Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Stranded by the Airline

Posted in advice, smart, tickets, travel by commorancy on November 5, 2018

Photo of departure board courtesy of BlaneTraveling by air is one of the most common means of travel and it usually goes without a hitch. But, what happens when an airline leaves you stranded due to technical problems? Whose responsibility is it? Let’s explore.

Stranded at the Airport

I’ve seen articles similar to this one discussing a 77 hour delay from Orlando to the UK. The difficulty I have with these situations is that many travelers seem to expect the airline to cover for or provide food, lodging and other accommodations while stranded.

A family stated of the British Airlines delay:

The passengers were treated inhumanely, all we wanted was some food and drink, somewhere to sleep and to be kept informed – and they failed on all counts no matter what they claim.

Other than being kept informed, is the rest the airline’s responsibility?

When you book your tickets for passage aboard a flight, you expect that flight to take place within the defined ticket times. If the flight can’t make those times, you should be notified by the airline of realistic timings when or if the next flight can make. It should also be the airline’s responsibility to find another plane as quickly as possible to make good on the flight. If a plane cannot be found quickly (i.e., within a few hours), then the airline should book you onto another carrier to get you to your destination. One way or another, they should make good on a flight within 24 hours. That’s a reasonable amount of time. I know we all want resolution in an hour or two, but sometimes that’s not possible.

If a flight cannot be located until the following day, then the airline should inform you of that information ASAP so you can find a hotel and make accommodations for a stay over. Who pays for that hotel should be you, the traveler… at least at that moment in time. You can negotiate reimbursement of those accommodations should the airline extend that courtesy, but don’t expect it right then (or at all), like some of the people interviewed for this article.

This BBC article describes a detailed account of what happens when travelers make the wrong assumptions about airline delay responsibility. This article describes that British Airlines left people stranded at the airport made worse by being in NY (which NY is always notoriously short on accommodations, unless you’re willing to drive to Newark or Queens or farther). Apparently, this wait took 77 hours. The flight was supposed to depart on Thursday and ended up departing on Saturday arriving on Sunday. The delay took slightly over 3 days in total.

Who has Responsibility?

For a 3 day delay, whose responsibility is it to make sure that you are fed, have shelter and have the basic necessities for living? It’s certainly not the airline’s responsibility. Travel problems are rare, but they do happen. YOU are the traveler. YOU need to accommodate yourself. It’s YOUR responsibility as the traveler to make sure YOU and your immediate co-travelers are accommodated. For example, if you have a family of four, expect that you will have to go find a hotel and pay for it out of your own pocket. This means having a phone handy or a device capable of using the Internet and WiFi. Use the airport WiFi if you have nothing else available. Just make sure you have an Internet capable device or a working phone with you.

Don’t expect the airline to do anything for you other than provide you with a flight. Unless the airline is holding you hostage on the plane on the tarmac, you can’t expect anything from the airline. When you’re at the airport terminal waiting, you need to assess your own accommodations and take action yourself.

It’s always worth asking the airline for help, but don’t expect the airline to do anything for you. The airlines are not obligated to do anything other than see to your flight. Sitting around at the airport complaining that the airline is not seeing to your personal needs is called over-dependence. You can only depend on yourself to manage your own personal welfare. You can’t throw your person at an airline and expect them to become your personal caregiver. It’s not their responsibility. It seems a lot of people completely misunderstand this aspect of airline travel. Your ticket also doesn’t require them to do this. You take care of you. At some point, you will need to understand taking this personal level of responsibility for yourself while traveling.

The only time that the airline is responsible for your welfare is when you are actually in your seat on the plane. That’s the only time when the airline needs to accommodate you and your needs. When you are sitting in the terminal awaiting a plane, you are firmly on your own. It’s not the airport’s responsibility nor is it the responsibility of the airline.

Stranded for Days

Being stranded by an airline is rare, but it can happen for various reasons. Reasons that may not make you happy as a stressed out traveler, but that are unavoidable by the airline. This is part and parcel of traveling by budget flights these days. Airlines are running their routes very, very lean. Meaning, they don’t have extra planes or personnel should the need arise. This means that you could be waiting hours or even days before a plane might become available should your original flight’s plane end up out of service.

As a traveler, you need to bring along enough money for (or have the means to handle) unexpected delays. If the delay extends beyond a few hours, it then becomes your responsibility to handle your own personal needs up to possibly even forfeiting your old ticket and booking separate travel arrangements yourself. In fact, if time is important to you, then you should already be looking for alternatives within 15 minutes of finding out about the delay. Don’t wait. You can always cancel the arrangements, but it can be difficult to make arrangements if you wait even 3 hours. If you need medical treatments, medicines, food, baby formula or other accommodations, you absolutely cannot expect the airline or the airport to see to those needs.

I realize airlines might string you along by saying “an hour longer” via the terminal attendants. However, by hour 6 or 7 of that stringing, you need to request a straight answer from the airline. If they’re unwilling to give it to you, it means it is time to seek your own alternatives. You can continue to wait if you like, but that’s on you. If waiting gets to the 24 hour mark, then you have waited far too long. At 8 hours, you definitely need to seek your own accommodations for food and lodging and perhaps even alternative transportation to your destination. Even at 3 hours of waiting (unless expressly stated on the ticket as a 3 hour layover), you should have already spent that time seeking alternatives.

You can spend time later fighting with the original airline carrier about refunds or other issues, but it is up to you to take care of yourself and see to your own needs and comfort. Throwing yourself at an airline, then complaining about it won’t make matters better. You’ll also have wasted a lot of time when you could have had hotel accommodations a lot sooner. Sure, you may not have planned for that extra time or that extra hotel, but traveling isn’t always problem free. At 24 hours waiting, the airline can’t expect you to hang around the terminal waiting forever for their plane to arrive. Even 8 hours waiting is expecting too much of travelers.

If you don’t have enough money to cover either alternative flight accommodations or a hotel (until your flight becomes available), I might suggest that you probably shouldn’t have traveled in the first place. You should always have enough money to realistically cover a few extra days including food, lodging and any other basic needs when traveling, just in case.

Airline Courtesy

The problem with many travelers these days is that far too many people think that the airline has 100% responsibility for their welfare the moment they enter the airport. That that ticket you’re holding is some kind of magical device that grants the airline 100% ownership of your person until you step off at your final destination.

This belief is 100% false. That ticket is simply a travel voucher. It lets you onto the plane and offers you passage to the end destination. When a plane is not available for that flight, the airline may be irresponsible in its notifications of when you might be able to travel, but you cannot expect the airline to begin accommodating your personal needs for the duration of that long delay.

That’s not part of the ticket you paid for. Perhaps this issue requires a special line of travel insurance. Perhaps the airlines (or booking agencies) need to offer delay insurance where you pay extra in case of delay. The delay insurance should cover accommodations at a local airport hotel for the duration of delay. It might cover for a single meal voucher for each person up to a specific amount. It might even cover for transportation to and from the hotel.

