Volkswagen Beetles Live on in Mexico

I originally posted this back in 2016. I’ve updated this post in October 2021 to fix the gallery and add a few new photos. During our trip this month, least in Mexico City, it seems like the vochos are getting even older and ricketier, or, lately, they’re being reclaimed as polished-up antique cars by afficionados. Herbie the Love Bug, for example, we spotted in Coyoacán earlier this month.

Since I was a kid, I’ve always liked the VW Beetle: small, cartoon-like, and iconic of ’60s culture and music that I grew up with, thanks to my parents. I was further fascinated when, back in college, I found that the Beetle was produced in Mexico all the way up through the millenium, with production ending with the 2004 model year. In fact, a version of the original Beetle was exported to Europe after production ended in Germany!

The Beetle Sedán, known as the vocho in Mexico, was also produced in Brazil for the Brazilian market through the 1990s. This led me to write a class paper comparing industrial policy in Mexico and Brazil through the lens of the Beetle, which you might as well take a look at, since I still had it saved. It’s actually fairly fascinating, if you like history and Cold War-era politics, though you’ll have to trust me. Read it here.

There are thousands, if not millions, of these old Beetles still circulating in Mexico, thanks to skilled mechanics, cheap replacement parts, and the car’s practicality. When I first went to Mexico, I remember being told that you can get a reconditioned engine swapped out in your VW for the equivalent of $250 US.

Passing through the mountains on the way back to Mexico City from Tepoztlán, where many of these photos were taken, in some towns half the vehicles on the streets were vochos. It turns out the engines handle the hills better than other vehicles in their class, so they’ve clustered in towns with steep inclines.

When I first came to Mexico, in 2007, they were ubiquitous as taxis, though now are entirely phased out due to emissions restrictions and safety concerns. In the face of progress, it’s surprising to me to see the vocho‘s staying power. Nostalgia and usefulness mix as this workhorse of a vehicle powers on through another decade.

The photos included below are a collection from our last trip to Mexico City and surrounding towns.

How to road trip to Canada since the lifting of Covid travel restrictions

Last month we returned from a nearly two week road trip to Canada as tourists. We entered on August 9, the first day Americans were allowed into Canada for tourism and without quarantine. Travelers from the rest of the world will be allowed in under the same conditions starting on September 9.

This post will be about the process for entry, what we experienced while there, and the experience coming back. 

Before we left

Canada allows for a waiver to its post-arrival testing and quarantine requirements if arrivals:

  • Are fully vaccinated by a Canada-approved vaccine
  • Have waited 14 days since final shot
  • Have completed and received a negative PCR test within 3 days of entry and have the results in hand

All vaccines given in the US are in Canada’s approved list, though the Russian and Chinese vaccines given to some in México and elsewhere are not. 

So on a Friday afternoon, in preparation for our Monday departure to Canada, we each took a PCR test. Results were expected back within 24 hours, while ours arrived a bit slower, but still by the end of the following day. 

In preparation for arrival we downloaded the ArriveCAN app on our phones and entered all our vaccination and arrival information, including photos of our vaccination cards, time of arrival, and port of entry. We crossed in the small city of Ogdensburg, NY after checking wait times. Once we arrived to the front of the line, we handed our confirmation code and paper copies of our negative PCR tests to the border agent and we were on our way in less than 5 minutes. 

The only glitch in this process was that since it requires date of arrival, you have to fill out at least part of the form en route and some of the vaccination data we had previously entered didn’t save between sessions and had to be reentered.

Note: Some border crossings that were formerly 24 hours have been closed after 8pm or earlier. To avoid issues at off-hours, cross at larger ports of entry and check hours before departing.

In Canada

Traveling around Canada was nearly identical to a summer US road trip (besides the road signs being in kilometers). The standard Covid-related policies in New York are on display in Canada, namely contact information when dining-in and timed entry for museums. Now that New York City is requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining, Canada is actually more lax. Some restaurants in Montreal still had restrictions on indoor dining but there was plenty of outdoor dining space.

