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Winter Wanderings Around America by Plane And Train

Winter Wanderings Around America by Plane And Train

Old Feb 3, 09, 8:18 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: 9,629
Winter Wanderings Around America by Plane And Train

On December 27, 2008 a large mass of frigid arctic air descended upon Fairbanks, Alaska. Normal temperatures for this time of year in Fairbanks range from -20° to 10° degrees Fahrenheit. The climate in Alaska’s Interior is quite dry, so the above mentioned temperatures actually feel rather refreshing. To me, at least.

With the arrival of the super chilled arctic air, temperatures quickly plummeted into the -40° to -50°F range and stayed there. Worse yet, there was no end in sight. We’d passed the winter solstice just one week earlier, so this time of year our exposure to direct sunlight was minimal – a little less than four hours per day. At latitude 65°N, the early winter sun doesn’t climb high into the sky. Rather, it stays low on the southeastern horizon providing light but little direct warmth. Seriously cold air masses move very, very slowly and this one could not have picked a worse time to arrive. With the sun traveling at its lowest trajectory of the year, there was very little to warm the cold air and so it would be a good long while before it moved on. The local meteorologists were projecting the cold spell to last a minimum of ten days to two weeks, with temperatures in the low lying valleys reaching -60° or more.

I was booked to leave on January 6th for a three week trip that would combine business, pleasure and a couple of mileage runs. With no real reason to stay in Alaska until then and plenty of incentive to leave, I called the friendly folks at Alaska’s MVP Desk and was able to rebook a New Year’s Day award seat aboard the 11:50am direct flight to Seattle followed by a 6:40pm departure to Denver.

When the taxi arrived to take me to the airport at 10:30am, the thermometer on my cabin read -46°F. On my first full day in Colorado, the temperature in Denver reached 64°. This was an over 100° variance in temperatures and I was forced to run the air conditioner in my rental car for just a little while.

But enough of the preamble. Let’s cut to the chase. Here’s my itinerary from January 1st to present:

JAN 01 Fairbanks – Anchorage - Seattle – Denver Alaska Airlines
JAN 09 Denver – Phoenix Southwest Airlines
JAN 10 Phoenix – Seattle – Miami – Tampa Alaska/American Airlines
JAN 11 Tampa – Cincinnati – Indianapolis Delta Airlines
JAN 13 Lafayette – Chicago – Glenwood Springs Amtrak California Zephyr
JAN 15 Glenwood Springs – San Francisco Amtrak California Zephyr
JAN 17 San Jose – Atlanta – Tampa Delta Airlines
JAN 19 Tampa – Atlanta – Seattle Delta Airlines
JAN 20 Seattle – Detroit – Tampa Northwest Airlines
JAN 22 Tampa – Miami – Dallas – Denver American Airlines
JAN 23 Denver – Minneapolis – Detroit – Jacksonville Northwest Airlines
JAN 24 Jacksonville – Memphis – Minneapolis – Denver Northwest Airlines
JAN 28 Denver – Seattle – Portland Alaska/Horizon Air
JAN 29 Portland – Milwaukee Amtrak Empire Builder
JAN 31 Milwaukee – Denver Frontier Airlines

As trips go it’s more varied than lengthy, but I reckon it’s a pretty good effort for a well to do hobo like myself. As an added bonus, some of the flights are in First Class and of course both of the trains are First Class Sleeper accommodations.

As to a trip report, rather than type out a segment by segment accounting of each day, I think I’ll give short shrift to the Economy Class flights and focus more on the First Class planes and trains. As well, I’ve got a few photos to make up for any literary shortcomings.

So – without further ado, let’s get after it.
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Old Feb 3, 09, 8:20 pm
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From -46° in Fairbanks to 64°F in Denver in less than 24 hours. Jet travel sure has its advantages. Were I in my truck I’d be pulling out of equally chilly Whitehorse, Yukon Territory about now with another five days and 2,600 miles to go. Here’s a couple of photos of extreme cold in Fairbanks followed by a nice shot of the low midday sun coloring the Cook Inlet during our descent into Anchorage:

My flight between Denver and Phoenix epitomized why Southwest Airlines ranks consistently high in customer satisfaction. Check-in was swift and I didn’t have to pay any extra fees for my bag. Boarding was orderly, the plane was clean and new, we left on time and the service was simple yet friendly. Well done, Southwest.

