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My Weekend Jaunt to California ~ All 23000 Miles Of It!


Old Feb 9, 13, 11:48 pm
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Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 7,016
My Weekend Jaunt to California ~ All 23000 Miles Of It!

I first got the notion of taking this trip late last summer. Back then I envisioned it as a simple little jaunt down to Southern California for an Airline Collectibles convention. It would be a nice break from our long cold winter up here in Alaska’s Interior. I figured I’d fly from Fairbanks down to LAX on Friday, hit the convention on Saturday, then rent a car and spend two or three days up the coast or out in the desert enjoying some of that warm southern California sunshine before returning home to chilly Alaska.

That simple plan began to unravel soon after I started to actually plan this trip. What was I thinking? No way could I just fly down to California for the weekend, especially on an award ticket. I worked hard for those award miles and if I’m going to get out of Alaska in the dead of winter, I might as well get as much out of the trip as I reasonably can. Besides, I didn’t have any pressing need to be back home right away so why not have a little fun?

I’ve got an active imagination that’s steeped in years of practical experience, so for the most part if I think of it, I can usually figure out a way to make it happen. And because I love the planning involved in figuring out how to get somewhere every bit as much as I enjoy actually being there, I’m happy to spend hours checking out all the various options, fares and times involved.

So – I got to thinking… What if I flew into Las Vegas, rented a car and then drove out to LA and back? No wait – maybe I could fly into Oakland and then catch the Coast Starlight down to LA. Or I could book a one way award from Fairbanks into San Antonio, visit friends there and then catch the Sunset Limited back to LA. Then again, as long as I’m down below the 49th parallel, maybe I should pick up a few extra miles along the way. I could use my award mileage to fly from Fairbanks to somewhere distant like Philadelphia and then start earning my 2013 status with a good fare from there back out to LA. Or I could fly into LA, do the convention and then fly somewhere else afterwards. The options were myriad… and many a late night hour was spent cogitating over the possibilities…

Where my trips are born

Finally, I decided to fly straight down to LA and attend the convention first. Whatever else I might do would have to wait until after that. I gave some thought to renting a car and amongst other things, checking out some of the sites where the show Sons of Anarchy is filmed in the hills outside of Burbank. If the weather was good, I could then drive north to Ojai and head up into the Sespe for a day or two. Then I could return the car to LA and catch a scenic ride on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight up to the Bay Area before flying home from one of the three airports serving that region.

That plan fell apart when I came across this great fare on Alaska from LA up to Billings, Montana for just $94.00. I hadn’t had a proper visit to Montana for a good long while – nearly eight years, I reckon – and since Billings was just 140 miles and a two hour bus ride away from Bozeman, it’d give me a good opportunity to visit with a couple friends and fellow Denali Drivers who’d recently moved to Bozeman from New Hampshire. Sold!

I figured a couple of days in Bozeman ought to do it before heading back home to Fairbanks. I vaguely remember logging on to the alaskaair.com website with intent to book my return home but then it all gets hazy. Now, seven weeks later as I sit here trying to come up with a good introduction to this trip report, I still have no real recollection of how I stumbled across that $98.00 fare from Bozeman down to Phoenix. It was available on a late afternoon departure out of Bozeman, connecting in Seattle to a 7:00pm nonstop down to Phoenix. As an elite level flyer residing at the very highest echelons of Alaska’s Mileage Plan, I also knew there was an excellent chance that I would be sat in the First Class cabin on the two and a half hour flight down to Phoenix. Dinner would be served enroute… Hmm…

One of the things that makes trip planning such an enjoyable pursuit for me is that I’ve always been able to visualize myself doing whatever it is that I’m considering doing. In this case I could clearly see myself comfortably reclined in the First Class cabin of Alaska’s southbound 737 enjoying a double Jack Daniels on the rocks whilst awaiting a nice Beef Wellington dinner. It was such an alluring visage that all resistance to the more responsible decision to head home collapsed like a cheap umbrella in a windstorm. Soon I was the recipient of yet another six digit record locator to add to my growing collection.

An unintended but nonetheless very real consequence of having booked those flights down to Phoenix was that I had now picked up momentum. Much like a full blown alcoholic after two or three drinks, I was more receptive than ever to the idea of following my impulses wherever they might take me. Be that as it may, I don’t have unlimited cash reserves and a part of me still recognized that the responsible thing to do would have been to call it a nice trip right there and make my way back home. After all, as presently booked this trip covered only five days so far.

Day 1: Fly from Fairbanks to Los Angeles
Day 2: Attend the convention, and then fly from Los Angeles to Billings that afternoon
Day 3: Bus from Billings to Bozeman
Day 4: Bozeman
Day 5: Fly from Bozeman to Phoenix

And you know, after a day or two in Arizona I might well have succeeded in booking a return straight home to Alaska were it not for my desire to ride a train at some point during this trip. Logging on to Amtrak’s website, I planned on booking a seat aboard the Southwest Chief from Flagstaff to LA. From there I could get an award ticket home from any number of southern California airports. Then again, maybe I could use 1500 of my Amtrak Guest Rewards points toward a discounted trip on the San Joaquin from LA up to Sacramento or I could spend $50.00 for the more scenic ride aboard the Coast Starlight from LA up to San Jose or Oakland.

A check of my AGR account showed a total of 14180 points, just shy of the 15000 needed to book a one zone roomette award. Hmm… I didn’t know I was that close! A banner advertised extra points being sold along with a 30% bonus. I don’t recall what 1000 miles was being sold for, mainly because I was so impressed by the price tag on the maximum of 10000 points plus 3000 bonus points offer: $275.00! Holy Guacamole – 13000 miles is almost a free First Class sleeper ticket in its own right, and it was going for only $275! I entered my credit card number, pushed the appropriate buttons and moments later had 27180 points in my Amtrak account.

At that point, any pretense of this being a week-long trip vanished.

Amtrak award travel divides the US into three zones – Western, Central and Eastern. Because of the limited number of passenger trains still operating in the U.S., train travel – even within one zone - can occasionally involve some rather circuitous routings. This worked perfectly for me because what I was really looking for was a nice long train ride rather than a desire to get any place in particular. My only consideration in picking an origin and destination was to get as long a train ride as I possibly could.

Consulting Amtrak’s system route map, it appeared that Denver to Havre, Montana would deliver a nice combination of scenery and distance travelled. A quick consult of the schedules indicated that I could depart Denver aboard the California Zephyr, traveling 1320 miles west through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Utah and Nevada’s high desert and California’s Sierra Nevada mountains to Sacramento. From there I’d board the Coast Starlight for the overnight journey to Portland, Oregon. After a brief layover in the City of Roses, I’d board the Empire Builder for the 890 mile journey up the Columbia River gorge and across Montana’s Glacier National Park to Havre. It all added up to three days and 2,850 miles of First Class rail travel through some of America’s most beautiful landscapes, all seen from the comfort of my own private roomette, the lounge car or the dining car where all meals would be included in the fare. That sounded mighty fine to me. After confirming with Amtrak that this routing was allowable and available, I booked an airline ticket from Phoenix to Denver (only $53.00 one way on United) and then called Amtrak to confirm my rail journey.

If I were to describe the multiple permutations that this trip has undergone since then - not to mention the reasoning behind those changes - this introduction would stretch into four or five pages. It’s already longer than many trip reports right now and I suspect those of you who are still with me would much rather read about the actual trip, which has now morphed into a three and a half week, 23000 mile extravaganza involving twenty-seven flights and seven long distance train rides through every state in the West and even a few in the Midwest. Along the way I’ll have plenty of occasions to visit with friends and family and oh, yeah, I get to go to an airline collectibles convention, too.

My Weekend Trip To California

Though this trip involves no international travel, I’m as excited about it as any I’ve ever taken. So – if this sounds like a journey you think you’d like to read more about, go find yourself a comfortable chair and don’t forget to bring along a bottle of your favorite libation as well as a plate of something tasty to nibble on. It’s gonna be a long ride. Ready? Alright then, let’s head on out to the airport –

Last edited by Seat 2A; Feb 11, 13 at 1:35 pm
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Old Feb 9, 13, 11:49 pm
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Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 7,016
January 10, 2013
Alaska Airlines Fairbanks – Anchorage 800a– 912a 737-400 Economy Class
Alaska Airlines Anchorage - Portland 1115a – 348p 737-800 Economy Class

While I assume most of you reading this report have the luxury of doing so at a civilized hour, “heading out to the airport” with me in real time would have meant waking up at 5:30am, heating up a kettle of water on the stove for a shower, and then tending to the last minute chores intrinsic to closing up my cabin for an extended spell – things like dumping the slop bucket I keep under the sink, turning the heat down to 55° and unplugging anything that didn’t need to be plugged in such as my television and stereo. I then caught a ride out to the airport with my friend and fellow Denali driver Jack D. Jack’s job driving the big rigs up on Alaska’s North Slope has him getting up each day at 4:30am, so this early morning call to duty wasn’t any great imposition on him. In return for his having saved me a $22.00 cab ride out to the airport, I will buy him the dinner of his choice at the Fairbanks Taco King next time he comes down off the slope in February.

Fairbanks International Airport was recently recognized as having one of the world’s “9 Beautiful New Airport Terminals,” per an article published in The Atlantic Cities magazine. According to Charles Bettisworth, the principal architect of the new terminal, the idea was to create a building “that truly reflected the frontier spirit of Fairbanks; that when you arrived here, you knew you had arrived in the far north, with its wonderful light, broad landscapes, wilderness…adventure land.” Mission accomplished!

To see some of the architect’s pictures of Fairbanks International, first click HERE.
Then select “CIVIC”, and then select “Fairbanks International Airport Terminal Improvements”.

This is my first flight of 2013, and my 4,591st flight overall. Between now and when I return to work in May I have 71 flights booked and another six or seven pending totaling approximately 115,000 miles. The flights covered in this trip report account for only about 18000 of those air miles but they are quite varied involving eight airlines and nine different aircraft types, including four different models of the 737.

My first flight of the year got off to an inauspicious start when shortly after pushback the captain announced that we’d be returning to the gate due to a problem with the right engine alternator. This sounded like an issue that might be a considerable problem at a smaller station like Fairbanks, but the mechanics on hand had us up and flying after a delay of only about an hour. Thankfully, my connecting flight wasn’t affected as I had a two hour layover scheduled in Anchorage.

A nice view of 20320’ (6194m) Denali as seen inflight between Fairbanks and Anchorage

Any of you who have read my trip reports from years past probably know by now that I keep a flight log. Actually, I keep three – my old original handwritten log, an Excel based log and the online version available at FlightMemory. After you’ve logged a few hundred flights (or in my case – a few thousand flights) it’s fun to watch the statistics add up.

I was about twelve years old when I began to include the aircraft registration number in my flight entries. And – after having logged a sufficient number of those on any given airline’s aircraft type, I expect it’s only natural to be curious as to where you stand in relation to the entire fleet. Alaska Airlines operates a fleet of 61 737-800s and as of today’s flight down to Portland I have now flown 51 of those. Of course these flights are left totally to chance, the result being that out of 190 flights flown aboard Alaska 737-800s, I've only managed to fly upon 51 different ones. There are six that I've logged more than 10 flights upon and 31 that I've logged at least three flights upon. Last year at about this time, I embarked on a trip that involved 82 flights covering 87,830 miles. Thirty-one of those flights were aboard Alaska 737-800s yet only two of those thirty-one flights were aboard previously unflown aircraft. The odds of my flying upon the remaining ten hitherto unflown aircraft will become increasingly difficult with each aircraft flown but what the heck - it's a challenge I enjoy and along the way I'll also get to visit or at least pass through some pretty nice places.

Against this backdrop then, you can only imagine my delight upon arriving at gate C1 to see previously unflown ship number 566 waiting to take me down to Portland. Barring any last minute changes, this current trip has only two more flights booked aboard Alaska 737-800s, so the odds of adding to my totals are slim. Wish me luck!

Despite my lofty status as a Super Duper Diamond Encrusted Kryptonite level flyer (a.k.a. MVP Gold 75K ) with Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan, I’m seated in coach today because I’m traveling on an award ticket from Fairbanks down to Portland and beyond to Denver. The cost of flying to and from Alaska – especially during the winter months when there’s less competition from other airlines – is quite high and as a result I’ve rarely ever paid for a ticket to or from Alaska over the past few years. There’s been a bit of whining over at the Alaska forum from some high status Mileage Plan members who feel that they ought to still be able to enjoy complimentary upgrades to First Class even on award travel but I’m personally fine with a coach seat for a coach award. After all, how would we feel if – after having paid beaucoup bucks for our ticket we were denied a First Class upgrade because someone traveling on a free award had snatched it up before us? Fair is fair and I’m cool with sitting in the back on Super Saver award travel, especially given my ability to pre-assign spacious exit row seating at time of booking.

As we taxied out to the runway, the Captain informed us that our 1540 mile journey down to Portland this afternoon would be expedited by an 80mph tailwind, shaving about fifteen minutes off the usual flight time. This was greeted by a smattering of applause from somewhere towards the rear of the cabin. Soon we were climbing through the snowy skies above Anchorage and breaking into the bright sunlight of the troposphere. Ah… much better! The next three hours and seven minutes passed quite pleasantly, aided by a complimentary Bloody Mary and a $6.00 Ham & Brie Flatbread sandwich.

Alaska’s 737-800

In Portland I headed over to Alaska’s Board Room lounge where I met with an old friend who just happens to work at PDX. Two hours later I was headed into town aboard the TriMet train enroute to a 7:00pm get together at Widmer’s Brewery with fellow FTer opushomes. He is soon to be departing on his own set of travels, rather more extensive than mine at least in terms of distance traveled. Wish him well!

Returning to PDX, I set up camp down at the far end of the terminal building, across from some unused check-in counters. There was a trio of big planters down there, lending a nicely forested ambience to my campsite. As an added bonus the cleaners had started early at that end of the airport, leaving me to sleep undisturbed until 8:30am.

January 11, 2013
Horizon Airlines Portland – Seattle 930a – 1120a DHC-8-400 Economy Class
Alaska Airlines Seattle – Denver 655p – 1030p 737-900 Economy Class

All seats were filled on the DHC-8-400 that delivered me and seventy-five other folks up to Seattle this morning. I stored my bag at Ken’s Baggage Storage across from the Alaska baggage carousels, and then took a brisk walk through the chilly morning air out to the Airport Train Station. A quick online check of the Seattle weather had indicated a projected high of 33°F, but based upon the iced over puddles and the slight breeze, it felt considerably colder. I silently cursed the engineers and planners responsible for locating the Airport Train Station way out in Tukwila. It sure would have been nicer if they could have brought the train right up to the terminal building like the BART trains at SFO.

One other thing I’ve noticed during the three or four times I’ve had occasion to ride this train from the airport into downtown Seattle – it’s not really any faster than the old 194 Express bus used to be.

My first destination in Seattle was Byrnie Utz’ Hats. Located on the corner of Third Avenue and Union Street, Byrnie Utz’ Hats is one of Seattle’s oldest shops, having been in business for over 75 years. I’ve been a patron for almost thirty of those years. Today I was in the market for a tweed cap, of which I have several, all but one of them purchased through Byrnie Utz Hats. Today’s purchase wasn’t for me, however. It’s a gift for a friend back home.

Continuing on to the University District, I stopped in for lunch at Flowers on 43rd where a delicious all you can eat vegetarian buffet can be had for just $7.95. Properly sated, I headed on up the street to Shear Madness for a haircut, then over to Safeway for a box of Cold-Eze. I don’t have a cold (yet), but given the amount of time that I’ll be spending in close proximity to all sorts of people in airports, aboard planes and on trains, it’s a good idea to be prepared. I’ve enjoyed excellent results with Cold-Eze zinc lozenges provided I start using them at the first sign of a cold. From my experience at least - once you’ve become fully symptomatic it’s too late. I’ve got a lot of travel coming up and I really don’t need the distraction of being ill.

Additionally, the news has been trumpeting reports of a particularly virulent strain of flu going around with all kinds of dramatic statistics showing thousands of deaths already and elevated emergency room visits all over the nation. I haven’t had a flu shot in over twenty-five years and can only think of one occasion during that time where I might have had the flu. Regardless, it’s out there and there’s no point in taking too many chances. I keep a supply of Oscillococcinum on hand to hopefully minimize any symptoms and I try to keep my distance from any people who are coughing and/or sneezing. Above all, I figure the advice dished out by my old school nurse so many years ago still holds sway today - wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands! I do it often throughout the day when I’m traveling.

Returning to SeaTac, I collected my bag and headed over to the North Satellite for the departure of my flight to Denver. Once the sole province of United Airlines, the North Satellite is now dominated by Alaska Airlines with United and Air Canada relegated to just three or four gates. According to the United Club receptionist, they are supposed to be relocating to the A Concourse in May. Should United end up taking over the old Delta Crown Room located upstairs near the end of the A Concourse, I’ll make it a point to head over there and pay them a visit. That lounge had wonderful ambience and views along with a really nice bar. I always enjoyed spending time there and would gladly look forward to a future visit.

As for the North Satellite, word is Alaska has plans to build a shiny new Boardroom lounge up on the roof, similar to what Delta has done with its Sky Club over on the South Satellite. I should imagine the opening of that lounge would be at least a couple years away however, so for the time being I’m thankful for my lifetime membership in the United Club which allowed me to enjoy a Bloody Mary and put in some quality time on this report before heading up to gate N3 for the departure of my flight.

I’ve heard that Alaska has taken delivery of four new 737-900ERs, and in an effort to catch a ride aboard one or more of them I’ve booked three of the twenty-seven flights on this trip aboard Alaska 737-900s. Unfortunately I’ll have to wait a bit longer for one of the new planes as the aircraft assigned to this evening’s flight was N319AS, the colorfully painted Spirit of Disneyland II upon which I’ve already logged twelve flights for 12,880 miles. I couldn’t help but smile at the excitement shown by a little girl who asked her mom if any Disney characters would be inside the airplane.

I spent the evening at a gate lounge on DIA’s A Concourse that I’d discovered this past fall. After serving a couple of late afternoon and evening departures it sits unoccupied through the night and well into the next morning, allowing me plenty of time to sleep undisturbed. Unlike many people who seem to get “stuck” in airports overnight, I actually plan on my stays. As such, I come prepared with a full Thermarest Pad, a pillow, a large wool blanket, a headlamp, eyeshades and an alarm clock. Thankfully I am unencumbered by the self-consciousness and/or ego that gets some people all bent out of shape about having to sleep in an airport. The money I save will bring me a lot more travel and/or entertainment than any gratification or comfort I may derive from the privacy of my own room.

Luxury Airport Camping

Last edited by Seat 2A; Mar 13, 14 at 1:29 am
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Old Feb 9, 13, 11:54 pm
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Posts: 7,016
January 14, 2013
Southwest Airlines Denver – Phoenix 210p – 400p 737-800 Economy Class
Southwest Airlines Phoenix – Kansas City 640p – 1010p Economy Class

Even though I earn the bulk of my mileage through Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan and its partner carriers, I chose to use Southwest for my travels between Denver and Kansas City today because 1.) They were within $3.00 of being the least expensive fare, 2.) They offered an attractive routing via Phoenix and 3.) I’ve never flown aboard one of Southwest’s new 737-800s.