I want to keep this short and on-topic, so I’ll follow up with a post on our itinerary later. Suffice to say we were not inconvenienced in any way during our trip and we even had the odd sensation of being the only non-locals in many of the places we visited.

Coming back

Returning to the US by land, you do not need to take a negative Covid test. This was such a confusing point to clarify that I even called US Customs and Border Protection to verify. As of the date of this post, if you travel by air you do need to take a test within 3 days of returning, even if you are fully vaccinated.

Currently, only the following individuals are allowed to cross into the US by land:

  • US citizens and residents repatriating to the US, or
  • Those traveling for essential reasons

The following link lists the valid reasons for crossing the border by land.

On our way back into the US, we crossed in North Troy, a small town in northern Vermont. Given the sleepy crossing and that Americans are only allowed into the US by land as repatriation, we were questioned longer than normal by the border agent. We were likely the first tourists he had seen in over a year, so his caution made sense.

[Not] crossing the land border as a non-American

At the time of this post, foreigners or US visa holders are not currently allowed into the US by land for tourism (they are however allowed in by air). This has created a strange situation where Americans are allowed to drive into Canada for tourism or discretionary reasons, but the same is not true in the opposite direction. This means that if you are a foreigner working or visiting the US, you may be allowed into Canada but not back into the US if you return by land.

I hope this post will be useful to others that plan to visit Canada in the next few months and will save some others the hassle or confusion that we had during the planning of our trip. Safe travels!

John Muir was right about Yosemite

Back in grad school, I was teaching assistant for a course called History of the American Environmental Movement. Each semester, I would grade perhaps 70 to 80 essays, including a section on John Muir, an advocate of preserving nature for nature’s sake, and Gifford Pinchot, who advocated responsible conservation of resources for human use.

While Pinchot was the rational business-minded one, I considered John Muir the passionate activist, one who had the writing skills to make the “tough sell” of protecting faraway lands from development.

John Muir said this about Yosemite, which was the first land in the US set aside specifically for preservation:

“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”

I always figured Muir was just a spiritual writer who connected in a different way with nature. This line about nature being a temple, I took that as hyperbole and as a metaphor. I was wrong. Muir was right.

After one visit to the Valley, Yosemite speaks for itself.

There is a temple in Yosemite, and it’s formed by the cliffs themselves. In the Valley, the interplay of light and shadow off three thousand-foot cliffs creates the sensation of being in a giant hall of worship.

The sun filters through a slight haze, making everything in the far distance look like a backdrop from a movie. As you wind down the mountainside into the Valley, breathtaking views in the far distance materialize in more-than-life-size miles as you realize you’ll be standing in the middle of that movie.

We are often awestruck by the magic of the “golden hour” before sunset. In Yosemite, this awe-inspiring moment lasts all day. Light shifts and transforms on the Valley walls from sunrise to sunset, as you’re surrounded on three sides by sheer granite faces too close to let sun stream through in full.

While Yosemite’s landscape is unique, the sensation of sun streaming through clouds, reflecting off the natural landscape is not. It’s what we felt in Storm King, in the Hudson Valley, which explains why the painters of the Hudson River School made their way West to capture Yosemite’s natural beauty on canvas. Their paintings, in part, encouraged thousands to move West.

Though as much as John Muir can rhapsodize in verse or as large as the Hudson River School painters may paint their larger-than-life portraits, it has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

Our first and hopefully not final Frontier flight

The price was shocking: $285 for two round-trip tickets from Long Island to Orlando, Florida for Christmas. At this late date, every other airline was nearly $400 or more for one ticket! The last straw was when I realized that United, the cheapest “normal” option, was now charging for carry-on bags in Economy.

There’s always a catch – and there was a catch or two, including a new airport even further away than usual – but why not? Every other airline is charging a-la-carte these days. I figured for half the price it was worth a shot.

