Notebook > Lifestyle
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Going cheaply

Lifestyle | Planes and trains for the budget-minded

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

Back in the early 1980s Cheerios offered coupons allowing children to travel free on Greyhound buses, so we traveled by bus from Delaware to Detroit. Several years later we traveled by train from Austin, Texas, to Detroit. My kids are grown, but I decided to make my summer trip to Detroit a bit of an adventure by checking out some different travel options: Spirit Air (an ultra-budget airline) and Amtrak.

My one-way fare was $85.74 before taxes of $18.70. But I received a $12.00 discount (a special web deal), so the total one-way fare was $92.44. Not bad, I thought. Of course, if I wanted to check a bag: $20. Check a bag weighing more than 50 pounds or larger than 62 inches (length + width + depth): $100 more. Choose a seat in advance: Extra. Choose a seat at the front of the plane, an aisle, or window: Extra.

If I didn't want to choose a seat, the airline would randomly assign me one for no charge. I chose the lottery and ended up with a window seat about four rows from the back. Not bad, but it seems the feds are upset that these cheapo airlines charge extra for things typically included in an airline ticket: A congressional committee and the Department of Transportation are both investigating airline fees.

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An air traffic control problem at LaGuardia repeatedly delayed the plane. Even though an agent made frequent announcements to let us know the flight status, some passengers began to grumble that they would never fly Spirit again. We experienced several more delays once we boarded, as the pilot waited for clearance. One passenger two rows in front of me was so exasperated that he cursed out the flight attendant before being escorted off the plane. When we were airborne the flight was like any other, with one exception. Flight attendants handed out free pretzels, which was a surprise, but the water, soft drinks, and juice all cost $3. I shouldn't have eaten the salty pretzels because I didn't want to pay $3 for a bottle of water.

Should I be irritated that water and seat selection cost money? I gladly traded those perks for a cheaper ticket. It's likely that congressional action will result in more regulation, and bargain travelers will kiss cheap tickets goodbye.

I took the train for the other half of my trip. The Amtrak website makes trip planning easy. It offers coordinated train and bus routes and allows you to purchase a ticket that includes both. I took the Lake Shore Limited between New York and Chicago and the Wolverine between Chicago and Detroit. My total fare was $141. Estimated travel time was 25 hours including a 3-hour layover in Chicago.

Getting on the train is the first hurdle. At some stations no one maintains order. When a voice comes over the PA announcing the track number, aggressive passengers, often toting multiple suitcases, press forward to be first. Those who hang back out of politeness or fear will find themselves trying to board a fast-filling train where folks have already staked out territory. Overwhelmed conductors tried to sort people by destination, pointing those of us going all the way to Chicago to certain cars where we found the aggressive passengers had already grabbed the windows, spread out their blankets, and taken off their shoes.

I am not usually pushy about my seating, but when the conductor handed me a ticket to a seat next to a man I didn't know, I complained. I knew I'd be sleeping on the train and didn't want to sit next to a strange man. The conductor gave me another seat, from which I watched the confusion as he tried to satisfy other passengers who all had demands of one sort or another.

When you purchase your ticket it includes information about what amenities the train has: checked baggage, dining car, lounge car. Most people pack food and snacks, especially for the longer trips. I packed a small cooler with dinner, several bottles of water, and food for breakfast the next day. I also brought fruit and nuts to munch on. My seatmate went to the dining car for dinner, but she ended up bringing her meal back to the seat because the dining car was so crowded. Her dinner looked and smelled like mediocre lasagna-and I was glad to have my own food.

Although the seats recline, it's hard to get comfortable enough to sleep, especially since the lights remain on and the train stops during the night to let people on and off. A sleeping car might be a wise investment. Amtrak does provide passengers a pillow.

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