The most comfortable flying experience in the US isn’t actually available on a plane – you’ll have to hop on a train to experience it. And the most frustrating, annoying customer service experience can also be found on that same trip.
The Amtrak Acela exemplifies both all that is right, and all that is annoying, about domestic travel today.
To wit: I took the Acela today from New York to Boston in their First Class service (because someone else paid for it). First Class has wide seats, plenty of legroom, room to walk around and a general sense of spaciousness. Since you don’t have to wear a seatbelt (because one isn’t available) you also feel free in a way you never do on a plane. 3 1/2 hours flies by without any of the general discomfort you’d find on, say, a flight from New York to Denver. Plus, there’s no security line. Lovely.
You may be wondering what the difference is between Business Class and First Class on the Acela (there is no economy class on the Acela). There are two answers:
1) They give you a meal for free in First Class. It is “free” in that you have paid $78 extra dollars for it. There were about 5 choices for lunch, though only the salad was available, which in my book means there was 1 choice for lunch. It was $78 worth of fine. In Business Class you have to go to the club car and purchase your own food stuffs. Also, there is a lounge at Penn Station, with newspapers and pastries wrapped in cellophane. I was just about to mock it, but it’s really no worse than the United lounge at LaGuardia.
2) The second difference is that First Class does not offer the Quiet Car option you find in Business Class. This leads to a bit of cognitive dissonance: how can something that is labeled First Class and costs $78 extra (free food aside) actually be more annoying than the Quiet Car in Business Class, which suggests that you are paying $78 to listen to a bunch of cellphone conversations. I can’t quite get my head around this, and I left vaguely disappointed by the non-quiet First Class experience. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if given the option, I would choose Quiet Business Class over its more cacophonous First Class cousin. Go figure.
What I would NOT choose again is to arrive at Penn Station to find that the Acela trains were delayed 2+ hours because of rain the night before. I’m not making that up. So I dragged myself over to the looooong customer service line that, in one of America’s busiest train stations, is manned by exactly 2 Amtrak employees. I stood in that line for 20 minutes as they announced train numbers, but no destinations. For example, “you may use your Amtrak 2549 tickets on Amtrak 3716” does not help me. It might help me if they had an arrivals and departures board anywhere near the line of dozens of passengers but they didn’t. Well they did, but none – none – of them worked. I have seen that in an airport in Botswana, and if you have any customer service interaction with Amtrak (prior to boarding the train) your reference point will be the Gabarone, Botswana, airport.
That said, once on the train the staff could not be more helpful. The service is at least on par with domestic first class and really closer to what I find on a US airline in business class to, say, Europe. The seats are comfortable, and everyone gets a power port. There’s no security line, and no pat downs. It’s amazing. Except if you have to deal with Amtrak at the train station. Or if you have to call them. Or change your ticket. Good luck.
I can’t help thinking, though, that if Amtrak could put in a first class customer service experience, it would be the best way to travel in the United States. Sure, it barely compares with what’s going on in Europe and Asia, but set that aside (because no one in the US wants to invest). But compared to flying New York to Boston or DC? I’ll take the train any day.