Costs

Here’s the cost breakdown for the full round-trip:

Airfare: $285 ($142.50 x 2)
Carry-on: $70 ($35 x 2)
LIRR to Ronkonkoma: $55 ($13.75 x 4 one-way off-peak fares)
Taxi to/from airport: $20 ($5 x 4)
Total: $430

Frontier Airlines?

Originally founded as a regional airline out of Denver, Frontier is an ultra-low cost airline that flies to over 50 destinations across the US and several other neighboring countries. The airline runs flights back-to-back without any spare airplanes, pilots, or time, which we found out the hard way.

It’s part of the new wave of charge-for-everything airlines and on top of its low base fee it charges for carry-ons (in addition to checked bags). Its seats, from our experience, resemble picnic chairs and are non-reclinable and without any seat-back entertainment.

It was cheap and safe, though read on for the details.

The trip

The biggest difference between the usual JFK departure is the time spent on LIRR and cost of tickets, though with hourly service to Ronkonkoma and additional service during rush-hour, it wasn’t an inconvenience.

Departing on the 3:55pm off-peak train from Penn Station, we arrived to Ronkonkoma, which is adjacent to MacArthur / Islip Airport by 5:30. Taxi-shuttles wait at the station exit to ferry passengers to the airport terminal for $5 a head. A seamless transfer really, even better than the JFK AirTrain.

By this point we were an hour past JFK, but given that we usually budget an hour to get there and $10-15 for a peak ticket on LIRR and AirTrain, this trip wasn’t much longer or more expensive.

We were at the significantly less congested security checkpoint by 5:45pm. By now you’ll notice that most of our travel “success” stories, this one included, involve skipping security or customs at JFK.

The bad

The first message arrived to us while on the train to the airport: our 7:15 flight was now delayed until 8:35. Not the best, but ok. By the time we got to the gate, they were expecting a 9:30 departure. Once we boarded the plane, we sat for another hour before takeoff as they fixed the lavatory and filled out paperwork.

Total flight time: 2 hours 20 minutes. Total delay: 3 hours 15 minutes.

Upon arrival in Orlando, possibly due to the unplanned 1am arrival, our plane was at some obscure and far-away gate that took a bus and a shuttle train to reach the main terminal.

The return

Returning from Orlando to Islip, we arrived to the airport, hustled through a daunting security line in 30 minutes, and arrived to our gate for an on-time departure.

That is, for Frontier, on-time is an hour late. We waited in the plane for an hour while a faulty overhead bin lock was secured with packing tape and the requisite paperwork was filled out.

Arriving to Islip, we caught a taxi and made the 9:11pm train back to Penn Station with time to spare. Ronkonkoma has hourly train service, even on nights and weekends, which beats pretty much everything except the A train, plus it’s nicer than the subway.

Conclusion

Frontier got us to our destination cheaply and safely, though not at the same level of comfort or predictability as really any other carrier we’ve flown, low-cost carriers included. It was fine for the short hop to Florida, and made sense for the savings alone.

In the end, Frontier even apologized to us for the 3-hour delay by sending us each a $50 travel voucher. The catch is, we have to use it on Frontier!

We’ll give it another chance, but we won’t use the airline for any cases in which we have to be comfortable for a long time, catch a connection, or be on time for anything, e.g. our “extreme getaway” flight to Barbados that we did on JetBlue.

Transcending time in a New York cab

It’s 4:20 in the morning and I can see the stars. This is a bit glamorous, I think as I flag down a taxi on a nearly deserted Third Avenue below our apartment.

I have had plenty of early morning flights, but this will be my first pre-dawn departure since moving to Manhattan over three years ago. I imagine the Chrysler Building winking down on me from further uptown, sprinkling me with moonlight New Yorkiness for being hip enough to be up at this hour.

The night before, I imagined in my mind’s eye recapturing a few minutes of lost sleep as the taxi took me to the airport at the speed of Robert Moses’s dreams, 1960s-era highway speed. That was a dream.

Back in reality, something is wrong: we are headed downtown. LaGuardia Airport is uptown or over, being that it’s in Queens. We are heading south, though the driver seems totally certain of it.

