Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

Odometer:  13,314

In the spirit of this 1987 John Candy & Steve Martin movie, this weekend I embarked with a friend on a 2,400 mile, 3-day trip that involved traveling via some very diverse modes of transportation.

Friday:

  • Phoenix AZ to Los Angeles CA via the 2013 Acura ILX
  • Trip Distance:  372 miles
  • Travel Time:  6 hours

Saturday:

  • Los Angeles CA to Albuquerque NM via Southwest Airlines Flight #1269
  • Trip Distance:  666 miles
  • Travel Time:  1 hour, 50 minutes
  • Albuquerque NM to Los Angeles CA via overnight Amtrak “Southwest Chief” train ride
  • Trip Distance:  787 miles
  • Travel Time:  15 hours

Sunday:

  • Los Angeles CA to Phoenix AZ via the 2013 Acura ILX
  • Trip Distance:  372 miles
  • Travel Time:  6 hours

This ought to be a fun evaluation of different travel experiences:  Price, comfort, speed, convenience, & amenities.

Who will reign supreme?

FRIDAY

Interstate 10 is familiar ground for Alex the ILX as he’s traveled there a few times already.  Fuel in Blythe, California topped off his belly.

The Garmin Nuvi GPS system that I’ve put 20,000 or so miles on led the way.  Great music, customary desert sunset, and a smooth riding car.  This is the life!  I let Matt take the wheel for a good portion of this drive to LA.

Neat feature discovery!   Let’s say you’re cruising at 75 mph in 6th gear with the cruise control engaged.  A hill comes up and you start losing speed.  Typically, a downshift to 5th gear would cause your cruise to turn off and you’d have to reset once you got up to speed.  Not so on the ILX!  If you move from gear-to-gear within 5 seconds, the vehicle actually keeps the cruise control activated.  In other words, shift from 6th to 5th, release the clutch, and your cruise is still on while you resume your target speed while climbing the hill.  Very handy.

I wanted to pit stop again at Desert Center, a run-down ghost town on a deserted stretch of the interstate in California.  I first visited here last month on my way to San Francisco and back.  Unless that’s 91 octane, don’t get that fuel anywhere near my ILX!

The cafe which was once a 24/7 operation has now closed.  However, I had to laugh at the sign posted on the front door asking passers-by to pay $1 to use the facilities.

There’s just something eerily appealing about a scene like this.  It felt like a movie set.

And in the distance to our east, the August 31 “blue moon” (a once every 2.5 year occurrence, apparently) lit up the sky.

A couple of old pickup trucks are still solid as can be, minus some surface rust.

That driver’s seat, though, could use some help.  With the number of miles I put on my Acura vehicles it’s a mystery why my interior doesn’t look just like this.

As we emerged from the high desert into the lower elevations, the ILX gave us a scare at 12,700 miles just east of Indio, California.  A warning on the gauge display alerted us to a “charging system” malfunction.  I consulted the owner’s manual and learned that this warning means that the battery is not charging.  I once had a similar issue with my 1994 Legend when a faulty alternator (the car’s first, by the way) left me stranded in Las Vegas at just over 400,000 miles.

Matt and I decided to press on to an exit at Washington Rd in Indio and shut the car off to see if we could reset any potential error.  Indeed, the problem appeared to have self-corrected when we got back on the road.  The Renaissance Hotel near LAX Airport awaited us!

SATURDAY

The ILX got ditched at $15/day covered parking near LAX Airport at The Parking Spot, while we hopped on a shuttle bus and headed for the Southwest terminal.

Since I opted for Southwest’s $10 “early bird” check-in option and a boarding priority of position A31, I was able to have my pick of any number of seats but I settled in 8A with a window just over the left wing.

Check out the girl two rows behind me.  Was she excited to be in my picture or what?

For a short time after takeoff from LAX, we cruised out over the Pacific Ocean before looping back.

Less than two hours later, we were on the ground in New Mexico, “The Land of Enchantment.”

My friend Sean who’s a local to ABQ picked us up at the airport in his snazzy 2012 Honda Accord V6.  Sean’s an Acura Legend owner (1991 base model sedan) who I’ve known since 2005 but who I last saw in February 2011 on my way to Denver, Colorado.

We took a drive to downtown Albuquerque along Central.

There just happened to be a “grower’s market” at a park in the area so we stopped by for a walk through.  Pictured here are Matt and Sean admiring some artwork for sale by local folks.  We test drove some AMAZING homemade salsas and chocolates.

