Round Trip on the Silver Meteor
December 22 - 30, 2009
This trip was for me and my wife our first overnight trip on the train and the first trip for my wife on Amtrak ever!
I was also curious to see how Amtrak would handle my service animal, my Seeing Eye dog Watson since I am visually impaired, on such a long trip. It has never been an issue before, but these trips have been limited to day trips only. My wife can see just fine just in case you were wondering.
We were traveling from West Palm Beach going to Philadelphia to visit friends and family in the PA, MD, and NJ areas over the Christmas holiday. We also made a day trip to NYC as my wife has never been to that city before. So lets get on with the trip!
Tuesday Dec. 22, 2009
We arrived at the West Palm Beach(WPB) train station at approx 9:35 AM for our 10:17 AM departure on the Silver Meteor train #98. We checked our bags and had a quick breakfast at a track side cafe consisting of bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches with french fries. Our train was announced as slightly delayed, but we were never told what was the cause of the delay as it left Miami on-time. The train finally arrived on the track closest to the station at 10:33 AM. We were seated in the third out of four coaches on this train. I never got anybody to tell me the exact description of the train, but I do know we were in car 25034 and had four coaches followed by the lounge and the diner car. More on the experience with the diner later. Behind that were at least 2 or perhaps 3 sleepers and the baggage on the rear. They sat me and my wife in the very front of the coach which was considered the bulk head which gave me and my guide dog plenty of leg room. Amtrak as a courtesy gives people with disabilities two seats, when available, for more room. My wife was seated directly across the aisle and was given two seats as well just based on availability.
We left WPB at 10:39 AM and made good time all the way up the regular route, but never made up the rest of the time to get back on schedule. We did not experience any further delays and arrived at Orlando at 1:23 PM departing that city at 1:43 PM. During that time our car attendant Cynthia offered to either take Watson out for a bathroom break, or to have my wife walk him for me. I opted for my wife to walk him and this was the regular practice for the rest of the trip. After we left Orlando we moved to the club car for lunch which we brought on board with us. My wife was quite generous to bring a cooler with snacks, drinks and other such things so that we did not have to buy food on board. I had warned her of the slightly higher prices and she took my advice. While we rolled through Winter Park and the former stop in Sanford on our way to Palatka we had a very nice lunch of home made egg salad sandwiches and chips. This was followed up by a coke zero (one of my favorite drinks) and an excellent peace of bourbon pecan pie which somebody gave to me from my work right before we left for our trip.
After lunch my wife opted to go back to her seat while I stayed in the club car and had a great conversation with two other people sitting at another table who I do believe were perfect strangers. I also spoke with a conductor about the Silver Meteor and Amtrak in general. After the two individuals left to go back to their respective seats or sleepers I went back to my seat and started to write down notes on my laptop regarding the trip so far and to listen to CDs. I personally was surprised to see that every pair of seats in the coaches and the club car had a pair of electrical outlets so I could keep my cell phone charged and keep my computer on charge as well.
A few freights passed us enroute, but we were never put in sidings and just passed them without any delay to our train. Some time before Jacksonville our next extended stop, which was a crew change and watering stop, an attendant came through taking dinner reservations. Since we had a slightly later lunch we took the latest dinner reservation since by the time he got to us all he had was 5:30 PM or 8:45 PM. I've learned from reading past reports that preference is given to sleeper passengers first.
We arrived at JAX at 5:20 PM and did not depart until 5:48 PM. At that time I got off the train to stretch my legs and take Watson out for another bathroom break and feed him dinner. In JAX a couple boarded a train who sat directly behind me; they were traveling to Alexandria, VA. They were two of the funniest people I have ever met. They kept on making funny/strange remarks about people they saw or what people were doing in general. It gave me a real "eye opener" to what goes on in a passenger train.
Now we get to our experience with the diner. Before this trip even happened I attempted to tell my wife all about what it is like to travel on the train; what to expect, and likewise what not to expect. One thing I told her at length was about the food service and how the food is on the train in the diner car. She was pretty excited hoping on a great dinner on the train. Or was it???