After second-guessing myself several times, I finally ask, “Why are we headed downtown?” The driver responds, “This is super secret shortcut, we take the Williamsburg Bridge. This saves twenty minutes.” Trusty Google Maps said the entire trip would be 23 minutes.

My thoughts are the only other vehicles on the road. Indignation: This guy has no idea where he’s going. Doubt: Don’t second-guess a cab driver. He’s a professional. Self-doubt: Am I too nice? Is this how Canadians feel? Resignation: I’m stuck here, just relax. You planned for spare time.

At this point we have crossed the East Village, turned left onto Houston Street and are now ascending the Williamsburg Bridge. The driver assures me this is a shortcut once again as he accelerates. As if to prove himself right, he keeps his foot on the gas well past the 45-mph speed limit: 50, 55, 60, 65, 70, 72.

Our presence expands to two bridge lanes as we challenge the laws of thermodynamics. New York drivers “take the lane”. This is normal, right?

Wrong. Suddenly, honking as we’re passed in our right-hand lane. My brain turns on and activates its next emotion: Fear.

We are a pinball sent ricocheting up the expressway. The concrete retaining walls guide our path. I hope he’s better at pinball than I am.

I am sure the driver will activate the Flux Capacitor and my wristwatch will start running in reverse.

Moments later I check my phone: He’s done it, he has transcended time. The last hour has actually only been 15 minutes.

We continue to exist in two lanes, for stability, I assume, as I gird myself for takeoff. Hours or minutes pass. Not soon enough we angle off towards the airport and promptly pull up at the wrong gate.

Screech.

Wait, this guy doesn’t know directions? He knows the super secret shortcut. He has the flux capacitor. Reality begins to creep in, though it’s still black as night outside the window.

We make the rounds of the entire airport to circle back around to the proper gate at a reasonable pace. It’s 4:50am. The light of day has still not shown on any of this adventure.

Visiting Casa Herradura, Birthplace of Tequila

This past Christmas break we went to Guadalajara and during our time there couldn’t miss out on a trip to the area around the town of Tequila to learn more about Mexico’s national drink. That’s how we found ourselves at Casa Herradura in the town of Amatitán, a functioning hacienda that claims to be the birthplace of the distilled agave liquor known as tequila.

The best part was seeing how the history of this hacienda is still being lived with a mix of tradition and modern methods. At Casa Herradura, history, agriculture, and chemistry come together in the bottle and it makes for a fascinating story.

History

In Spanish America, an hacienda was a rural estate, and by law had to produce a product and contain housing for workers and a church. This system was carried over after Mexican independence and continues at the Hacienda de San José del Refugio, which was known colloquially as Hacienda del Padre, as it was originally owned by a priest. Today, two thousand workers as well as the current owners live at the hacienda. Some families have worked there for six generations!

At this hacienda, tequila was produced, first illegally, from 1820-1870, then legally since 1870, explained our guide, José Manuel. Tunnels across the property date to this era and were used to hide both tequila and priests during the era of the Cristero Rebellion.

At one point during this conflict, government officials came searching for priests and the owners flooded the basement cistern to provide a hiding place. The priests survived by breathing the air left in pockets against the ceiling while the distillery owners insisted to officials that there was “only water in down there”.

This wasn’t the only memory of the past. Our next stop was the old distillery, where the stone basins now museum-ready were used as fermentation vats were used until as recently as 1963. We saw as well the remnants of boilers from this era which were shipped from London to Veracruz and delivered overland by mule.

At the time of its founding, distilling was a dangerous industry. Our guide told us that 80% of tasters died. These tasters were the ones that sampled the tequila to test whether it was ready for consumption and I imagine consumed the “head” and “tails” as well as the “heart” of the distillation before modern chemistry intervened to save lives.

My thoughts at this point turned to the value of a commodity over that of human life at that point in history, though perhaps this was common across all industries at the time. It’s not like coal mining was ever portrayed as good for your health, for example.