For lunch, Sean thought it fitting that we hit up Frontier.  This restaurant’s been around since 1971 and is located right across the street from the University of New Mexico campus.  Little did we know what a treat we were in for!

The menu is huge!  And the ordering system unlike any I’ve ever experienced.  There are 8 or 9 order-takers ready at the cash registers.  Patrons wait in line until they see a green strobe light flashing over the next available cash register.  It felt a little bit like a trip to the DMV!

I went with the Western Omelette which was to die for, but Sean made sure we gave the famous cinnamon rolls a try.  Buttery goodness!  And washed down with a glass of fresh queezed orange juice.  I’d go back to Albuquerque again just to have another taste of this stuff.

After meeting up with some other folks from Sean’s family, Lynette and Coco.

We did a little shopping at Nob Hill. I came across a small shop called Beeps that sold my favorite sour candy:  ZOTZ.  Anyone else heard of these?  Yum!

Rolling around in a Mazda5 to see a few sights from here.

Now at the Alvarado Transportation Center in downtown Albuquerque.  Pictured are Matt, Tyson, Sean.  We arrived prior to 3 p.m. and had a little bit of down-time before our train’s 3:45 arrival from Chicago but it was nice to relax.

Here it is!  The 12-car-long (counting 3 locomotives) Amtrak train rolled up right on time.  Each car has its own attendant who comes outside and sets up a yellow step-stool to aid passengers in getting in.  There’s no security screening, no baggage check, no ID verification.  Just show your printed itinerary and you’re on!

Arrival video here shot with my iPhone.

A poorly focused picture of the Amtrak route map shows where our route would take us – starting in Albuquerque and ending the following morning in Los Angeles.

We had time for a train walkaround before boarding.

Fuel capacity on each of the 3 diesel locomotives was 1,800 gallons!

Don’t get in the way of this thing!

Inside, it’s a maze of skinny hallways and sliding glass doors into individual private “roomettes.”  Our car was called a Superliner and we were on the upper level.  On this particular Amtrak train, there were three classes of fares available:

  • Coach class – standard bus-style seating (large, plush chairs, though, with tray tables and foot rests)
  • Roomette – this is what we had, room enough for two to sleep but no private bathroom or shower (we used the common facilities on the lower level)
  • Bedroom – these are all-inclusive rooms that have built in toilet and shower facilities.

A view from the hallway of our small roomette.  There are two seats facing each other.  The chairs fold into a bed at night.  A second bed folds down from up above, creating a bunk bed setup.  Our room assignment was car #331; room #8.

Each of the cars in the train is separated by a dual set of doors that can be opened at any time by the push of a large button.  Matt and I were able to walk the entire length of the train from inside before even leaving from Albuquerque.

The dining car, all set up for the night’s guests.  We had to make a reservation for what time we wanted to dine.  Our fare included meals.

View from aboard the very last car in the train, looking back, just prior to departure.

And we’re off!  My favorite place to lounge was, appropriately named, the lounge car.  There are lots of available seats and a ton of windows to soak in the view.

Slowly making our way out of ABQ.  Our train cris-crossed Interstate 40 a number of times but for a good portion of the trip was covering remote terrain that I’d never seen before.

Food for thought, printed on the beverage cups:  “Rail consumes less energy than car or air transportation.”

The lower level of the lounge car had a snack bar that sold various things.

Incredible sunset while working our way through Arizona.

Finally, time for our 8:00 p.m. dinner reservation.  Each table of 4 must be filled to capacity, so we were ‘assigned’ a couple of new friends to enjoy our meal with:  Robert and Sean.  Robert’s from California City, CA and Sean from Los Angeles.  It was great to visit with them.

The signature entree was the $25 steak.  I went with chicken which was served with salad, roll, mashed potatoes, and fresh steamed veggies.  Again, our meals had been included in the train fare so we only had to worry about carrying cash for our server John’s tip.

A very quick 8:51 p.m.stop in Flagstaff, Arizona gave us a chance to step outside and catch some fresh air.

All aboard!

SUNDAY

I had a great night’s rest despite the occasional horn from the locomotive and the clickety clack of the rails as we motored along westward.  By sunrise we were already nearing Riverside, California.

We got to Los Angeles’ Union Station a little bit ahead the scheduled 8:15 a.m.  Our car attendant, whose nametag said “E. Rogers,” was very helpful!