If you paid for such insurance (were it to exist), then if a delay occurs, you know exactly how it will be handled, exactly what you’ll get, exactly what the airline’s responsibility is to you and that your needs will be taken care of. It also means the airlines will be forced to support and accommodate travelers who buy this delay travel insurance. It means that the airlines must notify and then hold the plane until all insurance travelers are back at the airport, through security and on the plane after the plane is finally available (within reason, of course). Adding delay insurance means that instead of sitting around waiting, you now have definitive rules that must be adhered to by the airline personnel and when those accommodations kick in.

If it costs $50 to check a bag and $30 for each carry-on, what makes you think an airline is going to see to your food and lodging accommodations during a long delay? Are you expecting it out of their own ‘courtesy’ for free? I don’t think so. Those days are over. Adding delay insurance, on the other hand, means that you have paid for and know exactly what you’re going to get if an airline has a delay like British Airlines.

For now, no such separate delay insurance exists. Until such insurance exists, you need to see to your own welfare and make sure you have enough money when traveling to do so, even when stranded at an airport because of an excessively long airline delay.

As a side note, some travel cancellation insurance plans may include trip delay coverage. But, these delay benefits kick in under very specific conditions and may not cover a scenario like British Airline’s 3 day delay. If you’re curious if a plan might cover such a delay, you should contact a travel insurer to find out more.

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Disney Vacation on a Limited Budget

Posted in disney, travel by commorancy on August 8, 2018

Is it possible to plan a budget vacation to a Disney theme park? That’s what this article intends to determine. Let’s explore.

Vacation Costs

Your primary costs for any Disney vacation include the following:

  1. Airfare
  2. Hotel
  3. Transportation
  4. Park Tickets
  5. Food
  6. Souvenirs
  7. Incidentals

Airfare, Hotel and Transportation

These costs can be negotiated at the time you book your vacation package. If you purchase these together as a bundle, you can save substantially booking them together. You can also get additional discounts if you utilize AAA or AARP at the time of your booking. You may see better discounts by booking off-season.

If you’re planning to rely on Disney transportation throughout the trip, ensure that your hotel is within walking distance of this transportation or that the hotel offers a shuttle to and from Disney. Any hotel near to Disney is likely to offer a shuttle, but be sure to call the hotel in advance to verify that they offer a shuttle and how often the shuttle runs. You should also confirm how long it will take to get from the hotel to Disney to plan timings. If your hotel is 30 or more minutes away from the Disney by driving, you may want to consider a somewhat closer hotel, but that may cost more money. I always recommend staying as close to the park as you can afford.

Don’t assume that using Disney’s vacation booking system will get you the best pricing. If you have AAA or AARP or Costco or Sam’s Club membership, you should try booking your vacation through their vacation site then compare it to Disney’s vacation booking system. Also compare it to other services like Expedia, Travelocity, Hotels.com,  Hotwire and Priceline. You may even be able to insert your AAA or AARP membership number into many of these sites to receive discounts. You should check all of these sites to see what your best cost is.

You can save on airfare if you drive and save on hotel and airfare if you drive a recreational vehicle (RV). See camping below.

Park Tickets

Tickets to any Disney park are a fixed cost. You’ll pay whatever Disney is currently charging for the calendar year you plan to attend. However, you may be eligible for discounts on tickets if you buy them in advance through vacation booking sites like AAA or AARP. Always plan to buy your park tickets in advance rather than at the gate. Purchasing tickets at the gate will cost the most money… so buy them in advance.

However, Disney is constantly changing its arrangements with these membership services. You should always check these membership services when you plan to book your vacation to determine if these sites still offer the most effective discount tickets.

With all of that said, if you have a family of four and you’re wanting to buy 5 days of park access, you should expect to spend over $1200 for four 5 day base passes. AAA typically offers up to a 10% discount which might save you up to $120 on that $1200. A base pass will allow you to enter one park per day. If you want to hop between parks during the same day, you will need to add the Park Hopper option to each ticket (about $100 additional per ticket on each 5 day pass at Disney World). Note, prices are somewhat cheaper for children under 10. To save money, you’ll want to skip the park hopper option and simply plan one park per day. This is the best option anyway because trying to move around between the parks in the same day consumes a lot of time that you could be using at a park.

The Park Hopper option only works between Disney parks including (Florida) Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom and (California) Disneyland and California Adventure. If you want to visit Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, Knott’s Berry Farm or any other non-Disney parks, you’ll need to pay for access to these separately. You’ll want to plan for access and transportation to any non-Disney parks as part of your budget planning.

Food

Save on food costs by stocking your hotel fridge with sandwich ingredients. You can then make sandwiches to bring with you to the park rather than spending for meals inside the park. A park meal might cost $10-15 where a sandwich and water might cost you $1-2. You can save a lot if you make your own food and bring it with you or leave the park for lunch at the hotel and come back later.

Souvenirs

If you want to buy souvenirs, then you’ll need to budget for them. T-shirts, for example, usually start around $20 and go up from there inside the park. Instead, I might suggest asking the concierge at your hotel if the hotel’s shuttle can drive you to local businesses in the area, like a close Target or Walmart. Because these shops are close to Disney, they likely have a better selection of Disney souvenir merchandise than stores outside the area. These stores know that Disney park stores are expensive and that shoppers will, instead, frequent the close proximity stores looking for better prices on souvenirs. Take advantage of these lower prices at places like Target and Walmart.

Visit these local stores outside the park to buy souvenirs. Sure, you didn’t get it in the park, but you did get it while you were on vacation. The souvenir still counts as a souvenir. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with budget shopping at local retail businesses near the park to save on souvenir costs.

Incidentals

Try to bring as many incidentals with you as you can to save money. These include items like:

  • SPF lotion
  • Hats
  • Coats
  • Batteries (bring rechargeables and charger)
  • Sunglasses
  • First Aid Kit
  • Camera
  • Medicine (i.e., Pain Reliever, Imodium, Antacid, Cough Medicine, Prescriptions, etc)
  • Chapstick
  • Phone charger and cable(s)
  • Computer power cable
  • Power bank for phone charging
  • Misting fans / cooling devices
  • Bug Repellant
  • Towels
  • Reading Glasses

If you have to locate any of these items inside or outside of the park, you’re likely to pay more than you expect and paying for these will kill your vacation budget in the process. Shove as many of these into your suitcase and bring them with you to the hotel and into the park as needed.

Choose your Park destination

You can save some pennies by choosing your Disney vacation destination wisely. Many people automatically assume Disney World for their Disney vacation. If you must visit Epcot or Animal Kingdom, then Florida is your only choice. However, Disneyland exists in Anaheim, California and it’s not as captive as Florida. It can also save you some pennies depending on where you live. Southern California offers many options which are as much fun as seeing Disney World. With Southern California, you also have the option of not only the Disney parks, but non-Disney parks, Hollywood tours and the local sights (i.e., Hollywood Walk of Fame).

Choosing Disneyland in addition to all of the parks that Disney offers (i.e., Downtown Disney and California Adventure), non-Disney parks include Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios and if you’re willing to drive a bit, Great America and Six Flags Magic Mountain. Of course, Universal Studios also exists in Florida, but also requires driving. Tickets to Disneyland are a bit less expensive than Disney World because there are less available parks (Disneyland, Downtown Disney and California Adventure). You want to consider this option to reduce costs in your vacation planning.

