Review: Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Vancouver

I have a third cousin who lives in Vancouver who I hadn’t seen in years when I went on my trip to Alaska and Seattle so instead of flying home from SeaTac I decided to seek out another flight on a wonderful airline from British Columbia, instead. While I will write the review of that flight later on, I want to focus on my train ride from Seattle’s King Street Station to Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station. Amtrak offers its twice daily Cascades service with a four hour ride with customs completed on board.

The first thing to note about taking this train is that, unlike on the Northeast Corridor, your ticket is not the only thing you need to board the train; there are reserved seats. My train was scheduled to leave at 7:45am so I assumed that I would get as good a seat as any if I arrived 15 minutes earlier. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true. I waited in a small line when I arrived and was given an inside seat because I was later than I should have been. The lesson here is: get there early if you want to look out the window.

When the train came up to the track the first thing I noticed was its size: a tall, double-decker train, but with only three carriages: Car A, Car B, and the Dining/Viewing car. I guess this makes sense as it is not so much of a commuter train.

I arrived at my seat (an aisle, unfortunately) and quickly noted my surroundings. The width of the seat is similar to that of the Northeast Corridor but the legroom is significantly larger. It was quite comfortable for the four-hour ride. I had great lighting above for the book I was reading and had I wanted to use the tray table, it went all the way down to where I wanted it. Finally, there was a small lever to pitch my seat-back a few degrees for added comfort.


One of the more interesting things that I noticed on the ride was how many restrooms there were. On the bottom floor of the double-decker car wasn’t more seating: it was luggage storage and places to “do your business.” There were five bathrooms in each seating car. While they were not as spacious as those on the Northeast Corridor, they still fit the bill. Sometimes people were making louder phone calls down in the area in front of the luggage storage place but otherwise it was mostly empty.

The viewing deck / dining car was also quite wonderful. Towards the front of the train there was plenty of seating if you wanted to eat something, talk a bit, and look out the window.

Finally, when we were close to the Canadian border the conductor got over the PA system and announced that for about 10 minutes there would be no movement from seats allowed (i.e. no bathroom usage) and those who were in the dining or viewing car would have to stay where they were for a customs check. Conductors came through the cabin and checked passports briefly to make sure everyone was ready to get across the border. It was really was quick and painless.

Once we arrived at the train station in Vancouver we exited the train and had to wait in a brief line for customs officials on the Canadian side to ask us questions about our travel and what we were doing visiting Canada. It took a few minutes to get through and then I got picked up by my cousin for a great 10 hours visit!

I hope to get back to Vancouver when it’s a bit less snowy – apparently it was covered for the first time in ages. Maybe next time I’ll get to stay over!


Review: Delta First-class service from JFK->SEA

Two weeks ago I left for a weeklong vacation in Alaska, Seattle, and Vancouver. The reason I settled on these destinations had mostly to do with my desire to visit some family, see the Aurora Borealis, and because there was a cheap deal on award tickets in “first class” on Delta. I’ll explain the quotation marks in a minute.


Many folks in the frequent flyer community know that Delta miles are worth less than their competitors because they use what’s called “dynamic pricing.” Essentially, that means they can charge whatever they want for their services. Whereas other companies like American and United have award charts that they stick to, Delta has none. So, when I saw a deal to fly cross-country (through Seattle to Alaska) in first class for only 55,000 Delta miles, I jumped on it. I had speculatively accrued 65,000 on a recent sign-up with the Delta Gold Skymiles American Express card and decided to use them on this trip. While I am only reviewing the flight from JFK to Seattle, know that the Alaska leg was also comfy (although not lie-flat).


When I arrived at JFK International airport at 6:15am I was hoping check-in would go quickly, security as well, and then I’d sit in a lounge waiting to board. While my class of service made check-in a breeze and my TSA Pre-check status helped me through the lines faster, lounge access was something else entirely. Even though I had purchased a “first class” ticket, I would only be allowed into the Delta SkyClub if a) I was a holder of their Platinum card, or b) I was flying to LAX/SFO. Since I was flying to lowly Seattle I didn’t get my free breakfast. It was sad.


I had done my research in advance on SeatGuru and determined that seat 1B was my best bet to get some sleep in their lie-flat cabin of the Boeing 757 I was taking that morning. Apparently, according to various reviews, all except the front row of seats have very little space for your feet, leaving your feeling cramped the entire time you are lying down. Because I was in the front row, there was none of that limitation.

I boarded the plane first and found a comfortable seat with a small pillow and blanket as well as the noise-cancelling (not really) headphones I would use to watch a movie later in the flight.

I was given some pretty tasty breakfast of eggs and potatoes as well as some drinks and snacks. At any time I could have gotten up to get some extra fruit, beverage, chips, or cookies. It was great to have those options.

I did also get some sleep on the plane, despite the fact that there was no mattress pad. The chair leaned back to become lie-flat and the extra space for my feet was definitely necessary (they were pretty much upright and against the wall). I slept for maybe 3 hours of the flight and finished by reading a book that I was enjoying. All-in-all, it was a great flight.