Now I know what some of you must be thinking –What kind of convoluted logic is that?! Except for the first part about the low fare, why would anyone want to fly a longer routing via Phoenix especially when there’s no real mileage accrual involved? What can I say? I’m an airplane geek. Mind you, I’m not an out and out foamer like some of the people over at Airliners.net who might gleefully and enthusiastically devote two or three pages worth of comments discussing Boeing’s delivery schedule for Southwest’s new 737-800s. And yet, for some strange reason I still get excited about flying a new route. Objectively speaking, I honestly don’t know why it should even matter at this stage. If you look at my map on the FlightMemory link, you’ll clearly see that it’s not as if adding a line between PHX and MCI is going to fill in any glaringly blank spaces. The two hours I’ll spend flying and probably reading a book between those two cities could just as easily have been spent flying on the DEN-LAX route which I’ve flown over 100 times. Still, I am closing in on 1 million Unduplicated Route Miles and heck – I’d pick this routing even if I weren’t! ♪♪ All in all it’s just a… nother line on the map. ♪♪

Although I’ve now flown 273 times on 737-800s, this would be my first flight on one of Southwest’s -800s. As such, there’s always a bit of excitement and anticipation as I board what for me is a “new” plane. What’s it look like inside? What color is the carpet? What color are the seats? What about that new Sky Interior? I know, I know what you’re thinking. Still, I am unrepentant. This is exciting stuff!

Southwest does not assign seats. Instead, boarding generally seems to be predicated upon RapidRewards status, fare type and what time you checked in. Families with small children and the physically frail get tucked in there somewhere as well. Now myself – having purchased the very cheapest fare available (Wanna Get Away?) and having checked in on my usual laggardly timetable, didn’t get to board until group C, number 7. One hundred and twenty-six people had boarded before me and I truly expected to find no more than a middle seat and a scowl from a couple passengers who thought they had row 39 all to themselves. As luck would have it however, there were still plenty of open seats amidst the 175 that Southwest offers on its 737-800s. I found a complete row to myself somewhere in the back quarter of the airplane and spread out nicely for the one hour and thirty-three minute flight to Phoenix. This was also my first flight aboard an aircraft equipped with Boeing’s new Sky Interior. It looked good.

If I may – a couple of compliments are in order for Southwest. Starting with the boarding process, it was orderly and reasonably quick. The all economy class configuration offers comfortable seats and decent legroom – I would guestimate about 31” – about the same as Alaska but with more comfortable seats. Snacks consisted of two bags of real peanuts (not some cheap pretzel based snack mix) and the drink service was both affordable and expeditious. Wi-Fi was available for just $5.00 for the entire day. Also, I changed this ticket from an originally issued DEN-IND ticket and there was no change or cancellation penalty. Right on, Southwest!

I also joined Southwest’s RapidRewards frequent flyer program because - well, why not? Even so, I honestly can’t say as I’m expecting a reward any time soon given the amount that I actually fly upon Southwest. Still, I feel good throwing a little money their way now and then. From my experience – about two dozen flights lifetime – they’re a good airline that does a lot of things right.

The last time I flew Southwest out of Phoenix was way back in 1984. I was aboard N24SW, a 737-200 that served WN faithfully for another thirteen years before being sold to Orient Eagle Airways in 1997. The very next year it was damaged beyond repair after skidding off a runway at Alma Ata, Kazakhstan. It was a sad ending for this reliable little workhorse, but hardly extraordinary. I have tracked the whereabouts of most every aircraft I have ever flown upon and about fifty of them have come to an untimely end - usually in some third world backwater. Others have been involved in some rather famous disasters like the Pan Am 747 that collided with the KLM 747 in Tenerife. I flew that plane between Honolulu and Seattle in 1976. Or the American DC-10 that literally lost an engine on takeoff from O’Hare back in 1979. I’d flown that plane on a short SAN-LAX flight just two years earlier. It seemed fine then…

Oh yeah, back to the report… Sorry – I can’t help but reminisce sometimes. I had the good fortune to have logged my 1000th flight by 1981, meaning that I was the beneficiary of a lot of good times and good service back when both were abundant in the skies over America.

One thing that has improved dramatically in the 28 years since that aforementioned Southwest flight out of Phoenix is the quality of its terminal at Sky Harbor. Back in 1984, I believe Southwest operated out of Terminal 2, downstairs. I remember being handed these plastic placards to board with and then having to walk out to the airplane and board via the mobile stairs. No complaints here mind you, but Southwest’s current home in Terminal 4 is much nicer. Back in 1984, Terminal 3 was the standard bearer at Sky Harbor. The initial success of America West along with the rapid expansion of Southwest required the airport to add capacity. When Terminal 4 broke ground in October 1989, it was the largest structural capital improvement project in Phoenix. When the building opened in November, 1990 it had five concourses and 44 gates. Today it has seven concourses and with plans to build one more.

My flight to Kansas City was departing from what is currently the newest concourse at Sky Harbor. Concourse D is 50 feet wider than the other concourses and features a higher ceiling, larger windows and a Terrazzo floor. Unfortunately the Starbucks concession was closed (in fact, it looked as if it had been closed for awhile), but two other restaurants provided plenty of food and table space to tide me over while I put in a couple of hours on this trip report.

The flight to Kansas City was just like the one to Phoenix from Denver, except that it was forty minutes longer. Three bags of complimentary peanuts were washed down by two bottles of Jack Daniels, during which time I managed to bring this trip report up to date. Any of you who’ve ever tried to write a long trip report can certainly appreciate what a great feeling it is to be current!

I spent the night in one of the best airport campsites I’ve ever found. Located in Terminal C and well off the beaten path, it provided a dark and quiet carpeted area the likes of which simply can’t be found in most airports. I slept undisturbed until my alarm went off at 6:00am. By 6:20 I was sipping on a steaming hot Café Verona accompanied by a delicious chocolate hazelnut biscotti. My shuttle to downtown Kansas City arrived promptly at 6:30 and by 7:15 I was enjoying a more substantial hot breakfast at Harvey’s Restaurant in Kansas City’s Union Station.

January 15, 2013
Amtrak Kansas City = St. Louis 815a – 155p Missouri River Runner Business Class
Amtrak St. Louis – Dallas 800p – 1130a Texas Eagle Economy Class

Kansas City’s Union Station is one of the most beautiful train stations I’ve ever been in. It was built during an era when train stations reflected the grandeur and excitement of long distance travel. It’s Beaux-Arts architectural style includes a cavernous and ornate grand hall, high sculpted ceilings, polished stone floors and a cathedral like ambience. When it opened for business in 1914, it was the second largest train station in the country. Only St. Louis’ Union Station was larger.

The entire station complex encompasses over 850,000 square feet. Enormous, deep-set arched windows face the front of the station. The sunshine they allow in casts a warm glow on the rose-brown marble floors and light stone walls. The overall ambience of the station is surprisingly light and airy for such a large building.

Kansas City Union Station Great Hall

The ceiling in the Grand Hall is 95 feet high and is distinguished by beautifully restored plastered frescoes and three huge chandeliers weighing 3,500 pounds each.

Kansas City Union Station Ceiling and Chandelier

At its peak during World War II, an estimated one million travelers passed through this station. Like any large city terminal, the station included restaurants, a cigar store, and a barber shop. Additionally, it was the corporate headquarters for Fred Harvey, the company that famously catered the Santa Fe railroad and operated a string of hotels throughout the Southwest. It’s hard to believe that despite of all of its remarkable history and glamor, this magnificent building sat empty and unused for a ten year period from 1989 to 1999.

Since its renovation and reopening in 1999, Union Station is now home to the H&R Block City Stage Theater, an Imax theater, the Gottlieb Planetarium and a public science center with over 50 interactive exhibits called Science City. The station also hosts two upscale restaurants, a post office and numerous smaller shops. When I first visited this station on a warm autumn afternoon last year, it was clear that many more people had come to Union Station to eat and/or visit one of its many attractions than to depart on the train.

Harvey’s Restaurant at Union Station

My first train ride today will take me 283 miles from Kansas City through the heart of Missouri to St. Louis. Some of the named trains operating this route in years past were the Ann Rutledge, the Kansas City Mule and the St. Louis Mule. In 2009, Amtrak held a contest to rename the route with the winning entry being the Missouri River Runner.

Route of Amtrak’s Missouri River Runner

Boarding for the River Runner was announced at 8:00am, just as I was mopping up the last of the Hollandaise Sauce on my plate of Eggs Benedict. I quickly settled the bill and joined a small group of stragglers as we commenced the long walk out to the train. Access was via an elevated walkway over the tracks where an elevator took us down to trackside. In the old days, when there were over 100 trains per day through here, we’d have accessed our train directly through one of the many track entrances in the North Hall.

Kansas City Union Station North Hall

A beautifully restored Kansas City Southern FP9 on display at KCY

Amtrak offers Coach and Business Class seating aboard most of its short to medium distance trains. Coach accommodations are in surprisingly wide and comfortable seats arranged in a 2-2 configuration throughout the car. Business Class offers wider leather covered seats configured 1-2 and includes a free soft drink or coffee and a newspaper. 120v outlets are available at each seat in both classes. On my seat was a copy of this morning’s New York Times.

Amtrak Business Class Seats

The load was surprisingly light this morning – maybe twenty coach passengers and just five of us up in Business Class. As a result, today’s train was pretty short consisting of a single P42DC locomotive followed by two coach cars and an Amfleet Café/Business Class car at the rear of the train. This car featured a small lounge/dining area in the front of the car, a café service area in the middle and five rows of Business Class seating in the rear of the car.

Amfleet Cafe

While many people living on the more populated East or West coasts may not find America’s Heartland very interesting (it's all flyover country for many of them), I think this area is rich in beautiful scenery. Over the next six hours, we travelled through low rolling hills and fields dotted by pretty farm houses, multiple silos, quaint back roads and sleepy Midwestern towns that appear not to have changed much if at all over the past fifty years. The old country towns were the most interesting part of the trip for me. I loved the old brick buildings and quaint storefronts that represent a slice of small town America that many people only get to read about. Most tourists, especially foreigners, rarely if ever travel to towns like these but I’d like to think that if they did they’d leave with a very favorable impression of their visit, and indeed America as a whole. While in the old days these smaller towns would have been served by a local train, nowadays the train passes through them enroute to stops at the larger towns. I’d love to return here someday and ply these back roads and country towns with my trusty Toyota pick-up. If gas prices ever drop sufficiently, I’ll do just that.

Unfortunately, a combination of light rain and wet windows made for less than ideal photography enroute. I can only hope that my modest descriptions might provide the impetus for some of you to spend a little time visiting this underappreciated section of America.

* * * * * * * * *

Arrival in St. Louis was just five minutes late, primarily due to some track work being done at the station. That station would be the Gateway Multimodal Transportation Center – quite a long name for a building that serves a multitude of transport modes including Amtrak, the St. Louis Metro Link trains, the Metro Bus regional city buses and good ol’ Greyhound. I’ll give the building plenty of points for functionality – being able to step off an Amtrak train and have a local city bus or train just a few steps away is wonderfully convenient. However, the main ticket lobby and waiting area are pure Greyhound – plain and uninspired with lots of poorly dressed people slouching about with bad posture as they slink in and out of the building whilst attending to their nicotine addictions. A small food concession sells select items from KFC and Pizza Hut. Two uniformed security guards keep a watchful eye on the action.

Faced with a six hour layover, I checked my bag into storage with the Amtrak agent and then got directions over to the old original St. Louis Union Station. The skies hadn’t exactly cleared but at least it wasn’t raining so rather than take the Metro Link train to the next stop up the line, I walked the three blocks and enjoyed the pleasantly cool winter day.

St. Louis Union Station opened for business in 1894. At its opening it was already the largest passenger rail terminal in the world and very shortly thereafter it was also the world’s busiest with over one hundred train departures per day. Architecturally it is simply magnificent, built in an eclectic mix of Romanesque styles. A plaque detailing its history indicated that the station was modeled after Carcassonne, a walled, medieval city in southern France. The Grand Hall – a staple of all the world’s great railway stations – is one of the most impressive I have ever seen featuring sweeping archways, fresco and gold leaf detailing, mosaics and art glass windows. It now serves as the lobby and lounge area for the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, a 539 room property operated by Hilton under the DoubleTree banner.

St. Louis Union Station Exterior

The Grand Hall – Hotel Lobby
Photo courtesy of Hilton Hotels

Intimate Seating Areas Abound

More pictures of the hotel’s various rooms can be found HERE.

One of the more impressive features of the Grand Hall is the "Allegorical Window," a huge stained glass window created from hand-cut Tiffany glass strategically positioned above the Station's main entryway. The window features three women representing the main U.S. train stations during the 1890s -- New York, St. Louis and San Francisco.

The Allegorical Window

Attached to the Grand Hall is an area known as The Midway, a 600 foot long and 70 foot wide concourse that once hosted 32 boarding gates. Beyond the gates lies the Train Shed. Encompassing over 11.5 acres, it was the largest single-span train shed ever constructed. A light steel trussed roof of glass and iron allows in plenty of natural light which works quite nicely in illuminating the over 80 shops and restaurants beneath.

The junction of The Midway and the Train Shed
Photo courtesy of Pedro Szekely

Starting with a leisurely lunch in the food court, I then strolled down the Midway for a visit to the "Memories Museum”. There I found all manner of fascinating exhibits about Union Station and especially the railroads that served it. There were impressive collections of dining table settings for many different railroads including China, glassware and menus along with a nice variety of timetables, sales brochures, uniforms and other artifacts and memorabilia from the glory days of railroading.

I’m not much of a shopper unless I actually need something, so the only store I visited was the St. Louis Cardinals team store where I picked up a set of baseball trading cards for a friend’s son back home. I’m not entirely sure his father might not enjoy those cards more, but as well as those two get on I’m sure they’ll work something out. My duty done, I then headed across the concourse to the Union Station Hotel to have a look at the Grand Hall. It was every bit as awesome as I anticipated. And then some! So was the rest of the hotel. I checked out the dining room, admired the Allegorical Window and sampled the comfort of the plush lounge chairs placed around the hotel. Soon it was time to check out the drinks menu at the lobby bar. I tried out a local microbrew called Schlafly’s, then finished off my visit with a couple of Pilsner Urquells before retiring to the one of those comfortable plush chairs I’d discovered earlier for a bit of reading. Time just flew by and suddenly it was 7:00pm and time to head back to the Gateway Multimodal Transportation Center. This time I took the Rail Link.

* * * --------------------------------------------------------------------- * * *

Try though I might, I can’t even remember now how it was that I ended up booking a seat on the Texas Eagle. I have vague memories of wanting take my first flight out of Dallas Love Field and in an effort to position myself there it’s possible I may have been swayed by Amtrak’s $87.00 fare between St. Louis and Dallas.

Oh yeah ~ now I remember! I’d wanted to work in a visit to see friends in Indiana. I’d envisioned a weekend of good manly American bon temps like drinking quality bourbon and watching football, maybe even eating some recently slain elk from northern Colorado… Alas, the timing just didn’t work out with regard to saver award space into O’Hare, but as there was saver award space into St. Louis I got to thinking about possibilities out of there. It gets a little murky now when I try to remember how it was that I instead ended up flying into Denver, then on to Kansas City and catching the train from there, but it’s likely that Southwest’s $56.00 fare between Denver and Kansas City routing via Phoenix may have had something to do with it. This - combined with fond memories of my ride last year aboard Amtrak’s Missouri River Runner was probably just too much to pass up.

Anyway, here I was in St. Louis about to board the Texas Eagle which had arrived ten minutes early and was scheduled for an on time departure to Poplar Bluff and points south. Even though I’d be traveling the seven hundred and seven mile overnight journey down to Dallas in Coach, I was looking forward to the trip and excited to board when the call came. This ride began to look even better upon discovering that the car I’d been assigned had only about ten of its 62 seats occupied. The conductor said we’d have a light load all the way down to Dallas this evening, so I was practically guaranteed two seats to myself. As a coach traveler on Amtrak, life could hardly get any better!

Hard at work on this trip report aboard the Texas Eagle

After downing a couple of Jack Daniels on ice in the lounge car, I retired to my coach for a bit of reading before calling it a night. Amtrak’s Superliner coach seats are about 20” wide and offer approximately 55” of pitch. They are - from my experience at least - the finest coach accommodations available on any train anywhere in the world. There is a leg rest built into the seat that swings up to become parallel with the seat bottom cushion, so if you have two seats to yourself and raise both leg rests up to seat cushion level, you’ve created this nice platform to sleep upon. I wadded up my down vest, placed it against the aisle side armrest, then put both the pillow Amtrak supplied along with my own atop it all. Perfect. I threw my warm wool blanket over me and headed off to sleep, fully expecting to awake about three hours out of Dallas.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Not by a long shot.

January 16, 2013
Southwest Airlines Dallas – San Antonio 2:40p – 4:00p 737-500 Economy Class
Southwest Airlines San Antonio – Denver 5:45p – 6:55p 737-700 Economy Class

When I finally decided to throw off my blanket and embrace the new day, I was by then aware that we weren’t actually moving and hadn’t been for some time. I wasn’t concerned. I figured we’d been shunted off onto a siding and were waiting for some hot shot freight to come blowing through. Indeed, I honestly thought we were somewhere in Texas and although we might be running a little late, the three hour and ten minute cushion I’d allowed between my train arrival and flight departure should’ve been enough to handle any minor delays. After all, we’d left St. Louis on time last night…

Imagine then my shock and dismay upon learning that we were about 130 miles outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. The wrong side of Little Rock – that is to say we hadn’t even arrived there yet. Scheduled arrival time into Little Rock was 3:00am and here it was 7:30am and we were still two hours away. Uh oh…

I called Amtrak and was advised that the new arrival time into Dallas was 3:25pm. My Southwest flight was scheduled to depart at 2:40pm. I called Southwest and was advised that so long as I checked in within two hours of my originally scheduled departure, I could stand by for free the rest of the day. However, if I were to arrive at the airport more than two hours late, I’d have to pay the lowest available fare for today which at present would cost me an additional $242.00.

Meanwhile, we sat and waited. We weren’t even at a station or anywhere near one. We were sitting out in the country off some rural road. A quick check of the schedule indicated that Little Rock was just over 350 miles up the tracks from Dallas and here we were 130 miles from Little Rock. Even a third grader could do the math and figure out that unless we were to depart right away and average 60mph not including five more scheduled stops along the way, that 3:25pm arrival Amtrak was currently touting was just a wee bit optimistic.

An announcement was made that free coffee would be available up in the lounge car. Right on! Chatting with some of the other passengers present, I discovered that the reason for our delay was a broken down freight train a few miles up ahead. Unfortunately, a switch that would have allowed us get on to a different track was frozen, so here we sat. Somebody chimed in that the closest Amtrak station was Walnut Holler or some such locale. Aside from two nearby houses, there certainly was nothing of interest around us. The land was flat and snowy. The road alongside the tracks was icy and deserted. A white dog running up and down the road provided the only visual stimulation.

It was 9:20am when we finally started moving again and, for a while at least, we seemed to be making pretty good time rolling along at or near the maximum allowable speed of 79mph. It was about 11:15 when we pulled into Little Rock, now over eight hours late. Another call to Amtrak indicated that our new projected arrival time into Dallas would be 6:55pm. So much for that free standby offer from Southwest.