Always riding in style, our next mode of transportation was my friend Brett’s 1994 Acura Legend L sedan.  Brett’s car is in phenomenal shape for its 244,000 miles.

We made our way toward LAX Airport where the ILX awaited us.  On the way, though, we grabbed some breakfast at a Denny’s that actually offered complimentary valet!

Brett takes a seat in the ILX to check it out.

Acuras old and new, with their owners.  Thanks Brett for the luxurious shuttle service!

Since we were only a couple of miles from the ocean, I couldn’t resist a quick drive-by.

The ILX at Dockweiler Beach State Park ($10 to park here for the day).

Nothing quite like it!

From there it was a 6-hour stretch of freeway to get us home to Phoenix.  All was well until just a few miles from home when we got a fuel cap warning.  I’ve had this pop up before but it always seems to self-correct after stopping and re-starting the ILX.

Indeed, the problem seems to have resolved itself with the next restart.  And with that, I’m home at last!

Here were our people movers this trip, with some specs on each one.

Southwest Airlines – Boeing 737-700 Airplane Specifications:

  • CFM 56-7B26 jet engine
  • 26,300 lb-ft of thrust
  • 137 passengers
  • Cruising speed:  514 miles per hour
  • Fuel capacity:  6,875 gallons
  • Weight:  84,100 pounds

Amtrak – GE Genesis Locomotive Specifications (Our Superliner had 3 locomotives):

  • 7FDL16, 4 stroke cycle engine, with EFI
  • 4,250 horsepower
  • ~250 passengers & crew
  • Cruising speed:  79 miles per hour
  • Fuel capacity:  1,800 gallons
  • Weight:  266,000 pounds

Acura ILX Specifications:

  • 2.4 liter inline 4 cylinder engine
  • 6 speed manual transmission
  • 201 horsepower
  • 5 passengers
  • Cruising speed:  80 miles per hour in a 75 zone
  • Fuel capacity:  13.2 gallons
  • Weight:  2,978 pounds

And some of my own comments on how each of these excel in comparison.

Southwest Wins:

  • Speed.  This is about the only thing I think I absolutely find superior from taking the flight.  We were about 90 minutes from wheels-up to wheels-down.  Remarkable considering the distance we had traveled.
  • Air travel is just a pain!  Robert, who we met at dinner, said it best when he emphasized his distaste for flying: “If someone was flying into see me, I’d rather have them fly into Vegas and spend a couple extra hours driving there than EVER have to deal with LAX airport.”  He himself avoids flying at all costs due to the hassle at the airports.  His train ride was taking him all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Amtrak Wins:

  • Space.  You can take whatever you want on this train!  The baggage car will accommodate it.  And, unlike any airline, there’s no baggage fee, period.
  • Timeliness.  Unlike the airline that is plagued by inevitable security-caused delays, Amtrak’s system is fast and efficient. We were within minutes of all our anticipated arrival and departure times, and even arrived early to our final destination in Los Angeles.  In contrast, when we drove to LA on Friday night in the ILX we were delayed at least 15-20 minutes by an accident on Highway 60 near Riverside, California.
  • Relaxation.  Here’s a huge, open lounge where you can wander about at your leisure, watch the countryside roll by, and not have to worry about watching the road or missing your next connection.  Truly a great way to chill out and still get where you’re going (on time!).
  • Mobility.  Unlike in a car where you’re confined to just the passenger compartment or an airplane where you’re strapped into a tiny seat, this entire train is your playground.  No seat belts required here!  We spent some time exploring the upper and lower levels of the train.  There are padded seats facing either side of the train, and booths for people who want to play card games or sit and read a book.
  • Connectivity.  Though cell service isn’t always readily available, there are no restrictions on electronic devices whatsoever.  Also, no worries about the dangers of chatting on the phone (or worse, text messaging) while driving.
  • Efficiency.  As Amtrak’s already noted on their plasticware, rail travel is the most efficient when compared to the automobile and airplane.
  • Service.  The crew aboard the train are pleasant people who I think for the most part are in this career because they enjoy it.
  • Amenities.  Unlike Southwest, on Amtrak each sleeper car has juices, waters, and ice freely available for passengers to help themselves.
  • Ease.  No TSA hassle!  No needing to arrive 2 hours in advance.  Zero security or ID checks.  Just show up with a reservation and hop onboard.
  • Sociability.  The train is a great place to make a friend!  While I sat in the lounge admiring the passing scenery, a young girl randomly started talking to me. “Where you heading?” she started with.  It was a conversation with a complete stranger.  Matt and I also made friends with our table-mates from dinner.  People just seem kinder.  One older woman with Parkinson’s disease was so shaky she could not lift her suitcase so she asked us to assist.  She was so extremely grateful.