My reason for going to Phoenix was to take advantage of a great American Airlines fare and routing between Phoenix and Tampa. The routing in particular is one of my favorites for mileage runs. Though most people flying between PHX and TPA choose to make a simple connection in DFW or ORD, AA also allows one to route via SEA, ORD and MIA. Of course, only a mileage runner would ever want to fly such a routing, which covers over 4000 miles in just over thirteen hours. Due to an AA generated error in my itinerary however, I was rebooked PHX-SEA-MIA-TPA. Travel between PHX, SEA and MIA was operated via Alaska Airlines codeshare flights which was especially good for me because as an Alaska MVP Gold I was eligible for complimentary upgrades on AS metal. The upgrade process is a bit different however when traveling on an AA issued fare. Whereas on an AS issued ticket I’d be eligible to upgrade 72 hours out, on a partner airline’s fare where the AS flight is operated as a codeshare I can only upgrade on the day of travel. Fare enough. I’m happy that Alaska allows me to upgrade at all on this fare.

Amazingly I managed to upgrade both the PHX-SEA flight and the SEA-MIA flight. Transcon upgrades are hard enough to come by 72 hours out, much less within 6 hours. I thanked my lucky stars and Alaska’s award winning Mileage Plan, then strolled through the elite security lane and on to United’s Red Carpet Club, conveniently located just twenty feet down the concourse from Alaska’s gates.

Though some of Alaska’s Boardroom members have complained that they have no lounge access at PHX, I get into United’s Red Carpet Rooms by virtue of my Priority Pass membership. I buy the $400.00 prestige level membership which allows me unlimited visits to over 100 US based airline lounges and over 500 lounges around the world. The only drawback to Priority Pass is that you must pay a $27.00 fee for any family members or guests accompanying you. Thankfully, when that need arises I also have a lifetime membership in Continental’s President’s Club which allows guest privileges in CO, DL, NW and AS lounges.

I get asked all the time how I manage to keep my sanity while averaging over 100 flights per year. Lounge access is an integral part of making the air travel experience more pleasant.

Alaska’s First Class “breakfast” between Phoenix and Seattle is worthy of the facetious quotation marks. Despite a flight time that regularly exceeds two hours, the meager breakfast offerings consist only of a large artery clogging cinnamon roll and a plastic tub of yogurt. I realize it’s a bit much to expect a hot breakfast on just about anything but a transcon these days, but in place of the pastry how much more would a bowl of cereal and a small carton of milk cost? I have written to Alaska with my concerns, emphasizing both the health and goodwill benefits (A well fed passenger is a happy passenger) but the reality is that domestic First Class is primarily about space. In countless industry surveys travelers have consistently indicated that meal service is amongst the least important benefits of a seat in the First Class cabin. That’s not to say that most folks wouldn’t enjoy a hot meal if it were offered but they’re unlikely to take their business elsewhere if they don’t get one. So, I’ll be sure to eat a proper breakfast before my next morning flight on this route.

Alaska’s five hour and eight minute flight to Miami offered substantially more food. Though the First Class offerings weren’t that much more than what you might receive on an Economy Class meal back in the 1970s, by today’s standards this meal was quite sufficient.

Check out the quality (and quantity) of Economy Class meal service from the 70s:

Here’s a transcript of the menu along with photos of the meal service:

Alaska Airlines First Class Luncheon Service
Seattle to Miami

Appetizer Salad
Insalata Caprese with a Balsamic Vinaigrette
Warmed Rolls with Butter

Choice of Entrees

Grilled Tuscan Chicken Breast

Topped with Sundried Tomato Artichoke
Accompanied by Baked Polenta and Steamed Broccolini

Grilled Wild Alaska Salmon with Lemon Beurre Blanc
Presented with Wild Rice and Sautéed Spinach


Ice Cream Sundae

Gourmet Topping, Chopped Nuts, Whipped Cream and a Maraschino Cherry

Coffee & Liqueurs

On a couple of previous trip reports covering international First Class service, I took notes detailing the amount of time it took to serve each course of the meal. The idea was to demonstrate how relaxed and unhurried a proper International caliber First Class service is. Let’s see how Alaska’s domestic transcon service contrasts. All times indicated start from the time we became airborne:

Alaska Airlines Luncheon Service
Seattle to Miami

:16 Drink and Meal orders taken

:33 Drink and ramekin of warmed nuts delivered

1:06 Salad presented

1:09 Rolls presented – wheat, sourdough and French

1:26 Main course presented

2:06 Dessert presented

The salad consisted of hearts of palm, tomato slices and a few pieces of lettuce. Though this wouldn’t be my first choice when it comes to favorite salad styles, the presentation was nice and the salad dressing presented in small side dish was a nice touch. That dressing however really needs to go. It’s a brand called Naturally Fresh and it tastes anything but. Ken’s dressings, available in single portion packets, would be an excellent replacement.