At approx 8:40 PM we made our way back towards the diner car having to pass through one coach and a very crowded club car. Upon entering the diner car I noticed that the car was very full. I was told they were behind from the last service, and that I should have a seat in the club car and that we would be called when they are ready for us. This also happened to at least 3 or four other people so we all turned around and found seats in the club car. While waiting we made our stop in Savanna. While sitting there I told my wife I've heard Savanna is suppose to be a real nice city with great walking tours and some of the nicest people. My wife God bless her said, "oh that sounds nice." She said "we'll have to go some time and visit. Do you think the train goes there?" Ummmmmmmm hello? Were sitting in the station!
After realizing what she had said, she was so embarrassed. Gee so would I be! She told me she was tired, but I wonder..
At 9:25 PM, almost 40 minutes after our reservation we were finally seated for our dinner. My wife read me the menu and a few of the entrees sounded good. It was a real shame that half of the choices were not available. In fact out of maybe 5-6 items only three were available: the special that night turkey which was supposed to come with stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and the vegetable of the day green beans; Mahi Mahi; and vegetable lasagna. Our server in fact was encouraging us to order off the children's menu for more choices. I couldn't believe it!
I opted for the turkey special minus the cranberry sauce, and my wife opted for the fish. In addition, dinner came with rolls which were quite hard from the microwave, and salads or did they? I also found out after the fact that ice tea, coffee, or milk also came with the meal. We were never given that as a choice. I ordered a diet Pepsi which of course they promptly charged me for.
The entire time while we waited for our salads to arrive the dressing for the salad sat on the table. After about 10 minutes our dinners arrived. First off my dish had the cranberry sauce which I had asked them to leave off. I never saw my stuffing, and neither of us had green beans. I asked our server about our missing items, and was told "oh sorry sir, we ran out!" To add insult to injury I said "oh ok, but how about our salads." He said "oh yes sir, I'm sorry two salads coming up." He came back after a minute and said "sorry, all out of salads." My wife did not like her fish as it was dry, and was way too small to call a dinner portion. All I had on my plate was about 2 thin slices of turkey with gravy and a scoop of mashed potatoes. This service which I raved about was quickly going down hill very quickly!
The only saving grace from the entire diner experience which was positive was our server who apologized to us quite often, and explained that the train was sold out, and they did not take account of all of the extra passengers. He also explained how sleeper passengers get preference. While I understood this, and realized that this was not the fault of our server, he never offered to do anything about the bill or offer us some extra food or even a free dessert since I myself was missing about half of my dinner. I even ordered dessert all that was left was vanilla ice cream or cheesecake. Since the cheesecake was ok with me I took that. They even charged me for that. After our half a dinner at quite full prices I politely asked for the LSA to see what could be done here. My wife just wanted out of there, and wanted to go back to her seat and go to sleep. Our server said, "well I could get him for you sir, but he is in a "bad mood" and will probably not do anything for you since he has been dealing with problems all evening." So now this server was making excuses. I wanted to demand to see the LSA, bad mood or no bad mood, but my wife pushed me along, and we had to pay the bill of $50.25.
After we left the diner I wanted to stay in the club car and hang out, but there were no available seats as it was all full of people talking, playing cards, etc. Looked like a real party was trying to maybe start. I said fine I'm starting to get a little tired at this point as we were already in South Carolina. After we returned to our seats the couple behind me were sleeping, but not for long. At around 10:50 P.M. we arrived at Charleston the last stop for the evening which would be long enough to take my guide dog out for a break. Shortly after we left Charleston we started to get ready for bed. Here is where the real fun began. Since I am such a picky sleeper, and can't sleep in strange beds this was going to be a real experience for me. I had brought on board clothes to change in to. Now since our seats were in the front of the car it was a lot easier for us to use the restroom in the back of the next car in front of us instead of walking all the way to the back of our car. One thing I noticed on this trip and other train trips is that the bathrooms can become a real mess in quite a short period of time.
I noticed on entering the rest room that the floor was quite sticky and trying to change out of day clothes in to more comfortable night clothes was quite a trick. As was trying to not have either set of clothes fall on the floor so as not to get them real dirty as I would have to wear them the next day when we get off the train in PHL. At 10:00 PM they turned off the lights in our coach and later the heat, but you'll have to read on to find out about that. I finally found a fairly comfortable position taking my two seats putting them both all the way back and raising both leg rests all the way up and finally after a short time of darkness, and the train swaying back and forth I was out. After about 2 hours or so I kept waking up realizing we were either just sitting there or moving very slowly. I then noticed we just sat their and did not move as it was quite quiet with most people sleeping.
