Web Agencies Leave Customers Unhappier

By Sean O'Neill
February 28, 2007
Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity appear to be disappointing customers because of competition from airline and hotel websites and travel search engines, such as Kayak and Sidestep.

Customer satisfaction with Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity recently sank, while satisfaction with all other industries in e-commerce rose. That's according to the American Customer Satisfaction index released last week by the University of Michigan.

Travel websites received a combined score of 76 out of 100--a drop of 1.3 percentage points from the 2005 survey period. Online travel's combined score of 76 was also lower than the average score for Web retailers overall, which was 80.

"Customers are less loyal to the online travel sites than to online retail sites such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and eBay," says Larry Freed, chief of ForeSee Results, the market-research firm that helped the University of Michigan conduct the survey.

The index asked consumers to rate their satisfaction with the goods and services they buy in a variety of industries. About 20,000 consumers, including about 4,000 airline and hotel customers, were surveyed during the last three months of 2006.

The top travel website score: Expedia's 78. "Expedia's score has dropped one point since 2006 as its market share dipped 5 percent in the first six months of 2006," says Freed.

Close behind were Orbitz at 75 and Travelocity at 74. The survey didn't rate other travel websites.

Customers appear to feel little loyalty to Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, which appear to be hurting because of competition from airline and hotel sites and travel search engines, such as Kayak and Sidestep. Says Freed, "The things that signal lack of loyalty are low customer satisfaction scores and little variation among satisfaction scores in a category."

Expect the big three websites to roll out new features in the coming year that attempt to boost customer satisfaction.

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Trip Coach: February 27, 2007

Clinton, NJ: I would like to travel by train across the whole of both Canada and the United States. Is there a convenient way to travel from say the eastern part of Canada to British Columbia and then pick up an east bound train from the West Coast of the US back to the East Coast? Fred W. Frailey: Hi folks. Glad to be here. Lots of good questions, so let's get started. Please take me with you. Here's the trip: First, Amtrak's Adirondack from Penn Station in New York to Montreal -- it's an all day trip. See amtrak.com. Then on VIA Rail Canada the next day to Toronto. Day three in the morning, board VIA's Canadian for Vancouver. You get there day 7, if I'm counting correctly. On day 8, ride Amtrak from Vancouver back across the border to Seattle. Day 9 in the afternoon, get on the Empire Builder through the Montana Rockies and Great Plains, arriving Chicago the afternoon of Day 11. You should be able to make a same-day connection for New York on the Lakeshore Limited, arriving day 12, happy and refreshed. For the Canadian portion, go to viarail.ca. _______________________ Rutland, VT: I would like to see as much of the Rocky Mtns. as possible by train. My rough plan is to ride Amtrak's California Zephyr eastbound getting off at Denver, staying overnight as needed, then riding what I believe are as many as three separate day trip trains that operate out of Denver. Does this sound like a good rough plan to you, and if so, what can you tell me about the day trip trains out of Denver? Additional trips to see the Rockies, probably at different times might be on Amtrak's Empire Builder and Via Rail Canada's train between Vancouver & Toronto (the Canadian, is it called?). Your thoughts and comments? Fred W. Frailey: Your idea of riding Amtrak's California Zephyr is terrific, but you're going the wrong direction. Eastbound, the Zephyr lately is running hours late and it's dark before you get to some of the spectacular Front Range scenery in South Boulder and Coal Creek canyons. I strongly urge you to ride the Zephyr westbound, leaving in the morning. Day trips out of Denver by rail? I cannot think of a single one, unless it's to visit the Georgetown Loop narrow gauge railroad, about an hour west of Denver on Interstate 70. There's a privately run ski train that runs on the California Zephyr line about 60 miles, from Denver to Winter Park, but only on winter weekends. The Durango-Silverton narrow gauge train is worth a visit, but Durango is a 6-7 hour drive away from Denver. I cannot praise the Zephyr route enough, by the way. You go through one rugged canyon after the other, until the mind reels -- after South Boulder and Coal Creek, there's Fraser, Byers, Gore and Glenwood canyons, the last three alongside the wild Colorado River. And west of Grand Junction, beyond the mountains, you pass in late afternoon a desert so mindful of a moonscape that you wonder if there's a single chard of life out there -- awesome. The single best way to see the Rockies by train, other than the California Zephyr, is on a privately run train, the Rocky Mountaineer. It runs twice a week each way between Calgary and Vancouver and between Jasper and Vancouver, the two sections of the train joining at Kamloops. I strongly suggest you take the Calgary train because it takes you alongside those great vistas by way of Banff and Lake Louise, then over the continental divide and down into the valley via two spiral tunnels. Later that day you'll traverse the Selkirk Range, and then for about an hour alongside the shore of a vast lake. You overnight at hotels at Kamloops, then continue to Vancouver the second day along the Thompson and Fraser rivers. If that last day sounds boring, believe me, it's not. The Jasper train misses all the spectacular sights I just