Meanwhile, we sat in Little Rock. Two or three announcements were made informing us that our extended stay in Little Rock was due to “service disruptions” down the line. I considered asking an Amtrak employee if they might elucidate upon the term “service disruption” but I had this nagging suspicion that it was one of those nebulous terms designed to placate the average Joe by sheer force of obfuscation. I suspected that the average employee probably wouldn’t know exactly what it meant either. At least the smokers were happy. They got to hang out alongside the train and smoke to their lungs’ content.

12:00 o’clock came and went, then 12:30… Jeez, it’s almost 1:00 now…

With plenty of time on my hands and nothing better to do, I began to make calls to various airlines checking on fares into Denver from Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Little Rock, all cities I could reach by staying on this train or, in the case of Little Rock, getting off it. With no advance notice, there were no good deals. In fact, United, American and Delta were all quoting fares ranging from $800.00 to over $1000.00 one way while Southwest was consistently in the $300-350.00 range from each city. Low fares notwithstanding, I’d already committed $84.00 to Southwest and it made sense to stick with them since I could apply that $84 to the new fare without penalty. Score another point to Southwest for doing it right.

Southwest’s fare from Little Rock into Denver was only about $10.00 higher than it would have cost me to fly out of Dallas. Even better, there was a 3:50pm departure that routed through Dallas so I’d still get to make my first visit to Love Field. It was now past 1:00pm and there was still no indication that this train would be departing Little Rock any time soon. I made the decision to abandon the train and switch to the plane. Southwest did their part by allowing me a courtesy hold on my 3:50pm reservation out of Little Rock until an hour before departure.

I’d like to mention here that throughout all this I had absolutely no complaints with Amtrak. They were at the mercy of the host railroad and there was really not much more they could have done. During the times we sat idle they provided free coffee and later passed out free snack packs and bottled waters. They even contacted me later to offer a $50.00 travel voucher for my inconvenience.

A cab driver waiting outside the train station told me he could take me to the airport for about $20.00. I thanked him but politely declined. A call to the local city bus line revealed that I could walk two blocks down to Victory and Third, catch the #2 bus into downtown Little Rock and then transfer to the #12 bus out to the airport. Total time: 43 minutes. Total cost: $1.40.

At the airport, I utilized the free Wi-Fi to see if Southwest might have any Internet special “Wanna Get Away” type fares not available over the phone. They did! I cancelled the courtesy hold and rebooked over the internet, thus saving me another $53.00. Every little bit counts. I know a lot of people couldn’t be bothered to take the time to check out these other fares or ride the city bus instead of taking a taxi but this is the approach I’ve taken all my life and I reckon I save at least $1000.00 a year by consistently doing so.

While awaiting my flight, I ordered a plate of pulled pork from the local barbecue concession, called the Whole Hog Café. They offered six different types of sauce to accompany their meals and let me tell you, that #3 Sauce was just sublime! Flavorful and spicy, not too sweet, it was absolute perfection. Despite the $10.95 shipping costs, I went and ordered three bottles of it!

The 737-300 that operated my flight down to Dallas had quite a colorful history. It was delivered new twenty-seven years ago wearing the bright blue livery of the Danish Airline Maersk Air. In 1989 it was repainted in the red, orange and yellow colors of Spanish airline Air Europa. Colorado Springs based Western Pacific accepted it in 1995 and promptly turned it into a bright blue flying billboard promoting Thrifty Car Rental. Upon WP’s demise in 1998 the aircraft was repainted in the beige and orange livery of its new owner – Southwest Airlines. Today it looked quite striking in Southwest’s attractive blue, orange and red livery.

Back in the early 1970s, Braniff put out a large, colorful brochure entitled “Personally, you’ll like flying Braniff Style”. It was filled with lots of great photographs of Braniff’s colorful airplanes, their interiors and the modern and colorful Terminal of The Future at Dallas Love Field. One of my favorite photographs was of that terminal showing all of the gates filled with colorful Braniff airplanes including the big orange 747. Even though all airline operations moved on to DFW in 1974 (except Southwest), I’ve wanted to visit Love Field ever since.

Had that freight train not derailed earlier today, I would have arrived at DAL with time to check out the terminal and what’s left of the old North Concourse. Sadly, the Braniff concourse and rotunda featured in that photograph I so admired had to be razed in order to make way for the DART train stop at the airport. In any event, this was a moot point since the scheduled half hour layover of my new itinerary allowed me just enough time to get off my inbound flight, walk down the old American Airlines concourse to the gate for my departing flight and take my assigned place in line. Boarding was called about a minute later.

Ultimately, I ended up arriving in Denver only twenty-five minutes later than my originally scheduled arrival. Though $190.00 poorer, it was good to be back on schedule. I picked up a rental car and sped up to Greeley to join my brother in law for a couple of Guinness Stouts.

Last edited by Seat 2A; May 4, 14 at 2:10 pm
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Old Feb 9, 13, 11:56 pm
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January 18, 2013
Frontier Airlines Denver – Albuquerque 810a – 923a ERJ-190 Economy Class
Amtrak Albuquerque – Los Angeles 445p – 815a Southwest Chief First Class

My first flight aboard an Embraer ERJ190 came in 2006 aboard Air Canada between Ottawa and Toronto. I was impressed. From a passenger’s perspective, I think Embraer’s got a real winner in the E190 and its smaller sibling the E170. Both offer a wide spacious cabin that’s big enough to allow for normal sized coach seats much like you’d expect to find in a Boeing sized jetliner rather than those hard, skimpy little things that pass for seats in Embraer’s smaller 135-145 series aircraft as well as many CRJs.

The impetus for my flight aboard Frontier’s E190 down to Albuquerque this morning was a reservation aboard Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, departing later this afternoon for Los Angeles. United also offers nonstop flights between Denver and Albuquerque but it does so with comparatively uncomfortable Dash 8 turboprops and CRJ-700s. Even though I could earn mileage were I to fly United, it’s just not worth it for only 340 miles and an hour in those little planes. I paid Frontier $44.00 plus $5.00 extra for the right to book seat 5F in advance of my flight.

Many years ago I flew a Frontier 737 down to Albuquerque and was served a full hot breakfast that included an omelet, a couple of sausage links and some potatoes. Ah… those were the days, so in their memory I stopped by a great little place on the A Concourse called Chef Jimmy’s Bistro where I started the day with a delicious Denver Omelet in advance of my flight.

Although none of the other passengers in the gate area seemed to care one way or the other, I was distinctly disappointed to find that the aircraft operating Frontier 1333 down to Albuquerque was an ex-Midwest machine still wearing Midwest’s attractive blue, gold and white livery. I’d really been looking forward to flying the 190 painted up as one of Frontier’s “Animal Jets”.

Frontier ERJ-190

In any event, the ex-Midwest aircraft provided a comfortable ride down to America’s 32nd largest city. It was a beautiful day for flying and I recognized much of the geography below us as we sped south at 33,000’. I was briefly tempted to take a couple of pictures of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, but I’ve yet to own a camera that can make features on the ground look anywhere near as impressive as they do with the naked eye when viewed from the troposphere.

It also occurred to me that exactly one year ago today, my circumstances were considerably different. It was not a beautiful day at all and I was stuck in Seattle with my immediate future rather uncertain. I believe this picture, taken from the SeaTac tower complete with date and time stamp, tells the story much better than words:

SeaTac Airport Tower Cam ~ January 18, 2012

My last flight through the Albuquerque International Sunport was 27 years ago. I’d come up from El Paso aboard a United 737-200 registered N9001U. Amongst the handful of passengers onboard that day, I may well have been the only one aware of (or who even gave a hoot about) the fact that we were flying aboard the very first 737-200 ever built. Some years earlier I had flown into Seattle aboard a United 727-100 registered N7001U. This was the prototype 727 and since at that time the 727 - not the 737 – was the best-selling jetliner in history, I considered this particular aircraft to be a significant and noteworthy airplane. Wouldn’t you find it interesting to know that you were flying aboard an airplane that was the very first of its type? No mention of this was ever made, however. After the flight, I approached the crew and mentioned my thoughts on this. The captain and his First Officer were aware of the airplane’s history although the Flight Engineer was not. The captain pointed out that the reaction of most passengers to flying aboard an older, albeit historic aircraft was generally not as positive as mine, so for that reason no mention of its history was ever made – before or even after the flight.

Back in the 1970s I used to fly through Albuquerque often. Continental had a routing between Denver and Los Angeles that allowed you to connect through Albuquerque and El Paso. There were no frequent flyer programs back then and my only impetus was to fly as many flights as I could. The El Paso to Los Angeles flight made stops in Tucson and Phoenix along the way, so typically I’d get five separate take offs and landings between Denver and LA. I mean honestly, why fly nonstop when you can get five flights instead? I’m sure at least one or two of you can relate, no? As an added bonus, CO 75, the late night milk run between El Paso and Los Angeles was fared FN/YN, meaning that anyone who had paid a full day coach fare would be sat in First Class on that flight. Typically I’d be served a substantial snack basket between Denver and Albuquerque followed by free drinks between El Paso and Los Angeles. The only downside was the 1:50am arrival at LAX.

The Albuquerque airport has undergone a significant makeover since those halcyon days of 35 years ago. Although a small portion of the old terminal remains, it is used as office space for the TSA. The thing I’ll miss most about the old terminal is the Casa del Sol Café which used to serve a wonderful bowl of gazpacho. I always looked forward to that on my transits through ABQ. I like the new terminal a lot though. The architecture is distinctly New Mexican and between the food court and a couple of attractive looking full service restaurants, I’m sure one could still satisfy their appetite with some good, spicy New Mexican cuisine.

Albuquerque International Sunport

I had arranged to have lunch with some old friends from Bernalillo so I did not get a chance to sample the airport’s culinary attractions. I did however take a few minutes to check out the rather extensive display of model jets that had served ABQ over the years. I’m already looking forward to my next visit through ABQ and hopefully it won’t take another twenty-seven years until then.

A small portion of the model plane display at ABQ

The Alvarado Transit Center is home to Albuquerque’s light rail and city buses as well as Greyhound and Amtrak. My friends dropped me off there at 4:00pm, forty-five minutes before the scheduled departure of the westbound Southwest Chief. To our surprise, the train was already in the station having arrived a full hour early. After my most recent rail experience just two days earlier, I could only accept this as a very good omen. Boarding was already in progress and due to the heavy load on today’s departure, seating was by assignment. I asked for a window seat and was thankful some were still available. Even though most of the journey would be overnight, the benefit of a window seat – for me at least – is that I seem to sleep better propped up against the sidewall.

As I was getting settled in, my seatmate arrived with just a small duffel bag in tow. His name was Larry and he was returning to LA after having spent a few days in Albuquerque. Larry was 63, about to finalize a divorce to his wife of seventeen years and preparing to move to Albuquerque from LA. The only thing keeping him from leaving LA sooner was his daughter’s high school graduation in June. We hit it off immediately and conversation flowed easily as The Chief accelerated out of Albuquerque and headed west into the setting sun. Next stop was Gallup, New Mexico - about three hours away. I’d initially envisioned spending this portion of the trip up in the lounge car but I was having such a good time chatting with Larry that I just stayed put. As a black man having grown up in New Orleans in the 1950s and 60s, Larry certainly had some interesting tales to tell. Being the experienced Amtrak travelers that we were, we’d each brought our own supply of adult beverages along for the ride - a small bottle of brandy for Larry and a couple of airline sized bottles of Jack Daniels for me.

I enjoyed watching out the window as we rolled through the land of the Hopi, Apache, Navajo, and Zuni Indians. The setting sun illuminated beautifully the Red Cliffs of New Mexico, so named for the spectacular color they take on during sunset. Between admiring the view, chatting with Larry and hittin’ the Jack’s, I never did get around to taking any pictures.

Arrival in Gallup was five minutes early and smokers were advised that they could step off the train for a smoke. After that, the next smoke break wouldn’t come until our arrival in Flagstaff, three hours down the line. When I was at college in Durango, Colorado back in the late 1970s, I used to hitchhike down to Gallup occasionally to catch the westbound Southwest Limited out to Flagstaff. I had friends in school at Northern Arizona University and it was no big deal to hitch the 180 miles down to Gallup and then pay $12.00 for the three hour ride over to Flagstaff.

During the planning stages of this little expedition, I had looked into upgrading to First Class sleeper accommodations out to LA. Last year I saw that it was possible to upgrade between Albuquerque and LA for as little as $100.00 but this year the least expensive upgrade I could find was $167.00. That was a little too much for my budgetary sensibilities and so I settled for the coach seat. With the money saved I figured I might take dinner in the diner but between chatting with Larry and later visiting the lounge car, I ended up settling for a microwaved sandwich and a packet of almonds. The additional money I saved could go towards purchases at the airliner collectible show tomorrow.

Thanks to my blanket, a rolled up vest, my pillow and a quarter tab of Ambien, I slept fairly well as we sped through the night across the broad expanses of the Mojave Desert. When I awoke at about 6:30am, they had just announced that the dining car was now closed and that we’d be arriving in Los Angeles in about 45 minutes. Whoa, Nellie! We were gonna arrive almost a full hour ahead of schedule! Awright!

Larry had awoken a bit earlier and managed to make breakfast in the diner. He returned about ten minutes later and we both set to getting our bags repacked and readying to disembark. Looking out the windows I could see that we were in for a beautiful day in the Southland. The snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains were clearly visible in the distance and the skyscrapers of downtown LA shimmered brightly in the morning sun. A couple sat behind us had a radio and had heard that the high temperature was projected to be 78°. Wow. We won’t see those temperatures in the Alaskan Interior until June!

Larry and I bid our adieus – two travelers in passing along our respective journeys. There was no exchanging of addresses or any of that – just a handshake and the acknowledgement of a pleasant interlude shared while traveling together. I wished him well and stepped off into the morning sun.

January 19, 2013
American Eagle Los Angeles – San Jose 200p – 310p CRJ-200 Economy Class
Alaska Airlines San Jose – Seattle 545p – 753p 737-400 First Class
Horizon Airlines Seattle – Billings 845p – 1146p DHC-8-400 Economy Class

I love days like this! Here I am arriving in LA by train, an hour early no less – with a fun morning planned meeting old friends and doing stuff I enjoy – then heading back to the skies for an afternoon and evening of flying that will deliver me to a completely different corner of the continent in Billings, Montana. Let’s get rolling!

Alighting from the train, I strode down the long ramp into the station concourse, then turned left and made my way up to the bus stop for the FlyAway bus service to Los Angeles International. The bus was already loading passengers but there was still enough time for me to purchase a ticket and then climb onboard. The door was closed and we were on our way about one minute later. Bim, bam, boom! My timing could not have been better if I’d had my own private limousine.

It was about 8:30am when I arrived at the Embassy Suites South where the convention was being held. I arranged to store my bag and asked about the possibility of purchasing breakfast. Technically the Embassy Suites doesn’t have a restaurant that sells breakfast because it’s included in the cost of a night’s stay, but the nice young lady at the reception desk presented me a coupon good for a complimentary breakfast and wished me a nice meal. Thanks!

For those of you who have never attended an airline collectibles convention, picture a big hotel meeting room filled with table after table of everything from airline timetables to airliner models to dinner service china to books to postcards to just about whatever you can imagine having anything to do with the airline industry including barf bags and old 727 operations manuals. Back in the 80s and early nineties I used to rent tables and sell postcards, magazines and menus. My postcard collection exceeds 15000 cards and I have about 3000 spares. Most of my menus were from the 1970s and 80s and in the case of both menus and postcards, most of my best stuff has been sold off, if not at a collectibles show then on eBay. These days I enjoy just browsing as well as meeting up with old friends, many of whom still work the circuit.

Although the convention ran from 9:00am to 3:00pm, I had to leave at 12:30 in order to catch my 2:10pm American Eagle departure up to San Jose. In all I spent just $15.00 on thirteen First and Business Class menus from exotic airlines like Qatar, Air Madagascar and Cameroon Airways. I also scored about a dozen new airline issue postcards from Dave C. who puts on this show twice a year. We’ll meet for lunch in Las Vegas two weeks hence – my treat.

One really nice aspect of being an MVP Gold level flyer in Alaska’s Mileage Plan is the reciprocal agreement with partner airlines Delta and American that allows me to use the premium check-in facilities along with the elite flyer lanes at security checkpoints. Nobody likes to wait in long lines any more than me and I reckon those benefits saved me a good twenty minutes of idle standing around this afternoon.

Over at the American Eagle Terminal I purchased an overpriced turkey sandwich and then boarded the little CRJ-200 that would take me up to San Jose. In years past American Eagle has operated ERJ-145s and SAAB 340s on its intra-California services. Their recent contract with SkyWest to operate these flights has replaced the tube-like ERJ-145s with the slightly wider CRJs. I booked this routing through SJC and SEA primarily because I wanted to see and fly upon one of the little CRJ-200s in American’s livery. I know, I know, what difference could it possibly make, especially sat in coach on such a short flight? What can I say? Perhaps someday some form of therapy might provide a modicum of help for me but until then, this stuff is exciting! I can’t imagine the comparative tedium that must beset the more pragmatic amongst us who are simply too well travelled or mature to be roused by such “trivial” concerns. I don’t envy their lot one bit!

As with yesterday’s Frontier flight being operated by a Midwest liveried aircraft, today’s aircraft was wearing SkyWest’s colors. Damn! I swallowed my disappointment whole and headed on up the jetway. At least I was able to take a small measure of consolation in the fact that this was the first SkyWest airliner I’d ever flown upon that was actually wearing SkyWest’s livery.

With nearly three hours to layover in San Jose and no airline lounge access, I bought a big cup of Starbucks’ darkest roast, popped a Vicodin and set to work bringing this report up to date. As much as I actually enjoy writing these things, it’s so easy to fall behind because you can’t help but be busy having a good time just living. No doubt all of you who’ve ever written one or more of these reports know what of I speak. It doesn’t help my situation that I tend to be a bit wordy, if only to address all the details that I can’t help but notice or memories that I feel might be relevant or simply might add a bit more color to the report. For me at least, details and memories are like spices in a recipe, so anyone out there that just wants a meat and potatoes trip report should definitely not read mine!

I’d been upgraded to First Class on the 700 mile, one hour and forty minute flight up to Seattle. As such, I was the beneficiary of a cheese plate and a glass of red wine. It wasn’t enough. Food, that is, so I dropped by Waji’s for a delicious bowl of chicken fried rice with extra hot chili before boarding Horizon’s Dash 8 for the one hour and fifty minute flight to Montana’s largest city.

I understand that the Dash 8 is 40% more fuel efficient than most comparable jet aircraft, and as such airline executives are anxious to use it on increasingly more routes, many of them extending over 500 miles. I think the Dash 8 is a great airplane for flights of 300-400 miles or less. Actually, from a passenger perspective my main concern is with comfort, so it’s more about total time spent on the aircraft rather than distance flown. On Horizon’s aircraft at least, the seats are thin with minimal padding and they don’t recline. I’m ready to get off those Dash 8s after about an hour. If only Horizon had purchased the Embraer ERJ-170 for flights like the 660 mile run between Seattle and Billings. With its wider cabin and subsequent ability to support larger, more comfortable coach seats, I reckon I could probably handle transcon flights on it.

By the way, back in the early 1980s Northwest Orient used to operate a DC-10 from Seattle to Chicago with stops in Spokane, Great Falls and Billings. Seating was a generous 2-4-2 configuration and meals were served enroute.