Well all were asleep except for the couple behind me who got on in Jacksonville. They were not particularly loud, but not exactly quiet either. All of a sudden a train came blasting beside us going the other way not for sure if this was one of the southbound Amtrak trains or a freight. I resolved this fact and fell back asleep for a little longer. I then awoke having to use the restroom, and noticed it was so quiet with the heater not even running and being quite cold. While I was up I used the restroom in the next car noticing the heat worked in that car just fine. A car attendant asked me if I was ok, and I said yes but how about the heat in this car. He said "oh well sir, people in the back of your car complained about it being too hot so we turned it off, and we can't turn it back on until we arrive at Washington." I said "you're crazy, right?" He said no and told me it had something to do with a switch outside the train. Not sure if he was telling the truth or not. Luckily I had on a pretty heavy sweet shirt and put my jacket on so I wasn't as cold as others around me.
Wednesday Dec. 23, 2009
At approx 4:50 I was awake and so were several others around me. My wife heard all of us talking trying to be as quiet as possible and woke up herself. We then stopped at 4:55 a.m. in Richmond and this was a stop to take Watson outside. After Richmond the few who were awake learned about why our heat was off and during this pretty funny conversation they called our car the "polar express"
At this point we were only about 15 minutes behind schedule. Not bad for timekeeping purposes. At this point I told my wife I was going to sit in the club car, although no service had begun yet. A few other people joined me and we sat at least in warmth until 6:00 a.m. when we got coffee and hot chocolate.
A few of us talked about having breakfast in the diner but I never did this myself. At around 6:45 I went back to my seat in our frigid car and tried to get some more sleep, but to no avail. Our next stop was Alexandria where the couple from Jax detrained, and we moved on to Washington. At this point it was becoming day light and most people in our car were awake and moving around. Just outside of Alexandria we stopped and did not move for almost 10 minutes. We never found out why. Then again we didn't find out too much info the entire way as the speakers were not working in our car. We then started moving very slowly, and moved under the tunnel heading in to Union station. Our attendant realizing at this point our speakers were not working said that we'd be here for a few minutes, and if we wanted to stretch our legs on the platform that this would be fine, but we were told not to go up in to the station as this train would leave without us. Both I and my wife opted to stay on the train although I was curious to see Union station, but figured if we couldn't go in to the station it wasn't worth it to me.
While they did the engine change they also fixed the heater problem, but at this point it almost didn't matter as we only had about 2 hours to go to PHL.
Once we left I went back to the club car and got a breakfast sandwich and more coffee. We made our stops in Baltimore and Wilmington, and finally pulled in to Philadelphia's 30th street train station at 10:02 AM only 2 minutes late.
We tipped our attendant who watched out for me and Watson. Although we had a bad dinner experience, the dirty restrooms, and the heat in our car it was a very positive experience. My wife loved the north bound trip, and found the train to be quite relaxing.
Speaking of an experience I'm sure it was for our train heading north, as well as all trains heading north going to NYC. I found out that power was out on the rails, and no trains could head in to New York, and all trains had to terminate in Newark.
Once up in the station we retrieved our bags and got directions to the car rental offices as we were renting a car from Alamo. My wife was really impressed with the massive station and commented that it looked like an airport to her.
Once we received our rental car and found our way on to the city streets of Philadelphia it was straight for I-95 which surprisingly moved along and wasn't a traveling parking lot. I'll spare you the details of our car travels as I'm sure you don't want to read about that anyway.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this report we took a day trip to NYC, and I'll tell you all about that great day.
Before I took the trip I was trying to plan this day trip to NYC and received some excellent information from others who live in the area as to the best way on how to reach the city and how to get around. After careful planning and consideration we opted to take NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor from the Trenton transit center to New York Penn. Our hotel we were staying in just outside of Philadelphia thanks to Price line was only about 25 minutes from Trenton, and we found this to be the best option.
Saturday Dec. 26, 2009
With help from our Tom-Tom GPS we found our way to the Trenton Train Station, parked the car in the garage right across from the station entrance and went inside.
