As you like it: Rail to interior suits all tastes

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- More than a means of traveling from Seward to Anchorage, Denali and Fairbanks, riding the Alaska Railroad provides a romantic look at the golden era of U.S. rail travel as well as panoramic views of the state's interior.

The railroad dates to 1923 and carries 500,000 riders each year, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

The state-owned railroad has its own one-stop tour packaging operation, which pays 10% commission and offers volume commission incentives for net rail sales.

Alternatively, the Alaska Railroad provides hook-ups for the cruise-tour rail cars of Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean International/Cele-brity Cruises during cruise season.

The cruise-tour cars feature narration on what passengers are seeing out their windows, reserved seating in glass-domed cars and gourmet food.

HAL and Princess make space on their cars available to clients who aren't necessarily cruising with them.

The Alaska Railroad, which dates to 1923, is a scenic way for clients to travel the Frontier State. The railroad also offers agents a chance to earn 10% commission on bookings. Although the cruise lines' cars are by far the more luxurious, there's something to be said for the Alaska Railroad's traditional, less costly arrangement.

"I like to be able to move from car to car, and you can't do that with the privately owned cars," said Allen Sears, president of Nervig Travel in Panama City, Fla., who often uses the Alaska Railroad for groups.

"When you go on the Alaska Railroad, you've got a chance to meet people from Alaska," he added. "It's not just a tourist train; it's year-round transportation for people. And there's great history and stories to it."

Linda Androlia of Sunstone Tours & Cruises in Malibu, Calif., described the atmosphere aboard the Alaska Railroad cars as "low-key, funky and fun."

Small-ship cruise and independent land-tour people generally lean more toward the Alaska Railroad experience than that of the cars operated by big-ship cruise lines, Androlia said.

"You have to qualify your clients," she said.

Fortunately, it no longer has to be an either-or choice.

RailsNW, a Portland, Ore.-based rail marketing company, is paying agents 10% commission on rail tours for the first time in 2003 and can combine Alaska Railroad and Princess portions of a trip, as this season also marked the company's debut as a Princess-approved agent.

Selling Princess rail trips without the cruises "is not being done a lot," according to Thomas Horstmann, president of RailsNW, "and has certainly not been well packaged outside the cruise line," which he said is where his company comes in.

"Princess is a nice option for people looking for elevated standards and the larger windows," Horstmann said. "[But] anybody who wants a true, traditional train experience or a more affordable itinerary would want the Alaska Railroad. Or, they could do a mix of the products, with segments on each."

At the Alaska Railroad Corp. here, Susie Kiger, manager of sales and marketing, said that one of the best-selling packages, the 10-night Alaska by Daylight, includes a new train ride from Anchorage to Whittier for a day cruise on Prince William Sound.

The trip is priced at $2,072 per person, double, in value season or $2,179 during peak season, June 7 to Sept. 1.

The ride to Whittier is on the railroad's new Glacier Discovery Train service between Anchorage and Grandview, with stops in Whittier, Portage and Spencer Glacier.

Also new from Alaska Railroad: the seven-night Deluxe Alaskan Adventure Sampler ($1,598 or $1,690 per person, double), featuring the Glacier Discovery to Spencer Glacier, to either dog-mush on the glacier or kayak on Prince William Sound; and the four-night Glaciers and Hot Springs ($848 or $883 per person, double), with a night at Chena Hot Springs.

For one-way packages like the last-named two, Kiger said, "we can fly clients back to Anchorage for $132."

As for the cruise lines' steel wheels, Holland America is taking delivery of four new rail cars from the Colorado Rail Co. that will make up half its fleet in 2003. The entire fleet of eight will be new by 2004.

Paul Allen, vice president of Alaska sales and marketing for HAL, said the new cars, seating 88 passengers each, will replace 66-seat Pullman cars.

The new cars' dining rooms, he said, "will enable us to feed the entire complement of the cars in two seatings [instead of three]."

An outdoor platform at the rear of each two-car pair, four separate air-conditioning systems per car and Global Positioning Satellite-guided narration also are new features for HAL.

Holland America's rail tours may be booked through Gray Line/Holland America Tours, at 10% commission.

Horstmann of Rails NW, said he finds the Princess cars "the most comfortable," but admires Royal Celebrity's cars for being "the fanciest."

On Royal Celebrity, all seats face forward, but can be turned 360 degrees in pairs to form group settings.

In 2001, Royal Celebrity Tours became the "new guys on the block," when the firm began operations with its 85-foot Wilderness Express cars, according to Craig Milan, president of the Miami-based company.

Hallmarks of Royal Celebrity Tours' fleet of four cars are wood paneling, spiral staircase to the domed, observation level and a wheelchair lift to the dome level, a feature that Milan said still is unique in the market.

Royal Celebrity Tours started with two new cars in 2001 and added two for 2002. Milan said a decision would be made in late 2003 on whether to add more cars for 2005.

Will Royal Celebrity Tours' rail cars ever be made available to people who are not cruising with Royal Caribbean or Celebrity?

"At some point, they will," Milan said. "It depends on when we get to the point where our land capacity exceeds our ability to convert cruise passengers to the land tours. We're not at that point yet."

Also, Milan added, "One of the models of this business is we don't co-mingle [Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity] guests.

"If we move to rail only, it could impact the guest experience. So it's just not in our model right now. But never say never."

Making tracks in Alaska

Alaska Railroad
Phone: (800) 544-0552
Web:www.alaskarailroad.com

Gray Line/Holland America Tours
Phone: (800) 544-2206
Web:www.graylinealaska.com

Princess Tours
Phone: (800) PRINCESS
Web:www.princess.com

Rails NW
Phone: (800) 717-0108
Web:www.railsnw.com

Royal Celebrity Tours
Phone: (888) 307-8401
Web:www.royalcaribbean.com or www.celebritycruises.com

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