I recently completed a little planes, trains, and automobiles (ok busses) adventure to Vancouver, BC via Seattle. It wasn’t the most direct route to Vancouver, but it enabled me to utilize the companion certificate that comes with the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Credit Card from American Express, experience a new train route, and best of all, visit family…especially our 2-year old nephew. His new best friend, LOL Elmo, joined us for the trip.

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You can probably pick up a sample of the accommodations in that photo. The coach chairs were big and comfy. Here’s another photo courtesy of Amtrak Cascades.

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Business Class is offered on the route, and I caught a glimpse of the car on my way to the cafe. Seating is 1 x 2, with wider chairs, newspapers, and fewer people. We paid cash for our tickets $40 or so each way. Business was only a little over $20 more based on some internet searches. It was sold out for our particular ride. If you use Ultimate Rewards and transfer them into Amtrak Guest Rewards, you can buy these tickets for 1500 points in Coach, and 2000 in Business each way.

The travel experience itself was leisurely and comfortable. In addition to big cushy chairs, there was wi-fi that I wouldn’t bet money on, but did work, and power outlets. Life was good. In short, I quite liked the train, even if it did probably take longer than driving. We traveled early and enjoyed the breakfast sandwich, coffee, and….well…wine. Hey, MrsMJ said surprise her, so I did….with a half-bottle of Chateau St. Michelle Chardonnay we saved for a little later. There was a selection of regional craft beers too, but even I have my limits. You clear Canadian immigration at the train station in Vancouver. There were 4 agents working, and we were through in about 45 minutes after arriving. There was still quite a queue behind us, so I expect it took an hour or a little more for folks unlucky enough to be in the last car. If you are returning to Seattle via train, you pre-clear US immigration at the station as well. We took a different way back.

There are only two Cascades services each way, so we purchased bus service through Amtrak for our return. I have to tell you that I was not looking forward to that, but it was the best way to maximize time in Vancouver and still make our redeye out of Seattle Sunday evening.

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You board the Cascades motor coach service outside the main entrance of the station towards the north end, so there’s no need to go inside unless you need to pick up your ticket. In the end, the bus was on time, and actually gets you back to Seattle about 1 hour faster than the train. The downside, no cafe car, and you have to do immigration at the border stop. Busses have their own line, and it wasn’t excessively busy heading south this Sunday afternoon. The whole thing took about 45 minutes from beginning to end and we were back on our way to Seattle for an on-time arrival at King Street Station.

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Tips to Make Your Amtrak Cascades Experience Better

Get to the station a little earlier than you might otherwise for a train. Unlike the open seating situation I’m used to in the northeast, Amtrak actually assigns seats for the Cascades routes. I don’t know if it’s a boarding crossing and keeping a little better handle on who is onboard or not? They have sticker charts like the old days at the airlines. I say get there a little earlier than normal so you can assure yourself a seat on the lefthand side of the train when heading northbound. The scenery is beautiful all around, but especially so when facing towards the bay and the Pacific beyond that. I missed a lot of great photographic opportunities because I was on the wrong side of the train. While there is not a tremendous increase in amenities for Business Class, I think the low price differential is worth it for the bigger chair and a shorter line to get your seat assignment….. way shorter.

If there’s anything I miss about DC vs Atlanta, it’s the absence of frequent and reliable rail service to cities in the region. Amtrak Cascades was a great way to get to and from Vancouver from the Seattle area, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use the service again. Sometimes it’s good to slow down a little bit.

-MJ, July 9, 2014

 

When news hit that the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® was being tweaked to include Chip & PIN capability, I dutifully ordered mine the minute the option became available on the website. At the time, I knew my next most likely opportunity to try the chip capabilities would be on a then forthcoming trip to Canada. Now, when you receive the card, the materials that come with it refer to the card as Chip & Signature with PIN capability. They also say that you must sign for your first transaction in an international location, but then you should be able to use your PIN.