described during the first day. One more tip: Pay the extra money and go first class. The first class cars are new high-level cars with 360-degree viewing of the scenery on the top and a dining room on the bottom. Oh yes, there's a big fat observation platform at the back of the first class car, so if it's a nice day, you can stand outside and enjoy the breeze. When we took that train, my kids loved going "outside." _______________________ Florence, OR: Loved the Trip Coach through Canada on trains in current issue...will take this same trip soon but wonder about "senior-specials" & Seasons?..want good weather but don't want to travel when the Summer School Kids are onboard !! Would love to take train from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver,Canada--is that possible?? Tammy...66 yr single senior lady traveling alone. Fred W. Frailey: Hi Tammy. You can get from Eugene to Vancouver BC on Amtrak, but you'll have to spend the night in Seattle in either direction. Going north, you'd take the 9 am Cascades from Eugene to Portland, change at Portland to the 2:15 pm departure for Seattle. Amtrak single northbound train from Seattle to Vancouver leaves at 7:40 a.m. the next day. Sorry about that! As for travel by train in Canada that misses the mobs, start your trip between June 10 and 20, or the day after the U.S. Labor Day. My family rode the Rocky Mountaineer (not a VIA Rail Canada train) from Calgary to Vancouver in mid June, and the train was by no means overcrowded. _______________________ Marietta, OH: I would love to take a train trip--I would be traveling alone and budget is an issue. How can I get the best price on either US or Canadian rail trips. I am extremely flexible as to dates - I would probably travel out of Charleston WV or Pittsburgh. Would appreciate any advice. Pam Fred W. Frailey: Pam, you can get more places traveling out of Pittsburgh. On the other hand, Amtrak runs a triweekly train between New York and Chicago via Charleston, called the Cardinal. If you wanted to just take a day trip, then consider leaving Charleston on the Cardinal eastbound about 815 am on Wednesdays, Fridays or Sundays. You go through some truly beautiful country. Get off at Clifton Forge Va. (or Staunton Va. if your train is close to on time) and return on the westbound Cardinal, arriving back in Charleston at 8:10 p.m. A round trip coach ticket to Staunton costs $62 -- about $10 less if you're a senior or an AAA member. For a more extended trip, consider an Amtrak pass. You pay one price for a set amount of time and ride trains night and day if you desire. For details, go to Amtrak.com and click on Hot Deals and then Rail Passes & Programs. _______________________ North Falmouth, MA: If you had to select one area of Canada to visit by rail, where would you go, and where would you spend the most time? Fred W. Frailey: I must begin by saying I haven't ridden by rail through eastern Canada for many years. But it really doesn't matter -- at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the one trip everyone should save their nickels for is the Rocky Mountaineer in its first-class cars, from Calgary, Alberta, to Vancouver BC. Details at rockymountaineer.com. I once wrote a story for Trains Magazine in which I called this the single best train-riding experience of my life. Now, let me ask myself a question: Fred, what is the one Canadian train YOU would like to ride? Probably VIA Rail Canada's Canadian, from Montreal to Vancouver. It takes forever, and a first class ticket in a private room costs a fortune in summer. But in summer this triweekly train has been running as long as 27 cars, and the experience will take you back to the twilight years of the great American streamliners, before Amtrak. The reason I didn't name the Rocky Mountaineer is that I've done that, and I'm always looking for something new. One day I'll do it, too! _______________________ Austin, TX: My husband and I are retiring in June and have always wanted to take a rail trip across Canada. I understand that we need to book several different trips to do this but do not know how and which trains are the best. What should we look for and how do we book from the US? Should we plan to rent a car at various stops? What should we see if we do? Thanks for your help. Fred W. Frailey: The only train going across Canada is the Canadian, operated between Toronto and Vancouver by VIA Rail Canada, a crown corporation equivalent to Amtrak in the U.S. It is a marvelous train. Most of its cars were built in 1955 and have been thoroughly modernized and kept up. Ride it and imagine it's 1965 again! You can book through a travel agent, or directly at this link. It leaves each end three times a week and takes its sweet time. Wednesday's departure from Toronto will get to Vancouver on Sunday. But if it is the Canadian Rockies you want to see, don't take this train. It traverses the Rockies by dark and its route, using the Canadian National Railway, is far less scenic than the Canadian Pacific line, used between Calgary and Vancouver by the Rocky Mountaineer. See rockymountaineer.com for details. _______________________ Burlington, VT: Quick question-- I'd like to take a Canadian rail trip through the rockies. I hear it has FANTASTIC views. I also hear conflicting info that it's no longer running. I'm talking Montreal to start, and heading west. Fred W. Frailey: You can do it by taking VIA Rail Canada's Canadian from Toronto to Jasper, Alberta (viarail.ca). Connecting service is available to Toronto from Montreal. At Jasper, change to the Rocky Mountaineer, which runs several days a week between there and Vancouver -- it takes two days and you overnight at Kamloops, where your train connects with another Rocky Mountaineer from Calgary. See rockymountaineer.com for details. Frankly, the scenery between Jasper and Kamloops pales beside that of the Rocky Mountaineer that uses Canadian Pacific tracks out of