I have flown into 209 airports around the U.S. Of those, I have slept in 62. Given the late evening arrival of my flight into Billings, I decided to make Billings’ Logan International Airport the 63rd. Two other people were overnighting in the airport as well but unlike myself, neither of them appeared to be very well prepared to make the most of it. Last I saw they’d commandeered a couple of benches down near the brightly lit baggage claim area. At least they weren’t sitting in chairs all night. After a little reconnoitering I found a nice dimly lit area upstairs on the mezzanine. It was carpeted and much quieter than the lower level. Unlike most airport dwellers who look for a bench or as comfortable a chair as they can find, I require only a floor - preferably in a nice, dark, quiet area. With my Thermarest Pad, warm wool blanket and pillow I can sleep just about as comfortably as if I were in a hotel but without the annoying room charges.

I spent the next day watching football at the Montana Brewing Company in downtown Billings. Beer was drunk and beef was consumed. Back when I was putting this trip together, I’d envisioned sitting in a local Montana bar and guzzling beer with a partisan crowd whist cheering my Denver Broncos on to victory over the New England Patriots. Unfortunately for both my Broncos and the Patriots, Baltimore’s Ravens had other plans, playing two superb games to win a spot in the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers. In the process I was impressed enough by their performance that for the Super Bowl at least, I suppose I’ve become a bit of a Ravens fan.

I spent that night at the Western Inn, a 56 room motel just five blocks off the central business district. The couple who owned it could not have been more gracious or accommodating. They upgraded me to a King sized bed and went out of their way to save me some breakfast even though I didn’t show up in the lobby until about an hour after the advertised end of the complimentary breakfast. I wasn’t expecting anything more than a cup of coffee so that was quite a nice surprise.

January 21, 2013
Rim Rock Trailways Billings – Bozeman 100p – 425p Bus

My next stop was Bozeman, Montana – located just 140 miles west of Billings off Interstate 90. The local bus line – Rim Rock Trailways – was offering a one way fare of $36.00. Not bad but still, why pay $36.00 if you might be able to get a ride for less. Had the weather been nicer, I would have just hitch-hiked it. Bozeman is only a short drive up the interstate highway and I’m sure I’d have had no problem in getting a ride or two into Bozeman. The problem was the temperature (18°F) and the wind (5-10mph). I didn’t bring along a jacket designed for extended periods outdoors. Typically those jackets tend to be a bit larger and aside from one or two situations where I might possibly need that level of warmth, it just didn’t make sense to take one along for the entire three and a half weeks. After all, it was 78° in Los Angeles yesterday, and about 50° in both Albuquerque and Denver over the preceding three days.

Another option was to place an ad on the Craigslist ride board for Billings. I did that and got three responses – all of them woefully inadequate. The first respondent offered a ride on a different day than I had specified. The next one claimed she had a car but no gas, but that she liked the idea of a short road trip out to Bozeman and back. It went without saying who would be paying for all of the gas. The next guy said he’d take me to Bozeman for $85.00. I emailed him back and asked if he were perhaps driving there in a road grader. $85.00? Sheesh!

Ultimately I ended up spending the $36 and riding the bus to Bozeman. Upon arrival I was met by old friends and fellow drivers from Denali. More beef was eaten and good beer was drunk. The next morning we went out to breakfast and visited the Gallatin Pioneer Museum before it was once again time for me to take to the air.

January 22, 2013
Horizon Airlines Bozeman - Seattle 350p – 455p DHC-8-400 Economy Class
Alaska Airlines Seattle - Phoenix 700p – 1047p 737-800 First Class

The last time I flew out of Bozeman was twenty-three years ago aboard a Delta 737-200 down to Salt Lake City. Though I don’t remember anything particularly noteworthy about the old Bozeman airport, I was immediately impressed by expanded terminal building of the renamed Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. Incorporating generous amounts of local stone and wood with glass and steel, the architectural effect can only be described as stunning. The building actually looks inviting in much the same way that a rustic Montana lodge beckons after a long day out in the wilds. And yes, there is a fireplace.

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport

My 540 mile long flight to Seattle this afternoon would be my 100th aboard a Horizon DHC-8-400. The total mileage I’ve logged aboard Horizon’s Dash 8s comes to 20,860 miles, or an average of 209 miles per flight, and out of a fleet of 49, I’ve flown all but six of them. I’ve got three more flights on this trip scheduled aboard Horizon’s Dash 8s, so wish me luck!

On a passing note, I’m saddened to report the passing of ex-Horizon Air DHC-8-400 registered N425QX. This was the aircraft painted in Horizon’s colorful 25th Anniversary livery. The aircraft was parted out and eventually scrapped in Toronto this past November.

R.I.P. Ship 425

Today marked the first time I’ve boarded a Dash 8 through a jetway. Normally I rather enjoy walking out to my aircraft and climbing up the stairs but given the windy conditions outside, boarding through the jetway this afternoon was an unexpected pleasure.

Flight time to Seattle was an hour and fifty minutes, highlighted by some nice late afternoon views of the Gallatin Valley as we climbed away from Bozeman. Upon arrival in Seattle, I headed on over to the North Satellite United Club since my Phoenix flight was scheduled to depart from N-8.

Some of you may recall that back in the planning stages of this trip, I had envisioned myself enjoying a nice First Class dinner aboard Alaska’s 737 down to Phoenix this evening. Indeed, it would be fair to say that this vision provided much of the impetus for me to book this leg of the journey. I know, I know – it’s only an airline meal and a U.S. domestic one at that but unlike many of you who regularly traipse about the troposphere in First and Business Class comfort, I haven’t been served a First Class dinner of any ilk inflight since way back in October.

Unfortunately, the “meal” served on the two hour and eighteen minute flight down to Phoenix consisted of a small plate of salad topped with two slices of roast beef. The only accompaniment was a small PC of salad dressing. There wasn’t even a Seattle Chocolate. Back in September on a shorter 6:55pm departure between Seattle and Denver I was served a hot chicken breast topped with a portion of pesto salsa and accompanied with a side salad. Could this be a case of Alaska catering down to the level of its primary competition on this route – US Airways? Perhaps. To be fair, Alaska did indicate this as a “snack” flight on its website but for a scheduled two hour and forty-seven minute flight leaving at a prime dinner hour, I was mistakenly expecting a hot meal. Either way – the lesson has been learned. I will be more likely to cater my own meal on Alaska’s flights of similar time and distance from now on.

Alaska uses Terminal 2at Sky Harbor, as does United – my airline of choice for tomorrow’s flight up to Denver. I checked in with airport security and was informed that I could sleep airside for the night. This was great news since there was an entire gate area on the concourse that had been completely abandoned. The jetway had been removed and there were just a few banks of seats. It featured a nice dark alcove at one end that proved to be a perfect place to sleep undisturbed for the night.

January 23, 2013
United Airlines Phoenix - Denver 1215p – 205p 737-900 Economy Class

When Sky Harbor’s Terminal 2 opened in 1962, it comprised 330,000 square feet, provided19 gates and was considered one of the nation’s most modern facilities. As a kid I remember walking down its cinderblock corridors and out on to the tarmac to board Western Airlines flights up to Denver. Boeing’s 720B was normally the aircraft of choice on Western’s PHX-DEN flights but once we flew aboard a Lockheed Electra. It was my mom’s fault. She so enjoyed driving this Ford Mustang that she’d rented that she took the long way to the airport (I think we went via Carefree) and we missed our flight. Being a child of the jet age, I remember my disappointment at having to fly aboard a boring old prop. Now of course I look back on that day and consider myself fortunate to have been able to log a flight aboard that historic aircraft. Many years later I was able to log three more flights aboard Reeve Aleutian Electras out to Saint Paul Island and Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Though small, the United Club at Sky Harbor is one of my favorite airport lounges. I just like the ambience of the facility with its comfortable seating and big windows looking out over the tarmac. The attractive breakfast spread offered a nice variety of cereals, bagels, muffins, Danishes and fruit juices and overall it was just a nice place to while away three hours while putting in some work in this trip report which now is up to almost 14000 words. Is it too long? Should I put in more pictures?

Breakfast Bar at the Sky Harbor United Club

Waiting at gate 5 was N38458, a four month old 737-924ER that looked quite fetching in United’s new Continental livery. The flight was totally sold out and the substantial crowd that had gathered to board easily overwhelmed the small gate lounge which - in terms of seating and space – appeared to be better suited for regional jet sized aircraft.

Despite having logged 1.2 million miles aboard United Airlines, I am no longer the beneficiary of any status whatsoever with United’s Mileage Plus program, so I’ll not be able to regale you with a fabulous accounting of all the extra legroom available in United’s Economy Plus seating. Alas, as a pyrite level member of the nation’s second oldest frequent flyer program, I had been assigned seat 34C, wayyyyy back there in the dimly lit part of the aircraft cabin.

I guess I should take a moment here to explain how one who once enjoyed unlimited free First Class travel aboard United could possibly suffer such a precipitous drop in status. Simply put, United stopped flying to where I lived. Once upon a time, wayyyyyyy back in the mid-nineteen eighties, United had at least two – maybe even three flights a day out of Fairbanks International. Over the years, I logged many a flight out of FAI aboard a collection of red, blue and orange striped 727s, 737s, 757s, 767s and even DC-8-71s. Of course, back then we also enjoyed jet service from the likes of Western, Wien Air Alaska, Markair, Reno Air and of course Alaska Airlines. Sadly, the only airline serving FAI on a year round basis these days is Alaska Airlines.

United quit serving Fairbanks sometime in the late nineties (They’ve since returned on a seasonal basis with DEN-FAI flights during the summer months), but even then I remained loyal to the Mileage Plus program by buying local fares down to Anchorage and boarding United flights to places like Denver, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. Eventually, United‘s year round Alaska service was reduced to a single 1:00am departure out of Anchorage to Seattle. After a couple of times of waiting up all night to board that flight and then arriving in Seattle a complete wreck only three hours later, I decided to switch my allegiance to Alaska’s Mileage Plan.

I would like to make clear that the reason I stopped flying United had nothing to do with the service I received either on the ground or in the air. I feel like United always treated me very nicely over the years. I have particularly fond memories of the excellent Four Star Service I received on flights in the seventies, my participation in United’s 50 State Marathon in the 1980s and finally the presentation and gifts that United bestowed upon me back in 1997 when I logged my 1000th flight and 1 Millionth mile flown aboard United both within the same week. Overall my relationship with United has been nothing but First Class and it is my sincere hope that they regain as much of their “Friendly Skies” panache as is humanly and economically possible in the years ahead.

Although the livery said United, the interior said Continental in the worst possible way. No don’t get me wrong – Continental’s another airline that I’ve particularly enjoyed flying upon over the years, dating way back to the 1960s when golden tailed 707 and 720B Fanjets delivered me in style between Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago. My first ever flight aboard a 747 was with Continental and I logged many a flight aboard Continental’s beautiful lounge configured DC-10s throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. One could very easily argue that Continental Airlines, as run by its founder and president Robert F. Six, was the finest airline in America. I can only consider myself blessed to have been able to log a couple hundred flights aboard The Proud Bird with the Golden Tail during its heyday.

Following the malaise of the Frank Lorenzo years which included one bankruptcy and precipitated another, Continental had to redefine itself. Kudos to Hollis Harris and later Gordon Bethune for a great job of bringing the airline back to health but forever gone were the days of five across seating in Boeing cabins or Gold Table Service in First Class. Even recently, Continental’s inflight service was in many respects superior to that of other airlines and its BusinessFirst seating on international flights redefined the concept for most US airlines.

Back in the economy cabin however, seating was tight. And it still is. I would estimate the legroom in row 34 at 30”, maybe 31” at most. According to Seatguru it’s 31”. The seat itself was comfortable enough – at first. Flight time from Phoenix up to Denver was projected at one hour and twenty-six minutes. After about an hour in flight however, my back was killing me. To make matters worse, we landed way out in Kansas somewhere and it felt like it took a good twenty minutes to make our way across the plains toward DIA’s distinctive white capped terminal building.

Normally, I’m not one to immediately get up upon arrival at the gate – especially when sat towards the rear of the economy cabin. I mean – what’s the rush? This time I had my seatbelt off and was poised like a runner on the blocks so when the chime finally did ring, I was up and enjoying some blessed relief. Getting old sure can be a pain, especially when you’ve got a handful of twenty-letter conditions affecting your back.

Though I have a sister in Denver, her apartment’s not really conducive to overnight visitation so I booked a room through Travelocity’s Secret Hotel function and scored a room at the downtown Ramada Inn for just $43.00 all in. Due to its downtown location there was no free shuttle service from the airport so I hopped a ride on the RTD Transit bus and sat next to someone who smelled like he had about three pounds of really good weed on him. We’re talkin’ fresh buds here. They put off a distinctive and not at all unpleasant aroma. Of course with pot now being legal in Colorado, I suppose I should not have been surprised. Although I no longer use it personally, I enjoyed the nice olfactory journey down memory lane.

Located at Colfax and Downing, the downtown Ramada Inn offers three star accommodations in a lively neighborhood with many fine musical venues nearby. I had dinner at a bar across the street called The Irish Snug. They had an excellent selection of ales and a nice variety of menu items ranging from Irish Stew to Green Chili Ortega Burgers. I had the burger along with a couple pints; then stuck around awhile to enjoy the live music. I don’t particularly care for most Irish music – too much fiddle and penny whistle for my tastes – but tonight’s quartet was doing an admirable job of banging out some old Django Reinhardt tunes and other jazz standards. Well alrighty then – maybe I will have another beer!

In the morning, I took advantage of the hotel’s free shuttle service to anywhere within three miles. For me that would be the train station. While awaiting the van, it was interesting to observe the early morning action along Colfax Avenue. It was 6:55am and a fair number of the folks walking the street looked like extras from the television series “Breaking Bad”. Certainly very few of them appeared to have gone to bed yet. One guy shuffled up and asked if I’d be willing to sell him a couple of beers from the twelve-pack I’d purchased for the train ride. I would have but had I opened the cardboard container there would have been an exponential increase in the likelihood that many of the cans would have tumbled out while in transit atop my suitcase. This guy didn’t look like the type who’d care to weather that particular explanation so I simply said no and he continued on down the street.

Last edited by Seat 2A; May 4, 14 at 2:12 pm
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January 24, 2013
Amtrak Denver – Emeryville 805a – 445p California Zephyr First Class

I was four years old when we piled into our new Ford Country Squire station wagon and drove from Colorado out to California. Over the course of that trip I almost drowned after falling into a motel swimming pool, almost got swept out to sea by a rogue wave and then fell completely out of the car after playing with the door handle in the back seat. Amazingly I held on to the door handle while my dad frantically tried to brake and get out of traffic at the same time but my legs managed to get pretty scraped up. At the end of the trip everybody else drove back home while me and my mom flew back home aboard a Continental 707. During that flight I somehow knocked a cup of hot coffee off the tray table and onto myself.

Needless to say, I have been excited about going somewhere – anywhere – ever since that trip. Be it a car, a boat, a bus, a plane or a train – let’s go! Can’t we go tonight? Why do we have to wait until Saturday?! Can we sit in the big seats up in the front of the plane this time?

As you might imagine, I’ve been looking forward to this day in a big way ever since I booked this trip about a month ago. Starting this morning I’ll be spending 71 of the next 77 hours aboard a trio of Amtrak trains that will take me from Denver to Oakland, California to Portland, Oregon to Havre, Montana. Why Havre? Because from Denver it represents just about the farthest distance I can travel on my 15000 mile one zone award within Amtrak’s Western U.S. zone. Making this trip all the more alluring is that I’ll be traveling First Class all the way, booked into a private roomette that includes all meals enroute. That means I’ll get to order whatever I like off the menu, regardless of cost, including side dishes and desserts. And finally, the journey from Denver to Oakland aboard the California Zephyr is regarded by many as the most scenic rail journey in North America.

Amtrak’s Western Routes

Once I get to Havre I’ll go rustle up some lunch and then re-board the westbound Empire Builder for the 510 mile ride back to Spokane, Washington. Sounds crazy, you say? Well if you’ve read this far, much less read any of my other trip reports, it should be abundantly clear by now that for me at least it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey!

The first train up will be the California Zephyr. The name alone suggests a gentle Western breeze delivering the fortunate traveler across the vast wide open spaces of the American West to The Promised Land of the Golden State. From its inception, the California Zephyr was a train as beautiful and storied as the land it traveled through. Commencing service in 1949, the original California Zephyr was made up of light weight stainless steel cars manufactured by the Budd Company. One of the principal attractions of the new cars was the innovative placement a glass dome atop the roof of select cars. In fact, the inspiration for the dome car came from an executive of General Motor’s diesel locomotive manufacturing division while he was riding in the cab of one of his new diesels through Colorado’s spectacular Glenwood Canyon back in 1945.

My first ride in a dome car came as a twelve year old traveling up to Glenwood Springs aboard the California Zephyr which normally sported no less than five domes. The dome was accessed via a small stairway in the middle of the car. Upstairs under the glass dome were 24 seats arranged in six rows of 2-2. The view was forward and above as well as to the sides, perfect for enjoying the mountain scenery as we climbed from Denver up into the Rockies. It was an unforgettable ride and I’ve had a penchant for dome cars and the trains that offer them (Domeliners) ever since. Aside from private cars and tourist railroads, the only railroad offering scheduled service with its original 1955 built Budd dome cars is Canada’s ViaRail.

The original California Zephyr climbing through the Rockies

Most great train journeys begin at a great train station. Denver’s Union Station would certainly have qualified as a great station in years past and it will again, hopefully as soon as April of 2014. Until then, it is undergoing a large scale renovation that will transform it from an attractive but underutilized train station into the main transportation hub for downtown Denver, serving Amtrak, light rail, city and long distance busses. In the interim, a temporary station for Amtrak departures has been built about four blocks away. The building looks like a pre-fabricated “kit” building – some assembly required. I think the building is best described as “Amshack”.

The hotel shuttle dropped me off at the “station” at 7:30am. The westbound Zephyr had just arrived – ten minutes early no less - and was unloading its Denver bound passengers. I went inside, collected my boarding pass from the conductor and then headed out to the train to board and get settled in. Greeting me at the door to car 531 was my car attendant, Gwendolyn. She assisted me with my bag, showed me to my downstairs roomette and cast a suspicious eye at my 12-pack of Tecate. I assured her that I was an experienced beer drinker as well as an experienced train rider and that I would be on my best behavior throughout the trip. She gave a small chuckle at that – more of a guffaw, really – so I suspect she still had her concerns. Perhaps it might be best if I refrained from the traditional rebel yell upon opening that fifth can of beer…

Although I’ve written about Amtrak’s Superliner accommodations in my past reports, allow me to reiterate here for those who may not be familiar with them or any of you that might simply appreciate a refresher.

Each Amtrak bi-level Superliner Sleeper car offers 14 Roomettes, 5 Deluxe bedrooms, 1 Family bedroom and one Handicapped bedroom. Four Roomettes along with the Family and Handicapped bedrooms are located downstairs on the entry level. Opposite the stairway to the upstairs level is a shelf for baggage. I stowed my suitcase there and headed down the hall to my Roomette.

Amtrak’s roomettes measure 3’6” by 6’6” and are accessed via a sliding glass door. During the day they offer two wide opposite facing seats that fold together to become a bed at night. Above them is a fold-down upper berth. Other amenities include four separate lights, an electrical outlet, a tall mirror, a fold out table, a small open closet with hangers and even a thermostat which I immediately turned to its lowest level. Best of all, each compartment has its own huge window, approximately 2’ X 5’, through which to view the passing scenery. Toilet and shower facilities are down the hall. For a single traveler, I think these Roomettes are just perfect.

