we could make in order to maximize our tickets. One leg went between Lexington, Kentucky to Racine, Wisconsin with stops in Louisville and Chicago.

For bigger savings, Greyhound has several budget options. Book ahead and on-line for up to a 20% discount. Right now, you can purchase a ticket 14-days in advance and get anywhere in the U.S. for no more than $99 one-way if you’re traveling on Monday through Thursday. At other times, a 14-days in advance purchase can get you a 35 % discount, and 7-days in advance can save 20%.

Unlike air travel, children, senior citizens and students also get discounts. Children under 2 can travel for free. Children ages 2-11 can get a ticket for 40% an adult rate. Seniors can get a 5 % discount. If you’re a student, with a Student Advantage Discount Card, you can save 15%.

Find out if you can get a Family & Friends companion fare. It’s still listed on the Greyhound website. If you’re traveling with another person, one person pays full fare, and the other person pays 50%. For a parent traveling with two children, each child pays 50%.

About Trailways and Peter Pan: Trailways is included in the Greyhound network. In many cases, you may be on Trailways bus for part of the trip and then switch to Greyhound. Greyhound specializes in coast to coast travel, while Trailways service is focused within distinct regions. A Trailways issued ticket is good on a Greyhound bus.

Peter Pan bus line operates in New England and is one way to get to smaller cities and towns. I’ve taken Peter Pan to Wooster, MA. Booking on-line offers cheaper ticket options. Like Trailways, Peter Pan dovetails with Greyhound.

Megabus: When Josh wrote about Megabus last October, a couple of people left comments giving a thumbs up to their experience. Touted as having bus fares as low as $1, bus fares go up as seats sell. As of last May, the company had served 1,000,000 passengers. The company now offers service to seventeen Midwest cities, seven West Coast cities, eight East Coast cities, and into Canada, however buses have very specific routes, so the reach may not be as wide as you need. You can also hop on a Megabus in Great Britain.

The map on the website shows the bus routes, and a drop down menu lets you know which destinations are connected to each other. For example, from Columbus, I can only go to Chicago, Cincinnati or Indianapolis on one ticket. From Chicago I can head to Minneapolis. In order to get to Memphis or Kansas City, other destinations, I’d have to go to Chicago first. If the price is right, why not? Otherwise take Greyhound.

When booking a Megabus ticket, you can block out several return date options if you want flexibility. As a point to be aware of, you can only bring one checked bag that doesn’t exceed 50 pounds, and one small carry-on bag. Greyhound allows for more.

Unlike Greyhound that operates out of bus stations, Megabus has specific bus stops that may or may not be near a bus station, but stops are clearly marked. Although most of Megabus’s business is done on-line, you can make reservations by calling their telephone reservation line.

I’ve never ridden a Megabus, but from the the description, they remind me of the more deluxe buses that went between Hsinchu, Taiwan where I used to live and Taipei–roomier than Greyhound and quicker because there are less pick-up points in between.

BoltBus: Grant took a BoltBus from Washington, D.C. to New York City last March and was generally pleased. Similar to Megabus, BoltBus offers an inexpensive option for going between Boston, NYC, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Ticket prices start as low as $1. Like Megabus, Boltbus also offers Wi-Fi access and plug-ins. Grant, though said that the Wi-Fi wasn’t working for him.

To buy a ticket, go to www.boltbus.com to purchase on-line. For the best deal, it’s recommended that you purchase tickets a couple weeks in advance. You can buy a ticket buy showing up the day of departure, but you’ll pay more and may not get a seat.

If you do buy a BoltBus ticket, be sure of your travel date because tickets are non-refundable. (Megabus allows you to change for a fee) Like on Greyhound and Megabus, children under the age of two can travel for free with an adult.

Chinatown Bus: Last year I found out about the “Chinese Bus” that leaves Columbus for New York City, every night (I think). Since then, I’ve discovered a vast network of buses that connect various cities to Chinatown. If you choose this option, book early on-line to make sure you get a seat, but be prepared that you may have to wait for another bus since buses fill up.

Like Boltbus, you can only buy a ticket on-line. Unlike Megabus, you must have a printed out boarding pass in order to get on the bus. Also, like Boltbus, tickets are non-refundable. (For more answers to questions you might have, click here.)

Departure cities range from Mobile, Alabama to Syracuse, New York and Spartanburg, South Carolina. This company also offers vacation package tours. There’s a three-day tour from NYC to Toronto that takes in Niagara Falls and Thousand Islands, for example. Excluding meals and admission fees, the tour costs $190 per person for a double occupancy room. If you buy two, the third person goes for free.

For a look at what traveling on a Chinatown Bus may be like, click here. One detail to know beforehand is that before you hop on one of these buses, make sure you are getting on the right one. Several leave from the same stop. Now, that really does sound like Taiwan.

An advantage of this bus over Greyhound is that it makes less stops so you can arrive at your destination more quickly. However, like Greyhound, departure times are hit and miss. The schedule, in a way, is a suggestion of when a bus might leave. Still, don’t arrive late or you might be out of luck.

Within the Chinatown bus offerings, The Fung-Wah Bus only travels between New York and Boston. You can either buy a ticket on-line or at the ticket office at 138 Canal Street.

Another company with the same service is Lucky Star. Currently, there is a promotion where you can pay $1 for a one-way fare, but this is first come, first serve.

For other bus company options, check out RK Chin, a journey through Chinatown. There are a few more you may want to consider.