My entrée was a decent sized piece of salmon topped with a nice sauce and accompanied by tasty wild rice and spinach. No complaints there. I asked for but did not receive another roll.

The ice cream sundae was premade and very nicely presented – strawberry topping, whipped cream and nuts. I added a bit of Bailey’s to spice it up.

All things considered, this flight was a very nice passage between Seattle and Miami. The flight attendants were friendly and attentive and as an added bonus we arrived in Miami ten minutes early.

The only drawback to flying Alaska to Miami and connecting to an American flight is that Alaska now uses the F Concourse at MIA while American operates out of the C, D and E Concourses. Since there is no airside passage between Concourse F and any other concourses, you must go into the terminal and back through security to get to your American flight.

Delta offered a very affordable fare of just $90.00 inclusive for one way travel between Tampa and Indianapolis. Unfortunately an MD-88 was substituted for the scheduled MD-90 between Tampa and Cincinnati. I’ve flown all but three of Delta’s MD-90s. Might as well try to collect them all.

I spent a couple of days with friends in Lafayette, Indiana during which we ate delicious Salisbury steaks made with elk meat followed by way too many gin and tonics. The next day we took a nice little tour of Lafayette, home to Purdue University and the most architecturally beautiful courthouse I have ever seen. It even has its own website. Check it out!

Last edited by Seat 2A; Feb 9, 09 at 6:15 pm
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Old Feb 3, 09, 8:23 pm
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Lafayette is only 120 miles and a three hour train ride from Chicago. As such, I had booked a seat aboard Amtrak’s Hoosier State, departing at 8:00am from Lafayette and connecting nicely to the westbound California Zephyr, aboard which I had reserved a sleeper compartment all the way to the coast. My early morning departure made willing teetotalers of us all and so we awoke early the next morning to a fine breakfast (You gotta eat a breakfast, Marge. I'll fix you some eggs. For some reason, this line from the movie Fargo keeps running through my head) and a snowy drive out to the Lafayette Amtrak station.

Surprise! The train had been cancelled. In its place Amtrak had arranged for a bus to transport us up to Chicago. Due to extreme cold temperatures in Indianapolis overnight, the water pipes aboard the train had frozen rendering the onboard toilet facilities inoperable. We were informed that by law no long distance train may operate without working toilet facilities.

Cold weather however was just one of the problems facing travelers. Additionally three to four inches of snow had fallen and was continuing to fall. The conditions on Interstate 65 up to Chicago were abominable. I saw a number of semi-trucks stopped right in the lane of traffic on even the slightest of inclines to put on chains. Our driver very carefully negotiated our big MCI Coach along the icy highway but it took us over four hours to cover the 120 miles to Chicago. We arrived at Chicago’s Union Station at 1:00pm, and hour and fifteen minutes prior to the departure of the California Zephyr.

Amtrak’s First Class passengers have access to the Metropolitan Lounge while awaiting their train’s departure. These lounges are available in only six cities system wide and Chicago’s is the largest. It is hardly the best, however. I’d been looking forward to checking out this lounge and had expected something akin to a proper domestic airline lounge. Unfortunately it was quite a bit less. The lounge was comfortable enough I suppose but the pale green décor and lack of windows or natural daylight made for a rather gloomy ambience.

Although free wi-fi was available, there were no work stations and none of the tables were near an electrical outlet. No food was offered and the only drinks available were coffee and sodas.

When boarding was called at a little after 2:00pm, about two dozen of us were led out a side door and escorted out to the waiting train. We approached from the rear and since the First Class Sleeping Cars are all located at the front of the train, we had quite a walk before finally reaching our assigned cars. I was in car 511, room 11. This was a downstairs room and one that I’ve taken quite a liking to over the years.

Amtrak’s Bi-Level Superliners offer Standard Bedrooms on both the upper and lower levels of each car. The accommodations 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. Each compartment has its own huge window, approximately 2’ X 5’, through which to view the passing scenery. Other amenities include four separate lights, an electrical outlet, a mirror, a fold out table, a small closet with hangers and a thermostat. Toilet and shower facilities are down the hall.

While many first time riders are excited about having a room high on the upper level, I’ve learned through experience that the lower level is the place to be. The downstairs rooms are quieter because all the traffic between cars is upstairs. Very few tracks provide a perfectly smooth ride and because of this the train’s rocking motion makes for a difficult time walking. Most passengers traveling between cars on their way to or from the diner or lounge tend to ricochet down the narrow hallways, bouncing off walls and doors with equal abandon. Downstairs this is not an issue.