Virtual Tour of the Roomette in Day Time Configuration

Virtual Tour of the Roomette in Night Time Configuration

Virtual Tour of the Roomette with Information Points

On each seat were big fluffy pillows and behind the center console where the table is stored were two bottles of water and a variety of pamphlets about the train. There was a route guide, a timetable, a safety card much like you’d see aboard an airliner and a brochure describing the train and its various services and attractions.

My Roomette in Daytime Configuration

At the top of the stairway is the service area for each car. In the morning, juice and coffee are available from this area. Ice is available throughout the day.

When I booked this trip, I specifically asked for all of my roomettes to be on the downstairs level. The reason for this is that the main traffic flow between cars is upstairs. The train’s occasional rocking motion can make normal walking a bit of a challenge and most people tend to ricochet their way down the narrow hallways, bouncing off walls and doors with equal abandon. The downstairs rooms are much quieter because there is so much less foot traffic passing by your door. Secondly, being lower in the train car means less tilt motion than is experienced on the upper levels.

Already on board were my neighbors for the journey west; Jim and Sheila from Kenosha, Wisconsin and Fred from Lincoln, Nebraska. Lincoln is home of the University of Nebraska and its beloved Cornhuskers football team. “Go Big Red!” Like 98.6% of all good red blooded Nebraska males, Fred was a dedicated Nebraska football fan though unlike many I’ve met he did not feel a need to dress as a team booster throughout the year. Somehow over the course of a few beers during the trip west, I came to know him as “Big Fred” ~ a nice guy and an enjoyable traveling companion – at least as far as Salt Lake City where he detrained.

While Fred had ridden the Zephyr before, Jim and Sheila had not. They’d boarded the train yesterday afternoon in Chicago and thus far were positively thrilled with everything about their first long distance train trip. Although the skies over Denver and the Front Range were partly cloudy, there was plenty of sunshine to highlight the spectacular scenery ahead. All of us were excited and ready to go.

Soon the “All Aboard!” call was made by the conductor, echoed shortly thereafter by all the car attendants. The doors to each car were then closed, the engineer gave a couple of blasts on the horn and with a gentle tug from the lead P42 diesels we were on our way, gliding slowly past Coors Field and quickly picking up speed as we headed out into the northwest Denver suburbs.

Breakfast was being served in the diner, conveniently located just one car up from my sleeper. Most of Amtrak’s trains are put together so that the First Class sleepers are always connected to one end of the diner. Since everyone entering the diner must wait to be seated by a member of the wait staff, the dining car staff gets a pretty good idea of who their First Class passengers are. That’s important for two reasons: First because meals are complimentary for First Class passengers and second, the dining car staff are able to head off any errant wanderers from the Coaches who either don’t know where they’re going or might be trying to scam a shower or even a short ride in an unoccupied compartment. I know the drill well because back in my college days, as a coach passenger, I was quite adept at making my way back into First Class just so I could hang out in the old Santa Fe Pleasure Dome.

Seating in the dining car is communal. This comes as a surprise to many first time riders but due to simple supply and demand, there really is no choice if the crew is going to get all those who want to eat fed in the time allotted for each meal. Between mealtimes the diner is cleaned and the tables reset while downstairs the cooks are busy prepping for the next meal.

Breakfast and Luncheon crowds are generally dealt with as they arrive but dinner is usually broken down into four or five seatings. Reservations for these are placed with the Dining Car Steward as he or she makes their way through the entire train during the mid-afternoon.

Upon presenting yourself and/or your party to eat in the diner, you’ll either be sat at your own table or with someone else. If there’s an empty seat at your table and you’ve just recently arrived, expect it to be filled with a single traveler or travelers. Though ideally we’d all like to have our own table, without doubt the greatest benefit of Amtrak’s communal seating is the opportunity to meet your fellow passengers.

My tablemates today lent a distinct international flavor to our group. There was myself from Alaska, Jesus from San Antonio, Texas by way of Monterey, Mexico and Igor from Almaty, Kazakhstan. Igor remained pretty quiet throughout the meal, presumably because he wasn’t very confident in his English skills. We did establish name and origin but where he’d been or where he was going was a bit more than he was comfortable with. No matter – Jesus had plenty to say and, for a guy who’d only been speaking English for four years, he was more than proficient.

More on him in a moment though. Let’s check out that Breakfast Menu. Coffee? Por supuesto!

I chose the veggie omelet with a side of chicken-maple sausage, potatoes and a croissant. Jesus and Igor both went with the French Toast. Our meals were delivered promptly, hot on the plate and with plenty of refills on the coffee.

Jesus was an engaging personality who had quite a story to tell. He was a young fellow, just 26 years old who’d left his hometown of Monterey, Mexico due to the violence of the drug gangs. The way he explained it, as a young man in Mexico you don’t even have to be in the gangs to be in danger. The gangs are cruel and ruthless and even the presumption of affiliation – an apparently easy assumption for some to make of a young male in Monterey - or perhaps the presumed knowledge about this or that person or act is enough to put you in the crosshairs of some very bad people. He and his mother moved up to Corpus Christi, Texas about ten years ago after his brother was killed in gang violence.

Jesus was taking a roundabout train trip from San Antonio to Los Angeles via Chicago and San Francisco. He wanted to see more of the country before moving to San Bernardino to be with his grandmother who had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had a real passion for acting, having been involved in a couple of theater productions in San Antonio. His hope was that he might find a way to continue along those lines while in Los Angeles. Being the smart fellow that he was – he held no illusions as to his chances of making the big stage, much less even the mid-sized stage while in LA – but he was excited about the potential opportunity and confident that he would impress. I found myself hoping that we might meet again in five years’ time and see how things had worked out for him.

By the time the last of our breakfast plates were being cleared, we were well on our way up South Boulder Creek Canyon. Back in the early eighties I used to visit with some old hippies (Well, they were somewhat younger hippies back then – they’re old hippies now) who lived down in Eldorado Springs near the base of the canyon. We could see and hear the trains go by half way up the canyon wall on the Rio Grande mainline as we quaffed Duvel Ales or sipped Blue Stem tea. It was always an impressive sight to see the train chugging along that ledge way up there and you couldn’t help but want to ride it sometime soon. My friends are still there, though they’ve moved down to Boulder where Lori has owned a macrobiotic sushi business for some years now. I still always think of them whenever the Zephyr rounds that bend above Eldorado Springs. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to catch up on old times come spring…

The first of 28 tunnels as seen from the rear of the train

The train continued to climb while passing through 28 tunnels enroute to The Moffat Tunnel – a 6.2 mile long passage beneath the Continental Divide. Anyone who hasn’t found a seat in the lounge car by now is just plain outta luck. With its array of huge side wall and ceiling windows, the Sightseer Lounge Car is the perfect place for those who want to enjoy the dramatic scenery through the Rockies. All seats are usually occupied by the time the train crosses State Highway 93 outside of Boulder and begins its long, steady climb to the Moffatt Tunnel. I used to vie for those seats too until I discovered I could get clearer pictures from an open window. As such I went downstairs to the vestibule of my sleeper where I discreetly took pictures through the Dutch door upon which is a sign clearly prohibiting such activity.

DANGER! The sign announces in loud red script. ONLY train crew is authorized to open this window. I have been riding trains through the Rockies for years, and photographing the ride through the vestibule windows all along. The Rio Grande never had any complaint with photographers using the vestibules but Amtrak claims that there is a danger of a rock flying up and hitting someone while the train is moving. I have a hard time accepting this since the main body of the train car extends out over the wheels for a good foot or more on each side.

Regardless, it is Amtrak's policy and it is clearly stated; so - if like me you choose to disregard it then the important thing is to be discreet. Open the window just long enough to get a good shot, then close it. Do not leave the window open and hang out there for extended periods like this one guy did a couple of years ago. He was a young guy in his late twenties who had a nice camera and wanted a nicer photo than he could get through the water spotted windows by his seat. Unfortunately he chose to leave the window open and just hang out for a better view and camera angle despite my admonition that by leaving the window open for extended periods he’d eventually attract the attention of the crew either by the louder noise from the open window or by his being seen. Sure enough the car attendant came down and jumped all over him for having the window open.

“Can’t you read?” the car attendant asked while pointing at the sign.
“Well I just don’t understand what the danger is!” this guy kept saying.

I wanted to butt in “It’s not yours to understand, you moron!! You could’ve been cool about it but now you’ve gone and screwed it up for any of us who wanted to get a better picture!”

Of course I held my tongue and instead displayed an inordinate amount of interest in the water dispenser.

This time I had the downstairs vestibule to myself and was able to snap off a few decent shots with my little Canon pocket camera. Here – check em out:

Deep snow alongside the tracks

Heading into Byers Canyon

Gore Canyon

Leaving Gore Canyon

Descending into Dotsero

I also spent some time in my roomette and enjoyed the view from a more comfortable position:

Oh yeah! Bring on that countryside!

Cruisin’ outside of Granby, Colorado

An announcement was made that a herd of elk could be seen coming up off the left side of the train. Sure enough there were about three dozen of them grazing in a clearing about one hundred yards from the tracks. I found it interesting that the elk barely responded to our passing. By comparison, the sheep in New Zealand would never fail to stop in mid-chew and bolt en masse away from the tracks, fully expecting the train to jump the rails and come tearing through the paddock for them. Silly creatures.

Storm clouds gather as we approach Gypsum
I used to do horse pack trips through these mountains

Time really flies when you’re having fun. In no time at all it seemed like we’d rolled through Dotsero, Gypsum, eaten luncheon in the diner (Black Bean and Chipotle burger for me please, with bacon), Glenwood Springs, Silt, Rifle and on into Grand Junction. Though I rarely ever do so at home, I was ready for a nap – but not before first placing a 7:00pm dinner reservation with the dining car steward. When I awoke, we were rolling along at top speed, about 79mph through the Utah desert just west of Green River. This is a really pretty portion of the trip but unfortunately one that can’t be enjoyed during the winter months due to the shorter days.

California Zephyr Dining Car

My dinner companions this evening were Jim and Marilyn from Stockton, California and “Big Fred” who’d also elected to go with the 7:00pm seating. Jim & Marilyn were a retired couple in their seventies who’d flown out to Denver to visit their son and decided to take the train back home. Jim mentioned that neither he nor Marilyn had ridden a train since taking the Southern Pacific down to LA sometime back in the early sixties. Fred mentioned that his uncle was a conductor on the Union Pacific for many years and that a few years ago he got to ride in the cab of a UP locomotive out of the Omaha yards. I mentioned that I work with a fellow who’s ridden in a few locomotive cabs as well, but he was a hobo at the time. Then he became a Benedictine Monk and now he drives busses with me during the summer in Denali National Park.

Dinner was pretty good. I had the steak like I usually do, along with a perfectly cooked baked potato. The steak was a strange looking cut of meat but it tasted just fine and it was indeed medium rare, just as I’d requested. All that was missing was that delicious herbed butter that has accompanied Amtrak’s steaks in the past. Our waiter acknowledged that Amtrak still serves that butter but that unfortunately it was never loaded in Chicago for this trip. Also ordered amongst our group were the salmon and the ribs, both of which looked quite tasty. Dessert was a choice of cheesecake, chocolate brownie with ice cream or two different flavors of ice cream. “Big Fred” chose the cheesecake while I went with a small cup of chocolate peanut butter Häagen-Dazs.

After dinner, Fred and I headed back to the lounge car. Speeding across the Utah desert in the dark of night provided little in the way of visual stimulation, but there were plenty of riders present simply enjoying the natural conviviality so intrinsic to shared travel in a railroad lounge car. Indeed, one of the best differences between train and plane travel is the lounge car and its ever-changing population of visitors over the course of a long trip. Unlike an airplane which quickly flies you from Denver to California in a mere two hours, the California Zephyr makes 18 stops along the way, picking up and dropping off all manner of fresh visitors for the lounge.

I’d left my beer back in my room, but no worries - we purchased a couple from the downstairs café, then grabbed a seat at an open table upstairs. Across the aisle from us sat Rusty and Beth (I’m making up “Rusty’s name – for the life of me I just can’t recall it but his ruddy complexion and reddish grey hair made him look “Rusty” to me, so there. They overheard me saying something about Alaska and chimed in that they’d driven up there and back five years ago. Like many natural born travelers who’ve driven to Alaska, they were really looking forward to doing the trip again. In the meantime they were travelling to Sacramento where they would split up. Beth was going to visit family while “Rusty” was heading down to Palm Springs to rent a jeep and drive out into the desert for a few days. Sounds like my kind of trip!

At about 9:00pm I excused myself for a moment, then returned and broke out my 375ml bottle of Jack Daniels. I’d purchased it the evening before for just $12.99, considerably less than I’d have paid for a similar amount at Amtrak’s price of $7.00 per airline serving sized bottle. Cheers erupted and we spent the next couple of hours talking about everything from train travel to country music to motorcycle racing to overseas travel and misadventure. I’m a social drinker so sharing that bottle amongst us all was a good time and as things turned out, everyone else pitched in on a couple more rounds of drinks until the café closed down for the night at 11:00pm. Next time I do a trip like this, I just may bring along a 750 ml. bottle!

Due to some freight traffic ahead of us, we were running about 45 minutes late so it was close to midnight when “Big Fred” left us in Salt Lake City. Rusty and Beth wanted to take advantage of the smoke break during the fifteen minute stop in Salt Lake (The last smoke break was about six hours earlier back in Grand Junction) and given the late hour and to some extent the alcohol, I decided to call it a night and return to my sleeper. Gwendolyn had already lowered and made up my bed. All I had to do was brush my teeth, change into my Broncos T-Shirt, grab my blanket and call it a night.

I should note that although Amtrak’s beds come with sheets and a blanket, I always use my own. The primary reason for this is that I find the sheets to be confining on the 28” wide bed and the blanket is not all that large either. I prefer to just sleep on top of the bed and use my blanket like a quilt. For me at least, I’m much more comfortable that way.

Amtrak’s Roomette made up for evening occupancy

Given the combination of the train’s gentle rocking motion, the soft clickety-clack of the rails beneath us and the four or five ounces of recently consumed Jack Daniels, I slept remarkably well – about seven hours straight. It was almost as good as being unconscious. By the time I finally awoke we were well past Winnemucca and only about an hour out of Reno. I was a little concerned that I might miss last call for breakfast, so I quickly threw on yesterday’s clothes and made my way to the diner where a hot cup of coffee and a chilled glass of orange juice were promptly delivered to me at my very own table. The diner was surprisingly quiet this morning and I ended up with the table to myself for the entire meal, which was a very tasty and surprisingly rich Southwestern Quiche.

Southwest Quiche for breakfast

In Reno we replaced all the passengers that had left us the night before with a large group of gamblers. Reno is only a few hours by rail from the Bay Area and it’s not at all uncommon for the Zephyr to pick up a lot of people on their way home after a day or two of gambling. This is a party crowd we’re talking about here – I’d hazard a guess that a good number of them hadn’t gone to bed last night but rather had come straight from the tables to the train. The lounge car instantly became a lot louder and livelier once we departed Reno.

Just west of Reno we commenced a long, snowy climb up into the Sierra Nevadas. Nevadas means snow covered and there was no shortage of the white stuff as we made our way up through numerous snow sheds designed to protect passing trains from avalanches. As we continued down the other side of Donner Pass, I was surprised at how little snow there was on the western side compared to the eastern side of the mountains. The majority of the storms affecting this area come in off the Pacific Ocean, but perhaps it’s warmer on the western side because it looked positively spring like compared to the wintry conditions coming up from Reno.

Truckee River outside of Reno

Snowy Sierra Tunnel

Up into the fog

Springtime on the Eastern Slope of the Sierras

Rolling down the tracks towards Colfax, CA

At lunch I was sat with Brad and Veronica, a young couple who’d just returned from a scuba diving trip to the Maldives. Of course a trip like that is worthy of some discussion and one of the things that came out of that was that they’d flown there and back in Business Class via Qatar Airways. Turns out they’d paid for their trip with credit card points earned as a result of Brad’s proficiency at “churning”, the art of using credit cards to accrue large amounts of mileage. Brad was clearly a pretty smart guy having recently acquired his PhD in Astronomy, so he definitely had this churning thing figured out pretty well. Veronica did not “churn” herself, though she definitely enjoyed making the long trip to the Maldives in Business Class as opposed to the alternative.

At some point Brad made mention of a website called “FlyerTalk” where he’d apparently learned a few tricks of the trade.

” I’m familiar with FlyerTalk”, I said. “I sometimes post over in the Trip Reports forum”.

“What’s your FlyerTalk name?” asked Brad.

“Seat 2A” I replied.


“I’ve heard of you!”

“Really? Well I guess I have submitted a few reports over the years…”

Turns out Brad was an infrequent poster on FT – indeed he could hardly remember his FT name. He couldn’t quite remember how he’d heard of me but he knew that he had.

It’s always a bit odd when you run into someone you’ve never met before but for whatever reason they know who you are. This has happened to me on a few occasions related to my work in Denali Park. Once I picked up this guy hitch hiking in the Yukon who knew who I was related to a big July 4th party we used to put on in the park. He’d been there the year before and saw a sign somebody’d made asking where I was. He later ended up working for us and still works in the park to this day some 23 years later. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who knew of me as a result of FlyerTalk though.

Anyway, back to the train ride –

My tickets from Denver to Havre, Montana had me changing trains in Sacramento, California and Portland, Oregon. The Sacramento layover was scheduled for ten hours! When I’d made the reservations I tried to talk the ticket agent into letting me change trains in the Oakland suburb of Emeryville where I’d have just a five hour layover but she’d have none of it. The official connection point for those coming off the westbound California Zephyr to the northbound Coast Starlight was Sacramento and that was that.

We were about an hour out of Sacramento when I approached the conductor and explained my situation to him. At that point we were running 30 minutes early and since the northbound Coast Starlight would be passing through Emeryville anyway, it made as much sense to him as it did to me that I go on down to Emeryville and change trains there, especially since I was travelling on an award ticket. He warned however that I’d be on my own with regard to how the crew on northbound train #14 wanted to handle my getting on early there. No worries – if I have to buy a ticket to Sacramento I will.

As things turned out there were no problems at all. In Emeryville I stored my bag at the station and purchased a ticket on an Amtrak Thruway bus into San Francisco and back. I had a nice walk about the downtown financial district, stopped in for some coffee at a local café, then found a very nice, very lively and affordable restaurant in the Embarcadero called Perry’s. I had a delicious half chicken dinner washed down with two perfectly chilled Sierra Nevada Pale Ales and then walked back to the Ferry Building where I caught the Amtrak bus back to Emeryville.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Mar 13, 14 at 1:34 am
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Old Feb 10, 13, 12:02 am
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January 25, 2013
Amtrak Emeryville - Portland 1000p – 332p Coast Starlight First Class

Train 14, the northbound Coast Starlight, was scheduled to arrive into Emeryville at 9:45pm. Once mocked as the Coast Star-late for its chronic delays, the Coast Starlight's on-time performance record has improved considerably in recent years thanks mainly to better coordination with Union Pacific, the host railroad between Los Angeles and Portland. Tonight’s departure exemplified that perfectly.