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After enjoying a first lunch in Canada, I used my Arrival+ to pay. The card machine had both chip reading and swipe capability, so I went for the chip slot. Having watched the patrons paying prior to me from a distance, I could see that all used chip cards, and no one signed receipts. I worked through the menu, and out came a receipt for me to sign. Worked like a charm. I thought the next transaction might offer the PIN option, but that did not happen, again, I received a signature slip. This repeated itself for each transaction during the weekend, and not once was I offered the PIN option when making a purchase. I experienced no issues with any merchant except one. On Saturday afternoon I was dispatched to the local store to purchase wine for dinner. It was clear that the clerk had not seen a signature slip for a card purchase in a long time. That led to a request for my driver’s license. After providing that, there were some strange stares at the merchant receipt, looking for what, I do not know, then I was told to have a nice day.

In the end, the trip went fine, and the card worked flawlessly, even if it never did default to the PIN when making a purchase. I do not know enough about EMV technology to understand why this might be the case. Our neighbors to the north likely see enough Americans in most cities to not be surprised when they see a signature slip. Nonetheless, chips are coming to a credit card near you very soon if they haven’t already. Here’s some interesting reading aimed at merchants faced with the conversion to EMV.

-MJ, July 9, 2014

Disclosure: The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® is a favorite card of mine, and is available for application on this page under the Featured Credit Card Offers banner. If you apply for and receive a card through my link, I will receive a commission.

Royal Caribbean announced yesterday that it is introducing another innovation at sea, Google Street View technology for its largest ship, Allure of the Seas. According to Royal Caribbean,

With just a few clicks, guests will be able to virtually walk through the various decks of Allure of the Seas including the Royal Promenade, a boulevard that runs nearly the length of the ship, flanked by restaurants, boutiques and lounges; Central Park, an outdoor park longer than a football pitch complete with over 12,000 live plants and trees; the Boardwalk, featuring a hand-crafted carousel, two rock-climbing walls and the AquaTheater, a high-dive aquatic performance venue with the deepest pool at sea; Entertainment Place, with an elaborate theatre, night club, comedy club, jazz club and ice-skating rink, which offers professionally produced ice shows; the Pool and Sports Deck featuring a zip line, twin FlowRider surf simulators, full-size basketball/sports court, nine-hole mini-golf course, 15 pools and whirlpools and 22 restaurants, and many, many more.”

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I think this is a pretty innovative approach to making more details of the world’s largest cruise ship available to potential and current customers. Allure of the Seas is a big ship, and I think it is entirely possible to spend a week on board and not experience everything that is available. I called Allure “shockingly awesome.” Google Street View should make the cruise experience a little more awesome…or at least easier to navigate.

View Allure on Google here.

-MJ, July 8, 2014

To say that I viewed the thought of a transcontinental redeye in coach with a sense of trepidation would be a mild understatement. The flight out wasn’t so bad, but it was daylight, I had “beginning of the trip motivation,” a great hotel room waiting on the other end, and…well…it wasn’t a redeye. One might ask why I would do such a thing? It’s a fair question. First, I had an expiring “buy one get one” coupon courtesy of my Delta SkyMiles Platinum Amex. Second, we needed to get to Seattle, and the coupon helped cover the costs. Finally, the timing just worked.

The details – Delta Air Lines B737-900, row 10, a bulkhead on the ABC side of the aircraft. This was not my first 737-900 ride with Delta, but it was my first in the coach cabin. If you nab bulkhead seats on the left side, there is no partition blocking your feet. You have access to the area underneath the seat in front of you. This would prove handy.

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As my backpack was fairly empty, I had some room to work my feet into the space and stretch out. After takeoff, I carefully reclined about 1 inch….nowhere near max recline, and not without looking to see that the person behind me was already out cold. I shut my eyes, and the next thing I knew, we were just over an hour outside of Atlanta. I remember taking off, and that’s about it.

Keys to sleeping on an airplane in coach – picking the right seat that offers a little room to stretch out and being a little tired. I’m sure an hour or so in the Sky Club for a cocktail beforehand didn’t hurt either. In the end, while I found the bulkhead seat a little tight due to the tray table being in the armrest, this might be the one I pick on my next 737 transcon with Delta…. if I can’t manage an upgrade. I hear the rest of the airplane is fairly snug in coach.

