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The Travel Detective on High-Speed Trains and Smoking Bans

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Amtrak trainIt’s hard to believe—and it’s almost embarrassing to admit—that the French figured out high-speed trains in 1981.

They’re coming up on their 30th anniversary, and we’re still stuck with Amtrak.

Recently I took a ride on the TGV (the French high-speed train) from Paris to Nancy, and we were traveling nearly 200 mph.

We made the trip in an hour and a half. The only time I think Amtrak ever goes 200 mph is right before it derails.

Consider the size of the United States and the number of people who could benefit from high-speed rail; it would alleviate so much congestion at our airports on journeys under 400 miles. It becomes an economically viable alternative to go from point A to point B, as opposed to traveling on Captain Skippy flights where you have your knees up against your neck on commuter airplanes.

Check out Peter’s radio show from a TGV train in Paris here:

There is no great movement yet, though people have been talking about it for a long time. Even in the new stimulus package (after the financial debacle of last year) the money that’s been given to Amtrak—which they desperately needed—is not necessarily for high-speed rail. It’s for track maintenance to fix what they’ve got already.

French TGV TrainNow the joke about track maintenance is that Amtrak doesn’t even own the tracks! The freight trains own the tracks. That’s why Amtrak can’t ever be on time—because they’re always pulling off to the side waiting for a lumbering 100-car freight train to go by. We’ve got to fix it. We have the technology, we have the national imperative, and certainly we can learn a lot from the French. They figured this one out in 1981!

And to give you an idea of what we’re really talking about … you think the TGV train is fast? They just tested one and it went over 570 kilometers per hour! You know what? Your commuter flight doesn’t even travel that fast.

I’ve been traveling on European trains since I was 12 years old. It’s a way of life for Europeans. Millions and millions of people use them every day, and if you look at the map, it’s easy. For example, it’s easy for people who live in Brussels to commute to work every day … to Paris. It’s an hour-and-a-half ride.

Learn more with our Train Travel section. Or find out about travel in Europe with our European Travel section.


Flying planeThe global airline industry is facing $11 billion of losses this year. That’s actually $2 billion greater than they forecast it was going to be. And where we are now, coming into the final quarter of the year, is always the worst quarter for airlines, followed by the almost-worse first quarter. There’s a reason why airline bankruptcies always happen before March—because airlines literally run out of money.

So if you’re looking at airfares sales now, even with capacity cuts, now’s the time to get back out there and travel. Airfare sales are being extended in many cases through March of next year. When was the last time you heard that?

Yes, there are the traditional blackout periods of Thanksgiving and Christmas, but why would you want to travel then anyway? It’s just an obligatory dysfunctional family get-together. So other than those two blackout periods, you own the skies.

Read more from Peter’s Travel Detective Blog. Or get the latest travel news: Airline Fee Hikes, Service Cutbacks to Continue Through Fall.


Cigarette buttAs you know, we’ve had smoke-free airlines for many years—thank God—and now we have smoke-free restaurants in many cities. I think they should make smoke-free areas extend at least 500 feet away from entrances.

Why? Because when you walk into a restaurant, what’s outside the restaurant? Thirty-five smokers looking like they’re refugees. What do you see when you’re going into a train station? Smoking refugees.

At the Atlanta airport, where they have these little smoking rooms, it looks like a bad day at the zoo at feeding hour. Oh my God, the windows are brown and stained, and the people look like they’re on their last legs and desperately smoking. You want to just throw in some food and run.

Check out what happened when notoriously smoky France banned smoking in its cafes with The French Smoking Ban: Six Months Later.

At the Frankfurt airport they have the appropriately titled Camel Smoking Room. They got the name right; they just don’t need the room. And you can smell the secondhand smoke 50 feet before you ever get to the room, even if you’re not going in it.

So here’s the good news: As of January 1, Avis and Budget will become the first major rental-car companies in the U.S. to ban smoking in their entire North American fleets. And if you get caught smoking, or if they smell smoke in your car when you return it, you get hit with a fee of $250.

You know what? Why not? There have been so many times that I rented a car, and the minute I open that door, I know it’s been a chimney for someone else. It just smells terrible. There’s not enough cleaning fluid in the world—which is also toxic—that can clear up that smell. Let’s hear it for Budget and Avis.

Enterprise, National and Alamo don’t have an across-the-board smoking, but many of their franchises restrict smoking. Now what does that mean? Absolutely nothing. There are no guarantees. If you get in a car and it smells like somebody’s been smoking in there, get another car. Vote with your wallet. So congrats to Avis and Budget, and let’s see if Hertz will follow suit too.

Amtrak by the way, actually banned smoking in 1994, and of course that didn’t work too well, so now they allow it in designated areas of the auto train. Oh, please. Ban it! Get rid of it!

By Peter Greenberg for

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