At 9:44 I heard the whistle from the lead P42DC locomotive, and at 9:45pm watched open mouthed as the train powered round the bend with considerable alacrity and rolled all the way through the station, brakes squealing, finally stopping about 30 years down the track. That is to say the last car of the train was down there. Who’s driving that train? Casey Jones?! We’re talking a fairly substantial overshoot here! Unfortunately the sleepers were located way down at the front of the train so I had to drag my bag past three coaches, the Sightseer Lounge, the dining car, the Pacific Parlour Car and two sleepers to get to my car. It was a long walk and I was thankful that the overall consist wasn’t longer. During the more popular spring and summer months it often is.

The longest Amtrak train I’ve ever ridden was the combined California Zephyr, Desert Wind and Pioneer back in the mid-eighties. Between Chicago and Denver that train was as much as nineteen cars long. I’ve ridden many trains in Mexico through the seventies and eighties that were over twenty cars long but by far the longest train I’ve ever ridden was Australia’s The Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs to Darwin in Australia. That train was thirty-four cars long. Crikey!

The Ghan in Alice Springs looking LEFT from my car

The Ghan in Alice Springs looking RIGHT from my car

It’s worth noting here that before Amtrak, no single passenger train ran the length of the West Coast due mainly to the fact that no single railroad owned tracks all the way from San Diego to Seattle. The Southern Pacific came the closest with its Los Angeles to Portland streamliner The West Coast but, unlike the California Zephyr which was operated jointly between Chicago and Oakland by the Burlington, Rio Grande and Western Pacific railroads, there were no such interline agreements on the west coast.

The Coast Starlight takes its name from Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight which operated between Los Angeles and San Francisco from 1937 until Amtrak’s takeover of the nation’s passenger rail service in 1971. The Starlight was then rerouted through Oakland and merged with Southern Pacific’s Cascade which since 1927 had provided service between Oakland and Portland. This new train was then extended from Portland up to Seattle over the Burlington Northern tracks, thereby providing the first ever single train service between Los Angeles and Seattle.

Perhaps due to the fact that I was traveling on an award ticket, no Amtrak employee expressed any surprise or took issue with me boarding the train three stops and 85 miles before Sacramento. However, because my roomette was occupied by a passenger who’d purchased it from Los Angeles to Sacramento, I was asked to relax in the Pacific Parlour Car until we reached Sacramento.

Ah… the Pacific Parlour Car. For many, this car is the primary reason why they booked First Class accommodations on the Starlight. Unquestionably the most luxurious car in the Amtrak fleet, the Pacific Parlour Cars are available exclusively to First Class passengers riding aboard the Coast Starlight. There are no similar cars on any other Amtrak trains.

The Pacific Parlour Cars have an impressive railroad history dating back to the mid-1950s when they were built by the Budd Company for the Santa Fe Railway’s all coach El Capitan operating between Chicago and Los Angeles. The El Cap was the first long distance train to employ completely Hi-Level or two-level cars in its consist and those early Hi-Level cars were the model Amtrak used to design its current bi-level Superliner fleet.

The Pacific Parlour Cars were originally built as lounge cars for the El Capitan. I rode aboard some of them in their original configuration when I used to travel aboard Amtrak’s Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Los Angeles back in the early 1980s. They sported their original southwest interior back then, with Navajo themed art and fabrics throughout the car. Amtrak refurbished them in the mid-1990s and renamed them Pacific Parlour Cars. They were assigned to Amtrak’s most popular long distance train – the Coast Starlight – and, as mentioned earlier, were available exclusively to First Class passengers. On all of Amtrak’s other long distance trains, First Class and Coach passengers share a common lounge.

I was particularly happy to see Pacific Parlour Car “Napa Valley” included in tonight’s consist because on many of my past rides aboard the Starlight, there was no Parlour Car. Due to their advanced age, they were maintenance hogs that required a lot of extra – and expensive – attention. The word is that Amtrak has overcome many of those early problems and now the reliability of the remaining cars is less of an issue.

Pacific Parlour Car “Napa Valley”

Pacific Parlour Car Logo

I was met at my sleeping car by its attendant, Jay. What a great guy! Throughout the trip he could not have been more gracious or accommodating. Relieving me of my bag, he informed me about the situation with my roomette and offered me a welcome aboard choice of orange juice or Champagne, either of which he’d be happy to deliver to me in the Pacific Parlour Car. Champagne, please. Well, sparkling wine really but except for the French and a handful of wine snobs, who’s really keeping tabs?

Perhaps due to the late evening departure out of Emeryville, the scene was pretty quiet in the Pacific Parlour car. I thought about heading back to the main Sightseer lounge but I was so comfortable enjoying the free Wi-Fi in my big overstuffed swivel chair that after polishing off my Champagne I walked back to the bar and purchased an ice cold bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Back at the “comfy chair”, I recorded a couple of notes about the journey thus far while enjoying the lights reflecting off the bay as we rolled through Richmond, Martinez and Davis enroute to Sacramento.

Comfy Chairs in the Pacific Parlour Car

Departure time from Sacramento was 11:59pm (I can’t imagine why they don’t just round that off to midnight…) and per my request Jay had already prepared my roomette by lowering the seats, setting down the mattress and making my bed. On my pillow were a couple of delicious Amtrak chocolates. Nice!

I awoke as we were pulling into Klamath Falls, Oregon. We were running about 20 minutes early, and all the smokers appeared to be positively exultant over the opportunity to smoke not just one but two cigarettes during the stop. Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette!

Klamath Falls is also a service stop for the train. Trash is disposed of and ice and water are restocked. At some of these stops the locomotives are also refueled. First Class passengers get the morning newspaper delivered to their rooms. I returned from the shower to find that Jay had already returned my roomette to its daytime configuration and dropped off a copy of USA Today. I took it and headed up to the diner where a hot coffee and a vegie omelet got the day off to a good start.

Breakfast in the Cascades

It should be noted that breakfast, lunch or dinner can also be taken in the Pacific Parlour Car, however
the menu there
is not as extensive as the regular dining car menu.

Early morning along Klamath Lake as seen from the Pacific Parlour Car

Pacific Parlour Car set up for Luncheon

North of Chemult the weather changed from sunshine to cold gray skies and occasionally heavy snow as the Starlight began its long and steady climb across the Cascade Range. The route guide indicated that the train passed through twenty tunnels before commencing the long descent down through Salt Creek Canyon to the Willamette Valley.

The Willamette River is one of the few North American rivers I’ve ever seen that flow from south to north. I enjoyed this phenomenon from the comfort of the diner where I joined two women, one in her thirties and one in her sixties. Shortly we were joined by a middle aged guy who took a quick look at the menu, mumbled something about the prices and decided to head back to the lounge car for lunch.

It’s worth noting that while meals are included in the fare for First Class passengers, they are not for those seated back in Coach. The café located in the lower level of the Sightseer Lounge Car offers an affordably priced menu that is a great alternative to the more expensively priced dining car meals. When I travel in Coach on Amtrak, I usually take breakfast in the diner, lunch in the café and only occasionally dinner in the diner. It would be easy to shell out upwards of $50.00 per day on dining car meals alone, and for those budget minded travelers who may have paid only $95.00 for their coach seat between Los Angeles and Portland, that extra $50.00 might be considered a substantial expenditure.

More than a few people have been known to bring aboard their own food including items such as instant oatmeal or Cup-A-Noodles that might require boiling water which the café staff will provide at no charge. Back in the late seventies when I’d bought a rail pass and set off on a two week coast to coast train extravaganza, I had only about $80.00 to my name for whatever I might require during the trip. Back then, while Amtrak didn’t care if someone packed sandwiches or crackers along for their trip, they didn’t encourage passengers to use either the café or its water to prepare or eat food from their personal cache. As such, I had to buy my hot water at the going rate for tea and coffee – about $1.00 a cup back then. Thankfully, Amtrak has relaxed this policy and will – depending upon your café attendant – either cheerfully or begrudgingly provide you with a cup of hot water for your food.

My luncheon companions this afternoon were Patty and Lisa. Patty – the older of the two – was heading up to Centralia to visit her sister. She had ridden the Coast Starlight often on past trips and found it found it far preferable to flying, especially since she lived near Paso Robles, California where the train arrived and departed at “civilized” hours in the mid-afternoon. Additionally, if she were to fly into either Portland or Seattle it was difficult for her sister or her husband to come meet her.

Patty’s situation highlighted the attractiveness and importance of train travel for many Americans who don’t live in or near large cities. Be it the convenience of nearby rail travel or the often higher costs associated with flying out of smaller towns or cities, trains play a significant role in moving our rural brethren about this big, broad land of ours.

Our other luncheon companion, Lisa, was returning to Montana from San Jose where she’d attended a training seminar for her company. Like more than a few Amtrak riders, she was traveling by train because she simply didn’t enjoy anything about flying these days. This was only her second time riding long distance on Amtrak – the first being on her outbound trip – and while she loved the scenery and the train “life”, she really wished she were riding in a sleeper rather than in Coach. She’d asked about upgrading to First Class on tonight’s Empire Builder out of Portland but was informed that it was sold out. I wasn’t surprised. First Class travel on Amtrak can be one of the best travel bargains on the planet, especially compared to what you’ll pay in other developed countries for similar accommodations.

I was recently checking the price for a roomette between Santa Barbara and Portland for a trip later this spring on the Coast Starlight. A winter sale put the Coach fare at $82.00 with the First Class add on being only $198.00. Subtract my 10% AAA discount (off the coach fare) and consider that I get my own private room plus the cost of all enroute meals in the dining car I can order whatever I like off the menu – including dessert and I think that the total of about $290.00 is a steal compared to the $1000.00 or more that one would pay for a similar journey in Australia or Europe.

I should note however that not all First Class accommodations are so affordable every day of the year. They can really vary from day to day depending upon the route and the demand. During the popular spring and summer months, you’ll often find the cost of upgrading to First Class quite a bit higher. It’s still a pretty good deal relative to First Class fares you’ll find in Canada, Europe or Australia but as an example the cost of upgrading to a roomette that I referenced above can occasionally be upwards of $300.00.

Our friendly dining car attendant mentioned that she had been with Amtrak for over twenty years. During that time she had worked on every western train except the Southwest Chief. Looking over the menu, I decided to try out the Chef’s Market Place Special – a bowl of penne pasta topped with five good sized meatballs and marinara sauce. Patty had the Soup and Salad Combo and Lisa opted for the cheeseburger. Everything looked and tasted pretty good though I thought Patty’s Soup and Salad Combo was a bit of a disappointment given that the salad was just a little bowl with some head lettuce, a couple of cucumbers and two cherry tomatoes. She seemed to enjoy it though, and our cheerful server did a great job of topping off coffee and talking Patty and I into dessert. We were both in the sleepers, so at no extra cost – why not? Amtrak has some very generously portioned cheesecakes and brownies on their dessert offerings this month but neither of us was that hungry so we both settled for Häagen-Dazs ice cream cups. That chocolate peanut butter ice cream is really good!

View from the diner while speeding through the Willamette Valley

After lunch, I headed up to the Pacific Parlour Car for the final hour and a half ride into Portland. The conductor made an announcement that we’d be arriving at Portland’s Union Station a full forty minutes early. We’d left Eugene right on time at 12:36pm and the schedule gives the train almost three hours to cover the 123 miles between Eugene and Portland. Judging by the blur of the ubiquitous telephone poles passing by, we were ripping along the fairly flat terrain at a good 70 mph or more. No doubt Amtrak must incorporate some inflated times into its schedule in order to allow trains to make up time if they’re running a bit late.

Meanwhile, I was taking it all in while chatting with Jeremy – a real live “foamer” who’d boarded in Sacramento last night and was just heading up to Portland for the weekend. For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, a “Foamer” is a term reserved for railroading fanatics whose enthusiasm for all things rail is such that they practically foam at the mouth. I’ve met a foamer or two in my travels and they’re always a lot of fun because they’re clearly excited by the journey and often quite well versed on railroad history and equipment.

I figure most everyone who chooses to ride a train in this age of exceedingly affordable air travel is a rail fan to some extent. Consider that on many longer routes it’s more expensive to take the train than to fly, especially when you add in the cost of meals. Many rail passengers are willing to pay a bit more if only because they enjoy the leisurely pace of train travel. Some are full blown railroading fanatics like Jeremy who can quote chapter and verse the pre-Amtrak history of Southern Pacific’s Daylight and Starlight trains through California or the gear ratios on GE’s new Genesis Class locomotives. I’m definitely a rail fan but outside of having ridden all but 260 miles of rail in Amtrak’s system, I can’t keep up with most of the history and technical buffs. The one thing we all share in common is the pure enjoyment of traveling somewhere on a train. Given my present circumstances, comfortably sat in the big plush swivel chairs of the Pacific Parlour Car while enjoying a cold beer and good conversation with my fellow travelers, it was hard to imagine a finer way to travel between two points on the West Coast.

One of the highlights of a trip aboard the Coast Starlight is the complimentary afternoon wine tasting. This is available exclusively for First Class passengers and takes place in the Pacific Parlour Car. An announcement was made that due to our early arrival into Portland, the wine and cheese tasting would take place shortly after our arrival there. All passengers continuing on to points north of Portland would be welcome to attend. I approached Ramon, our affable and engaging bar tender if - given our early arrival into Portland combined with the fact that I had an hour beyond that for my connection to the eastbound Empire Builder, might I stick around for the wine tasting. No problem, ‘mano! He cautioned though that I let my car attendant know that I’d be getting off a bit later so that they wouldn’t be looking for me.

Crossing the Willamette on arrival into Portland

Copies of this month’s Wine and Cheese Menu were placed at each table along with plates filled with a variety of cheese, crackers and grapes. A small bouquet flowers at each window added a nice touch. Although eight wines are listed on the menu, only four were offered this afternoon, all of them from Oregon and Washington. The California wines were sampled yesterday afternoon out of San Luis Obispo. The crew did a nice job of describing each wine as well as making the event that much more fun with the inclusion of trivia questions for which a correct answer would win a bottle of wine. All wines were available for purchase by the bottle, and though I quite enjoyed the Hogue Genesis Syrah, I had no room in my luggage for anything larger than an airline sized bottle.

Bidding adieu to my car attendant Jay with thanks and a $10.00 tip, I made my way across the tracks and into the impressive red brick edifice that is Portland Union Station. Amtrak provides a nice little lounge for its First Class passengers at Portland, so I strolled in there and dropped off my bag before heading into the station to pick up the local paper and fire off a couple of pictures.

Trackside at Portland’s Union Station

Portland Union Station

Portland Union Station Main Hall

First Class Metropolitan Lounge at PDX
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Old Feb 10, 13, 12:04 am
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January 26, 2013
Amtrak Portland - Havre 445p – 112p Empire Builder First Class

Boarding for train #28, the eastbound Empire Builder, was announced at 4:30pm. As I began to gather my belongings in the lounge, I overheard a woman ask her husband “Why is it called ‘The Empire Builder’?”

He didn’t know, but I do…

The Empire Builder is one of the most famous passenger trains in America. Originally operated by the Great Northern Railway, the Empire Builder commenced service in 1929 and soon became the railroad’s flag bearer. The train is named in honor of James J. Hill, the Great Northern’s president and founder. Hill reorganized several failing railroads into the Great Northern Railway and so himself became known as The Empire Builder.

The Empire Builder awaits

From the Northwest, there are actually two departures of this train – one from Portland and one from Seattle. Because the main portion of the Empire Builder departs from Seattle, this afternoon’s section out of Portland was a fairly small train comprised of a single Genesis I engine, a Superliner II Sightseer Lounge, two bi-level coaches and, at the rear of the train, my Superliner sleeper. The dining car and another four or five coaches and sleepers depart from Seattle at about the same time we do. Later this evening we’ll quite literally “hook-up” in Spokane and then continue as a much larger train all the way into Chicago.

All of the Car Attendants I’ve had on this trip have been excellent and my attendant for this ride, O.C. was no exception. Courteous, cheerful and ever helpful, he could have been the poster boy for Amtrak’s Sleeper Car Attendants. It’s not an easy job. Amtrak’s Bi-Level sleepers have 14 roomettes, 5 deluxe bedrooms, one handicapped room and one family room. Sleeper Car Attendants are responsible for greeting riders at all hours of the day or night, assisting them with their luggage, explaining their room functions and the layout of the train, serving drinks and meals in the rooms if requested, setting up an entire car worth of accommodations for nighttime occupancy and then returning those rooms to their daytime configuration in the morning – all this in addition to a variety of smaller tasks such as ensuring that the lavatories and shower are clean and stocked, delivering newspapers and having coffee and juice available in the mid-car service center. I honestly don’t know where these folks find the time to sleep, much less complete all of their various chores and still remain cheerful and efficient throughout. My hat’s off to all of them for they are worth their weight in gold plus any extra remuneration I may send their way at trip’s end.

As with the Coast Starlight, First Class passengers on the Empire Builder are welcomed with a split of California “Champagne”. Now unless you’ve been drinking heavily before boarding your train, the JJJ brand “Champagne” offered by Amtrak will never be confused with the Krug Grande Cuvee or Dom Perignon that welcome the fortunate few aboard the likes of Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines, but then we’re talking four or five hundred dollars for your ticket as opposed to four or five thousand. Triple J notwithstanding, I appreciated the gesture even if I’ve never yet been able to choke down a complete bottle of that stuff.

Welcome Aboard

Departure out of Portland was right on time and soon our little train was rolling smoothly across the many bridges that cross the Willamette and Columbia Rivers along with numerous wide sloughs. Twenty minutes later we pulled into Vancouver, Washington just as the sun was setting.

Leaving Portland

Evening sky and rails at Vancouver, Washington

From Vancouver, the Empire Builder rolls eastward along the banks of the mighty Columbia River. This is one of the prettiest portions of the journey, one that I’ve enjoyed many times on trips made during the summer and fall months. Unfortunately, this being winter, there was no longer enough daylight to be able to appreciate the scenic views.

Because this section of the Empire Builder doesn’t have a full service dining car until after it meets up with its other half in Spokane, First Class passengers are offered a choice of three cold dinners (Chicken, Beef or Salmon). These are prepared and packaged somewhere in Portland and are actually pretty good, not to mention filling. Last time I rolled out of here in a sleeper, I had the roast beef. This time I chose the Balsamic Chicken Breast. O.C. delivered it to me shortly after our departure from Vancouver.

Cold Chicken Dinner out of Portland

It’s worth noting here that the café up in the lounge car is open with its full menu available, including hot food. However, even First Class passengers have to pay for any food purchased there. I took my meal up to the lounge car and enjoyed it at one of the tables while watching the lights of Portland reflect off the Columbia River as we sped alongside it.

All of Amtrak’s long distance trains (as well as most of its shorter distance ones) now have electrical outlets at every seat. I was thankful that the refurbished Sightseer Lounge cars now also have outlets available at each table. I plugged in and put in some much needed work on this trip report.

I called it a night about a half hour before our arrival into Spokane. I was actually lying in bed reading Tom Clancy’s latest tome when we rolled into Spokane about twenty minutes early. Since we had to await the arrival of the Seattle section and then hook up with them, we were looking at a layover of almost two hours before we’d continue on. Smokers rejoiced while I read for another half hour or so until sleep overtook me.

I slept well, too – almost six straight hours. We were just preparing to leave Whitefish, Montana when I threw off my blanket, pulled on some pants and padded on down to the shower. We were now on Mountain Time, so I reset my watch before heading up to the diner. Normally sleeper cars are attached directly to one end of the diner but with the merging of both the Seattle and Portland sections in Spokane last night, somehow the diner ended up being the third car from the front, right behind a sleeper and the crew dorm. My sleeper was the very last car on the train so I had quite a walk for my breakfast. Once again, I was surprised to get a table to myself – especially being freshly showered and all – but then I did enjoy all that extra room to spread out the morning news.