-MJ, July 7, 2014

A happy holiday weekend to you from Vancouver, BC. I’ve often heard Vancouver called the most beautiful city in North America, and I do quite like it. Part of me wishes we could stay a little longer, but it’s been an enjoyable visit. We’re not here to tour, but to visit family, but have managed to work in a bit of sightseeing and experiencing new things – not counting eating Chinese food for lunch on the 4th of July in Canada, but I digress.

I was wondering if this visit to Canada would offer the opportunity to test the Chip & PIN capability of my Barclays Arrival Card. According to the materials that came with the card, it is Chip & Signature with Chip & PIN capability, and you’ll need to sign for your first transaction. In reality, I’ve needed to sign for every transaction. Not an issue, just an observation. I’m sure some of that is driven by the underlying workings of EMV chips, and what drives PIN requirements. I’ve not “studied” them but I think some of it has to do with attended terminals vs unattended and whether or not there is a real time connection to the payment network. In any event, chip cards are expected here, but each terminal I have used has included the option to swipe. The card has served me well this trip, and the Chip & Signature capability has worked like a charm. So…that’s enough of that Chip card datapoint. Let’s take a look at the week in review here at MJ on Travel.

No matter how you’re spending your weekend, enjoy it! Talk to you next week.

-MJ, July 5, 2014

First, I’m not a TSA “hater.” Having worked at an airport for the best years of my life, I know how people can get. In a word, they can get nasty…hateful…ugly… snotty…snarky. I was none of those, and neither was the TSA in Atlanta today. That said, I can’t let the sun set on this day without saying something. I’m a Global Entry carrying, security cleared, respectful lover of America. This isn’t a complaint even, just an observation.

My boarding pass was stamped TSA Pre for my flight to Seattle this evening. Three beeps. Good to go. The Walk through metal detector “randomly selects” me for further screening. Oh well…whatever. TSA tries to send me through the nekked scanner. To be clear, I don’t have any radiation fears. It’s just that I’m a type 1 diabetic insulin pumper. Medtronic, the manufacturer of my $5000.00 insulin pump says the following about airport security.

Medtronic has conducted official testing on the effects of the new full body scanners at airports with Medtronic medical devices and have found that some scanners may include x-ray. If you choose to go through an airport body scanner, you must remove your insulin pump, Guardian monitor, Continuous Glucose Monitoring (sensor and transmitter), meter and remote. To avoid removing your devices, you may request an alternative screening process.”

I don’t know about you, but that says to me….do not wear your insulin pump through the nekked scanner. Of course, today at TSA PreCheck, after getting randomly selected for additional screening, I get directed towards the scanner. I point to my insulin pump and say “I can’t go through that with this, and I opt out.” The TSA screener insists I can go through, but I can opt out if I want to, so I say one more time “I opt out.” I then get directed to remove my shoes, belt, and anything else in my pocket, which I do, and then get sent to secondary screening for a full on rub down.

To be clear, no one at TSA was rude or inconsiderate. In fact, everyone was polite as could be, including the pat down guy. It’s just that I was left wondering what anyone proved by sending me to secondary screening? Not only that, why can’t TSA get the idea that my particular insulin pump manufacturer has determined that their “machines” are harmful to my insulin pump? This is the first time in well over a year, if not 2, that I’ve had to deal with this, so perhaps I’m a little over-emotional about the whole thing. On the other hand, this was NOT the first time I’ve been “randomly” selected by the walk through metal detector. It’s just the first time that it has happened and I’ve been sent to the “scanner.” Part of enhanced security procedures this week? Maybe so. That’s fine, but I think I’ll defer to the manufacturer of my insulin pump when it comes to these kinds of things.

-MJ, July 3, 2014

The long holiday weekend is approaching fast. Flying somewhere at this late date is likely to be expensive, but depending on where you are, there are options. If you’re into cruising, I’m still seeing a tiny bit of availability on weekend cruises from Florida. If you’re within driving distance of Miami or Port Canaveral, there are a few options. The cheap deals are gone, but if you’re interested, act now.

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At this point, a good staycation might be just what the doctor ordered. Right here in Atlanta, the W Atlanta Buckhead is available for this weekend right now at reasonable rates, and you might even catch a few fireworks from the rooftop lounge. Same for the Westin Peachtree Plaza in downtown Atlanta. You’ll surely see some fireworks from the Sun Dial Lounge!