Review: The Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks

I recently went on a trip to Alaska. While it was only for a few days and I didn’t see as much of the aurora as I had wanted to, I still had a great time. One of the best parts of it for me was the Alaska Railroad – the 356 mile stretch between Anchorage and Fairbanks, to be specific. It is an 11.5 hour ride starting at 8:30am in Anchorage and well worth it.

The train itself is diesel-powered and quite smooth. There were four carriages behind two locomotives with a bistro car and dining car in between. A full menu was offered with simple snacks in the bistro (with table seating for those who wanted it) as well as sit-down means in the dining car. The menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was extensive enough to be worth it. Plus, the novelty of eating on a moving locomotive was pretty well worth it. I only had the pot roast for dinner but it was quite tasty. And, the fact that you are put in “festive seating” with whomever makes up four people in your party adds an element of surprise fun.

My trip started at the train depot in Anchorage at 7:30am when they told us to arrive. I had printed out my confirmation in advance but didn’t realize until around 8am that I had to convert that to an actual ticket at a will-call window. I’m glad I did otherwise they would not have let me on the train. That being said, all seats were reserved anyway and I had luckily put in for a window seat months ago. That means I had beautiful views of the surrounding trees, mountains, and sun.

And these are just some of the photos I took towards the morning. Unfortunately, there was no official “viewing car” because, apparently, in the winter it can freeze over and break the windows. I loved the photos I took of the sun creeping up behind the enormous mountain ranges. I honestly forget what these ranges are called (probably “Alaska range” or something like that) but I do know they were super pretty.

I sat next to a random gentleman who grew up in Atlanta, Georgia but was living in Dallas, Texas currently. We struck up a conversation quickly because he was so personable he bought me an iced tea from the bistro! It was quite nice. Except for some meals and a nap along the way, we chatted almost the entire way to Fairbanks. Can you imagine about 10 hours of conversation – we talked about everything. It was quite fun.

Eventually, we got a glimpse at some other natural wonders as the sun rose (but only a little bit as we were near the Arctic circle – so cool!). We saw some clouds covering Denali (a.k.a. the mountain formally known as McKinley) and I got a few shots of the train going over a bridge and the train turning around a corner.

Throughout all of this the conductors were sharing information about the mountains, the valleys, the rivers, the towns, and all the population in between. It was quite interesting to hear that in between major stops people who lived out there were able to flag down the train for free rides to/from wherever they wanted. Apparently that was a deal brokered years ago because the Alaska Railroad is the only way to get there/back (i.e. there are no roads).

This wouldn’t be a review without me talking about comfort, however. The seat was quite comfortable and had a lever for pitching back during my nap. The only major criticism is that there was no tray table – this would have been useful for people (like me) who bring their own food in order to save on cash. Additionally, while there were power ports here and there, they were not at every seat. The conductors did point out that they had USB-specific power ports in each car, which was a nice offering, but there could have been more charging capacity.

The bathrooms were quite clean and efficient. They had running water and enough toilet paper and paper towels to last the entire trip. And across from each of them was a setting of brochures and things to help us learn more about our surroundings and get ready for our time in Fairbanks or Anchorage (or Denali, in between).

One of the other nice things was that we could stand between cars in order to take some photos without the glare of the windows. That was important at certain times of day when you wanted that perfect photo of the outdoors but couldn’t get it without that stupid fluorescent light showing up in the window.

When we finally got to Fairbanks the train stopped at the depot and there were masses of buses there to pick up groups of passengers on trips. I was able to call ahead to reserve a cab and take myself right to my AirBnB.

All in all, it was a great train ride. I highly recommend spending the money to do it.


Review: Qantas Dreamliner (787) Business Class LAX->MEL

It certainly has been a while since my last post. I guess planning a last-minute trip to Australia while finishing up end-of-year teaching projects can be quite busy. Well, I’m back to share some anecdotes of our recent trip down unda’ and I wanted to start with our amazing experience on Qantas new Dreamliner business class seats.

Announced in December 2016, we were lucky to get the flights we got – leaving LAX on December 23, just eight days after the Dreamliner began flying on the route and in the middle of holiday travel season. We used 70k American Airlines miles each for the one-way flight, with some dollars spent on the taxes. Considering that flight should be in the thousands of dollars, I figured it was an amazing deal so we jumped on it.

We began our trip in the Oneworld Business lounge at LAX – accessible to all business class passengers flying on alliance metal. For that reason it was a truly enormous lounge – three large rooms with an extra area for kids in a more enclosed space. The buffet had many options to choose from and even a small taco stand, offering some tasty gluten-free tortillas for my wife. Finally, the showers available were also quite nice, with all provisions offered. It was nice to be able to get refreshed before our 15 hour flight. If you can ever access this lounge, I strongly recommend it.


About 45 minutes before our flight left we walked over to the gate where, unfortunately, they were running late. According to, we were officially delayed by over an hour. Apparently this flight is regularly delayed, so potential flyers: be ready to wait at the gate (or in a lounge) for a bit longer than you expect.