At the top of the stairway is the service area for each car. Juice, coffee, bottled water and ice are always available. My car attendant Alistair stopped by to introduce himself and answer any questions we had about the accommodations or the 52 hour journey ahead. Interestingly, Alistair was accompanied by a man introduced only as Mr. Scarlet. Mr. Scarlet said nothing but was seen in Alistair’s company throughout much of the trip. I thought he might be a trainee but he never really seemed to do all that much. Unfortunately, neither did Alistair.

Beers on Amtrak cost $4.50 for cheap domestic stuff and $5.50 for somewhat better brew. I’m not a rich man however, and since First Class passengers are allowed to bring along their own libations, I pulled out a 12-Pack of Tecate, placed three of them in the built in wastebasket alongside my seat and headed off to procure some ice. While Tecate would not normally be my first choice of beers, space was more important than quality and as canned beer goes, Tecate was the best I could find. Besides, Cerveza Tecate and train journeys go way back for me. I first encountered Tecate at the equivalent of 68¢ a can while journeying 38 hours between Mexico City and Juarez aboard the NdeM’s El Fronterizo back in 1984. It’s accompanied me on many a journey since.

Scheduling of the California Zephyr is designed to provide passengers with optimal viewing of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains during daylight hours. The plains states and deserts of Utah and Eastern Nevada are crossed at night. I rather enjoy the bucolic farmlands of western Illinois but today’s inclement weather and darker skies diminished that aspect of the trip considerably for me.

I’ve written two previous reports on riding the California Zephyr

Denver to Sacramento Aboard Amtrak's California Zephyr

Fast As Freedom On Good Wind ~ Travels Around The West via Air, Rail & Road

So rather than completely rehash a trip that was very similar to what I’ve experienced and written about in the two above highlighted reports, I shall instead regale you with photos from the journey through the Rockies followed by a brief recap of the trip.

Click here for a copy of the California Zephyr Route Guide.

The first afternoon was none too spectacular in terms of scenery since it was dark and snowy throughout the day. A trip on a train is about more than just scenery though. Perhaps the best part of a rail journey is the chance to head up to the lounge car to meet, drink beer and trade stories with your fellow travelers. The ambience in a railroad lounge car is far more conducive to this than being stuck in a seat on an airplane. I enjoy hearing other traveler’s tales as well as adding my own to the mix. Apart from the scenery, the social interaction found in the lounge or dining car is one of the best reasons for taking an overland trip. And, once you have taken a journey across country by rail, it is a trip that you’ll never forget. How many people can say the same thing after flying from coast to coast?

I awoke the next morning to the featureless desolation of northeastern Colorado and the promise of the upcoming journey through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. I quickly showered, grabbed a cup of coffee and wandered up to the lounge car to watch as we approached Denver. The Zephyr has to slowly back into the station, and once this had been accomplished it was announced that we’d have about thirty minutes here in Denver. Please don’t stray too far from the train as more than a few people have been left behind while having a beer at the Wynkoop Brewery or taking a quick stroll along the 16th Street Mall.

Denver’s Union Station was first built in 1881 at a cost of $525,000.00. At the time, it was the largest building in Colorado. In 1894, a fire destroyed most the station. It was quickly rebuilt employing more stone than wood and, other than the loss of its clock tower in 1914, remains essentially unchanged today. While not on the scale of New York’s Grand Central Station, Denver’s Union Station is still an architecturally classic railroad station. Like many big city railroad stations, it is indeed a monument to not just train travel but transportation in general, reflecting an era when travel in any form was an exciting and adventurous endeavor. Inside, the plaster arches that line the walls of the central waiting room have 2300 carved Columbine flowers in them. Here are some views of this impressive building:

Soon after departing Denver, we began a long and scenic 4000’ ascent into the Rockies via S curves, switchbacks and twenty-some odd tunnels culminating in the 6.2 mile Moffat Tunnel, located at 9,239 feet above sea level. The tunnel was completed in 1927 after four years of construction and costs that soared from an original estimate of $6 million to $15.6 million. The first train passed through in February 1928.

Here are some photos of the scenery through the Colorado Rockies as the Zephyr travels through impressive canyons and high country along the Colorado River:

I stopped for a night in Glenwood Springs, Colorado to visit with my friends who own and work the Glenwood Springs Hostel. I can get a quiet, private room there for $25.00 per night. Even if I had millions, I’d stay here before I’d ever check into a fancy hotel. As per tradition, no trip to Glenwood would be complete with driving down to Carbondale for breakfast at The Village Smithy.