Good Morning on the Eastbound Empire Builder

Shortly after leaving Whitefish, the Empire Builder begins its traverse of Glacier National Park. I have had the good fortune to have made this journey many times during the summer months and it is a very pretty section indeed. Unfortunately, my last three trips have been during the winter and early spring and in each case Old Man Winter has been out in full force with cloudy skies and blowing or falling snow. Today was bad enough that there really were no good photographic opportunities what with the mountains being obscured by the snow. Even so, it’s pretty neat being aboard a train whilst powering through nature’s tempest – warm and secure in your comfortable seat behind a big picture window through which to take it all in. Here are some pictures I took while rolling through Glacier Park on a marginally nicer day a couple of years ago.

Glacier Park scenery from the Empire Builder

Glacier Park scenery from the Empire Builder

Glacier Park scenery from the Empire Builder

Glacier Park scenery from the Empire Builder

Over the past three days, my crossings of the Sierras, Cascades and northern Rockies have all been through snow and fog, followed by sunshine and blue skies the moment we got out of the high country. Today was no different as we rolled through Browning and Cut Bank right on time. An early arrival in to Shelby gave the smokers cause to celebrate since normally they’d be required to go a full five and a half hours from Whitefish to Havre without so much as a single puff. I suspect that more than a few smokers have been unsuccessful in this endeavor since the crew made numerous announcements throughout the trip warning that anyone caught smoking would be put off the train at the very next stop. I sure am glad I quit back in 1990 before all the major restrictions came into being.

Train time at Shelby, Montana

My destination of Havre is only 105 miles and an hour and twenty-nine minutes down the tracks. Even a fourth grader could tell you that our average speed over that distance worked out to about 70 mph and it looked like we did every bit of that and maybe more as we went rockin’ and rollin’ down some of the roughest track in the west. It was bumpy, it was noisy and it was about as much fun as you could have while speeding across the vast expanse of eastern Montana’s high plains on a beautiful sunny day.

I spent most of the last hour enjoying the ride from a seat in the lounge car. I had a good chat with a couple of guys from Wisconsin who gave me some great tips on places to visit next time I do a road trip up through the U.P. or Upper Peninsula to those of you unfamiliar with the geography of northern Wisconsin and Michigan. I drove through there this past October and loved everything about it from the small towns to the vast forests and of course those big lakes. The people there were uniformly friendly and in many ways the lifestyle and even climate very similar to what we experience in rural Alaska. I look forward to my next visit.

Detraining at Havre, I took a moment to thank O.C. for a job well done. It’s nice to see people who take joy in their work and by extension spread that joy to others. Smile and the world smiles with you. O.C. epitomized this and though tipping is not required on Amtrak, I was happy to leave him with a ten spot. It’s interesting to note the number of people that don’t tip the employees on Amtrak. It’s not required and while I’ve neither seen nor heard of any protocol on gratuities, the effort that O.C. and many of his fellow employees have put into making my Amtrak experience as nice as it can be certainly seems worthy of a little extra “thanks”.

I then began the long trek past six or seven cars up to the entrance to the large brick station. It had snowed the night before and then begun to melt under today’s sunny skies so the entire walk was through slush and sand. I got the sense that Havre’s the kind of town where they’ll only come out and clear the walks if there’s a foot or more of snow. Until then, real men just gotta hoof it!

Once upon a time I had planned to hitchhike the 114 miles from Havre down to Great Falls and fly back home from there, but then I came across this great $76.00 airfare from Spokane down to Denver routing via Portland and Seattle. Sigh… guess I’m going to Spokane then…

January 27, 2013
Amtrak Havre - Spokane 305p – 140a Empire Builder Coach Class

Back in the 1980s, Amtrak used to offer a great deal called the All Aboard America Pass. The contiguous United States was divided into three sections and you could by a pass through any one or all of them for $125.00 per section. There was a period in 1984 where I spent the better part of a month and a half riding just about every long distance train in the Amtrak system, as well as many shorter routes. It was all about travel and seeing America and I accomplished that and then some. All of those trips were taken in Coach and I learned how to sleep quite comfortably atop two coach seats with the leg rests fully raised. I also became a lot more familiar than I would have liked with Amtrak’s café fare.

Over the years I reckon I bought at least a dozen All Aboard America passes, most of them in the western two thirds of the country. For the western zone, the easternmost town served on the Empire Builder route was Wolf Point, Montana. On those occasions where I had only a western zone pass, it made better sense to only go as far as Havre because the schedules were such that the eastbound Empire Builder arrived in Havre at about noon and the westbound train came through at about three. It was the perfect layover with plenty of time to head into town for lunch and even visit Havre’s famous underground mall.

The schedules haven’t changed much over the past thirty years. Per today’s schedule I had just under two hours in Havre before the westbound Empire Builder was due to arrive for my 510 mile ride back to Spokane. Thankfully the westbound Builder was running about an hour late – a good thing in that it allowed me that much more time to walk into town for a bite to eat.

I used to eat at a downtown café called the Iron Horse but where it was once located is now the Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant. Fair enough. Interestingly, I didn’t see any Mexicans either eating or working in this restaurant and, to some extent, the food reflected that. It was passable in a Swanson TV Dinner kind of way, but otherwise unremarkable.

Back at the train station, I took some time to check out the huge Baldwin S-2 Class “Northern” steam locomotive. It is a massive machine, weighing in at over 400,000 pounds. Combined with the oil tender attached behind, its overall length was about the same as a 737-200. This engine was on display through all of my visits to Havre in the 80s. It’s the last surviving unit of its type and though it’s looking pretty good it could really use a new coat of paint.

The Baldwin S-2 “Northern” at Havre, MT

Sitting at the approximate halfway point between Minneapolis and Seattle, Havre was founded primarily to be a service center for the Great Northern Railway. Up until the 1990s, the railroad was the primary employer in town and Havre remains a service center for the BNSF (Burlington Northern – Santa Fe) to this day. When train #8, the westbound Empire Builder arrived in town, it stopped about 100 yards short of the station to be refueled first.

Pulling up to the pumps at Havre, MT

Since we’d be arriving in Spokane at 1:30 in the morning, I booked this portion of the trip in Coach. I presented my ticket to the Conductor who directed me to board what appeared to be the “Local” car. I could see by the seat checks that everyone aboard was headed to places like Shelby, Browning, Whitefish and Spokane. This car was only about two thirds full when I boarded and since Amtrak rarely assigns seats unless the train is full, there were plenty of seats available and lots of room to stretch out.

We had an interesting mix of humanity in the car with quite a few oil workers from the Williston, North Dakota fields as well as Montana locals of all stripes. Behind me sat a group of old geezers who spent the first hour out of Havre complaining about everything from their various physical ailments to the car temperature to sitting too long between stops. Two young guys who looked like ranch hands were sat just a couple of rows up from me and a lady with three rambunctious young kids sat just ahead of them. The kids ran around a lot, the geezers complained and the oil guys traded bawdy tales of their life experiences working other fields. It was a lively ride!

High Plains Sunset outside of Shelby, MT

Shortly after sunset I made my way forward to the Sightseer Lounge car and bought a burger and a beer for dinner. I spent some time upstairs chatting with a couple from England who had purchased a rail pass and were just beginning their travels around America. They’d flown into Chicago and boarded the Empire Builder yesterday afternoon. They had an ambitious itinerary with visits to Vancouver, BC, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans planned. Rental cars were involved for travel around northern and southern California. I wished them well, especially with regards to weather which can be a bit dodgy around the West Coast in February.

It was 9:30pm when we rolled into Whitefish, Montana. We’d made up almost a half hour off our delay for which I was especially thankful. The sooner I can get into Spokane, the sooner I can get to bed. Whitefish serves Kalispell and Missoula as well as skiers from the Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort just north of town. As such, there was a big crowd of people waiting to board. According to the Amtrak route guide, Whitefish is the busiest station on the Empire Builder route between St. Paul and Seattle. The station itself is very attractive, built in the Tudor style back in 1927. It was added to the Register of Historic Places in 2002.

Amazingly, I didn’t acquire a seatmate out of Whitefish. With all that extra room around me, I managed to curl up and knock off a couple hours of sleep before we pulled into Spokane – ten minutes early!

I grabbed a cab and headed out to the airport where I set up camp for the night in a quiet hallway on the upper level. It was a lot warmer and quieter up there than down on the ground floor by baggage claim. The police stopped by to wake me up at about 7:30am. Not many people – hell, probably nobody – sleeps where I was located so the cops were just making sure I was actually flying out and not one of Spokane’s homeless population. They were very nice about it and said I was welcome to sleep in a bit longer if I liked but that it was going to get busy up there soon so I might want to move somewhere else.

I was booked on a flight departing Spokane at 10:40am but what the heck – given the time I might as well see if I can get on the 8:40 departure. As an MVP Gold75K with Alaska, I can change and confirm on to another flight on the day of departure, so I took advantage of that benefit and then made my way down to Alaska’s side of the terminal.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Feb 13, 13 at 11:01 pm
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January 28, 2013
Horizon Airlines Spokane - Portland 840a – 958a DHC-8-400 Economy Class
Horizon Airlines Portland - Seattle 1200n – 1250p DHC-8-400 Economy Class
Alaska Airlines Seattle - Denver 655p – 1023p 737-900 First Class

Alaska/Horizon DHC-8-400

As noted earlier in this report, Horizon Air operates a fleet of 49 DHC-8-400s, of which I’ve flown 43. Now I realize that most people could care less about such things but when you think about the number of flights required to – purely by chance – fly all fifty Dash-8s in Horizon’s fleet (one of them has been retired), I think it’s a pretty significant accomplishment. Obviously it doesn’t compare to coming up with a cure for breast cancer but I think it’s still pretty impressive. It took me 201 flights to fly upon each of Alaska’s fleet of forty 737-400s. It took me 342 flights to fly aboard all but one of United’s 727-200s. This will be my 101st flight aboard a Horizon Dash 8-400. How many more will it take for me to fly all of them? When I get down to just one more aircraft left to fly, what are the odds of having it assigned to my particular flight on any given day out of a fleet of 49 aircraft? Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of flying and I think there ought to be a prize. Horizon could have, say, a punch card and once you got it totally filled out you could win a meaningless plaque to hang on your wall. Or a T-Shirt. Or your name could be emblazoned on the inside of an overhead storage bin.

In any event, without going out to the airport and specifically targeting the aircraft I need to fly – an expensive proposition given that I’d have to buy the tickets to wherever that plane is going on the spot at last minute prices - what are the odds that I’ll get one or more of those hitherto unflown aircraft by just leaving it to chance?

I’m a pretty good functional mathematician but a precise calculation of those odds would be impossible without knowing things like how many flights on the Dash 8 I’ll have each year. I have no idea. Suffice to say that the odds are not good and they’re getting worse with every new plane I fly.

Today however, I knocked two of the six off my list. What are the odds of that?!!

Waiting at the gate in Spokane was ship 448, which delivered a full load of 76 passengers 280 miles across the Cascades to Portland in just one hour and two minutes. In Portland I stopped in for breakfast at the Laurelwood Public House restaurant located in the heart of Horizon’s A Concourse. Offering an affordably priced menu and a selection of excellent beers, this is – for me at least – airport dining at its finest.

Truth be known, the entire Portland Airport offers excellent dining options on both sides of security. I’ve eaten at most all of PDX’s restaurants over the years and they’re a big reason why Portland International is one of my favorite airports in the entire world. They even have a couple branches of Portland’s famous Powell’s Bookstore there with lots of books on sale including a decent sized selection of used books.

I had a 1:00pm flight booked up to Seattle, but just happened to notice hitherto unflown ship 412 parked in the area of where the Seattle Shuttle flights usually depart from. Approaching the agent, I asked if that aircraft were going to Seattle.

“It is” she replied.
“Any chance I might be able to get a seat on it?”
“Sure. Let me see your boarding pass, please.”

Yes!!! Ship 412 has been sitting there like a missing tooth on my fleet list of Horizon’s Dash 8s. Now I’ve flown all of ships N400QX through 439 sequentially. Did you ever see those Peanuts cartoons where Snoopy the dog is dancing with that look of pure unbridled joy? That’s me – mentally at least. Hey - I’m thankful to still be able to derive joy from such trivial little things, though I do wish I could move my feet as well as ol’ Snoopy.

Snoopy's Happy Dance

In Seattle I stopped over at the Delta Sky Club for a shower before heading landside to meet a couple of friends from Florida who just happened to be in town with a car. We drove to the ferry terminal in downtown Seattle, spent about 10 minutes looking for a place to park, and then boarded the 3:00pm ferry across to Bremerton and back. I call this the Poor Man’s Tour of The Puget Sound and with walk on round trip tickets priced at just $7.70 all in, it’s a very inexpensive way to see and enjoy part of what makes Seattle such a beautiful city to visit.

Seattle as seen from the Puget Sound

The crossing to Bremerton takes only an hour and with the twenty minute layover there, we were back in Seattle by 5:20pm leaving us plenty of time to get back to SeaTac (via Marginal Way and Pacific Hwy. – not I-5!) in time for my 6:55pm flight to Denver.

Tonight’s flight to Denver will be my 100th aboard a 737-900, ninety-six of those having come aboard examples from Alaska Airlines. Alaska was the launch customer for the -900 and aside from Continental/United is the only other airline to operate it in all of North America. Although I’ve already flown all of the originally delivered -900s in Alaska’s fleet, I was hopeful that the run of good luck I’d experienced earlier in the day with Horizon’s Q400s might extend to this flight as well.

Alas, it was not to be. Waiting at the gate was my old pal N309AS upon which I’d already logged seven flights. Oh well, make it eight and yes please, I’ll have a refill on that Jack Daniels before dinner. Seatmate was a middle aged guy who was wearing his Bose headphones when I arrived and never took them off until we landed in Denver. He didn’t drink and passed on the dinner offering – a chicken breast topped with a pesto salsa, same as I had back in October when I flew this flight. Me – I’m fine with minding my own business the entire flight because I’ve got plenty of it to mind but I don’t think I could ever skip all the food and drink while walling myself away behind those headphones. That’s a bit more sensory deprivation than I would be comfortable with.

Chicken Breast with Pesto Salsa Dinner on Alaska Airlines

It was snowing lightly when we landed in Denver and parked at gate A53. Although my next flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until tomorrow morning at 11:30am, I decided to sleep in the airport anyway, especially given the great secluded spot I found just off the gate area. It was much better than where I had been staying at DIA – so much so that I’ll probably stay there again even if I do have a long enough layover to enjoy a hotel room. The way I see it, a night spent in the airport – especially when you can do it as comfortably as I do – is like finding $70.00 lying on the ground. While I’m at it, I think I’ll have a plate of Eggs Benedict tomorrow morning…

January 29, 2013
United Airlines Denver – Houston 1130a – 251p 787-800 Economy Class
United Express Houston – Austin 340p – 432p CRJ-700 Economy Class
Alaska Airlines Austin - Seattle 630p – 835p 737-900 First Class

As originally planned I was going to spend the next couple of days in Colorado visiting family in Lakewood and Greeley. To that end I’d booked a return flight to Spokane using that long since retired $76.00 one way fare. From there I had an award flight booked back to Alaska.

About a week before I was scheduled to depart on this extravaganza, a bout of idle curiosity led me to investigate whether United was flying its new 787 into Denver. Years ago, when the fever burned much hotter, I would have known this information well in advance. Heck – I probably would’ve been booked on the inaugural flight of the 787! Back then though, it was a lot easier as well. I got myself a seat aboard the inaugural Concorde flight in the U.S. simply by calling Braniff and booking a flight on it. I booked a seat aboard the inaugural 767 flight (United from Chicago to Denver on September 8th, 1982) by calling United’s Denver Sales Rep (I worked in the business back then), finding out when the flight would be and then booking it over Apollo. I managed a few inaugural route flights with similar ease. These days it’s a lot more competitive to do stuff like this and I just don’t have the desire to get involved to that extent anymore.

Anyway, I discovered that United was indeed operating its new 787 between Denver and Houston and I could get a seat on it for a mere $200 some odd and change. No thanks. Despite having logged over 1.2 million miles on United I no longer have any status and if I’m gonna shell out $200 or more I want better return than a mere 860 miles.

Wait a minute! What about fares to other Texas cities? Over the past year I’ve seen some really great fares between Denver and cities like San Antonio or Austin, some of them going for less than $80 one way. Let’s check those out! Tap-tap-tap. Click-clickity-click-click-tap. Voila! Denver to Austin via Houston on United for just $69.00 one way. Any seats using that 11:30am 787 departure via Houston? YES!!! As an added bonus, my arrival in Austin timed perfectly with Alaska’s 6:30pm nonstop up to Seattle. Awright! Book it, Danno!

Well you all know the story since then. The worldwide fleet of 787s has been grounded and I was left with a nonrefundable ticket to Austin that would probably be flown with a boring old 757 or some similarly plain plane. As things turned out however, United substituted an ex-Continental 767-400 on the Houston flight and I ended up with a better seat than I’d have had on the 787 flight. I’d only flown once upon Boeing’s longest 767 and that was many years ago on Delta. If I couldn’t fly the 787, this was about as good a substitute as I could have hoped for.

I was whiling away the morning over coffee and Milano Cookies in the United Club when the first faint rumblings of trouble came up. The 767 coming up from Houston was showing a delay of 25 minutes. My connection in Houston was scheduled for 49 minutes, so it was gonna be tight. But still doable. Okay then. More coffee.

My hopeful outlook evaporated with a subsequent update that the inbound flight from Houston was now running about 40 minutes late. The new departure time from Denver was showing 12:15pm leaving me with a connection of just 4 minutes if everything operated as scheduled. Not gonna happen.


I ended up getting myself rebooked on a nonstop flight to Austin aboard a comparatively unexciting CRJ-700. If there were any solace to be taken from this unfortunate turn of events it was that the flight was operated by GoJet Airlines, technically my 157th airline flown. I say “technically” because I tend to lump all those airlines like Air Wisconsin, Mesa, SkyWest etc. under the United Express banner when the flight is branded as United Express and the aircraft is painted in United Express colors.

United Express Denver – Austin 147p – 457p CRJ-700 Economy Class
Alaska Airlines Austin - Seattle 630p – 835p 737-900 First Class

Let me start by saying there are CRJ-700s and then there are CRJ-700s operated in United Express’ configuration. The latter aircraft is unquestionably superior to anything I’ve flown aboard the likes of Horizon, American or Delta. No doubt my favorable impression was influenced by the Economy Plus seat I’d been rebooked into, but this airplane was heads and tails nicer than most other airlines’ CRJs I’d flown aboard.

For starters, it had a six seat First Class cabin. Well okay, so do a few other airlines on their CRJs these days. The real contrast was back in the main cabin where United offered seven rows of Economy Plus seating in addition to eight rows of standard Economy Class seating. The main difference of course was in seat pitch – 34” in Economy Plus vs. 31” in Economy, but what I found equally impressive were the seats. For me at least they were every bit as comfortable as those found on much larger airliners. They were so comfortably padded that I could have easily endured a transcon flight in them. By comparison Horizon’s CRJ seats (now SkyWest) are rock hard and offer minimal recline – fine for Seattle to Boise but not so great on longer flights down to Southern California.