Calgary. It goes through an incredibly beautiful mountain valley taking it through Banff, Lake Louise, over the continental divide and then down a grade so treacherous that the railroad goes through two spiral tunnels. My suggestion would be to investigate either a one-way car rental between Jasper and Calgary (it's a spectacular trip, past glacier fields) or a motor coach, and riding the Rocky Mountaineer out of Calgary. Free tip: Buy first class tickets on the R.M. and you will later thank me. _______________________ Winthrop, ME: I am thinking of traveling across the country on Amtrak. I would like to go in June and travel from Boston to San Francisco. I would probably be traveling alone. What would be the best, most scenic route to take? Fred W. Frailey: Take Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited from Boston to Albany, where it connects with the main portion of the train from New York City. There is a through coach from Boston, although I recommend that you book a roomette from Albany to Chicago. From Chicago, the scenic wonder of Amtrak is San Francisco-bound San Francisco Zephyr. There's not much to see until you leave Denver. If you leave Boston on a Sunday, you'll connect in Chicago on Monday and arrive Denver at breakfast time Tuesday. As soon as the Zephyr leaves Denver, go to the Sightseer Lounge and park yourself in a seat for the rest of the day -- you will be transfixed by the Rockies and the Colorado River or I'll eat my shoe. The rap on the Cal Zephyr is that it never runs on time west of Denver. The Union Pacific Railroad, which the train uses west of Denver, has track problems in Utah and Nevada and the train has been losing two to four hours each trip due to running at reduced speeds. It is due into Oakland at 4:50 p.m. on Wednesday (continuing the example begun in the previous paragraph). It usually gets there closer to 8 p.m. I am told the schedule will be lengthened in April to take account of the poor track, but figure 8 p.m. in any event. _______________________ Norfolk, VA: My wife and I will be in Vancouver March 17-24, 2007 any sight seeing train suggestions? Fred W. Frailey: Yes, the Rocky Mountaineer organization has a day trip from North Vancouver to the Whistler resort and back. Details are here. Unless you're on Vancouver Island and have a day to spare, there's really nothing else. _______________________ Bluffton, SC: What would recommend as the best Copper Canyon Tour? What do you think of Trains Unlimited Tours? Thanks, Bill Fred W. Frailey: Bill, can't help you. I suspect any tour operator through Mexico's Copper Canyon will be satisfactory. One savvy travel agency on Canadian and Mexico rail tours is Accent On Travel, accentontravelusa.com -- 800-347-0645. Ask Ted or Sylvia what they think of Trains Unlimited. Whatever they say, I agree. _______________________ Roanoke, VA: What trains have smoking cars? Fred W. Frailey: To my knowledge, only Amtrak's Auto Train (which carries people and their cars overnight from Lorton VA near Washington DC to Sanford FL near Orlando) has a smoking compartment in its lounge cars. What typically occurs with other long distance trains is that they stop every hour or two and there's usually enough time to step off and light up. _______________________ Nashville, TN: Do you have a recommended trip for my parents (77 and 80 years old) who are both in relatively good health. They are not accustomed to much travel, and my father becomes nervous if confused about details, etc. Mother would like to make the trans-Canada trip, but she is concerned about his not enjoying it because of stress. Would the trip still be enjoyable if they didn't get off and make side trips, but just stayed on the train? Fred W. Frailey: It takes four days to get from Toronto to Vancouver on VIA Rail Canada's Canadian. I do not recommend that your parents attempt this trip -- it's a long time! Why not fly to Calgary and ride the Rocky Mountaineer from there to Vancouver over a two-day period, overnighting in a hotel in Kamloops BC. I cannot praise this service too much. Just be sure they have first-class tickets on this train, or they will be cheating themselves of a super experience. _______________________ Phoenix, AZ: We are planning a train trip of 2 days, 1 night on the Rocky Mountaineer for Aug, 2007. The train would be leaving from Vancouver to Banff or in reverse. Is there any thing that you can tell me about the Redleaf Service? Do you have any opinions or advise about this trip? Thank you for your time. Fred W. Frailey: Everybody is asking about Canada today! Red Leaf is the Rocky Mountaineer's first class service. I highly recommend it over coach class, which is pretty Spartan. The view from the bi-level, glass-topped Red Leaf (first class) cars is not to be believed. Either way between Vancouver and Calgary is good, but I prefer westbound -- you start the trip with a big bang, entering the mountains. _______________________ Miami, FL: What's the best route to get from Miami to California? Fred W. Frailey: Do you really want to know? The most direct way is to take the Silver Meteor overnight to Washington DC, sightsee in the nation's capital from daybreak until mid afternoon, then take the Capitol Limited overnight to Chicago and then your choice of the Southwest Chief (Los Angeles) or San Francisco Zephyr (San Francisco). You would begin the trip on, day, a Sunday morning, and get to the other end on either Thursday morning (LA) or evening (SF). The Zephyr route is much preferred for scenery west of Denver, but if you are a control freak who can't abide a late train, go to LA on the Chief! The Zephyr is due in Oakland just before 5 p.m., some 50 hours after leaving Chicago, but has been arriving closer to 8 p.m. because of poor track on host railroad Union Pacific in Utah and Nevada. Before Hurricane Katrina, there was direct service from Orlando to Los Angeles three days a week on the Sunset