Choose your hotel carefully

It’s very tempting to stay in the Disney resort hotels. However, these can be very pricey whether in Florida or California. Consider how much time you plan to spend in the hotel room and on the hotel property. If you plan to visit the park the majority of the time, then you’ll be out and away from the hotel property. The only thing the hotel is good for then is sleeping at the end of the day. Unless you plan to spend a day or more to take advantage of the resort amenities, staying at a resort hotel is an unnecessary extra expense. Instead, choose a less expensive standard hotel with fewer amenities. This can save you money that you can put towards food, souvenirs or transportation.

Plan out your park visit

If you plan your park schedule in advance, this can help minimize your expenses. For example, if you bring your own food to the park, you can eat that instead of spending for expensive in-park dining. If your hotel is close enough, you can always take a break, head back to the hotel and eat food there. Many hotels offer both fridges and microwaves (usually on request). You can head to a supermarket and stock the fridge with sandwich fixings for the duration of your stay. Making your own food in the hotel room is the least expensive way to eat food that’s healthier and reduce your expenses. If you visit one park per day, you can save on ticket costs and reduce transportation expenses.

If you do decide to dine at a restaurant in Disney, expect to spend more than you might think. Disney’s dining experiences aren’t inexpensive affairs. You’ll also want to make sure to make reservations in advance. You don’t want to arrive at the restaurant and have to wait and hour or two just to get a table. Reservations save you a lot of time… time that you can better use in the park and get the most out of your tickets. To save the most on food expenses, head to a local grocery store and stock the fridge at your hotel and eat your meals there.

If your hotel offers free continental breakfast or a free breakfast buffet, take advantage of this food and eat breakfast there.

Breakfast with the Characters

If you want to spend a little money on food, this is one of the better ways to do it, particularly when you are with children. You can buy Breakfast in the Park with Minnie and friends. This breakfast experience, while tremendous fun for the kids, can cost between $20 to $40 per person. This breakfast experience alone does not allow you to take advantage of the 1 hour early park opening. You will have to buy the Magic Morning option separately. The Minnie and friends breakfast offers usually around 8 different characters who will interact with you while eating breakfast.

Extra Magic Hour / Magic Morning

One of the perks for staying at a Disney resort hotel is that you automatically get the Extra Magic Hour included with your stay. This means you can enter the park one hour early in the morning and take advantage of select stores and attractions. If you don’t stay at a Disney resort hotel, you can buy the Magic Morning option for each 3+ multi-day ticket. Magic Morning and Extra Magic Hour are available at both Disneyland and Disney World parks. You’ll need to consult the current schedule at the park to determine which parks open early on which days as the early openings change based on the day of the week. If you choose to stay in a Disney resort hotel to obtain the Extra Magic Hour benefit, you will want to call the hotel and confirm that your stay includes this option. Don’t just assume that it does.

When planning your visit in advance and you intend to take advantage of the early park opening, always confirm which park is open on what day so you can plan to visit that park on that day. This is especially important if you’re intending to visit one park per day to avoid the park hopper charge.

Take a Break

There’s always lots to see and do at any Disney park, but it gets tiring walking around the park and standing in lines. When it reaches the hottest part of the day, you’ll want to take a break and head back to the hotel for a few hours to cool off. If you’re at a resort hotel, you can use this time to take a swim, relax in the room or take advantage of other hotel amenities. This lets the heat pass and gives you time to energy up for the evening hours. It also gives you some time to catch late lunch or early dinner and avoid paying in-park food expenses. Taking a break is the best way to enjoy the park.

Carry a water bottle, bag and medicine

You’ll want to take a water bottle and a small bag with you into the park for keys, phone, medicine and flavoring powders. It’s easy to get ice and water from a restaurant to fill your bottle. Then, flavor the water with a flavoring packet you have with you. This saves on buying expensive sodas and drinks in the park. These flavoring powders are packed in small packets which are easily stored in a small bag. Because the packets are so small, you can carry a lot of them. You can sometimes find soda water and make your own soda with a flavoring packet.

You’ll also want to carry a small amount of medicine like Tylenol or other pain relievers, antacid and diarrhea medicine. If you realize you need these while in the park, you’re going to pay a lot to buy a tiny single dose container that may not be a brand you like or be effective. Instead, carry your favorite medicines with you in your luggage when you travel. If you buy your favorite brand medicine before you depart, you can be sure to get the best deals and use brands familiar to you. Having this medicine with you in the park, you’re prepared if your favorite ride jostles you around just a little too much or a food you consume doesn’t sit well. If you or your child has the possibility of anaphylactic allergies, be sure to carry at least one Epipen with you into the park. I’d also recommend avoiding eating foods made in the parks to avoid accidental exposure.

It’s always best to buy your medicines in advance of travel because it’s the least expensive way to get them. And, you may already have them in your cabinet at home which will save you money buying medicine in the park, at the hotel or at a local pharmacy.

Shop Around

Before buying souvenirs willy-nilly inside or outside of the park, shop the stores and see what you like. Visit as many stores as you can in the park, then outside of it. Compare prices and buy the souvenirs that fit within your budget. Keep in mind that the stores in the park carry items that you typically can’t find anywhere else. In fact, Disneyland has merchandise exclusives branded to Disneyland. Disney World has merchandise exclusive to Disney World. You won’t find any Disney World merchandise in Disneyland and vice versa. You’ll want to weigh this when you visit the stores and when planning your vacation. If you plan to buy in-park souvenirs, you’ll want to set a maximum limit to spend. Your souvenir budget is likely to stretch farther if you’re willing to buy items at discount stores outside of the park.

Keep a list or take pictures of merchandise+prices you might want. If you take pictures, you can remember both the style and price when you go looking for a similar item at Target or Walmart close to the park. For items like small pins or buttons, you likely won’t find these outside the park. You’ll want to buy them at the store in the park. For T-Shirts or other clothing items, these are usually cheaper outside the park.

Laundry Facilities

When you’re staying for 5 or more days, you’ll probably need to do laundry at some point. Many hotels offer full laundry service. You’ll want to ask the hotel if they have a self-service laundry room. This can save you money instead of using the hotel’s much more expensive full service laundry. If you can plan your hotel stay at a hotel with a self-service laundry room (call and ask before you make the reservation), you can save money by doing your own laundry. You’ll just need to pick up a small container of laundry soap or carry some with you in your luggage.

First Aid Kit

Bring a small first aid kit with you that contains adhesive bandages, antibiotic ointment and cleaning wipes at a minimum. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You can shove these into a small zipper lock bag which fits easily into luggage. If someone in your party is scraped or cut while in the park, you can visit the first aid center, but you’ll also want to take care of it when you get back to the hotel. I’d suggest carrying a few bandages and ointment to the bag you carry with you, but it’s not strictly necessary as the park’s first aid center can help you take care of it right away. It may take some walking to get to it. I can be faster to take care of if you have bandages and ointment with you. If you need to locate a first aid kit while on vacation, it will dig into your budget if you end up at the hotel’s gift shop or, worse, you end up at some all night drug store because nothing else is open.