Luckily, these historical production methods have both stayed true, yet improved, safety-wise. Tequila’s rarefied historical and regional status is protected by law, much like French Champagne. While there are 126 types of agave, there is only one variety that produces tequila, tequiliana weber, and only five states can produce this beverage officially, mainly Jalisco.

Growing

Growing the tequila plant, agave azul, is no easy feat. An agave plant takes 25 years from seed to be ready for harvest. After 3 years the agave becomes a mother and gives children which are replanted and ready in 7-9 years, which I imagine is like having a giant spider plant. Each agave is then tested and must pass 26% sugar content to be ready for harvest.

The field hand in charge of preparing the heart of this spiky plant is called the jimador. He shaves off the spines of the agave until the heart is exposed, leaving the spines behind to compost. This heart varies in size from 80-200 pounds(!) (see photos below) and roughly 12 pounds of agave is needed for a single liter of tequila, hence each heart produces 6 or more bottles of tequila! The jimador can shave as many as 120 “pineapples” or hearts per day.

Such a reliance on a single region and a single plant with a multi-year gestation period produces anxiety among producers. There is a reserve of millions of liters of tequila to smooth out dips in supply due to any unforeseen circumstances, such as an infestation, which happened several years prior.

Fermentation and Distillation

As a homebrewer, I recognize parts of the tequila preparation process, with a few key differences. First, the hearts are split and baked in an oven for 26 hours to release the honey, which smells like malted barley or sweet potato. These ovens take quite a lot of punishment and have to be repaired or rebuilt after a year and a half, a process that was underway when we visited. This honey or syrup is then held in a giant stainless open-topped tank.

What amazed me from the start is how much of this process takes place essentially outdoors. The ovens, the fermentation, even the distillation all take place with only a roof overhead, no doors and nearly no walls.

That is, fermentation is open to the air and takes 4 days, using a mixture of 51% agave juice and 49% honey, the latter of which is the thick syrupy product of the baking process mentioned above. This is an improvement over the 19th-century process, which we saw indoors in those stone vats, used to take 20 days. Fermentation at that time happened spontaneously as the vats were exposed at night to a a patio outside their window that was lined with fruit trees. Fruit trees, in fact, are still scattered around the property.

Distillation is where my knowledge gets a bit fuzzy. This is the process that concentrates the alcohol from fermentation into liquor. Here’s what I caught: the ordinario is the first 25% of the distillation, which is sent back. It’s used as fuel or for washing and sanitizing bottles before the bottling process. The end product, the “heart” is 55% tequila, which is then diluted with distilled water.

We were taught by José Manuel to rub it on our hands and smell (smells like tequila), and to shake a bottle of the liquid to see if it’s clear. If it’s milky or turbid, it’s not safe. I imagine sampling these bad parts is what drastically shortened the lives of those 19th-century tasters I mentioned earlier.

Aging and Bottling

After distillation is the aging process, which to my surprise is the only difference between the different grades of product from light to dark. Certain special labels may select the best of the agave hearts, but within the normal product range, it is aging alone that accounts for the difference in flavor.

Plata or silver is aged for 45 days, reposado for 11 months, and añejo for 1-3 years. The newly coined extra añejo is aged for 3-5 years. Up to 50% is lost in the aging process through evaporation or absorption into the oak casks.

Bottling is the only part of the process that resembles a modern food production facility. We were only able to see the bottling line from outside, looking through thick double-pane UV-tinted glass. I was fine with not getting closer; after all the initial steps feeling so close to the land, the bottling line looks like any other production line elsewhere in the world.

Tasting

If there wasn’t a chance to taste the product, nobody would come on these tours. So with a bit more of a sunburn than when we started, we sat down to try some tequila. I can’t say that I remember much other than how the tasting is performed:

  1. breathe out;
  2. swish the sample around in your mouth and consume.

The purpose of this exercise is to limit intake of alcohol vapors, which in my personal opinion seems to be the element that makes most straight liquor go down with a shudder. This process was reminiscent of using mouthwash, made my gums tingle, and did seem to cut down on the “yuck” factor, making the tasting more enjoyable.