Limited, another habitually late train. But Amtrak has never resumed service between New Orleans and Florida and unless some heavy political pressure is exerted, I doubt that it ever will. _______________________ Kennesaw, GA: What is the best train trip you've ever been on? Fred W. Frailey: Probably the Rocky Mountaineer, from Calgary to Vancouver. It's hard to beat. . , and be sure to buy Red Leaf (first class) tickets. Close behind that would be from Oakland to Chicago in 1969 aboard the ORIGINAL California Zephyr, before Amtrak. Third would be the Canadian Pacific Canadian, from Winnipeg to Vancouver, in 1971. You can ride the same train, same equipment day, the only difference being that the train is now run by VIA Rail Canada and the track used is that of Canadian National Railway rather than CP -- a pity, because CP's route is far more scenic. But you can see the best of the CP scenery on the Rocky Mountaineer. _______________________ Yreka, CA: Due to health, unable to fly. The family is planning a get together in Birmingham, Alabama for Thanksgiving. Is it possible to take the train from Dunsmuir, California to Alabama without a big problem?Thank you, Bob Fred W. Frailey: Wow. Bob, the answer is yes, but you gotta love trains. Get on the Coast Starlight early on a Tuesday morning (by way of example). It takes you to LA late that evening. Then leave LA at 230 p.m. on Wednesday on the Sunset Limited (it departs LA on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday only). It gets to New Orleans at 4 p.m. on Friday. On Saturday morning take the Crescent to Birmingham, arriving mid afternoon. The equipment on the Starlight and Sunset is delightful, and a bedroom on the Sunset is highly recommended. _______________________ Amery, WI: We are planning a train trip along the Pacific Coast from San Diego to San Francisco or Santa Cruz or someplace in that area. We are 2 adults, ages 60 & 66, and plan to travel on May 15,16, or 17th. Does the train go along the coast all the way between these 2 cities? Also, we are possibly looking at taking the train from San Diego to San Luis Obispo and rent a car to drive along the coast if the train does not go along the coast. Any suggestions? Fred W. Frailey: Can I come with you? Take the 615 am Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to LA. Transfer there to the Coast Starlight for Salinas (Santa Cruz) or Oakland (San Francisco). The Surfliner runs on the beach of San Clemente. But the crown jewel of this trip is the hour, from about 30 miles north of Santa Barbara, to just beyond the stop at Surf, when the train and the ocean are alone. You are right up against the water, there is no highway, no houses, no towns, no cars, no roads, no nothing but you and the water and the shoreline. It is the most sublime hour you will ever spend on a train. I've made this trip at least half a dozen times, and talk in the Sightseer Lounge invariably ceases. How can conversation compete with this? _______________________ Chicago, IL: What is the best and cheapest Chicago/Chicago round trip booking for 2 US citizens (ages 63 & 60)both holding disability IDs with: stop overs in Quebec, Montreal and/or Tonronto, Bampf and/or Lake Louise. John Fred W. Frailey: Sorry, you can't get there! From Quebec City or Montreal, take connecting trains to Toronto and then VIA Rail Canada's Canadian to . . . . well, not to Banff or Lake Louise. The Canadian runs 100 miles north of those spectacular spots, through Jasper, and at night, to boot. It terminates at Vancouver. From Vancouver, take Amtrak's daily train to Seattle, and from Seattle, the Empire Builder to Chicago. Explore on amtrak.com getting a North American Rail Pass. At the home page, click on Hot Deals and then on Rail Passes & Programs. _______________________ Phoenix, AZ: What are the three MOST SCENIC train routes in the U.S., covered by AMTRAK? (These routes would not only pass through scenic areas, but also be scheduled so that those scenic areas are covered in the daytime.) Fred W. Frailey: Good question! I'll give you five, in order of my preference -- California Zephyr, westbound from Denver to Oakland (the train originates in Chicago, but the scenery starts leaving Denver). Unquestionably the best of the bunch. Coast Starlight, between Oakland and LA (the train runs Seattle to LA and the line through Oregon is scenic but no competition for the hour between Surf and Goleta CA when there is nothing but the Pacific Coast and the Coast Starlight). Empire Builder either way between Chicago and Seattle. The gem is the three hours through the Rockies between Libby and Whitefish, Mont. Southwest Chief eastbound between Flagstaff Ariz. and Raton NM. I slightly prefer EB to WB because you get more daylight west of Albuquerque. Acela Express between New Haven Conn. and Providence RI. You skirt the marshy coast of Long Island Sound and then streak through New England villages at 135 mph! All of this seen through big picture windows in your business class seat. Very pretty. _______________________ Winter Park, FL : What is a good age for children to start traveling by train? Our girls are 3, 5 & 7. What's a great family train vacation? Fred W. Frailey: You are in luck. I suggest a visit to Washington DC for the girls, getting there and back on the Auto Train. I've ridden it dozens of times and never tire of the experience. It's overnight. You ride in nice bilevel coaches or sleeping car and your car rides behind these cars in auto carriers. The diner has the best food on Amtrak at dinnertime. Breakfast is continental. There are movies in the two lounge cars. Each sleeping car has a Family Room across one end of the lower level. I don't think five of you could fit in it, but for sure three and maybe four. My kids have ridden it and enjoyed themselves. _______________________ Columbia, SC: I am looking to take a trip from Chicago to Seattle, Seattle to San Fran, and then back to Chicago. I