Black mold in my Amtrak cabin — how about a refund?

Here’s a case where a ticket contract and the reality of an experience find themselves on a head-on collision of sorts. And I’m kinda in the middle.

Heather Ormsbee and her family of four recently took Amtrak’s California Zephyr from Salt Lake City to Chicago. But when they boarded the train, they were shocked at the conditions.
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The Travel Troubleshooter: Help, my Amtrak tickets were accidentally canceled

Question: I’ve been trying to resolve a problem with Amtrak, and have spent hours on “hold.” I need your help.

I recently purchased Amtrak tickets to Reno, Nev., on my American Express card. I paid $156 for the roundtrip ticket and in return, I received 11,000 rewards points, which allowed me to buy another roundtrip ticket.

There was a misunderstanding when I booked the second ticket, and my first ticket was somehow canceled.

I didn’t find out about the cancellation until I went to the train station in Emeryville to get my tickets. An Amtrak agent said I would have to spend another $236 for a ticket.

Since then, I’ve spent countless hours on the phone, including a three-way call between Amex, Amtrak and myself, to try to get this sorted out. They’ve asked me to mail proof of payment and proof that I’ve taken the trip, which I have done.

I just received a message from Amtrak that they will not refund the ticket. I have disputed the charge with American Express. Now what? — Mel Jung, San Rafael, Calif.

Answer: When the erroneous cancellation was discovered, Amtrak should have found a way to reinstate them at the same price. That would have fixed the problem and prevented you from having to spend half an eternity on the phone to chase down a refund (your time is more valuable than that).
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Case dismissed: A vacation headed down the wrong track

Lynn Prater missed her train.

It’s worse than that, actually. There never was a train to miss, and she thinks her travel agent is to blame.

Here’s the setup: Prater had booked a cruise with American Cruise Lines from Jacksonville to Charleston, with a brief stay in Orlando first.

My agent indicated that traveling between Orlando and Jacksonville would be no problem because an Amtrak train leaving around midday could get me to Jacksonville in time for my sailing.

After booking the air, she then found that she had read the train tables incorrectly. The train did not begin to run between Orlando and Jacksonville at the specified time until early April.

Furthermore, she found that the cruise was leaving earlier than she had thought, at 3 p.m., which would not make it possible to do what I had originally intended in Orlando.

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Amtrak is all aboard with electronic ticketing in 2011

One of the most common complaints I get from Amtrak customers is about their tickets. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation uses old-school paper tickets that have cash value. I asked Matt Hardison, Amtrak’s chief for sales distribution and customer service, about the ticket troubles, and how to solve them.

What are the rules regarding lost tickets on Amtrak?

Most consumers have forgotten the days when tickets essentially had cash value. Today, there are almost no conventional tickets for the airlines anymore. Consequently, Amtrak is one of the last intercity modes of travel whose tickets still have value – what we call “value documents” – and for now our policies still need to reflect that.
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Help, I’ve lost my train tickets!

Question: I’m trying to get a refund for lost train tickets, and I need your help. I bought two Amtrak tickets for my sister and me to travel from Osceola, Iowa, to Denver, recently. Then I discovered that my husband, thinking that the envelope contained old information from a recent Amtrak trip I’d taken to Colorado, threw the tickets away.

When I contacted Amtrak, I was told that “lost tickets are lost money” and I would have to pay the conductor on the train for the lost tickets. If I found the tickets within a year, I could have a cash refund minus 10 percent or use them for future travel within that year.

Of course, I will not find those tickets because they went out with the garbage. Is there any suggestion that you could give me so that I do not have to pay twice for the same tickets? I’m really frustrated. — Diane Stephany, Des Moines, Iowa

Answer: Amtrak should be able to reissue your ticket without charging more. In fact, when I reviewed your letter, I though this must be a simple misunderstanding. How could any travel company issue a paper ticket in 2009?

Then again, we’re talking about Amtrak.

Don’t get me wrong. I think passenger rail is the future of transportation. Light rail and high-speed trains are more efficient, greener alternatives to fossil-fuel consuming cars and trucks. I take the train whenever it’s an option — which, unfortunately, isn’t very often.

Virtually all airline tickets are now electronic, meaning that you don’t get a real ticket, but a confirmation number. When you arrive at the airport, you check in and are issued a boarding pass by the airline. Amtrak should be able to implement a similar system.

Still, Amtrak is clear about its ticket policy. “Your tickets have value,” it warns on its Web site. “Please safeguard your tickets as you would cash. Amtrak is not liable for lost, stolen, misplaced or destroyed tickets.”

I checked into Amtrak’s refund rules. When you lose a ticket, Amtrak requires the purchase of a replacement ticket. Some travelers who buy a more expensive ticket are eligible for a partial refund of the second fare by filling out a lost ticket refund application, either online or through a station agent.

But there’s a $75 service fee and a five-month waiting period, to assure that the original tickets were never used.

Next time you travel by train, keep your tickets locked up somewhere safe with your passports and other valuables. Treat them as if they’re cash. I hope Amtrak can find a better way of handling tickets in the future, but until it does, you have to work within the system.

I contacted Amtrak on your behalf. As a one-time exception to this policy, it offered you and your sister a travel voucher for the total value of the original tickets that were accidentally thrown away.