These guys travel as much or more than I do. John in the middle is off to Nicaragua for a month starting this week and Gary, the guy on the right who owns the hostel, is off to India next month when John gets back. Gary has been seemingly everywhere from Africa to Asia and he’s got some great stories to tell. Marin (she’s not pictured) just got back from a year in India. Joey on the left went to Grand Junction last week.

We had plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast at The Smithy since the Zephyr was running four hours late. By the time I finally pulled out of Glenwood at 6:45pm, we were almost five hours late. Unfortunately this deprived us of some of the spectacular canyon country west of Grand Junction, but I made up for it with a good steak dinner and a fun night in the lounge car.

Morning found us speeding along at the maximum permitted speed of 79mph through the stark landscape of northeastern Nevada. We’d made up almost two and a half hours overnight. The skies were clear and sunny promising a pretty trip into California. I headed up to the diner for a tasty omelet and chicken sausage breakfast.

Although crossing the Sierras is not as dramatic as crossing the Rockies, it’s still a pretty route up and over Donner Pass. Unfortunately, I was in the dining car having lunch during the best of the scenery. Taking pictures through windows is bad enough, but Amtrak’s windows were none too clean after the long trip from Chicago. I did manage one shot before lunch as we were just starting our climb into the Sierras outside of Truckee.

Incredibly we made up another hour along the way – not an easy feat for the California Zephyr given the bullying tactics of the host railroad - and by the time we pulled into Emeryville at 7:00, we were only an hour and a half late.

This was my 200th long distance train ride and it was a typically enjoyable journey for me. Airplanes are fast and convenient for those without a lot of time but if you want to get there in style and comfort while passing through beautiful countryside, enjoying good food and drink, meeting interesting people and perhaps even making new friends, it’s hard to beat a ride on a long distance train. My roomette cost me $407.00 and included all meals. Similar accommodations are about 50-60% higher during the summer, so now is the time to get rollin’.
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Old Feb 3, 09, 8:26 pm
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The next few days were pretty crazy. I arrived in Oakland on a Friday night and was on a plane to Tampa the very next day. I would like to have stayed in the Bay Area for a couple of days but Saturday flights to Tampa were almost $200.00 less expensive than flying on Sunday or Monday so off I went with Delta once again providing reliable and inexpensive transport.

My original plan was drop off MRIs at the Bonati Institute in Hudson, Florida, then head down to Everglades National Park to spend a few days with friends who work there. Unfortunately, news came that a friend who was dying of brain cancer had taken a sudden turn for the worse and now had only days to live. I spent one fun evening in Homestead, then drove back up to Tampa and was on a plane to Seattle that evening. Sadly, my friend passed while I was inflight to Seattle. The next day I was on my way back to Tampa aboard a Northwest codeshare on a Delta ticket. Once again, I must’ve been living lucky because both flights traveling via Detroit cleared the upgrade list.

My luck ran out in Tampa two days later with the confirmation that the condition affecting my spine and by extension nerves, balance and walking is substantially worse than initially suspected. I’m going to need more surgery. I was advised to schedule surgery as soon as possible and in the meantime avoid falling, rear end collisions and uppercuts. So far I’ve done remarkably well in life at avoiding all three of those and upon further consultation I elected to go with surgery in Colorado in early February.

To cap it all off, I actually flamed someone at Flyertalk. Jeez, what a week! I later apologized but man, it just goes to show you that sometimes when it rains, it pours. I look forward to better weeks and generating friendlier replies in the future.

Ah well, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. With surgery and a substantial change in lifestyle still two weeks away, I had plenty of time to get back to Colorado, take a six flight mileage run out to Jacksonville and back with Northwest, then fly out to Portland for a ride on the eastbound Empire Builder to Milwaukee. From there I’d fly one of Frontier’s animal jets back to Denver and prepare for surgery.

Transport back to Denver was provided by American Airlines via Miami and Dallas. Interestingly, flying between Miami and Denver via Dallas gets you only 50 more miles than flying there nonstop. Unfortunately, the nonstop was not available but on a positive note I did have enough time to enjoy an excellent lunch at the Top Of The Port Restaurant located atop the Miami International Airport Hotel which is itself located right in the airport at the head of Concourse E. The views of the airport grounds are superb and I always find myself daydreaming about looking out those big picture windows forty years ago and admiring the colorful collection of 707s and DC-8s from the likes of Pan American, Eastern, National and Braniff International. National’s Sun King livery remains one of my all time favorites to ever grace an airliner. Here’s how it would have looked on a 777-200 had National been around long enough to fly one.