asked a travel agent that I have used for cruises for some information/help booking. He pointed me to the Amtrak website. Is this the best place to get pricing for a trip like this, or are there travel agencies (online or in person) that specialize in rail travel? If not, gosh, it seems that cruising with all it's ammenities is cheaper than rail. Fred W. Frailey: If you can navigate the Amtrak web site, amtrak.com is as good as anything. I'm not the person to compare cruises to trains. I've been on cruises so expensive I cannot imagine a train costing more, but then. . . . _______________________ Denver, CO: My elderly parents have booked a RT Amtrack trip from Emeryville, CA to Glenwood Springs, CO for a summer family wedding. What suggestions do you have for helping them make the trip comfortable and enjoyable? Thank You Fred W. Frailey: The most important thing is that they book a full bedroom and not try to go el cheapo in coach or share an economy bedroom, which is simply too cramped for two people. They'll get a good night's sleep and feel rested when they arrive in Glenwood. Maybe a bottle of wine to share (you can buy splits of wine on the train, but still . . .) I also suggest they bring a good book and go to the Sightseer Lounge during the day to relax, see the sights better and get the most of the experience. They should NOT be cooped up in the bedroom all day. _______________________ Gloucester, VA: We need advice on planning a Canadian rail trip that includes most scenic sites, hotel accomodations, and "must do" excursions. We are presently looking at a rail circle of Vancouver, Quesnel, Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff and back to Vancouver. Is is worth our while to do trans-Canada? (Calgary, Winnipeg, etc). Fred W. Frailey: That's a nice trip you describe, utilizing two trains run by the Rocky Mountaineer people. If you do this, I would skip the trans-Canada thing -- you'll have seen the best! _______________________ Avondale, AZ: Are there any affordable scenic train trips? Most really great ones I have seen advertised (5 star) are 5,000+. Any in the US under 1,000.00? Thank you, Karnella Fred W. Frailey: Carnella, why don't you drive north two hours to Flagstaff, and ride Amtrak's Southwest Chief to Lamy, NM, just outside Santa Fe? Enjoy Santa Fe and return by train. It's a very pretty ride and you can buy a coach ticket (no overnight travel) and spend your time in the comfort of the Sightseer Lounge, enjoying the wonders of northern New Mexico and a bit of your native Arizona. _______________________ Okemos, MI: My husband and I wonder: Are there any deals, at any time of year, for a train trip across the US, then back through Canada? If we could travel inexpensively we'd like to use the savings toward an upgrade to the coveted gold leaf service on that portion of the trans-Canada trip. Fred W. Frailey: Go to amtrak.com, click on Hot Deals and then on Rail Passes & Programs. Look at the North American Rail Pass. You can upgrade as needed and as space is available. Golf Leaf is the term used by Rocky Mountaineer for first class travel on its trains. However, RM does not operate across Canada -- only in western Alberta and British Columbia. The trans-Canada train is run by VIA Rail Canada. _______________________ Pacific Palisades, CA: What are the 10 best train trips in the world? Would like to know your opinion. Thanks. Don Fred W. Frailey: Too many! Based on my own experience, the five best would be -- Rocky Mountaineer from Calgary to Vancouver San Francisco Zephyr from Denver to Oakland Orient Express from London to Venice Auto Train between Washington DC and Orlando areas -- fun experience Coast Starlight between LA and Oakland _______________________ Brea, CA: We are getting interested in a train trip to the East Coast, then ... along the Coast, re-turning on a more Northern Route (or, vice-versa). Is there a trip that we could take, that would allow us to de-train at several stops, and continue the trip a day, or two, later. This has some real advantages for us, and could take up to a month+ to complete. Would appreciate any helpful hints you might have for a trip of this magnitude. Thank you so much. Fred W. Frailey: Sounds like fun. Take the Sunset Limited across the western deserts to New Orleans, then the Crescent from there to Washington DC. The Capitol Limited is an excellent train (bilevel cars) from DC to Chicago. You can't beat the scenery on the California Zephyr (Chicago-Oakland) west of Denver, and the view of the Pacific from the Coast Starliner (Oakland-LA) is not to be missed. Explore the economics of a pass (amtrak.com, then Hot Deals and then Rail Passes & Programs) and upgrade as needed. When you are traveling, remember this isn't work and don't be upset when the train is late, which it almost always will be. At such moments, I tell myself that I get more travel experience for the same price. _______________________ Southampton England, UK: What would you advise for two male friends both over 60 years of age that would like to travel by train in the usa with the intention of meeting people and visiting interesting places probably during September/November. If it's to late in the year then during 2008. Fred W. Frailey: Go to www.amtrak.com, click on Hot Deals and then Rail Passes & Programs. September and October are ideal months to travel by train -- the weather is usually great, the crowds are gone and reservations relatively easy to get. I'd go to places like Savannah Ga., Charleston SC., Fort Worth or Austin Tex., Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis. They're not the huge cities, but still urban areas and the people are friendly -- I've been there and checked them out for you. Out west, Flagstaff Ariz., Santa Fe NM, Glenwood Springs Colo., all pop to mind as places I can't wait to visit again. Go for it! _______________________ Hudgins, VA: My husband and I have been looking