SPF Lotion

Bring this with you in your luggage. Not only can it be difficult to locate a quality brand in the park, it’s likely to be very expensive for a tiny bottle. You’ll want to carry a small TSA authorized and sized container with you. This allows you to carry it into the park and also carry it on a plane. This likely means transferring some of the lotion from the original container to a TSA sized container. Be sure to label what it is. If you have to go shopping for this later, this will eat into your budget. SPF lotions are not always inexpensive even at the best of times. If you have sensitive skin and need a specific brand, be sure to carry this with you as you may not be able to find the brand you use at your vacation destination.

Hats and Sunglasses

This should go without saying, but bring your hats and sunglasses with you from home. This will save your vacation budget. Of course, if you’re looking for a souvenir hat, then fine. Sunglasses won’t be cheap inside the park. If you can get to a Target or Walmart, you can likely buy a cheap pair. Again, that eats into your vacation budget. Save this money by bringing these items with you from home.

You’ll also want to keep your sunglasses on a string or take them off and hold or secure them inside the bag when riding rides. Same for hats. Hats and sunglasses tend to sprout wings and fly on rollercoasters. Be sure to hold onto them well. This also includes cell phones. If you can rent a locker before heading onto a rollercoaster, you can lock these items up to avoid losing them while riding. Though, you should always hold your cell phone in your hand tightly while riding. You shouldn’t leave your phone in a locker.

Phone charger, cable and power bank

If you know that your phone is likely to run out of power quickly, you’ll want to carry a fully charged power bank and charge cable in your bag (and in your luggage on your trip). If you forget to bring these items with you, you’ll pay $30 to Disney to get a power bank and cable. That’s $30 you could have used to help pay for dinner or a souvenir. Of course, you might be able to run to Best Buy or Target and pick one up for slightly less, but that’s still an expense you can avoid by bringing one with you. It also means you have to leave the park and go run errands, wasting time.

Yes, the TSA allows you to carry a power bank in your suitcase or carry on bag so long as it is inside of a bag that prevents accidental discharge. Purchasing a power bank or cable is one expense you’ll want to avoid.

You may be able to find power outlets inside of Disney to plug in your charger, but that means you’ll be sitting around waiting. If you have a power bank battery in your bag, you can charge your phone while you’re walking around the park. Be sure to remember to charge the power bank each night at the hotel. You’ll also want to have a battery that can charge your phone at least twice or carry two batteries.

Strollers

If you’re traveling with children who need a stroller, you are permitted to bring your own stroller as long as the stroller is less than 36″ x 52″ in size and is not a wagon. Wagons are not permitted. You can rent a stroller at the park, but these obviously cost money. If you’re trying to save on costs, plan to bring your own stroller with you. This means checking the stroller as checked baggage at the airport.

However, many airlines today are now charging for checked bags with fees up to $50. If the checked stroller cost ends up higher than the cost to rent a stroller, renting a stroller may be worth the expense at the park. For example, if you plan a 5 day trip to the park, your rental costs will be $65-75 depending on discounts. This is higher than $50 to check a bag. In this case, it’s worth it to bring your own from home. If your trip is 3 days in the park, then it might be less expensive to rent a stroller in the park.

If you simply don’t want the hassle of carrying a bulky stroller with you while traveling, then renting a stroller is your only option.

Fireworks Show

This tip isn’t really a money saver, but it does let you take better advantage of the money you spent on your tickets. Always take advantage of the fireworks display and other large crowd attention gathering shows (i.e., parades). You’ll want to watch the fireworks show once while you’re at the park. Skip the fireworks shows on the rest of the days. Instead, use this time to ride the long wait time rides.

Because the fireworks show is a huge crowd draw, many people leave the rides to go watch the show. This gives at least 30 minutes to make haste and ride some of the more popular rides like Space Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain. These line wait times can drop precipitously during the fireworks show. Take advantage of this. You can sometimes  ride these popular rides more than once in that 30 minute period. You’ll want to find which rides have the longest wait times, then plan to visit these rides during the fireworks show each successive night.

Because this window of opportunity is 30 minutes with the fireworks, you’ll need to plan which rides in advance. For example, riding Space Mountain, then traversing half the park to ride a different ride could lose you 10-15 minutes in walking time. Try to keep your rides close together to maximize this 30 minutes of short lines.

Note that this window of opportunity isn’t always a sure thing. It all depends on how many people realize this drop in wait times and take advantage of it. If you’re in the park on Halloween or Christmas, for example, these are times when the park is excessively crowded. Waiting for fireworks on these nights may not reduce the wait times simply because the crowds are already excessive.

Also note that as soon as the fireworks end, the lines go right back to the length they were before it started.

FastPass

If visiting Disney World, Take advantage of FastPass to reserve times in advance on popular rides. Note that you don’t necessarily have to reserve times the day before. If you’re diligent enough on the phone app, you can sometimes find cancelled reservations that you can immediately take advantage of (within 15-45 minutes). You just need to keep polling the FastPass app looking for cancelations.

Unfortunately, FastPass requires adding the MaxPass option to your tickets which is at least $50 extra per ticket. FastPass is worth it if you intend to ride the most popular rides in the park. Otherwise, you can find yourself standing in line for several hours to ride… or you’ll have to wait for the fireworks show later in the evening and hope the wait times temporarily subside.

Note that FastPass works somewhat differently at Disneyland than at Disney World. You’ll need to download the app on your phone for Disneyland to use FastPass.

Costs

For any Disney vacation, you’ll have to expect to spend around $1200-$1500 for a family of 4 just on tickets. This is pretty much the same cost at Disneyland vs Disney World. Depending on your distance from California or Florida, your airfare may vary. If you live in California and travel to Disneyland, it will be less expensive than traveling from New York City to California. The hotel and airfare might knock you back an additional $1400 to $2500 depending on hotel, airline and time of year.

You’ll still need to plan for food, souvenirs and incidentals. This will probably be another $1000. Overall, expect to spend $2500-$5000 for a family of four not including food or incidentals for a 5 day vacation. Disney World will be slightly more costly than Disneyland. By slightly, I mean several hundred dollars more costly as Disney World ticket prices are higher and hotel costs seem a slightly higher in Florida than in California.

Can you visit a Disney park with less money? If you drive, you can save on airfare. If you have an RV, you can live in that and save on hotel costs. Driving an RV, you can save on both airfare and hotel fees, but you’ll need to pay for RV rental space. Having an RV can substantially reduce your travel and stay costs, but this also means having access to an RV. If you have to rent an RV, per day rental fees can be very similar to hotel room rates and an RV is much more cramped. You may not save much money by renting an RV. You also likely won’t want to use the RV around town, so you’ll need to rent a car when you get there adding to the costs of the vacation.