Not from Atlanta? My friends at Hilton Worldwide tell me they have a few great hotels for enjoying holiday fireworks across the country. All of these hotels are bookable through hiltonweekends.com, and HHonors members can earn Double HHonors Points or Double Miles through the Double Your HHonors promotion.

Waldorf Astoria New York

  • Chill out with friends at the pool during the day or get a refreshing spa treatment at the Guerlain Spa
  • Grab a pre-dinner cocktail at the hotel’s on-site legendary Bull and Bear Bar before feasting at Bull and Bear Prime Steakhouse
  • To conclude a day of relaxation and fun, walk just a few short blocks from the hotel to the East River to view one the famous Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks show
  • Start the next morning off with breakfast/brunch at Oscar’s Brasserie

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  • Soak up the summer sun on the sky deck during the afternoon and then cool off afterwards at the connected indoor pool
  • Sit out-on the sidewalk patio at the hotel’s Irish pub Kitty O’Shea’s and quench your thirst with one of their signature cocktails or a nice beer/wine
  • 720 South Bar & Grill is the hotel’s classic American grill which makes the perfect backdrop for your 4th of July dinner
  • Once done with dinner, gather your friends/family in your room and pull-up a chair to view the fireworks right from your hotel window
  • And I might add that Chicago has a fine fireworks display from personal experience. Another great way to watch – dinner cruise on Lake Michigan

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Embassy Suites Houston – Downtown

  • Spend the day outside getting some color at the hotel pool
  • Enjoy the nightly Manager’s Reception featuring complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and snacks
  • Head to Embassy Grill for dinner
  • After dinner, head back to the pool deck where guests can catch a fantastic view of Houston’s fireworks show
  • The next morning, check-out the complimentary cooked-to-order breakfast

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Don’t know about you, but I’m digging that pool! It’s been HOT in Atlanta!! Whatever you decide to do this weekend, enjoy a few days off!

-MJ, July 2, 2014

 

Just read on thehill.com that TSA is about to implement enhanced security at overseas airports where planes fly directly to the United States. According to the article,  The announcement comes after military officials raised concerns about al Qaeda affiliated foreign fighters using Western passports to evade terrorist watch lists.”

Given the situation in the Middle East, I had expected some kind of effort. I’m sure there’ll be noticeable things like gate searches, and other things going on outside of the view of passengers too. I’ll withhold judgement on whether these measures are effective or not, and just wish everyone a safe weekend of holiday travel.

-MJ, July 2, 2014

 

Royal Caribbean’s most loyal cruisers can now book next year’s Crown & Anchor member cruise. This morning’s email contained details on the cruise which will be a 12-night southbound Canada and New England itinerary originating in Quebec City, Quebec and ending in Cape Liberty, NJ with 12 days of beautiful sailing in between aboard Serenade of the Seas (which happens to be a favorite ship of mine). (Map image courtesy of Royal Caribbean.)

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Member cruises tend to attract a lot of higher tier elites, and feature special parties dedicated to the cruise line’s most loyal guests. Canada and New England itineraries are on my cruising bucket list, which make this attractive. Alas, I’ll be setting sail on a trans-Atlantic cruise a little too soon after this cruise ends to take advantage this time around. I have to work to pay for all these cruises! :) But if you’re a Royal Caribbean Crown & Anchor member, take a look at this itinerary. Looks like a great one.

-MJ, July 2, 2014

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a tiny bit, but a little gem from the Delta Taking Off blog caught my eye this afternoon. Delta started serving Atlanta’s home-brew beer, Sweetwater 420 on flights from Atlanta to NYC a while back. That was great news, but since I don’t fly to New York that often, I was out of luck. No more. In addition to great Luvo wraps on certain routes, you’ll now be able to quench your thirst with awesome Sweetwater beer on more flights.

According to the post, “Delta is also expanding our beverage selection of Atlanta’s finest craft beer, SweetWater 420, service on additional routes, from Atlanta to Washington Dulles International Airport, Reagan National Airport, Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport, Tampa International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and Miami International Airport.” 

Great news for beer lovers. Cheers! Can I get a little Sweetwater IPA now?

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-MJ, July 1, 2014

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