at a Vantage tour from Vancouver to Toronto that includes a trip on the Rocky Mountaineer and a trip on VIA Rail's "Canadian" plus 8 nights accommodation and 22 meals. (11 days) The price is $3699 per person. My husband thinks we could do all of this on our own much cheaper. What's your opinion? Fred W. Frailey: Your husband can rent a train for 11 days for less than $3699? I don't think so! To be serious: Of course you can drive and the out of pocket cost will be less. So will be the experience. I love trains. I'd pay the price and have a great time. _______________________ Eastero, FL: I would like to take a train trip (amtrak because I am using reward points) and would like to know whether the empire builder or the california zepher would be the most scenic? Fred W. Frailey: I vote for the California Zephyr, Denver west, and westbound more than eastbound. Right out of Denver you start climbing the Front Range, then go through these marvelous canyons, Coal Creek and South Boulder, on your way to Moffat Tunnel. Moffat takes you for five miles under the peaks, where the trains once ran. On the other side is the Winter Park ski resort. Next thing you know you're in Fraser Canyon, and after the stop in Granby you pick up the magnificent Colorado River near its headwaters, and follow it for like 8-9 hours. Through a canyon called Gore that is so narrow that it's a miracle there was room for a railroad -- forget a highway on the river's other side. Through Glenwood Canyon, whose sheer beauty was ruined by the construction of Interstate 70 but which remains awesome. Then the hill country west of Glenwood Springs, culminating in the driest desert on earth, in western Colorado or maybe eastern Utah -- this just after you finally leave the Colorado River. Finally, in darkness, you descend the mountain plateau country at a locale called Soldier Summit and end up on the REAL desert floor, at Salt Lake City. That's just the first of two days. The Sierra Nevada mountains -- Donner Pass -- is the next day. Have I gotten you interested? _______________________ Lima, OH: We would like to take a trip that includes the parks in utah, nevada (with a stopover in Las Vegas) and Arizona. What would you suggest? Fred W. Frailey: The national parks are ill served by Amtrak, and it doesn't serve Las Vegas now at all. I have one suggestion, but it isn't cheap. This is to book the train trip of a lifetime on Grand Luxe Rail Journeys, formerly called American Orient Express. GL has no set route. Instead, its trains run a series of trips in various parts of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. One series visit the national parks of the west. Go to this URL for more information. American Orient Express was bought last year by Tom Rader, whose Rader Railcars in Colorado makes luxury rail cars. He renamed the company Grand Luxe and I suspect you will see the addition of new equipment to the train soon, if new cars aren't already there. Save your pennies! _______________________ Sherman Oaks, California: Hi, Fred. What itinerary would you suggest to a couple that lives in Los Angeles and wants a scenic experience of the Pacific Northwest? Facts: 2 adults (31/35), 0 children... world travelers, lacking USA experience... both love to eat... have 5-7 days to spare. Thank you! Christy Fred W. Frailey: Christy, start by taking Amtrak's Coast Starlight from LA to Seattle. The 100 miles of oceanfront between Ventura and Surf (Lompoc) is fabulous. Overnight you'll cross the Cascade Mountains and the next evening reach Seattle. Amtrak runs an early morning train from Seattle to Vancouver. From there you have a couple of choices. One is a day trip from North Vancouver to Whistler and back on a train operated by Rocky Mountaineer (rockymountaineer.com). Another option is to spend two days on another Rocky Mountaineer train going from Vancouver to Calgary -- the river scenery the first day is like nothing you've ever seen, and the Canadian Rockies through Lake Louise and Banff the second day is world class. Still got time on your hands? Then fly back to Seattle and book a trip from there to Essex MT on Amtrak's Empire Builder. Essex is in Glacier Park, and right beside the track is the famous Izaak Walton Inn. Going west, you leave Seattle at 4:45 p.m. and get to Essex at 8:55 a.m. Returning, you board at 7:41 p.m. and arrive back at Seattle at 10:20 a.m. the next day. This could either be a two-day trip or you could explore Glacier Park, using the Izaak Walton at your base. See izaakwaltoninn.com. _______________________ Grand Haven, MI: Can I travel by train to Phoenix or Flagstaff AZ this June? We are a family of 5 with children from 3 to 7 years old and would like to spend about a week. Fred W. Frailey: Absolutely. Amtrak runs trains from Michigan to Chicago. From there, you can ride the Southwest Chief straight to Flagstaff. You leave on Day 1 3:15 p.m. from Chicago and get to Flagstaff at 9:50 p.m. on Day 2. The bilevel train has coaches, sleeping cars, a diner and a Sightseer Lounge. Your older kids in particular will love it. See amtrak.com for pricing and accommodations. Phoenix is served by Amtrak, but not by way of Chicago. Best to rent a car in Flagstaff and drive down -- it's a pretty, two-hour trip to the desert elevation. _______________________ San Antonio, TX: I would love to take a leisurely train trip, but I have no idea which one is the best for comfort, scenery, and price. Can you recommend a train trip that is fun and not really expensive? Thanks Fred W. Frailey: Yes I can. A trip that is convenient to you is on Amtrak's Sunset Limited, which starts in New Orleans and runs to Los Angeles on a triweekly basis. You could leave San Antonio on Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays at 5:40 a.m. and get off at El Paso at 5:10 p.m. that day or go on to Rucson (1:05 a.m. the next morning) or all the way to Los Angeles (10:10 a.m.). I like desert, and so this is the sort of trip that relaxes me. The equipment is new and bilevel and comfortable. A coach seat to El Paso costs $76 each way before AAA or senior citizen discount. Tucson is $101 each way and Los Angeles $127. A budget bedroom to LA adds $133. Returning, the Sunset leaves LA on Sunday, Wednesdays and Fridays and El Paso on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturday. Option two is to visit New Orleans. Option three is to go to Little Rock and the Clinton Library. Little Rock is served by Amtrak's Texas Eagle by way of Fort Worth, Dallas and Texarkana, and ends up in Chicago. _______________________ Seattle, WA: Who can I contact about scheduling train travel in and between Germany, Switzerland and Austria? We'll be traveling in March and April. Thanks! Fred W. Frailey: Go to these two places for the information you need: eurail.com and raileurope.com.