Camping

If you’re willing to rough it a bit when at Disney World, you can camp at Disney’s Fort Wilderness. You can check this page to determine the going campsite rates. The cheapest rate I’ve seen is $55 a night before tax. There may less expensive non-Disney RV parking and campsites available (i.e., state and national parks). Check Google for details. Parking off of Disney’s grounds means you’ll need to find your own transportation to and from the parks.

Camping near Disneyland is limited considering it’s in the middle of Anaheim, CA. There are several RV parks not far from Disneyland, but you’ll need to find your own transportation to and from the RV park and Disneyland.

RV Parking at the Parks

If you intend to also use your RV as your vehicle, RV parking is permitted at the all Disney World parking areas for a fee. This fee is higher than for a car. RV Parking is only permitted in the Toy Story parking area at Disneyland also at a higher fee. You’ll need to plan for this daily fee in your vacation budget if you want to use your RV to transport you to the park(s) each day.

Tips and Traps

This section is both about saving money and about not losing your money to scams. It’s pretty much common sense, but these are always worth saying.

Avoid Ticket Scams

Don’t buy your park tickets through eBay, Craigslist or other similar classified sites or sellers. Always use reputable sites authorized to sell tickets on behalf of the Disney parks. A few of these reputable sites include:

You may find some people claiming to sell partially used tickets. DO NOT buy these! Tickets, once used, are tied to an individual’s fingerprint and cannot be transferred. There’s no way for you to make use of a anyone else’s used ticket. Also, once a multi-day ticket is used, the clock is ticking. Multi-day tickets also expire 13 days after first use. Used ticket sales are always a scam. Don’t even consider this as an option.

However, if a ticket has never been used, these are valid tickets. The problem is, if you’re not buying the ticket from an authorized channel or from someone you absolutely trust, it’s very likely a scam. It’s easy to counterfeit e-tickets and paper tickets to look legitimate. You don’t want to get to the front gate and find out what you bought was counterfeit, then be stuck paying full price at the gate. Always buy through reputable booking services. Don’t get scammed by buying tickets from a classified ad or an individual.

Use your own camera

When in the park, take photos with your own camera. Don’t fall for Disney’s photographic services. Disney will always try to entice you into using their services to take pictures of you with the characters. This is a costly service. Simply ask a cast member to take the picture with your camera or phone.

For safety reasons, only ever ask a cast member with a name badge to take a photo with your camera. Never ask another guest whom you don’t know to handle your property. They can easily run off with your camera or phone and you’ll never see it again. In a place the size of Disney’s parks, you can’t trust anyone to hold your property. The only people in the Disney parks that you can trust to hold your property are cast members. Better, bring along a telescopic selfie stick and hold the camera yourself.

Carry only what you need

This goes back to carrying a small bag with you. If you carry a small zippered bag, you can contain everything you’ll need for a day at the park and not have to carry it in your hands. Because Disney crowds can be varied and large, avoid flashing money if you don’t have to. Also, a small bag allows you to stow your camera, hat and sunglasses when you ride rides. Be sure to secure your bag when you take it onto a ride or use a locker.

Go Cashless

If you have a MagicBand wristband (not available at Disneyland) or room card and you’re staying in a Disney resort hotel, you can charge purchases to your room. I’m not a big fan of doing this because you end up with a whopping bill to pay at the end of your stay. There’s also nothing available to allow you to budget your spending. However, you can go this route if you like. I already don’t trust hotels to tally up the correct amount when the bill is due. Why convolute the bill further by charging in-park items to the hotel room?

You can still go cashless. Because Apple Pay is available within the Disney parks, this means you’ll have flexibility in using your Apple watch or phone device to pay for items within the park. Of course, you can also use a credit or debit card. This avoids cash transactions and it avoids pulling out your wallet for all to see. Unfortunately, it seems that Samsung Pay is not available at Disney. Google Wallet may only be available for use at Disney World. Apple Pay seems to be the best choice for either Disney World or Disneyland. Unfortunately, these cashless options don’t allow for easy budgeting.

Even though Apple Pay is accepted at Disney parks, it may not be accepted at stores outside of Disney. Always carry an alternative payment method when your preferred method is unavailable. For example, Target and Walmart don’t accept Apple Pay. Also, some smaller food carts in the park may be cash only.

Gift Cards and Budgets

If you want to stick to a strict budget while at Disney, buy and fill a Disney Gift card. If you have a $100 a day budget, then add $100 to a Disney gift card. You can use this card when purchasing anything at any Disneyland park, Disney World park or even at a Disney store. Using a gift card avoids overspending in the park and allows you to stick to your daily budget. Buying and using a Disney Gift card is the best budgeting choice at Disney. Note that you can only refill the cards at a location that sells them. There are refill and purchase locations in the park. Online refills are not available. This means you’ll need to buy the card(s) at a Disney Store before you travel or buy them in the park when you get there. You’ll need to allot time to refill the card each morning or before you leave the park each night. Disney gift cards have no fees. Even though the gift cards never expire, you’ll want to use up any remaining balance before you leave the park on your final day.

Protect your gift card like you would any other credit card. However, if it’s lost or stolen, you will need a copy of the original purchase receipt to freeze the account and transfer the remaining balance to a new card. Call 1-877-650-4327 to report a lost or stolen card. You will need to provide the first 12 digits of the Disney Gift Card account number to the agent to freeze the account. You can then visit a gift card location and they will transfer the remaining balance to a new card. Be sure to take a picture of the card number on your phone or write it down and take a picture of the receipt so you always have a copy of both the card number and the receipt on your phone. It’s also a good idea to back up these photos to Google Drive or iCloud just in case you lose access to your phone.

Non-Disney Parks and Cards

If your vacation plans include visits to non-Disney parks, then a prepaid Visa or MasterCard is the more flexible option even though they have fees. With a prepaid Visa or MasterCard, you will need to keep close track of the balance available on the card. Unlike gift cards that let you use every last penny on a transaction seamlessly, prepaid Visa and MasterCards don’t work like this. If you have a balance of $1.22 on the card and you attempt to spend $1.25, the payment will decline. It doesn’t automatically give you the option of spending $1.22 and then making up the difference in cash like a gift card. You’ll need to continually check the balance of the Visa or MasterCard so you know exactly how much you have left.

To work a payment similarly to a gift card, you’ll need to ask the cashier to ring exactly $1.22 onto the card which will succeed, then pay the difference with cash or another payment method. The merchant has no way to tell you how much balance remains on a prepaid card. You’ll have to check the balance online through your phone or computer. However, unlike Disney gift cards, you can refill your prepaid Visa and MasterCard cards online.

Lost or stolen Visa or MasterCard prepaid cards are more complicated. You will need to write down the phone and card numbers listed on the back of your cards or take a photo of the front and back of the card so you have it on your phone. You can then call the number on the back of the card from the photo if your card is missing. Getting a replacement card is not nearly as fast as a replacement Disney gift card. Be prepared to wait for a replacement. You might be able to request Visa or MasterCard to provide emergency cash that you can pick up somewhere close to your location until your replacement card arrives.

