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!

 

Should you keep that credit card or not?

As many of you who read this blog know my wife and I have over 25 credit cards to our names. In some, she is the primary user and in some I am. We have accumulated all these cards because of their sign-up bonuses and various benefits like free checked baggage, access to lounges, elite status, etc. But, every little while it is a good idea to think about if you should keep a card in your wallet (or folio, in our case) or cut it free. In fact, The Points Guy has great posts on checking your credit card inventory once in a while.

The biggest question for me in keeping or cancelling a care is if I am getting a benefit that outweighs the annual fee every year. The easiest examples of “keepers” to me are cards for airlines I or my wife use frequently. For example, we have a United Mileage Plus Explorer card and an AAdvantage Aviator Red Card, each with a $95 annual fee, but we keep them year after year because we get benefits of free checked bags (a $25 benefit each flight per bag) and boarding status (we get to come on the plane earlier and make sure our carry-ons fit in the overhead compartment). As long as we have at least four bag-checks on each airline, it is worth it to keep those cards.

Other cards come with anniversary bonuses. The Amtrak Guest Rewards World card provides an annual Companion pass that, if used correctly, can offset its $79 annual fee. My wife and I travel to Providence, RI frequently enough that a round-trip train ticket + companion makes that doable. The JetBlue Plus Card has a fee of $99 but gives free checked bags and 5,000 points after every account anniversary.

Some cards come with status and not necessarily other benefits you might use. The AMEX Hilton HHonors Surpass card has a $75 annual fee but comes with Gold status at all Hilton-connected hotels. That has given me free room upgrades and free breakfast in at least three situations, totally that much money or more. Additionally, I have earned more points than usual, making it more possible to have a free night sooner. Basically, it does end up paying for itself.

It’s really the big, expensive cards that make me seriously think whether or not it’s worth it to keep them. I currently have a Citi Prestige card, which I got in December 2015 when the sign-up bonus was 50,000 ThankYou points. I applied because I knew that while it has a $450 annual fee, each calendar year it comes with a $250 airline credit. So by using it in 2015 to buy a flight and 2016 to buy a flight, I received $500 in credits to offset the fee the first year. Additionally, it also comes with a host of other benefits including access to the Priority Pass network of lounges across the globe, which my wife and I used extensively during our honeymoon. The fee just came up again and I am debating whether or not to keep the card. It is essentially a $200 annual fee card (with the offset airline credit) in order to access a whole host of lounges and potentially free hotel nights as well. I’m not sure what to do with it but I have some time to decide.

So there you have it – my basic analysis of the different types of benefits you can earn. It really is an individual decision whether or not to keep these cards and, as the Points Guy said at a recent workshop I attended, “do the math.”

Bereavement fares are important

What many people don’t know is that when unfortunate deaths occur many companies offer prices called “bereavement fares” in order to help you get to your destination and help the deceased to their burial or funeral location. Unfortunately, I had to go through this process recently when my grandmother died in Philadelphia and we attended her funeral in Montreal. While I was told to spend whatever I needed to in order to get there, I wanted to make sure that last minute travel would not be too much of a burden on who would be paying for it in the end.

I started by finding the best airline to fly directly from Boston to Montreal and, as it turns out, it was Air Canada. Their bereavement fare policy is actually quite generous and lenient in how you purchase tickets. I searched their website and found flights for $896 one-way in economy but when I called and gave them the required information, the costs dropped to either $441 or ~$250 one-way, a huge savings for when people are in need.

I also had planned Amtrak train travel using points before this all took place and had to get those tickets refunded. I called and was told that I could get all but a 10% refund as per their policy and if I faxed them an image of the obituary or funeral program I would get the last bit back. This is exactly what took place. Additionally, you should know that while not advertised easily, I found a site explaining that they will offer 25% discounts off tickets for bereavement.

Unfortunately, many American-based companies do not offer bereavement fares. A news article recently proclaimed the end of the program for a variety of the big domestic airlines. Delta still does, however, despite the fact that some of the fares may not be the cheapest (although they will be more flexible to changes).

So, in the end, it’s possible you will not be able to use these fares to help you get a loved one to their final destination, but it’s good to know to ask just in case.

The Amtrak Guest Rewards Mastercard

The Points Guy has a very detailed post about if you should apply for the Amtrak Guest Rewards Mastercard – one that requires a good few minutes really understand and analyze to see if it is right for you. Instead of going in depth on that I’ll share my own experience with my Amtrak needs along the East Coast since most readers right now are in that region.

Many know that by traveling on Amtrak you earn “Guest Reward points” which are redeemable for travel on these trains. Within the Northeast Corridor (Washington, DC to Boston) it costs 4,000 points one-way for a free trip in coach, or 5,500 in business class (read: Acela). It usually takes a while to build up that number of points since $1 = 1 point.

This credit card comes with 12,000 points once you spend $500, meaning three free tickets along that same line and a free companion pass, meaning when you buy a ticket at full price you get a second for $0. The annual fee is $0.

For those reasons, I applied for and was accepted for the card. I will keep it over the long haul and it will increase my credit history over time since I never have to get rid of it. I can’t imagine buying anything but Amtrak tickets with it, but when I do I will get 2 points per $1 spent and a 5% reduction in redemption costs. I would recommend this card for anyone who travels along the Northeast corridor at least once every two months.