How to Stay Healthy at Sea

Jaret Ames, acting chief of the vessel sanitation program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sheds light on the contagious gastrointestinal virus. Q: What are some of the symptoms of norovirus, and why have there been more cases in recent years? A: The standard symptoms that you find are vomiting or diarrhea--sometimes both--and there may be some associated symptoms like stomach cramps and nausea. It usually lasts about 24 hours, and then the symptoms dissipate and you come back to a normal status. As far as the cases and what's going on, I don't really have a good answer to that question. It is, in my view, absolutely a universal matter. Essentially, we're having increased outbreaks onshore just like we're having them on the ships. It's not something isolated to a ship or one part of the world. Q: How does the virus spread? A: The transmission routes are a fecal-oral route, a contaminated food or water source, or a sick person; those are the three ways you typically transmit the virus. It could be an ill food worker or just an ill person who happens to share the same living space as you. Obviously if it's a tighter space like a ship or a school, then you may see clusters of cases. It's transmitted through the food people contact or, the common one we see, transmitted through a surface. Maybe someone who is ill didn't wash his hands at all when he had a bowel movement and he touched surfaces and inanimate objects, whether a handrail or a button for an elevator, and when someone who is well touches that surface, the virus is transmitted to his hands. Q: What are some of the ways that people can stay healthy while on a cruise? A: If you're a person who's on a ship and you're trying to prevent transmission, hand-washing is the primary way to do that, and that means a good 30 seconds. It needs to happen quite often throughout the day even if you just have a snack, especially if from a self-service source. If you're a smoker, you should certainly do a hand-washing before that hand-to-mouth activity. Products like Purell can be of some use, but they don't replace hand-washing. Even if you do carry something like that, you should make sure that you still wash your hands often. If you're a person who's ill, the key is to stay in your cabin and keep washing your hands throughout the day. When you do have to circulate with other people, wash your hands. Even at home when you're ill, you need to do a very good, 30-second hand wash. Of course, you can have water or foodstuffs with contaminated fecal matter. Normally those cause quite large cluster outbreaks. We had some highly suspect waterborne outbreaks, but they were back in 2000 or 2001. Q: What are some of the myths about norovirus? A: One of the primary misconceptions people have is that the only people who need to really do proper and thorough and regular hand-washing is the crew aboard. They think that's where the breakdown is and don't see themselves as people who could transmit illness, but they are. The second one is that people think that because they wash their hands once a day that will cover it. People don't truly understand the timing of it. Some people turn the water on, pass their hands under it, and quickly turn it off. People should pay close attention when they use the hand-wash sink faucets; ideally they should shut the faucet off with a paper towel and use a paper towel to open the door when they leave the bathroom. Habits make you a more risky person--a person who bites his nails or chews and plays with his gum or smokes. From a transmission perspective, those people are going to be more likely cases. Q: How do cruise ships typically react when passengers become sick? A: One response that's very common when there are elevated illness counts is for a ship to do increased cleanings. You'll see people with a rag that has a disinfectant chemical that they're wiping on surfaces that people touch routinely. The ships will position people there to have them wiping those surfaces continually throughout the day. Passengers will also notice that the self-service buffet that they used to go to freely and serve themselves has been replaced with served buffets once the crew sees elevated cases (which are typically reported to medical staff by sick people). Q: What determines a ship's medical staff and capabilities? A: It's generally a decision by each company or cruise line as to how many doctors or nurses to provide. Some will have literally what amounts to an EMT as their medical person and they may only have 100 passengers, but that's probably a ship that visits a port of call every day and is sailing through U.S. river systems, so they're never more than 24 hours away from pulling into a port and getting hospital care as needed. Q: How often are ships inspected, and what is involved in the inspection? A: If the ship sails through U.S. territory, we can do two inspections per year. If the ship fails, there's a reinspection, of course. There are some ships that do a season in the U.S. and then are