With the help of another passenger we purchased our tickets from the vending machines with me receiving a discount. We planned on taking the 9:05 AM local to NYP. Once our train was announced we went down to our assigned track and waited for our train which did arrive after a few minutes. It was a double Decker variety what I'm use to seeing on our Tri-Rail system here in South Florida. We left right on time and made all stops along the way, arriving at Penn at 10:32 AM. Waiting for us on the platform was Alan Burden who agreed to be our tour guide for the day. He wanted to know what we wanted to see or do while in the city. I've been to NYC before, but never around Christmas, and my wife has never been their before at all. We did quite a bit of the regular tourist things for my wife like going inside Macy's and looking in their windows, ground zero, Rockefeller Center, Time Square, Grand Central Terminal which my wife even found impressive even though she is not crazy about train stations, and Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Of course to get to all of these places and a few others we used the subways. My wife found the subway interesting especially on our ride from Penn Station down to the South Fairy station on the #1 train, as we were serenaded by a group of gentleman obviously after tips.
We also took a round trip on the Staten Island Ferry with a round trip on the Staten Island Railroad all the way to Tottenville, which didn't make my wife too happy as she didn't know it was approx 45 minutes each way on the Staten Island Railroad. Of course I loved it, and Alan was doing his best to try and find things that would make both of us happy and I do have to say he did an excellent job with this.
While in New York I told Alan I was after two types of food some great New York pizza and some great NY deli sandwiches. I do have to say he did his best to fill both of these requests. For lunch we ate at Rosa's Pizza in Penn station, and for a late dinner we wound up eating at Lindys right next to the Hotel Pennsylvania. I have to say both of these places were quite excellent for what they had. One thing I must say for Lindy's is that I had has to be one of the most expensive deli sandwiches I've ever bought, however, it was also one of the biggest sandwiches I've ever seen. Half of which was breakfast for the next morning in our hotel room.
Unfortunately after a long day of sight seeing and of course subway riding, our day in New York was over. Alan went with us back to Penn Station making sure we got back on our NJ Transit train back towards Trenton and our rental car back to our hotel in Philadelphia. This time we took an express leaving NYC at 10:56 PM arriving Trenton right on time at 12:05 AM. This was also a double decker variety train as well. After Alan made sure we were on our way he took a Long Island Railroad train back to his house in Queens. I received a call from Alan around Newark stating he was already home. We were not as fortunate as we did not get back to our hotel until around 12:30 AM.
After the next few days of visiting other family members and friends our time in the area was over, and it was time for us to return to warm sunny South Florida.
Tuesday Dec. 29, 2009We checked out of our hotel, made a stop for lunch and a quick stop to pick up some great Philadelphia hoagies from a local sandwich shop. We also made a quick visit to see a friend which wound up being a slightly longer visit than expected, before we made our way to center city Philadelphia and 30th Street train station for our ride home. We wanted to arrive approx 1 hour in advance of our train which was suppose to leave at 4:58 PM. This was train 97 the Silver Meteor. Unfortunately, we did not get to the station until 4:25 PM. My wife and I were slightly nervous as we still had to return the rental car and check bags. After we rushed to do all of this we learned our train was running approx 1 hour 10 minutes late anyway, all of the rushing we did was for nothing and in the end we had to sit around in the main concourse and wait with the others.
Our train was announced for departure and a Red Cap escorted us down stairs to trackside. As we were getting off the elevator our train was just pulling in. This is where it started to get a little confusing. The redcap asked, "where do these folks go heading for Florida?" One attendant had us going down a couple of coaches to another attendant who seemed to be confused as we were asking, "is this the door for Florida?" He said, "no this is for Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia." He had us go back to the original door, and yet again that attendant was a little confused, but sat us anyway. It doesn't appear that these folks had all of there ducks in a row.
Well anyway they had us go all the way to the back of that particular car, and sat us where they would normally put wheelchair passengers. One huge plus was this space was great since it gave us more than enough room for all of our carryons and of course my guide dog and my bed for the night, but you'll have to read on to find out more about that.
The only problems I saw with these seats were:
We finally left Washington at 8:15 PM and headed on to our next stop in Alexandria where we arrived at 8:38 PM and left at 8:43 PM. After that my wife and I decided to head for the club car for our dinner. We remembered our dinner experience on the northbound trip, and did not want to have a repeat performance. I had mentioned that on our way to the train station in Philadelphia we had stopped and gotten some Philadelphia hoagies, so that was our dinner. They were absolutely wonderful. We made good time with only a few slow downs for freights, and possibly other Amtrak trains. We finally did arrive in Richmond where my wife took Watson outside for the evening. I am not sure exactly what time this happened but I know it was around 11:00 PM. After we left Richmond it was time to get ready for bed.