Stick to known payment methods

Avoid using odd payment cards like AmericanExpress gift cards, Visa gift cards, MasterCard gift cards, Visa TravelMoney (traveler’s check cards), Traveler’s Cheques (they’re old and antiquated) and other oddball payment methods. These payment methods are not always accepted everywhere and may cause you no end of trouble. The last thing you want is a bunch of vacation frustration because you chose a payment method or card that few places accept. Undoing a mistake like this can be costly and time consuming when you should be enjoying your vacation.

Stick to mainstream, well known and accepted payment methods for your vacation. If you’re unsure about a payment method, call the places you intend to visit while on your vacation and ask if they accept a specific payment method. Keep in mind that not all employees are well versed in what their employer accepts and may tell you, “Yes” just to get you off of the phone. Always ask to speak to a manager to confirm the accepted payment methods. To avoid this possible source of stress, stick to well known, modern and accepted payment methods.

Emergency Cash On-Hand

Always carry emergency cash on your person for obvious reasons. If you need a cab or similar to get out of the park, having cash will get you out of there faster.

Overall

Can you spend less money on a Disney vacation? To a degree, yes. It also depends on you. If your family is up for roughing it outside in a tent, you can save money by staying at a campground rather than at an expensive hotel. You can also save money on airfare by driving to the resort.

If you set a strict budget on your in-park spending, you can reduce your incidental and food expenses.

With that said, if you intend to fly and stay at a hotel along with visiting the park for several days, expect to spend about $300-$400 per person for 3-5 days just on tickets to get into the park. On top of that, add your airfare, hotel and food and incidental costs.

For example, to plan a Walt Disney world vacation stay in Orlando, expect to spend around $3000-$5000 for four people over 5 in-park days. You can reduce this some by reducing the number of days you stay. You may be able to get a discount if you use AAA to book your airfare and hotel rooms. Your costs may be $200-800 lower if you choose to visit Disneyland in California because hotels are somewhat less expensive and the tickets to enter the park are also somewhat less expensive. Airfare is whatever it costs to get your family from your current location to any of the parks. Note that you can have just as much fun at Disneyland as you can at Disney World. It’s just that there’s a bit more to see at Disney World because there are more parks to see.

If you choose to add on Universal Studios or other parks, the costs go up… but you can sometimes get additional park bundles that offer discounts. You’ll need to shop around and compare to get your best deals.

You may be able to get better deals on lower attendance days. You can view the expected Disney park attendance by visiting the Attendance Calendar at Undercover Tourist. Off-peak season begins when the kids have gone back to school and right after the holidays are over. While you may not be able to take your children out of school to go during off-peak, this is the best time to visit Disneyland or Disney World. If you book your trip on lower attendance days, you may also see better deals and discounts. The worst time to book a vacation is within a few weeks of when you want to go, during peak season (June and July) and during the Halloween and Christmas holidays. You’ll get the least discounts booking during peak season.

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Rant Time: Restaurants and Tips

Posted in customs, travel by commorancy on January 13, 2016

As we move into the age of phone apps and more conveniences, we have also moved into an age where applications try to do things for you, such as automatically included tip calculators. Some restaurants are even attempting to take tip calculation to the next level as well. Let’s explore.

What is a tip?

What is a tip / gratuity and why is it necessary? When you visit a full service restaurant, those who help you at your table (bring you your plates, clean them up, bring you refills on drings, etc) are spending time and effort to serve you and your guests. For the luxury of being waited on, it is customary to tip the waitstaff additional money for the services rendered. After all, those plates and refills didn’t happen on their own. Full service is the act of bringing plates to the table, offering condiments, bringing drinks and refills, checking in for additional items and fixing any problems or incorrect orders. For full service restaurants, it is commonplace to tip at least 15% for being that full service.

When is full service not full service?

When the food is picked up or delivered. When an order is placed for pickup or delivery, there is no wait person to take your order, bring you your food (except delivery) and clear the table when done. There is no one to refill your drinks or fix problems or even just have a chat. All of these things are lost for pickup and delivery. It is commonplace to leave a tip of 10% when ordering for delivery. It is commonplace to not tip or leave a small amount when the order is picked up (depending on restaurant).

Fast food vs Bistros

When ordering for pickup from a fast food restaurant, it is customary to not tip. In fact, most fast food places don’t really accept tips either on the order or when ordering at the counter. So, it is not required to tip at all when ordering food at McDonald’s, Burger King or any other big fast food chain. That is, chains that offer no full service dining. However, for full service bistros, when ordering takeout and picking up food, you may find a tip jar on the counter. If the restaurant has a tip jar available, it is customary to tip whatever you feel is appropriate. That could be 5% or 10% depending on how much you feel was necessary.

Personally, I rarely tip for takeout no matter what restaurant it is. Tipping is based on the amount of service provided. The only service provided was by the order taker, assuming you called the order in or visited a drive-thru. However, if you ordered by digital means, the order likely went directly to the kitchen avoiding any order staff at all. So, tipping is entirely up to you.

Of course, when dining in at any full service restaurant, you should always expect to tip 15-20% depending on service quality.

Cabs, Skycaps, Bellhops, Valet and Concierges (traveling)

Cab Drivers

It is customary to tip 15% to a cab driver, especially if they load and unload baggage for you. Though, when paying for cab fare by credit card, you may find there is no 15% option. Instead, you might find 20%, 25% and 30% options. These are suggestions. However, it may not be apparent in the payment software how to modify the tip to 15%, though you might be able to type in a value. I also know that it can be embarrassing to ask the cab driver how to tip less than suggested. For this reason, I always recommend carrying some cash with you for just this occasion. Then, hand the cab driver 15% in cash. Don’t use the suggestions on the payment software. If you feel like tipping the suggested 20%, by all means go for it. The cab driver won’t complain.

Skycaps and other transportation tipping

For any travel situation where an airline skycap or train attendant carries, moves or carts your bags for you, be prepared to tip them $1 or $2 per bag. If your bag is at or nearly at the weight limit, you should offer up $2 per bag. For smaller lighter bags, $1 is fine.

Bellhops

Like the Skycap above, be prepared to tip $1-$2 per bag. $2 for big heavy bags, $1 for smaller lighter bags.

Concierge at a Hotel

Depending on the services you receive, you may or may not need to tip. For directions to a shop or restaurant, no tipping is necessary. However, if they arrange tickets to a show or perform any other service for you beyond directions, then be prepared to tip them $5 or more depending on the level of service provided. For example, if they manage to get you front row tickets to a sold out concert, you should be prepared to tip them $15-20 as thank you. On the other hand, if they obtain a reservation to a restaurant that you could have easily made yourself, $5 is sufficient. However, if they make you a reservation combined with ordering flowers for your date, that’s worthy of more than $5. Use your best judgement on what you feel is appropriate. The better you tip, the more likely it is they will be willing to help make your stay even better.

Valet

Tipping a valet is common, but don’t tip until they bring you your car. You should also examine your car inside and out quickly before handing that tip over. You could find a surprise you may not expect (yes, air biscuits count). The customary amount to tip a valet is $2-$5 depending on lots of factors. If it’s super hot outside, rainy or otherwise inclement weather, be prepared to tip a little more.