Northwest offered a decent roundtrip airfare to Jacksonville of just $196.00 all in. Although I’ve gotten much better value per mile earned on other mileage runs, I liked this one because it allowed me to fly six different aircraft types on five different routes, two of them new.

My American flight from Dallas arrived in Denver late Thursday night, and with my first flight to Minneapolis departing at 9:20am I decided to sleep at the airport rather than shell out big bucks for a hotel. I found a nice dark corner of DIA and slept quite comfortably atop my Thermarest® pad until about 7:00am. After washing up in a small restroom off the deserted baggage claim area, I checked in for my flights and was soon enjoying hot coffee and warm bagels in Continental’s beautiful Denver Presidents Club.

Minneapolis is 690 miles and an hour and a half away from Denver by A320. These days, on a flight of this length most airlines won’t give you any more than a pastry and a cup of coffee. Northwest surprised me with a full breakfast service that included a large bowl of Cheerios, a banana, a large bagel and cream cheese, a tub of yogurt and lots of good hot coffee. Satisfactorily sated, I reclined my seat and caught a nice post breakfast siesta before being awakened to begin our descent in MSP.

Northwest’s operations at MSP are fairly spread out, covering a large area between the C, F and G Concourses. Since I arrived on and departed from the F Concourse, I decided to visit Northwest’s large World Club, centrally located between the F and G Concourses. Over on the C Concourse, Northwest operates one of the most attractive airline lounges I have ever been in. Beautiful polished stone floors, large potted plants, a fireplace and lots of big picture windows. I had hoped that by now the larger lounge between F and G would have been refurbished as well. Alas, it was not to be. Still, it remains a decent and comfortable lounge so I had no problem whiling away a couple of hours there before heading out to board the 757-300 that would take me to Detroit.

Following a short, non-eventful flight in Economy Class to DTW, I grabbed a beer in the World Club and then boarded my flight down to Jacksonville. This flight was operated by Compass Airlines on behalf of Northwest Airlink and featured an Embraer RJ-175 with a First Class cabin. I’d never been in First Class aboard an aircraft as small as the -175, so I was looking forward to experiencing the 1-2 configured cabin and checking out the seating comfort. The seats were somewhat narrower than what you’d find on a DC-9 but otherwise perfectly comfortable. Service on this 820 mile flight consisted of a round of drinks and a pass with the snack basket. Northwest’s Deluxe Nut Mix tasted pretty good with a cold beer. I had two of each. Soon enough we were on our descent into Jacksonville where I called it a day in my favorite deserted corner of the airport. Here is a picture of my airport sleeping arrangement:

The next morning I took a leisurely breakfast and then had a couple of hours in Delta’s small but attractive JAX Crown Room before heading out to board the CRJ-200 that would wing me up to Memphis. I’ve flown on a good variety of CRJs and I must say that Northwest Airlink’s configuration is the most uncomfortable I’ve ever flown in. Even the exit row and bulkhead seats were none too comfy.

Favorable winds meant an early arrival in Memphis. Great! Now I’ll have even more time to visit my favorite restaurant at MEM, Dave Neely’s Interstate Barbecue. This place made me think differently about barbecue and whenever I route through Memphis I envision devouring a delicious pulled pork sandwich or half barbecued chicken. Unfortunately, the plane occupying our arrival gate was late departing and by the time we finally did pull up to the gate, I barely had time to make my connecting flight to Minneapolis.

DC-9s are becoming increasingly rare birds and so I was thankful for a seat in the First Class cabin of N782NC, an ex-North Central/Republic machine upon which I last flew in 1982 – twenty seven years ago! Back then this airplane wore the colors of Republic Airlines and I sat in perhaps the same First Class seat as I occupied today. The load was light and I had a good time chatting with a fellow who repaired radios and handled IT related problems for Northwest. His job took him all over the system, from Amsterdam to Memphis though today he’d rather have been visiting friends in Ohio. The call to report to Memphis came just as he was heading out to MSP for his flight to CMH.

My flight back to Denver was aboard an A319, the sixth different aircraft I’d been on over the past six flights. In fact, looking back over my past eight flights, each one has featured a different aircraft type. Uh… sorry, I tend to notice things like that.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Feb 3, 09 at 8:31 pm
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Old Feb 3, 09, 8:29 pm
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Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
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Following another good visit with my friends in Glenwood Springs (Breakfast in the Hotel Colorado this time), I flew up to Portland transferred via MAX train and bus directly to the train station. It’s been awhile since I’ve been through Portland and I look forward to one of these days staying long enough to join fellow FTer opushomes for a fine Portland Ale.