in other regions, so they would probably only receive one inspection. The inspections are unannounced, so the crews don't know which port we're coming to or when we're coming. We look at swimming pools and whirlpool spas. There's also a requirement concerning overall environmental issues like pest management and air ventilation, and one for the child activity center that many ships now have onboard. It takes seven or eight hours for two people to inspect a cruise ship. Q: What are the sanitation requirements for cruises, and what measures are being taken to prevent outbreaks? A: We have very detailed requirements posted on our website. For the potable water system onboard the ship there are a number of standards, like the first one, that it be potable! The manual covers areas like food handlers and their knowledge, and food safety in terms of the source and temperature of the food and the washing and cooking equipment. There is a section on toilet and hand-wash facilities, and a very basic section that goes over the details of disease reporting. Our 2005 operations manual specifies that every ship should have a written outbreak-prevention and response plan. The plan must establish what triggers the plan into action. Almost all the ships sailing in the U.S. today have an active outbreak-and-response plan that details different ways to control infection. There have also been some facility changes. Every ship is now required to have a way to allow passengers to exit the public bathrooms without touching the bare door with their hands, whether it's a paper towel and wastebasket near the exit or a mechanical door that opens outwards so that a person can push with the hip to exit. There's a rule on mandatory isolation of crew and recommended isolation of ill passengers so that they don't transmit the virus. Q: How often do cruise ships actually report outbreaks of illness? A: It's a misconception that ships have cases and don't report them. The ships have to make a report to us 24 hours before arrival in a U.S. port when they're sailing from a foreign port, even when they have zero cases they have to send a report, and they've been sending those reports on a very consistent basis for more than 30 years since the program began. A cruise line loses a lot of points in the inspection if it doesn't make those reports. A U.S. port is often the last port of call, although it's the first one on Alaska cruises. Anytime 2 percent of the passengers and crew have a gastrointestinal illness, the ship has to send a special report. There's a lot of reporting cruise lines have to do. Q: Who determines if a voyage should be cut short? A: It's more or less a ship or company policy to cut a cruise short, because that has to do with the navigation. There's no specific point at which we'll absolutely say that we want the ship to come back to the home port. But there can be a recommendation for a ship not to sail for a period of time. Typically, though, the cruise line makes a decision on its own that it is going to take a ship out of service if it feels like it can't control an outbreak. What we try to involve ourselves with is making sure that the cruise ship has sufficient time to do the thorough cleaning and disinfection that's required if there's been an outbreak before the next trip and the next set of passengers. It is possible that we would make a recommendation or even issue an order that a ship not sail for some designated period of time. It's somewhat rare, but both have happened. Q: What recourse, if any, is there for travelers who have been on a cruise with an outbreak? A: I can't speak much to what recourse passengers have through the cruise company. If it's something that has to do with their financial satisfaction, that is between them, their lawyer, and the cruise company. What we're interested in is things that relate to the sanitation component of the experience, and we aren't equipped to address things that aren't sanitation-related. Passengers should let us and the cruise line know if they had a negative sanitation experience on a cruise line. Q: When you receive such health complaints from passengers, do you investigate? A: If there's a possible follow-up, we do. We don't go right out to the ship and get aboard. It really does depend on the complaint, and if it's something that we can follow up on, we do. If it's "my cabin was dirty and then the staff came in and cleaned it," that's a valid complaint, but it's been resolved. It really depends on the level of the complaint. If it's a complaint that we can follow up on when we're aboard doing an inspection, we will. We have a complaint component in our database so we can actually enter the complaint into a ship's electronic file. The next team that goes out to do an inspection will look into the complaint, and if the passenger wants to hear about it, we'll leave a note with the passenger's contact information, and we can let them know what we've found. We write our inspection notes on the back of the pre-inspection form. Q: Are there any initiatives in the works to protect against norovirus? A: I think that one of the initiatives circulating around the various health districts (whether in Europe, Canada, or the U.S.) is the analysis or surveillance of all conveyances and transmission routes. For instance, there are people who come to ships and are ill, and illness spreads through the ship. The same potential exists if they are staying at a hotel or resort complex before they come to the ship. And people on the ship might go back to the resort and transmit the illness there. Another example: There's no required routine surveillance concerning whether someone becomes sick on a plane. The only complete reporting that goes on is on cruise ships. If you look for it, you'll find it, and we've been looking for it for more than 30 years. So there's some discussion about trying to establish some surveillance beyond cruise ships.