Travel Troubleshooter: Amtrak comes up far short

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3H

We recently traveled on Amtrak's California Zephyr from Chicago to Sacramento. It was not good.

When we entered the sleeper bedroom, it was apparent that the visual depiction on the Amtrak website was a gross exaggeration. The condition of the car was very poor.

We realized the latch on the bathroom door had a problem. When my wife tried to operate the latch from inside the bathroom, she found she was trapped. The door could be opened only from the outside.

We discussed this with the attendant and she said she could move us to the only remaining bedroom available. We decided that would be the best, so we moved to another bedroom.

The new room was no better. The carpet was soaked. An attendant told us that a drink was spilled in that room and gave us towels to put on the floor as a second carpet. It didn't work too well. We had to keep our shoes on or suffer wet feet whenever we were in the room.

Both bedrooms were decrepit. They looked worn out and unclean. We were told when we booked that we would have to change cars in Denver, so we decided we could suffer through one night.

Our bedroom in Denver was even worse. The stench inside the car was almost unbearable. As cellphone service would allow in the mountains, I contacted Marriott and secured a room for the night in Salt Lake City. I also called the airline and got a flight the next day. When we arrived at Salt Lake City around midnight, we left the train and continued with our trip.

I've written to Amtrak, asking for a refund. It sent me two vouchers for $400. I want my money back. Can you help?

– David Battas, Indianapolis

Amtrak knows the first-class service on its Zephyr needs a little work. According to a September 2010 Performance Improvement Plan, an upgrade of its trains is under way, but not in time for your trip.

Amtrak's refund policy on unused tickets can be found on its website ( ContentServer?c=Page&pagename=am/Layout&cid= 1241267362242).

The company is technically right: Your accommodation charge wouldn't have been refundable in your situation, since you canceled your trip less than seven days before departing. There's no mention of partial refunds for those who disembark before the end of the trip.

But that's beside the point. Amtrak promises a "more luxurious experience" on the Zephyr, which it calls "one of the most beautiful train tips in all of North America."

Maybe it's just referring to the outdoor scenery.

Could this have been avoided? Maybe. Online reviews on the Zephyr are mixed, at best. Reading them might have led you to avoid the experience, or at least wait until renovations were done.

Clearly, you were sold a bill of goods. Amtrak's terms don't apply because it breached its contract, giving you a substandard product for your fare. You're owed a full refund.

I contacted Amtrak on your behalf, and it agreed. It refunded your entire train ticket.

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