I was trying to figure out how I was going to sleep in one seat, and then I surveyed our huge floor space and realized that, if I could stretch out properly and make a comfortable "bed" I could sleep on the floor. That was exactly what I did. I took my wife's and my winter coats and spread them out on the floor against the wall near the window along with a sweat shirt and propped up my travel pillow along with the pillow that Amtrak gives. I used a small blanket to cover up with, along with putting up the leg rests and was able to stretch out as far as I wanted with my legs sliding under the seat, and was out like a light. Once again I do believe it was the motion of the train and me being so tired; I didn't care. I'm sure during the night people passing through our car and the conductors saw me and made comments like I can't believe that guy is on the floor sleeping, but nobody bothered me all night. The real question was will we be called the polar express again or would we be warm? I was aware waking up a few times once while we were moving and once while we stopped, but both times at night I did feel wonderful warm heat.
Tuesday Dec. 30, 2009
I finally woke sometime around 6:40 AM and felt pretty good, feeling like I got a fairly good amount of sleep. While all those folks including my wife were cramped up sitting in seats I got some decent sleep; at least a good six hours or so.
After taking stock and getting myself situated I decided to go for some breakfast deciding to give the diner another try. I tried to convince my wife to go with me, but she opted to stay in her seat and get some more sleep. Before I entered the diner I decided to sit in the club car and see if somebody could tell me how late we were running since I knew we were still running late before going to sleep. I saw a conductor and asked, and he told me we were running right on time, and would probably get in to JAX a little early. I couldn't believe it, but figured there must have been some padding in the schedule overnight. After a few more minutes I finally decided to go for that breakfast.
Upon entering the diner there was a small line, and we had to wait. While waiting I struck up a conversation with a mother and her daughter who boarded in Trenton going to Fort Lauderdale. Once I was next in line to be seated the LSA saw Watson, and said, "sir, I'm trying to find you a spot for you and your guide dog." He asked me if I could possibly come back later when more seats would be available. I told him absolutely not! I'd been waiting just like everybody else, and for quite a extended period of time, and I expected a seat just like everybody else. Since he saw I was not going to take that for an answer he left and tried to fit me in. The lady with the daughter standing behind me said "Good for you. I would have demanded the same thing." At least somebody saw things my way.
After a few minutes I was seated but was told to expect other people to sit with me as the diner was pretty full. I had no problem with this. Almost immediately a server came over and asked me if I would like coffee, and I answered, "yes please." When he came back he also took my order. I already had my mind made up to have the French toast one of my personal favorites on any Amtrak train and a side of bacon. Right after he took my order sure enough I got my table mates, and it wound up being the mother and her daughter. I was quite happy with this as I was pretty friendly with them while standing in line. My food came in only a few minutes and it was delicious just like it should be. Quite a noticeable difference from my dinner experience on the north bound trip. While I was finishing up my meal I got a call from my brother in Maryland who just wanted to know how the trip was going. I had to give him the brief version as my cell phone died. I guess there is not much service in Georgia.
After my breakfast I went and sat in the club car while my table mates went back to their coach and their seats. I could not find an empty seat, and saw this lady sitting alone and asked if I could join her. She said "sure." I found out her name was Janis and she was traveling to Miami to see her sister. She said she boarded in WAS and was loving the train. She said she travels by train at least twice a year and would never fly. While sitting and talking to Janis my wife called and could not figure out where I was. I promptly told her, "well, I'm not far. I'm still on the train." This did not get a nice response from her at all. Janis asked me if everything was ok, and I said, "oh, sure. Just the wife." Janis then went in to about a 15 minute dialogue about her two divorces, and said this is why she'll never marry again. I found this all quite interesting, and very quickly found out people on a train will tell you things that you'll probably never hear on any other mode of travel.
