Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Taking the train to take the waters

The Glenwood Hot Springs pool -- actually two pools, a big one that's very hot and a smaller tank that's superheated.

Now that winter slammed us silly the other day, I'm already going stir crazy. Times like this drive me to planning trips somewhere just to get out of the house for a few days, even if it's only in my fevered mind. And since I am a hopeless rail buff, getting out on the train is part of the lure. Most of all, getting off the train and being there instantly is, as they say, priceless.

We've done that three times at Glacier National Park in Montana, where one simply steps off Amtrak's Empire Builder from Chicago, gathers one's bags, and walks fifty yards to Glacier Park Lodge. Unfortunately, the place isn't open in the winter.

Instead, one can ride on about an hour further to Essex, Montana, and alight at the Izaak Walton Inn at trackside for a bit of snowshoeing, skiing and trainspotting. It's one of my favorite spots to hole up and write a few chapters of a new mystery, then go out to tramp around the snowshoe/ski trails and photograph activity in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe helper locomotive yard.

Last week I traveled to La Plata, Mo., to visit the Depot Inn and Suites, a bit of railfan heaven in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and reported on it here and here.

Now, in January, if the global economic collapse has left us any money, we may take the California Zephyr from Chicago to one of our most favorite places: Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Although it is not exactly a railfan destination, Glenwood Springs has two attractions: It's another great place to get some work done on a new book, and afterward we can take the waters, as the Europeans say, in the huge and sulphurous Glenwood Hot Springs outdoor pool, even (especially!) in the middle of winter. What's more, the ride from Denver to Glenwood Springs goes through some of the hemisphere's most spectacular mountain scenery.

But isn't taking the train in a sleeper room, even a tiny roomette for two, more expensive than flying? It can be, but a little knowledge about Amtrak's fare structure can make the train a relative bargain.

This morning I costed out a mid-January round trip trip via plane to Denver and then a ride in coach on the Zephyr the rest of the way to Glenwood Springs. This included overnighting in Denver both ways, because there (at least for us) the westbound train departs too early in the morning (8:05 a.m.) and the eastbound arrives too late in the evening (7:43 p.m.) for comfortable airline connections. So two nights in Denver: $350 to $400 for downtown hotels. Round trip air fare Denver-Chicago for two: $360. Round trip train (coach) Denver-Glenwood Springs for two: $252. Taxis to and from airports: $120.

That adds up to at least $1,082 just for travel expenses. And I haven't included meals.

On the other hand, if we booked a roomette at the same time in January aboard the California Zephyr all the way from Chicago to Glenwood Springs, the travel costs would break down this way. Round-trip rail fare for two: $464. Add $388 ($194 each way) for a sleeper roomette, and the total travel cost is $852. No cabs; we can take a Metra commuter train from Evanston to Chicago Union Station for nothing, because we're geezers and geezers ride free.

What's more, all meals aboard the Zephyr are included in the sleeper charge.

The trick to scoring low sleeper charges is to make reservations several weeks (even months) in advance, and do so for slow times of the year. Amtrak's fares are structured like those of the airlines; they get more expensive as departure time grows closer. (That little sleeper room can cost almost $500 each way.)

Now, of course, one must add hotels and meals in Glenwood Springs. There are a number of hotels with varying tariffs and levels of luxury, but we have always stayed at the plain but comfortable Hot Springs Lodge, where pool tickets are included in the $139-and-up-per-night rate.

The town is a jolly Western place, with lots of colorful beaneries and bars and upscale restaurants. It's worth poking about for a couple of days, and if you're young and hearty, you could rent a car and go skiing an hour south at Aspen.

The Lady Friend and I would rather just write and sit and soak.

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