Acura ILX Wins:

  • Climate Control.  The accessibility to immediate climate control functions is a welcome feature.  Our roomette on Amtrak was very warm when the sun came streaming through the window, and on Southwest there’s nothing you can do except hope the air fan from up above is working.
  • Comfort.  The seats in the ILX recline farther than anything on Amtrak or Southwest.  Unless, of course, you count the beds on Amtrak.  The suspension on the ILX also seems to better absorb the rugged LA freeways with less turbulence than our flight and less shaking around than our train ride.
  • Audio & Technology.  Neither our Boeing 737 nor our Amtrak Superliner car offered music playing capabilities to keep entertained.  The ILX’s 7-speaker Premium audio system saw plenty of use during the 12 hours or so that it was driven this weekend.
  • Cost.  At 32 mpg highway, it only cost us around $110 to drive the 800 miles round-trip to Los Angeles and back from Phoenix.  By comparison, our fares were $110 each on Southwest from LAX-ABQ and $174 each on the ABQ-LAX Amtrak fare.
  • Travel Options.  When I drive, I take control of when I’m stopping and what I’m seeing.  In a train or airplane, every passenger is merely a passive onlooker to where the pilot or engineer decides to take them.  I love that when I drive, I can see a random offbeat roadside attraction and take a pit stop if I want to.  This is how I truly get to know the areas in which I’m traveling.
  • Adventure.  There is a sense of accomplishment that comes with planning a roadtrip and then taking it to completion, especially when it involves overcoming detours, finding a new destination along the way, or taking an uncharted route “just because.”
  • Convenience.  The car is ready to go at a moment’s notice.  No reservations, no booking.  Just hit that push-button start and roll.
  • Style.  There is just no denying that it’s fun to ride around in a vehicle that’s fun to look at and even more fun to ride inside.  Due to the ILX’s newness it’s also still a very exclusive way to travel.  We didn’t see any other Acura ILX on the road this trip.

In the end, it’s impossible to declare a ‘winner’ among such different competitors, but my independence and love for the road will always lead me to choose automobile travel as the personal fave, and the ILX is a great means of experiencing that.  That’s my take on how this Planes, Trains, Automobiles weekend shakes out!

Whichever mode of travel you choose, please enjoy the ride and take pics!

7 Responses to “Planes, Trains, & Automobiles”

  1. too funny! ZOTZ have been around a couple of days before forever! Back in the late 70s it was my favorite candy.

    So the whole trip was just for $h*ts and giggles?

    SWA 737s are a pain in the butt to paint, lemme tell you! (due to the paint used)

    Looks like a fun weekend!

    • Dave, glad you can appreciate ZOTZ! They’re the best! (it’s a miracle I don’t have a mouth full of cavities). The purpose of the trip was to experience Amtrak since I’d only ever been on a train for a couple of very short trips. The amenities were great. Now I’m thinking about booking a similar trip on the Coast Starlight – this route goes from LA to Seattle.

  2. Childhood trips to Nova Scotia often involved some combination of planes, trains and automobiles so this brought back some fond memories. My favourite mode of transport would have to be the train, hands down. Great views, no security lineups and novelties like the lounge and sleeper cars. Also, now I know that when someone tells me something happens once in a blue moon they mean once every 2.5 years!

    • Tony, glad I could help educate you on some moon trivia. I still have a lot to learn! Do you have family in Nova Scotia?

      • My parents have been going to NS before I was born. We don’t have family out east but they’d just heard from friends how beautiful it was. If you ever get a chance, you should absolutely go. Fun fact: most McDonald’s restaurants in Nova Scotia (and I’m sure this is true in some New England states too) have something you’ll probably never see at any other McD’s: the McLobster sandwich.

  3. Very cool post Tyson – sounds like the journey was the destination this time!

    • Ross, you’re most definitely right. This trip was all about the journey – and the journey did not disappoint. I’m already brainstorming how to incorporate a train trip into my next cross-country adventure. Glad you enjoyed the pics and commentary! Thanks for following along.

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