Aside from that, the flight was unremarkable. We winged it on down to Austin in just one hour and thirty-eight minutes and I enjoyed a rare soda of some type. I hardly ever drink sodas and it wouldn’t surprise me if over the past few years the only ones I have drunk have been aboard airplanes.

We parked at gate 23, way down on the opposite end of the terminal from where my Alaska flight would depart. No problem – a little extra exercise is never a bad thing. Along the way I stopped off at American’s Admiral Club, one of my favorites in the AA system. The Austin lounge is attractively furnished and nicely illuminated with lamps rather than overhead lights providing most of the light. It’s also small enough to feel intimate without seeming cramped.

Down at Gate 5 a fair sized mob had gathered to board Alaska’s single daily departure to the Emerald City. A good wind had sprung up and as I looked out the large concourse windows I could see heat lightning illuminating the evening clouds to our west. A good thunderstorm appeared imminent.

Amongst all of those present in the gate lounge, I strongly suspect that I was the only one even remotely disappointed that we’d be flying north aboard N303AS as opposed to one of Alaska’s newer 737-900ERs. Discretely swallowing my disappointment, I ambled down the jetway and took my seat at 3A in preparation for this, my 10th flight aboard this aircraft. Seatmate arrived, uttered a quick hello and then wandered back to the economy cabin to visit with a traveling companion stuck back there.

The First Officer came on over the PA to announce a flight time of exactly four hours up to Seattle, but warned that the inbound flight had endured a very bumpy approach into Austin and, given the thunderstorms in the area, he expected that the climb out would be similarly rough.

About a minute later there was a bit of a commotion back in the main cabin. A woman who apparently didn’t fly well under the best of circumstances had become more than a bit uncomfortable with the idea of flying through or even near a thunderstorm. She wanted off. She and her companion were led to the front of the cabin to await the jetway being reattached to the aircraft. The poor gal really did seem very distressed and I couldn’t help but empathize with her plight. It is possible to travel by train from Austin to Seattle but the journey would take about three days. I hope she eventually got up there in a good way for her.

The worst of the storm cell seemed to have passed while the woman’s baggage was retrieved because when we finally did become airborne about a half hour later, climb out was unremarkable. Cocktails were offered and I requested my usual Jack Daniels. I’ve always wanted to try that old line Al Pacino’s character Colonel Frank Slade uttered in the movie “Scent of a Woman” when he asked for a bottle of John Daniels.

“Excuse me, Sir – don’t you mean Jack Daniels?”

“Son, when you’ve known him as long as I have…”

That movie is like twenty years old though and given the youthful countenance of our flight attendant, I thought it best to wait for a flight with a more senior crew. Youthfulness notwithstanding, I do want to extend kudos to our young FA for having the good sense to serve Alaska’s mixed nut “course” with the cocktails rather than an hour before landing like most of the other FAs do. I don’t know if he went against Alaska’s service standards but this is really just common sense. After all, mixed nuts are not – as Alaska Airlines apparently contends – a “course”. They are an accoutrement that normally accompanies the cocktail course.

Dinner sure sounded good. It was described as a “steak” and yours truly – having eaten at least a couple hundred airline steaks not to mention a good number of them served terrestrially – was looking forward to a nice well rounded dinner. I even traded in the Jack Daniels and requested a glass of the Merlot with my steak.

Alas, what we were served was a chunk of meat. It most certainly was not “steak” or sirloin in either texture or flavor. It wasn’t even flank steak. It was just plain old meat. It looked and tasted more like a chunk of well-done roast beef. I’m thinking this meal must’ve been prepared and loaded in Seattle because I can’t imagine that any self-respecting chef from Texas would have ever signed off on that stuff as “steak”.

I’m sure some of you are thinking that ol’ 2A doth complain too much but hey – steak is steak and we’re talking “First Class” here, with – by the way - a meal service that Alaska describes as being ”A cut above the competition”. Unfortunately there is no competition on the AUS-SEA market, so maybe next time I’ll stop by the excellent Salt Lick Barbecue concession before the flight.

Truth be known, even after all the Draconian cuts to its once fine service, I’ve still had some fairly decent meals in First Class on Alaska. I just wish they’d be more consistent and not play down to the level of the competition. Case in point would be the cold beef slices on salad served on the 7:00pm 1110 mile flight between Seattle and Phoenix (US Air) as opposed to the hot chicken breast with pesto salsa and salad I was served last night on the shorter 6:55pm 1020 mile flight from Seattle down to Denver (United).

Even so, I don’t know why I bother. People have been complaining about airline food for so long that I should imagine by now the vast majority of the complaints fall upon well calloused ears. Heck – people complained about airline food even back in the 70s and 80s when it was a lot better in both quality and quantity than it is now. I’ve actually written to the airlines about this in years past and I’ve either been ignored or I get the usual form letter response. I really should know better by now and just buy some food in advance to eat on the plane – I’ll just ask for a plate and silverware instead of whatever they’re serving and likely be the envy of my fellow passengers. Then again, I might end up being the most annoying of them as they’d forced to smell the wonderful aromas from my chosen feast and watch as I scarfed down a delicious plate of ribs or chicken while they gnawed on their rugged piece of meat.

But enough already! I’m getting hungry again!

Kudos go out to the flight crew who put our big 737 down on the cold hard concrete of Seattle’s runway 16L about as softly as a mother’s kiss. I thanked the flight attendant working our cabin for a First Class job and then headed downstairs to the United Club to put in a bit of work on this report. Tomorrow, I’m off to the desert!

January 30, 2013
Alaska Airlines Seattle – Las Vegas 830a – 1042a 737-800 First Class

It’s a good thing I have a lifetime membership in the United Club because on this trip at least, all of my Alaska flights have departed from either the N or C gates. The United Club is conveniently located at train level underneath the North Satellite, only a short walk from the N gates and only a short one minute train ride from the C gates. It’s much more convenient to those gates than Alaska’s Boardroom though not quite as nice in either ambience (no windows) or food offerings. Still, as one who likes to “lounge about” as much as possible before the flight, it’s just perfect for me under these circumstances.

This time it was seatmate’s turn to complain about the service. “Why don’t they serve coffee or orange juice to First Class passengers on the ground?” he wondered aloud. “Every other airline does.” I could only nod my head and commiserate while sipping from my 16oz cup of steaming hot Starbucks.

There was a collective gasp from the gallery when the Captain announced that the current temperature in Las Vegas was 36° but we all felt much better when he went on to say that the high was expected to be in the sixties.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day for flying and I was thankful for my window seat which provided me great views of Mt. Lassen, Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevadas and Mono Lake as we winged it down to Sin City in just one hour and forty-nine minutes. Indeed, between enjoying the nice day outside and chatting with seatmate – an engaging software engineer out of Bellevue – the breakfast service was almost an afterthought. It was pretty good though – a plate of scrambled eggs with a big slice of apple strudel. I seem to recall some sausage and maybe even a large strawberry, but don’t hold me to it.

* * * ------------------------------------------------------------ * * *

I used to rent from Alamo and Thrifty in Las Vegas but ever since they and most other car rental companies moved into McCarran’s Car Rental Center, their rental rates are much higher if only to pay off the costs associated with the construction of their new home. These two companies still offer great deals in other cities and I continue to do a lot of business with them, especially given that my elite level membership in their respective frequent renter programs speeds me through the rental process quickly and efficiently.

In Las Vegas however, I now rent from Fox Rent A Car. Located out on Las Vegas Blvd. & Pebble Rd., getting to their lot requires taking a bus to the main Car Rental Center and then catching Fox’s van from there. Despite this being a Wednesday with higher midweek car rental rates, Fox provided me with a full sized car equipped with satellite radio for just $16.00 per day.

Anyone who’s read my trip reports before knows that I love the desert. I need the desert. I grew up out in the American West and the desert is as much a part of my essence as the mountains are. While the fact that it’s winter in Alaska as opposed to 70° down here does make being down here that much nicer, I like the desert in the heat of summer as well. The wide open spaces of the Mojave and those huge sunny blue skies do wonders to maintain my serotonin at a healthy level. I’ve got the next two days free to explore and enjoy so let’s grab a couple bottles of water and hit the road!

Rearview mirror landscape on Cima Road in the Mojave National Preserve

One of my favorite desert junctions

General George S. Patton Museum WWII Tank

Joshua Tree National Park Trail

Joshua Tree National Park Landscape

Afternoon heat in the Mojave Desert

Sunsets in the desert are some of the finest on the planet…

Joshua Tree Sunset in the Mojave Desert

Joshua Tree Sunset in the Mojave Desert

X marks the spot

February 01, 2013
Jet Blue Las Vegas – Long Beach 245p – 351p A320-200 Economy Class
Jet Blue Long Beach – Portland 610p – 832p A320-200 Economy Class

Finally, the time has come to return home. In the planning stages - which for me are always ongoing and always subject to revision - (Now you see why I have to do these trips on my own!) I almost diverted from Las Vegas to Indiana so I could watch the Super Bowl with friends there. On the other hand, had my Denver Broncos made it I would definitely have found a way to get to Colorado for the big game. As it were, I just missed out on a really good airfare from Las Vegas to Indianapolis. Otherwise I would likely have been writing about my travels to Indiana right now.

Some people will read about a trip like I’ve just done and think “All that travel must be exhausting!” Au contraire, I find it quite invigorating. Indeed, I could easily live the last three weeks all over again and quite frankly would love to do so but alas, I’ve got chores and responsibilities I need to attend to back home and so it’s time to turn my haggard face to the north – and a tad west I suppose – and begin the 2500 mile journey back to my humble abode in the woods outside of Fairbanks.

Normally I would book myself an award ticket from Las Vegas back up to Fairbanks on Alaska Airlines. There’s just one problem… I am fast approaching one million miles flown aboard Alaska and I’d like to accomplish that feat in First Class is at all possible.

I keep a separate log that’s dedicated solely to flights on Alaska and Horizon. In addition to the total flights, I also keep track of statistics like all flights taken on specific aircraft types as well as flights per specific aircraft (such as N303AS). I know, I know… I got it bad… Anyway, I noticed that if I were to fly on Alaska from Las Vegas up to Fairbanks, I’d end up passing the millionth mile mark on my next flight from Fairbanks or Anchorage down to Seattle.

Given the high cost of flying into or out of Fairbanks - especially during the winter months – I always use award mileage for my Alaska travel. Sure, I could just splurge and shell out 50000 miles for a First Class award but I worked hard for those miles and I hate to use the equivalent of another free roundtrip from Alaska to practically anywhere in the Lower 48 or Canada just so that I can fly in First Class on flights that frankly don’t offer all that much service.

Knowing that I’ll be back down here in April, I did a few basic calculations and figured out that if I didn’t commence my Alaska flights home until I got up to Seattle, I could still fly all the way up to Fairbanks and back to Seattle whereupon my mileage at that point would be 999,250 miles. From Seattle I could easily purchase an affordable ticket to just about anywhere and given my status as a MVP Gold 75K, I’d very likely get upgraded for free or I could use one of my complimentary MVP Gold upgrade certificates on myself.

Okay then – so I needed to find a cheap one way fare from Las Vegas up to Seattle or Portland. JetBlue answered the call with a low $99.00 one way fare up to Portland connecting through Long Beach. I hadn’t flown JetBlue since way back in October of 2000 when I booked a seat from Ft. Lauderdale up to JFK for just $59.00. As an added bonus, I hadn’t flown into LGB since 1985 so I was looking forward to getting reacquainted on both fronts.

JetBlue operates out of McCarran’s new Terminal 3. One of the things I really like about the design of this smaller terminal is how short a walk it is from the check-in counters to the gates. There are only fifteen gates and after going through the centrally located security check point, it’s just a short walk to your gate. The only downside I could see was that the elite lane is limited to First Class passengers only, not airline elites. Additionally, there was no TSA Pre✓™ lane available either.

When I first flew JetBlue back in 2000, I remember comparing the boarding experience to an elementary school fieldtrip. People just seemed to take forever and a day to get themselves squared away. They were noisy and disorganized and it seemed like a lot of them hadn’t flown very much – if at all. This time the boarding process went quite smoothly. No doubt JetBlue has had plenty of time to refine it and I liked the results.

Once onboard, I found my seat to be comfortable and – with a seat pitch of 34” – spacious. The industry standard is 31-32”. Had I been willing to pay a mere $15.00 extra, I could have upgraded to one of JetBlue’s “Even More Space” seats which offer a 38” pitch in addition to early boarding. I was perfectly happy at my window seat back in row 18. Seatmate however was disappointed that she had once again ended up stuck in a middle seat.

“How long ago did you make your reservation?” I asked. Given that seats can be selected at the time of booking on JetBlue, I fully expected that she’d probably made her reservation at the last minute.
“A couple of weeks ago.” was her answer.
Two weeks ago! I made mine last week and still got this good seat. I didn’t tell her that though and instead asked “Did you know you could select your seat at the time you made your reservation?”
“I didn’t have time”
Pffft! Well there you go…

It was only a short 45 minute flight over to Long Beach, but the cabin crew still found time to provide a complete beverage service along with a nice selection of complimentary snacks. I’ve had many a similar length flight on the so-called “full service” legacy carriers where the pickings were a lot slimmer.

When I last flew into Long Beach back in 1985, the terminal looked like something out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. Heck – for all I know it may well have been in one of Bogie’s movies. Clearly a lot had changed over the past twenty-eight years, although I was pleased to see that the old Douglas Aircraft – now Boeing – building on the other side of the airport still sported its original “Fly DC Jets” sign.

We parked in front of a shiny new glass and steel building and deplaned through both the front and rear doors. There are no jetways at LGB. One other interesting comparison for me was that when I last flew in aboard a United 737-200 from Denver, we were the only jet in town. This time the ramp was well populated with three A320s from JetBlue along with CRJs from Alaska, US Airways and Delta.

My two hour layover passed quickly thanks to an electrical outlet and a comfortable seat that allowed me to catch up on emails and – as ever – put in a bit of work on this report. Honestly, it’s taken on a life of its own! The two hour flight up to Portland passed quickly and comfortably with a couple of drinks and some channel surfing amongst the 36 channels of complimentary television from JetBlue’s seatback IFE.

Upon disembarking in Portland, I couldn’t help but leave with the impression that like Southwest, JetBlue does it right. A comfortable and affordable seat, easily booked with good inflight service and entertainment. There’s good reason why JetBlue consistently scores at or near the top of annual customer satisfaction surveys. If the majors ever switch from a mileage to a revenue based FFP, I expect I’ll be doing a lot more flying on JB and WN as a result.

February 02, 2013
Horizon Airlines Portland – Seattle 1100a – 1150a DHC-8-400 Economy Class
Alaska Airlines Seattle – Anchorage 100p – 338p 737-800 Economy Class
Alaska Airlines Anchorage - Fairbanks 435p – 533p 737-400 Economy Class

I’m always looking – that’s the problem. Kind of. It’s also the source of a lot of excitement and were I not afflicted with this wandering eye and endless curiosity I’d likely be doing a lot less traveling. Indeed, this trip probably would have gone as originally planned – down to California and back. In any event, I’m not looking for a cure but I do occasionally need to exercise a bit of willpower and I’m proud to say that I managed to do just that today.

My flight up to Seattle wasn’t due to leave until 11:00am and while I was checking out the morning news online, I couldn’t resist having a look at the car rental rates out of Portland. It was, after all, Friday and Portland often benefits from some spectacularly low weekend deals. Today was no exception. Alamo was offering a rate of just $8.00 per day - on a full size car no less! Two days came to just $22.95 all in.

Dang! I love this life on the road but I really should head back home. Then again it’s only a couple of days. I was fixing to drive down to Bandon and back and would take one night at the hostel in Seaside. Yeah, but when you factor in $28.00 for the hostel plus about $70.00 in gas plus meals along the way, we’re probably talking about $140.00. That ain’t much but I’ve been nickel and diming my bank account for the last two weeks with expenses like this and over time they start to add up significantly. So… maybe next time. After all, I’ll be back in a couple of months.

As for the flights, it was now February so I got to work two new crossword puzzles per the Horizon and Alaska magazines. The hot meal option for northbound flights was a bowl of pasta with cheese and chicken. I was thankful that I’d stopped by Waji’s for a comparatively priced bowl of spicy fried brown rice with chicken and vegetables. Mmm!

It was -4°F when we landed on an overcast evening at Fairbanks International. A light snow was falling as I stepped out of the terminal to await my ride home. It’s a dry cold up here in the Interior, so the crisp air actually felt quite refreshing. Arriving home to my cabin in the woods, I turned up the heater, popped a cold Mirror Pond Pale Ale and settled into my recliner to savor the memories of a trip well travelled.

Home Sweet Home

So there you have it, gang. Like the trip you’ve just read along on, this report started out small but just sort of morphed into the 30000 word tale that it’s become. I don’t know that it could ever be considered one for the ages, but it certainly stands as the longest single domestic trip report I’ve ever written. For those of you who’ve read along through this entire 30000+ word journey, I thank you for your fortitude and hope that you’ve found this report worthy of the considerable amount of time it must have taken to read it.

In years past, March and April have been when I’ve taken my longer overseas trips, usually in First or Business Class. That will not be happening this year. I will be involved in plenty of domestic travel this spring, but probably nothing worthy of a trip report. That said, I’ve got the perfect remedy for anyone awaiting another report from myself or any other reporter here ~

Head on out to your nearest airport, train station, dock or highway and take a trip worthy of your own trip report!

Travel well, folks!

Last edited by Seat 2A; Feb 10, 13 at 10:35 pm
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Old Feb 10, 13, 1:11 am
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Epic. Not yet fully read but one I very much look forward to. Great photos which give a real feel of your adventure accompanied by a tremendously descriptive text.

Pour yourself a large Woodford and give yourself a pat on the back.
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Old Feb 10, 13, 6:35 am
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Originally Posted by Seat 2A View Post
I first got the notion of taking this trip late last summer. Back then I envisioned it as a simple little jaunt down to Southern California for an Airline Collectibles convention. It would be a nice break from our long cold winter up here in Alaska’s Interior....
Simple jaunt: Was worried: this is not what Seat 2A does.
But soon corrected: its not a simple jaunt: the opposite

Great TR as always. Superb photos
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Old Feb 10, 13, 8:18 am
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Smile Awesome

As always 2A; a great report

Only you, here on FLYERtalk (the hint is FLYER) could make me want to experience a train ride across NA

As for this >>>

"In years past, March and April have been when I’ve taken my longer overseas trips, usually in First or Business Class. That will not be happening this year. I will be involved in plenty of domestic travel this spring, but probably nothing worthy of a trip report."

Ill miss your Spring report, but fortunately I've still got a significant back catalogue of your TR's to catch up on

Always a pleasure to read your reports

Fly safe,
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Old Feb 10, 13, 8:21 am
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Great report, as always! A wonderful read for a lazy Sunday morning.
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Old Feb 10, 13, 12:03 pm
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America The Beautiful!

Simply outstanding report! If your travels ever bring you into CMH (no none of that Amtrak stuff ever stops here), please let me buy you a local craft brew at Barleys (with a bucket of mussels) and many other fine establishments.
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Old Feb 10, 13, 12:07 pm
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The grandmaster of trip reports is back. Great landscapes.
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Old Feb 10, 13, 1:57 pm
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Wow! Now I started to seriously miss the U.S...
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