Generally, the tequila gets smoother and smokier as it ages. The plata always seems a bit harsh to me, though now I know it’s the same as the añejo, only younger. In fact, aficionados can buy a one- or two-liter mini-cask at Herradura and age their own product from plata up to the point of their choosing. That’s about as DIY as you can get without breaking the law.

Hopping cheaply across Europe by air and rail

Here’s some good news about your dream trip across Europe. With a little advanced planning, and carry-on luggage, you can get there and get around fairly affordably. After months of planning and procrastination, our full Europe itinerary is now booked. Here are the details of our grand tour with some super secret discount tips at the end.

Conveyance

With the recent boom in discount airlines, flights in Europe are often as cheap or cheaper than a train or bus. These companies make their money by charging extra for everything from seat assignments, to checked baggage, to food, so check the fine print before you book. Norwegian follows the same principles but covers to and from the US.

While they may give you flexibility, Eurail passes were prohibitively expensive for our itinerary, so instead we’ve booked two one-way flights and a bunch of intra-Europe travel. We got the cheapest non-flexible tickets, booking everything outright, so we better not miss any connections!

Trains are great, but this was really about getting the most reliable, efficient, and inexpensive trip from A to B, regardless of mode. For the cheapest tickets, find the carrier’s direct website for the ticket in question (e.g. DeutscheBahn, Eurostar, Thalys, etc.), and book early. Most bookings open 3 months in advance, though the Eurostar can be booked 180 days early.

Itinerary

I’d say we did a great job at choosing our stops. The only ticket that I wished we had bought much earlier was the Thalys, which started around $50 per person and went up to $90 by the time we bought it. Oops.

Everything else we purchased recently, 4-6 weeks prior to travel. Here is our itinerary:

  1. New York (JFK) to Copenhagen on Norwegian 4098 NOK ($249 per person)*
  2. Copenhagen to Berlin on EasyJet 25 EUR
  3. Berlin to Hameln by DeutscheBahn 24 EUR
  4. Driving to Leer, Germany
  5. Driving to Groningen, Netherlands
  6. Groningen to Amsterdam by train 25.50 EUR
  7. Amsterdam to Paris by Thalys 80 EUR
  8. Paris to London on the Eurostar 41.50 GBP*
  9. London to New York on Norwegian 4828 NOK ($294)*

TOTAL: $769

That’s $543 pp for US-Europe flights, $226 per person for intra-Europe travel

* These tickets can be purchased in the native currency for a significant discount over the dollar-denominated amount on their site.

Super Secret Discount Tips

In the case of Norwegian, on their norwegian.no site we saved almost $100 per ticket, if memory serves. The layout is the same as the US page, but everything is in Norwegian, so you have to use Google Translate or keep a page open in both languages simultaneously to know where to click. For an extra 30 minutes of annoyance, we saved $200.

For the above flight and for any train tickets, get yourself a credit card like Chase Sapphire that doesn’t charge foreign currency fees, which can be as high as 3%. It really adds up when you’re buying tickets and booking hotels or hostels.

The Eurostar tickets were $65 if purchased in dollars or 41.50 GBP ($54) if purchased from eurostar.co.uk. If you sign up for an account and give a US address, you won’t be able to get this discount. They also charge extra for using a credit card, so use a foreign fee-free debit card like the one from Charles Schwab.

I’ll have more updates in the coming weeks as we try to complete this itinerary with no hiccups. Safe travels!

Featured image: View from Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Paris, by Ed Webster [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Bucket List: Jazz Train from New York to Montreal

Featured image by Bublegun (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

New York, en wagon piano bar!