While still sitting with Janis (and I got her to change subjects) we came in to the Jacksonville station at 9:05 AM understanding this was approx 15 minutes early. So that conductor was right on from what he said before. While sitting in the station I knew we had quite awhile to be there and went back to my seat to get my wife and have her take Watson out and for all of us to stretch our legs. The conductor said that we'd be leaving at 9:45 AM but they wanted everybody back on by 9:35 AM. I couldn't figure out why we needed to be on 10 minutes before departure time. Well, we left JAX right on time at 9:45 AM.
An attendant came by and introduced himself as Thomas and wished us a pleasant trip. I would assume he didn't know we boarded last night, and had been traveling almost 1000 miles already? Also the conductor came on the PA and welcomed all of us aboard. He gave us a rundown of all the stops down to Miami. I figured this had to be a new crew that boarded in JAX with the exception of our attendant who I finally saw later. I sat with my wife for a little bit, but got bored and went back to the club car and got some coffee. I found an empty table this time, but it was not empty for long.
After a few minutes of just sitting and relaxing a lady came by and asked if she could sit with me. I said, "sure thing." After a conversation started, I found her name was Tyeasha and she works in a homeless woman's shelter. I found this interesting, and she told me all sorts of stories about the women who have come and gone, and some of the lows and highs of her type of work. I told her what I did, and she was quite fascinated on how I can teach computers as well as the groups for the blind that I'm involved in. The entire time I spent with this lady turned in to a 3 and 1/2 hour conversation. The time just flew by. I know we made all of our stops in Palatka, DeLand, Winter Park and Orlando, but can not remember the exact times as I neglected to write them down. I do know we had some slow running just south of DeLand and came to a complete stop in the former station in Sanford.
In Sanford an announcement was made that our train would just be sitting there probably a good 15 minutes, but I could not hear it. I found out later from another passenger we had a loose cable and in Orlando they were going to try and fix it. They thought it had something to do with the power from the HEP to the cars. Sure enough when we came in to Orlando the power was cut and we sat in Orlando for 25 minutes which is longer than what is normally called for at this stop. Also at this time I went back to my seat and got off the train with my wife to stretch our legs once again. After we left Orlando we made it back up to track speed, and I thought "OK, no more delays", but that was not the end of the power problems. Right after our Kissimmee station stop we came to a stop once again, and the power was cut ... yes ... once again. This time I could hear the announcement, and they ensured us this was only a minor issue and that we'd be on our way shortly. After about another 5 minutes the power was turned back on and we resumed our trip. We never experienced anymore power problems or for that matter any additional delays.
While sitting with my wife and just talking, a younger kid about the age of 12 came over and asked if he could pet my guide dog. Since he was not on his harness I said, "sure." He sure liked my dog, and dogs in general, telling me he had two pet dogs at home. He told me his name was Nick, and he was traveling with his dad to WPB our final stop, and then they were going to Port Saint Lucie where they live. We continued to make our way south passing through our stops in Winter Haven, and Sebring only dwelling at those stops long enough to load and unload passengers and their bags. After Sebring Nick came back and asked if my wife could take a picture with him and Watson. I thought that was neat and she had no problem taking the picture.
Finally at about 4:53 PM the conductor came on to announce West Palm was next, and that was our cue to get our things together. We finally came around the curve passing by the Mangonia Park station for Tri-Rail and finally came to a stop in West Palm Beach at 5:08 PM, only 10 minutes late. I thought this was pretty good considering our power problems we had before. We said goodbye to our attendant, but did not tip her as we barely saw her. After the train left since, WPB and all stops south are discharge only, we started the process of reclaiming our luggage. After we got our bags we said goodbye to Nick and his dad. My wife's uncle picked us up so we could get our car which was at his house and finally we went home.
I found this trip quite enjoyable and would definitely travel by Amtrak again. My wife once again found the trip south to be just as relaxing as the north, and she said she would travel by train again. In fact, after we got home she said that she would consider possibly traveling cross country by train if she could have a sleeper compartment.
I would like to thank several people for making this trip what it was. I want to first thank my wife for allowing me to take this trip as this is something that I've always wanted to do for quite awhile, and had to experience. I want to thank Alan Burden for being an excellent host for us in New York City and being a blast to hang out with. I also want to thank all the crews and the wonderful other passengers who I talked to who made this trip quite enjoyable. I want to also thank all of the other folks who helped me quite a bit during the planning process of this trip to make it quite successful and fun.