Hotel Housekeeping

This one is up to you. While I’ve seen recommendations of $2-$5 per night, tipping housekeeping is at your discretion. If you feel that the housekeeping service has done a particularly fantastic job, then by all means tip them. If the best they’ve done is change the bed linens and straighten up the bathroom, then maybe not. Though, if you’re particularly messy and they clean the entire room for you, you should tip them as a thank you.

Train Attendants

If you ride Amtrak a long distance in a sleeper car, there are lots of services train attendants perform for you. Services like making the bed each night and putting the bed away each morning. They can bring you your meals to your room, offer up beverages and they can generally help you for whatever services you need. You don’t need to tip the attendant each day, but be prepared to tip them wherever they depart of the train. Note that they may depart at a stop before yours. You should ask them when they plan to depart so you can tip them prior to that. Keep in mind that some stops are in the middle of the night while sleeping, so you should tip them the night before they depart. The tip is customarily $1-$2 per bag when entering the train and then $20 or more for the entire train stay. The more you ask them to do for you, the more you should expect to tip them. For example, if you have all of your meals in your room, then you should offer up a bigger tip.

If you’re riding Amtrak in coach, the only tip rules that apply are baggage carrying, if applicable.

Coat Check / Temporary Baggage Check

When traveling by train, you may find yourself at a layover train station that offers a baggage check service. This will allow you to wander the station without the need to cart your bags around during your layover. Be prepared to tip the baggage check service $1-$2 per bag. Same for coat check services… $1-$2 per coat / bag checked.

Doorman

This one can be a little confusing because sometimes the doorman may also be the bellhop. So, use your best judgement. If the doorman helps you with your bags and is also bellhop, only one tip is required. However, if the doorman hails you a cab, you should tip for that service. Though, with apps on phones these days, hailing a cab or Uber is easy to do using a phone app.

Room Service

Room service is effectively a restaurant in your room. So, all of the dine-in restaurant tipping rules apply. Tipping is then 15-20% of the subtotal on the room service bill for that meal (not the entire stay at the hotel).

Shuttle Drivers

If the hotel has a shuttle that takes you from and to the airport (or other select city locations), like a taxi you should tip them $1-$2 per bag (if they help you load and unload baggage). If they don’t handle any bags, then $2 is customary.

How to calculate a tip

Many dine-in restaurants now include suggested tip amounts on the subtotal receipt brought to the table. Be careful with blindly using these suggested tip amounts. Many restaurants and phone apps calculate tips based order total. That is, the cost of the order after taxes, service fees and other incidentals have been totaled up.

You should never tip on the total that includes tax. Let’s understand why. Taxes are monies collected by the state, county and local governments. Neither the restaurant nor the server did anything to earn that money. It is a given that taxes must be collected and every restaurant knows that. These monies received by the restaurant are given up to the government.

Instead, you should always calculate tip amount based on order subtotal. This subtotal includes all services rendered by the restaurant. Any line items added after the subtotal have nothing to do with services rendered by the restaurant and, therefore, not worthy of a tip.

Small orders vs Large orders

If you’re ordering food for a single person or a small number of people, the order total can be small. Accidentally tipping 18% on full total on a small order is not that costly. It might be only a dollar or two extra. However, when at a fine dining restaurant and the order total may reach into the hundreds of dollars, tip amounts can be $50-100 in tips alone. Calculating on subtotal vs total can save you money. Granted, if you’re at a 5 star restaurant that already costs $100-200 per person, you may not be worried about paying that $50 tip. But still, it’s the principal of the matter. The restaurant never earns the money collected for taxes and, thusly, the waiter didn’t do anything for that extra money you have just left them. Which leads to…

3 Michelin Star Restaurants

If you’re dining at Michelin rated restaurant (i.e., 3 Michelin stars), you should expect to tip higher than normal. Why? Typically, Michelin rated full service restaurants go out of their way to ensure your dining experience is exceptional from the beginning to the very end. The level of service received at this type of high end restaurant should be much more exceptional than any bistro style restaurant. If you receive bistro level experience at a Michelin rated restaurant, you should contact the Michelin guide and let them know. For these restaurants, it is customary to start at 18%. Though, you might tip as high as 25% depending on quality of food, quality of service and wine list pairing suggestions. Only you can judge exactly how exceptional the service was. Though, critical mistakes at this type of restaurant have much more dire influences on tips. So, if the server spills your meal, brings you the wrong food or in any other way makes a mistake, your tip amount should suffer dramatically and could be reduced down to as little as 5-10% (or nothing if the mistakes were egregious).

When you visit a Michelin rated restaurant, the expectation is to have a perfect experience. If you receive anything other than the most stellar service experience, you should tip very little and talk to the manager of the restaurant.

Restaurants sometimes now include tips

Some restaurants today are even attempting to take tipping to the next level for parties of less than 6. By automatically including tips as part of the final check line items, it assumes that the patron would like to leave a tip. Restaurants justify this addition by claiming that wait persons and other restaurant staff work on a living wage. This justification is weak at best. When you find a restaurant that is automatically including tip in your bill, you should ask if it’s voluntary. Chances are, they say it is and will remove it from your bill. However, you should also state that you will never again return to this restaurant unless this silly custom is removed from the bills. For parties of 6 or more, it has been customary to automatically include tip. It is only recently that some restaurants have started including tips for singles or parties of 2. Restaurants don’t seem to understand that tipping is voluntary, which leads to…

Tipping Generosity

To tip or not to tip is based on many factors and how well they performed the service. How much you leave is entirely up to you. It is voluntary to leave a tip, so you can leave nothing if you choose. But, if you visit that establishment again having tipped nothing, you’re likely to be remembered as that guy/gal who doesn’t tip. On the other hand, can choose to tip 20%, 30% or even 100% if you like. It is entirely up to you how much tip you leave for any service rendered. The customary amounts are what most people leave. Though, you are free to leave whatever you feel is appropriate for the given situation. There are lots of factors to take into consideration when tipping including, restaurant cleanliness, waitstaff appearance and attitude, service quality, frequency of checking in, order correctness, food flavor and many other factors. Be sure to scrutinize your experiences appropriately and tip what you feel is fair for those services. If you really dislike leaving tips, then I suggest you visit restaurants and other places that don’t require leaving tips. Though, that pretty much excludes you from 5 star experiences.

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WiFi on Amtrak: Traveling Connected

Posted in streaming media, technologies, travel by commorancy on September 16, 2012

Recently, I took am Amtrak train to St. Louis (via Chicago) on the California Zephyr.  While the trip had some breathtaking views through the Rocky Mountains, remaining connected throughout that trip was very much a challenge.  Let’s explore.