The reason for my relocation to Portland is to take a ride on the Empire Builder, one of the most famous passenger trains in America. 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 James J. Hill, the Great Northern’s president at that time. Hill reorganized several failing railroads into the Great Northern Railway and so himself became known as The Empire Builder.

The route of the Empire Builder runs 2,220 miles from Chicago to Seattle, though a separate section splits at Spokane and continues down to Portland, 2,257 miles distant. My journey, traveling east from Portland to Milwaukee will take about 44 hours and take me through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. I’ve got a First Class roomette booked and am definitely looking forward to what ought to be a great trip! But then, aren’t they all?

The Portland city bus dropped me directly across the street from the station and I paused to take a picture of the elegant building before heading inside.

Portland’s historic Union Station has been serving northwest rail passengers since 1896. It is a beautiful building that only serves to heighten the excitement of taking a train trip across country aboard one of America’s premier trains. Here are some pictures of Portland’s Union Station.

Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge ~ Portland Union Station

Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge in Portland may not be as large as its counterpart in Chicago, but it sure is a lot nicer. Maybe it’s just because I’m a big fan of natural light, but I felt the overall ambience of this little lounge was far superior to the larger lounge in Chicago. The lounge attendant even had a freezer available where I could pre-chill my Full Sail Ales.

Boarding was announced at 4:15pm. There were only about six of us traveling in First Class out of Portland, but the lounge attendant assured me that the train would be nearly full by the time we reached Minot, N.D.

Because the main portion of the Empire Builder departs from Seattle, tonight’s section out of Portland was a fairly small train comprised of a Genesis I engine, a Superliner II Sightseer Lounge, two bi-level coaches and, at the rear of the train, a Superliner sleeper. The dining car and another six or seven coaches and sleepers depart from Seattle at 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.

I was greeted at the door to my sleeper by D.L. Martin, without a doubt the most polite and conscientious car attendant I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. He showed me to my room and once it was determined that I was already familiar with the operation of Amtrak’s sleepers, he offered me a welcoming bottle of “Champagne” which he delivered shortly to my room. Here are some pictures of the boarding process:

Departure out of Portland was right on time and soon we were rolling smoothly across the many bridges and rivers necessary for northbound passengers to escape Portland. The Willamette and Columbia Rivers are crossed, along with numerous wide sloughs. Twenty minutes later we pulled into Vancouver, Washington just as the sun was setting.

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 during earlier trips made during the summer and fall. Unfortunately, this being winter, there was no longer enough daylight to be able to appreciate the spectacular views. I’ll just have to come back and do it later in the year, then!

Meals are inclusive of the fare for Amtrak’s First Class passengers. However, because this train does not have a proper dining car until Spokane, First Class passengers are offered a choice of three cold dinners (Chicken, Beef or Salmon). Mr. Martin presented all three meals for my inspection and informed me that he’d be happy to serve me in my room or I could get a dinner in the lounge car. I’d never taken a meal in my room before and decided to try it out. Not as convivial as a proper diner but enjoyable and tasty nonetheless. I accompanied my meal with a nicely chilled Full Sail Ale. Here’s the picture:

Shortly after dinner I paid a visit to the lounge car but our load out of Portland and Vancouver was so light this evening that there were only a handful of quiet readers. I like a good book as much as anyone, so I decided to return to my room where a bucket of ice cold ales and John Lescroat’s latest awaited.

I called it a night about an hour out of Spokane. My bed had been made up about an hour earlier and between lying down to read and the gentle rocking motion of the train, I was soon comfortably sleepy.

I slept well, too. I didn’t even wake up at the long station stop in Whitefish, Montana. We were now on Mountain Time, so I reset my watch, grabbed a quick shower and headed up to the diner. Until the arrival of the new Superliner Fleet in 1982, showers were generally not available to U.S. rail passengers. My sleeper had been refurbished at Amtrak’s Beech Grove shops a few years earlier and now featured the new modular bathrooms and shower. Here are some photos:

The only downside to Amtrak’s meal service is the standardization of their long distance dining car menu. Overall though, the meals I was served were tasty and for the most part well presented. For a copy of Amtrak’s national menu, click HERE

Unfortunately, due to my late awakening, the time zone change and a hot shower, I had to rush in order to make last call for breakfast. Though the Railroad French Toast with Sausage was worth the rush, I was eating breakfast and chatting with an elderly couple from Rugby, N.D. (They’d lived there for 46 years and still didn’t know the origin of the name), as we passed through Glacier Park and some of the most dramatic scenery of the trip. Not that it mattered all that much as the conditions were less than optimal for fine photography. Low clouds and light snow was the order of the morning. Nevertheless, here are some photos I managed of Glacier Park and eastern environs.