The hard product itself, however, was incredible. It was an updated version of Qantas’ A330 seat, using the Vantage XL seat, commonly seen in SAS flights. It was miles above what has been in their 747 or A380 planes before, as there is significantly more privacy, space at the seat, and has all aisle-access (as opposed t0 the 2-2-2 seating on their A380).

As you can see from the photos there was plenty of room for my legs, to store my things, and to plug in any and all electronic devices. I strongly appreciate having a direct USB plug these days and I was happy that Qantas obliged. There was also the nice touch of the IFE system having my seat number listed brightly.

Once in-flight service began we were provided with a menu for our meals as well as a set of new Qantas pajamas (or a “sleep suit” as the flight attendant said) which proved quite comfortable and will be added to my rotation at home as well. The amenity kit had a lot of good provisions that we used during flight as well as coupons for in-flight purchases. I really appreciated the earplugs and socks and took good advantage of them.

Meal service began shortly after takeoff and while not as elaborate as some other airlines we’ve flown (Austrian Airlines in particular) it was quite tasty. We had any drinks we wanted and could order multiple servings of food if we wanted. I was sleeping during most of the flight, otherwise I would have taken a photo of the snacks area in the galley, which consisted of various drinks (alcoholic and non), chips, candy bars, and fruit.

When it did come time to sleep I set up my seat in lie-flat position and had plenty of room for my feet in the space allocated. This is one of the important things for me with a business class seat since I have size 12 feet. There was no squishing at all and I was able to lie completely back with my feet face up without difficulty. While there was no pad for the seat itself, the blanket was very comfortable and I was not too hot while sleeping. The pajamas were quite comfy.

One of the novelties for me in the new Dreamliner plane is how the windows tint instead of being closed physically. It was quite incredible how little light shown through during our flight once the windows were tinted. There is a little button below the window itself that provides various gradations of coverage. As you can see below it looks tinted slightly blue when it is sunny outside at the middle level but when totally “covered” barely any lights comes through.

I am incredibly glad to have had this new experience and can’t wait to fly Qantas again in the future (as long as I can get the flights!). If you have a chance to book and take it yourself I strongly recommend it, especially if it’s the new longest flight in the world!

New TSA electronics security requirements coming for domestic flights

The TSA announced today that they are “raising aviation security baseline” by creating more hoops to jump through at security checkpoints. Where before only laptops were taken out of backpacks and placed in their own bin for screening, now any “electronics larger than a cell phone” will get the same treatment. Yes, this will mean longer lines, slower screening, and more packing up after going through security.

Perhaps this is to make up for the fact that the TSA has actually missed over 95% of items that could be dangerous as they pass through security. An article from CNN in 2015 and more recent one from the Washington Times in 2017 attests to that fact. It is really outrageous.

That being said, I personally doubt that this type of screening will pick up much more of the dangerous items that our “security theater” is said to be there for.

And, luckily, those of us with TSA PreCheck do not have to worry about this at all.

Travel Ban restrictions altered against Trump administration’s wishes

When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on the Travel Ban they issued a statement that essentially allowed parts of the ban to be enforced. Specifically, they said that anyone who did not already have some kind of tie to the United States would not be allowed to enter until their ruling had been given later this year. They even specified examples of the types of people “with ties” to the country. Their words were that the ban applies to “foreign nationals who lack any bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”

Unfortunately, the Trump administration set forth guidelines on what that meant in relation to family ties. For example, siblings-in-law would be allowed in but grandparents would not.

As someone who just lost two grandmothers in the same year I can’t begin to tell you how awful this ruling can be for people. Just the thought of not being able to see my grandmothers makes me feel upset.

So, I am happy that a Federal court in Hawaii has ruled against that specific limitation. Interestingly, the definition of “close relative” does not yet include a fiancé.

Electronics ban lifted in many countries

In Act 3 of the security theater of the electronics ban, international airports are now being let off the list of locations where US-bound flights are required to put all electronics bigger than a cell phone into checked luggage (even a Kindle!). The airlines now permitted to arrive with electronics in the main are:

  • Emirates Air (Dubai, UAE)
  • Eithad Airways (Abu Dhabi, UAE)
  • Kuwait Airways (Kuwait City, Kuwait)
  • Royal Jordanian (Amman, Jordan)
  • Qatar Airways (Doha, Qatar)
  • Turkish Airways (Istanbul, Turkey)

The airlines still restricted are:

  • EgyptAir (Cairo, Egypt)
  • Royal Air Maroc (Casablanca, Morocco)
  • Saudia Arabian Airlines (Jeddah, Saudia Arabia)

Back in May there was a brief worry that the ban would be expanded and members of the administration hinted at more potential terrorism. All the while, airlines were worried of lithium ion batteries exploding in cargo holds, causing more likely damage. In the end, the rumor that there would be security increases to get off the list came true and we can now fly “safely” from these countries back to the US.

The whole thing is really unfortunate as TSA agents are failing at their jobs 95% of the time that it actually matters. Here’s hoping we can figure this stuff out in the US soon.