Verizon MiFi

Verizon Jetpack MiFiAbout a week before I was to hop on the train, I thought it might be a good idea to buy a Verizon MiFi device for the trip.  After all, Amtrak says they have WiFi on the trains, but they also say that the connectivity speed is limited and streaming of any kind is restricted.  So, I decided to buy my own hotspot for the trip to stay connected without restrictions.  Verizon has a 4G LTE Jetpack, and that’s what I chose.  I bought the unit without a contract, so I paid full price for the unit with $50 a month service (4 GB cap).  Verizon, at that time, only offered 3 different MiFi devices.  A thicker square unit that has a blue LED-type display, two rectangular units, one with bright white text display (see image) and one with only a battery status display.  The square unit has less battery life and is quite a bit bigger.  The unit with only a status display is older and the unit I chose was I believe the newest of the three, the smallest and has the best battery life.  One other important reason I chose this device (pictured to the left), is that it will operate while charging (this is important if you  don’t want to wait an hour or two for it to charge).  The older rectangular Jetpack will not operate while charging.  I know this because we have one that gets passed around at work for on-call purposes and that limitation about that version sucked.  So, I specifically looked for a unit that could operate while charging.

Note: I would post pictures here of all three units, but these units will be outdated in 6 months and new units will be available.  So, you should check Verizon.com to see whatever is available today rather than trying to search for what I’ve purchased. 

Virgin MiFi

I also have an older Virgin 3G MiFi.  I had purchased this one from Best Buy about a year ago.  I originally purchased this because I didn’t want to invest in the data service on the iPad as it’s locked only to the iPad (cannot be tethered or become a hotspot without jailbreaking the unit).  So, I bought the Virgin MiFi back then to allow me to use it with my phone, iPad, iPod touch or notebook.  Much more flexible (and cheaper) than the AT&T or Verizon built-in 3G on the iPad.  So, I carried this one with me on the trip also.

Why two MiFi devices?

Well, I already had the Virgin mobile 3G MiFi, but since it uses Sprint’s 3G network I wasn’t sure how reliable the connectivity would be during the trip.  Because Verizon touts its ‘great coverage’, I bought into that spiel and purchased a Verizon unit as backup.  So, I thought that if one failed to have connectivity that the other one might.  The Verizon is also 4G and I thought I might get 4G speeds along some parts of the trip.  So, let’s explore how that worked out.

How did it work out?

Not too well.  The 4G on the Verizon MiFi was a complete waste.  When I did have connectivity on the Verizon MiFi, it was always 3G.  The only exception to this was major cities.  By major cities, I mean major cities (like Chicago) and 3G everywhere else (whenever there was connectivity.. we’ll come to this).  There was absolutely zero 4G connectivity anywhere along the California Zephyr route except in California when I started and in the outskirts of Chicago.  Everywhere else was 3G.

How much connectivity did I have?  In most of Nevada, there was absolutely nothing for long stretches.  No phone service, no 3G, nothing.  Just one big dead spot.  The Rocky Mountains were mostly dead also, but that’s expected due to the mountains. Once I had gotten through Nevada and the Rockies, though, there was spotty connectivity whenever the train would be close to a medium sized city.  Most of the service along the route was 1 or 2 bars when it was there.  That’s not to say I didn’t have service, though.  When there was service, it lasted for a while.  Long enough to get email, send responses, etc.  So, it was at least there enough to get some work done.

On the way back, I took a different train and route.  This trek went from Kansas City to LA.  This route has a whole lot more availability of service, but still no 4G.  So, while the connectivity was more available, it wasn’t any more stable as it was still 1-2 bars.  So, streaming was still not possible.

Note, though, I did swap between both devices for several reasons.  I always preferred using the Virgin MiFi whenever available as it has unlimited service with no data cap.  There’s a data cap on the Verizon service and I wanted to reserve usage of that to places where the Virgin device didn’t work (which was a lot more frequent than it should have been, but not unexpected).

So, the Verizon device did have connectivity somewhat more frequently than the Virgin (Sprint network) device.  Since both ran at 3G speeds, they both had similar speed of transfers at 1-2 bars, which is fast enough for email, text messaging and limited surfing, but not much more than that.

T-Mobile Phone Service

Note that my phone is T-Mobile and the service here didn’t fare any better than the MiFi devices.  However, whenever the Verizon device had service, so did T-Mobile.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by similar phone connectivity along the route to Verizon.  However, my phone has no data plan, so I couldn’t use this for any additional service.  So, this is the need for carrying the MiFi devices.

Streaming Media

Because the service was 1-2 bars most of the time and 3G, there is no way to reliably stream anything.  Even at the highest numbers of bars, 3G still has a hard time streaming YouTube or Netflix.  At 1 bar, there is just no way to stream.  I tried streaming Stillstream.com on the train and it just kept cutting in and out.  I would get about 2 minutes of stream and then it would cut off.  Just not a great way to listen to online radio.  So, streaming is definitely out.  Streaming radio should be quite a bit lighter than streaming video.  On the train, streaming video simply won’t work.  Expect to bring along offline media like downloaded movies or disks.

What about Amtrak WiFi?

Apparently, few trains have it.  I was in a sleeper and supposedly the sleeper cars were to have WiFi.  However, none of the trains had WiFi at all.   So, there was no way to use a train WiFi as backup as there was nothing.  I’m definitely glad I brought my own MiFi as otherwise I wouldn’t have had any connectivity.  Was getting the Verizon Jetpack worth it?  Not really considering the connectivity level of the Virgin device.  If I hadn’t had a device at all, then perhaps.  However, the 4G doesn’t work at all on the train, and 3G was not that great, either.  At least, not for streaming.  Although, I will say that the Verizon device did at least offer service more frequently than Virgin, but not more frequently that I’d run out and buy a Verizon device just to travel on Amtrak.  Since the Virgin device is cheaper (at least for the plan I have), then it was enough.  However, Virgin has changed up their plans again, so it may not be such a great deal for 3G connectivity.

Overall

I’m glad I had MiFi devices so I could at least check email, respond, text message and do limited surfing.  This was great for that purpose (when the service wasn’t completely dead).  However, expect to bring along books to read, movies to watch and other offline media.  Don’t expect to watch YouTube, Netflix or download stuff while traveling on Amtrak as it just won’t work for that.  Amtrak needs to improve this part of the travel experience as connectivity is important to a lot of people today.  Not having the Internet is really an oversight that needs to be corrected.

Additionally, carriers like Verizon need to plant more towers along Amtrak train routes to offer better connectivity (and 4G service) to Amtrak trains.  Amtrak and the carriers need to partner to offer service on the trains that is of higher quality all along the way instead of long stretches of dead spots.  On the flip side, though, if you’re on the train you may want to be cut off from the world without phone or internet service.  I can understand this as well, but for those who want to surf (especially at night when it’s extremely dark outside the train), you’ll have to find something else to do during dead spots.

Both Amtrak and the carriers need to improve this as traveling by train is actually relaxing and a fun way to see the country which you completely miss when flying. In fact, the California Zephyr offers scenery that you can see no other way than by train as there are no roads that lead through parts of the route they take. So, traveling by train is definitely a fun way to see the country.  Yes, much slower than by plane, but a whole lot more scenic.  Because of the length of travel it takes to get across country by train, having reliable Internet service is actually something Amtrak needs to address.  Amtrak just needs to bring itself up to today’s technology and get better connectivity on the trains.  This is not an impossible task, it just needs a bit of investment by both the carriers and by Amtrak.

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