Imagine some of the nicest scenery in the East flashing by the window as you’re serenaded by live music and wined and dined. I first heard about this unique year-round service from a post on And North.The Jazz Train piggybacks on Amtrak’s Adirondack from New York-Montreal, an 11-hour trip from Penn Station through the Hudson Valley and the Adirondacks, ending in the capital of Quebec. Unlike Amtrak’s Western routes, this voyage is daytime-only and much slower than the drive, so it’s best for those with the time to enjoy. As far as I’m concerned, it’s well worth the time for this classy, photogenic, and stress-free travel.

If only they could fulfill their stated intention to run a similar service as an overnight (sleeper car) excursion, I imagine it would be wildly popular.

Service

As expected by the name, the train voyage includes a three-part jazz performance. Given the all-day length of the trip, it includes breakfast/brunch, lunch, and dinner, as well as drinks, both coffee in the morning and cocktails during the day. The menu is mouth-watering — starting the day with quiche du jour and French croissants is traveling in style.

The food includes, among other delicacies, two staples that Montreal and New York have in common: bagels (with maple smoked salmon), and smoked meat, a Montreal specialty similar to New York’s pastrami. Desserts are plentiful and heavy on the maple syrup ingredients.

For more on the itinerary and menu, visit the Jazz Train site here.

Route

The Jazz Train travels on Amtrak’s Adirondack route, which begins at New York Penn Station, passes along the Hudson, through Albany and Lake George, and alongside New York’s Adirondack State Park, alongside Lake Champlain.

Schedule / Cost / How to Book

Generally, the train departs departs New York on Thursdays and Sundays and returns on Fridays and Mondays. This means you’ll have a Thursday night to Monday morning stay in Montreal coming from New York, or a Friday night to Sunday morning stay in New York if beginning in Montreal. Labor Day has a special Tuesday morning return to NYC.

Pricing is $200 US one-way and $330 US round-trip, though you may also choose to take the plain vanilla Amtrak Adirondack,starting at $69 one-way. The Adirondack is a once-daily departure from New York at 8:15am, arriving in Montreal at 7:11pm. Return trips from Montreal depart daily at 10:20am and arrive at 8:50pm.

See more on schedule and pricing here.

History

The ultimate goal of the Jazz Train is to restart overnight service between the two cities, hence their web address, trainhotel.ca. Amtrak once ran an overnight sleeper car service from New York to Montreal via Vermont. This unique international service, which was formerly known as the Montrealer, was discontinued in the 1990s and rebranded as the Vermonter and now terminates in St. Albans in Northern Vermont.

The daytime Adirondack route runs entirely through New York State. Prior to 1991, all New York State-and Canada-bound trains departed from the ever photogenic Grand Central Terminal.

How I got 21% back towards travel (Really)

I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred (referral link) card this past year to take advantage of the 50,000-point sign-up bonus, plus an additional 5,000 for adding an authorized user ($1155 at 2.1 cents per point !). It’s a good card that I use on a daily basis for most purchases, and it gives you 2x Chase Ultimate Rewards points on dining and travel, plus a host of other benefits, like no foreign transaction fees, rental car damage waiver and extended warranty protection, all of which I’ve used successfully. It has a $95 annual fee which is waived the first year.

Meanwhile, my old Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard was discontinued and converted into a Chase Freedom card, which is free. This card offers 5x point bonuses on rotating quarterly categories and 15,000 points ($150) for signing up. Currently (Q1 2016) the bonus category is local travel, including subways and taxis. Last quarter (Q4 2015) it was 10x (double the usual) on Amazon and Zappos, which was perfect for the Christmas season.

chase_bonus.png
Chase Freedom bonus categories for 2016 (Source: chase.com)

These both being Chase cards, they accrue Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Points can be combined between accounts and can even be pooled between you and your spouse. Now here’s the good part:

While the Freedom card only lets you redeem points for cash, the Sapphire card allows redemption at 1.25 cents for travel (cash value through Ultimate Rewards portal), as well as a 1:1 transfer to United Airlines (valued at 1.5 cents), British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and more. Having the Sapphire card lets you in on the benefits for all your Chase Ultimate Rewards cards (Freedom, Ink, Sapphire, etc.)