An announcement was made when we rolled across Marias Pass, at 5,213 feet the highest point on the route, but the lowest Rocky Mountain rail crossing in the United States. As one might imagine, it was all down from here for the Empire Builder. The scenery soon flattened out into hundreds of miles of low rolling hills and open fields as we rolled across the high plains of Eastern Montana and North Dakota. It remained so until the next morning when we departed St. Paul, MN and began to parallel the frozen Mississippi River. The scenery through here consisted of attractive farmhouses accented by large trees and the occasional hill. We crossed the Mississippi at Lacrosse, Wisconsin and I determined that I would have to return and ride this train westbound later in the spring.

Our arrival in Milwaukee was right on time. Before leaving, I thanked my car attendant for his excellent service and gave him a somewhat more than generous tip. He deserved it though. I’ve ridden about one hundred Amtrak trains and he was the best employee I’ve ever encountered. Thanks, D.L.

The best one way fare between Milwaukee and Denver was offered by Frontier Airlines. My A319 was smartly liveried in Frontier’s silver billboard livery highlighted by a leopard on the tail. Service on the 2 hour and 20 minute flight to Denver consisted of a pass with the beverage cart followed by another cart offering a variety of items available for purchase. Click HERE to see what’s available. For entertainment, a variety of television programs and movies are available for $5.00 to $8.00. I had a good book to read for free but did shell out $3.00 for a portion of Hector’s surprisingly good chips and salsa.

So, there you have it, folks. I must apologize for writing in a somewhat more abbreviated style than I usually employ. That said, I got this report finished just in time. Tomorrow at 6:00am I report to the hospital for cervical spine surgery, after which the use of my laptop will be severely curtailed for a couple of weeks. Anyway, I look forward to returning to international destinations next year and with that will come another trip report.

Until then, I wish you all happy travels!
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Feb 4, 09, 1:03 am
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As always, an absolutely outstanding trip report! Brought back memories of riding the rails for a month post-high school on the North American Rail Pass. Best of luck with the surgery and may you have a speedy recovery!
uavking is offline  
Old Feb 4, 09, 5:46 am
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A pleasure to read as usual Seat2A - all the best for your operation.
MrBo is offline  
Old Feb 4, 09, 10:05 am
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missed connections once again

I was excited to see that perhaps we would finally meet outside of cyberspace until I noticed that you were in PDX on January 29. I would have driven down and bought that beer except it would have been a really long drive from Manila, Philippines.

Presently at home with no travel scheduled so the beer offer still stands.

Great informative report as usual.
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Old Feb 4, 09, 11:41 am
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Great trip report, I can see you've slept a few nights at airports in your days since you travel with a heating pad ^ When I travel alone I also need a good liquor supply to keep those chats with fellow travelers as interesting as possible

Hope the operations goes well and you're back to your travels soon!
kokinos is offline  
Old Feb 4, 09, 11:45 am
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Great report as ever Seat2A. I was sorry to hear about your friend. Best wishes for a successful surgery and a speedy recovery.
Moomba is offline  
Old Feb 4, 09, 12:42 pm
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Excellent report and I hope your operation is successful ^
Euan is offline  
Old Feb 4, 09, 3:52 pm
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Originally Posted by Euan View Post
Excellent report and I hope your operation is successful ^

Great report + pictures.
MatthewLAX is offline  
Old Feb 4, 09, 11:36 pm
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A cracking report as usual.

Thanks for this, and for all your previous reports, which are consistently amongst the best on this forum. Seat 2A is definitely one of those names that I know when I see it that I had better set aside some time and grab myself a drink or three.

Best of luck with your operation and my best wishes for a speedy rehabilitation.
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Old Feb 5, 09, 8:00 am
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Excellent report, mi amigo. Sorry to read about your friend and I hope your surgery is a complete success. I also hope that while you're in your hospital bed you get a big supply of culturally acceptable really good drugs and all your nurses look like your favorite fantasy figures. (Even if the appearance of the nurses is just the culturally acceptable really good drugs kicking in.)
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Old Feb 5, 09, 9:28 am
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My wife has mentioned traveling by train, which I have always poo-pooed. However, after reading this report, I might just give it a try. Great trip report.
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