Thus with the 10x points earned during the Christmas season from Amazon mentioned earlier, each dollar spent gave us 21 cents (21%) back towards redemptions via Chase Sapphire and 15 cents (15%) on United Airlines in particular.

We’ll definitely be planning some flights this year. Happy travels!

Amtrak Guest Rewards, Best Deal in Travel, Gets Better (for Most)

Photo: Amtrak’s California Zephyr (Source: EbgundyOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Time for some train travel talk. Dollar-for-dollar, Amtrak’s Guest Rewards (AGR) program remains one of the best redemption deals in travel rewards.

AGR has undergone some changes recently that have shifted, and in most cases improved its value for those looking to redeem. At 2.9 cents of value per point earned, its eclipses most airline miles, which are worth ~1-2 cents per point, can take you from coast-to-coast, with a few sweet spots,  such as travel in the Northeast, that make it well worth your while.

I’ve been saving up Amtrak Guest Rewards points since I first signed up for the old AGR MasterCard many years ago. Chase Sapphire recently discontinued their relationship with AGR, though the Starwood Preferred Guest AmEx card still offers 1:1 transfers. With low redemption thresholds, you’ll be earning reward travel after as little as one month.

Redeeming Points, Before

Formerly, Amtrak tickets were redeemable on a zone-based system.

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Amtrak’s old zone-based redemption map (Source: Amtrak.com)

This zone system rewarded buying tickets at the last minute, as the redemption was based on geography and not on price. The best redemption value was within the Northeast Corridor (NEC), roughly from Buffalo to Boston and Montreal through Washington, DC and down to Virginia Beach. It was also a great deal for certain high-priced redemptions, such as coast-to-coast sleeper car travel. However, it had blackout dates around all major holidays and was an exceedingly bad deal for inexpensive trips.

old_redemption

Redeeming Points, Now

As of January 24, 2016, the new redemption system is in effect. Now allowed: redemption of points at any time (no blackouts) and for any route, based on price, with a minimum redemption of 800 points per ticket.

For most trips, especially those booked in advance, it represents a significant savings. For trips within the Northeast Corridor, tickets are from 20-50% less points, on average.
To figure out whether the redemption rate has improved, refer to the following chart I’ve created below. When a ticket is priced on Amtrak.com at less than the price below and greater than the minimum ticket price of $23.20, that trip is now cheaper under the new scheme:

new_redemptionvalue_minimum

Rating the New Points Redemption

To test the value of the new system, I’ve made some ticket price calculations using Amtrak.com which I present below. Note: Saver fares are not valid for reward travel, and Acela (2.5 cents per point) has been left out of these calculations.

Within the NEC, a round-trip for 2 from New York Penn Station (NYP) to Boston (BOS) formerly cost 16,000 points ($464 at 2.9 cents per point) in the zone system. It now costs 10,207 points ($296) at the Value ticket level, for a savings of 36%. A round-trip for 2 from New York to Philadelphia (PHL) now costs $220 or 7,586 points, for a savings of 53%!

Outside the Northeast, Los Angeles (LOS) to San Diego (SAN) has dropped -15%, Miami (MIA) to Savannah (SAV) -50% and Denver (DEN) to Salt Lake City (SLC) -49% in points needed for redemption, all significant improvements.

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For long-distance sleeper travel, the new rates are much more of a mixed bag, with a few declines and many steep increases in points needed for redemption. The more cramped roomette accommodations on the California Zephyr from Chicago (CHI) to San Francisco (SFW) have increased significantly (+30%) for a two-person room, while the nicer bedroom accommodations have increased only slightly (+7%). Roomette trips from Seattle (SEA) to San Francisco have actually decreased in points needed for redemption (-9%).

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If you’re in the Northeast or plan to travel often by train, Amtrak Guest Reward points offer great value and flexibility. You can sign up and view their redemption guidelines at http://www.amtrakguestrewards.com.

Note: There have been reports that certain itineraries at high-demand times carry a points redemption penalty. This has not generally been true on the routes referenced above.