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I have a hate-hate relationship with Amtrak. I think the last time I rode their train line was in college, commuting between Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo for the occasional visit home, and every trip seemed pure torture. This was before the days of online ticket purchases, on-board Wi-Fi, smartphones and tablets. Years before the rise of the iPod, I was lucky to get a seat with a working outlet to plug in my portable CD player. But what irked me most were the delays and the lack of communication from Amtrak, often waiting over an hour for my train to arrive.
Fast forward to present day, and we have smartphones that alert us when a train is delayed. We can purchase tickets and track trains with the flick of the thumb, now made even easier with apps from the very companies that provide the transportation. Amtrak’s new Android app, for instance, lets you search and buy tickets, track itineraries and trains, find nearby stations and view travel schedules. If only I’d had this Amtrak app in college.
In the spirit of trains, planes and automobiles, we’re going to review Amtrak’s app in comparison to other transport service apps: Megabus USA and United Airlines. We’re going to see which app provides the best service and will get us to our destination with the least amount of stress possible. Sorry, these apps won’t necessarily help you reach your destination faster.
Amtrak offers services, few resources
Starting with Amtrak, their new Android app does three things that will save you time. You can search and purchase tickets right from the app, pull up your travel itinerary and track train and bus schedules, and use your phone as your ticket. When purchasing multiple tickets you can even select passengers from your contacts, and add trips to your calendar, which can also be shared.
There are three ways to search for a train or station: scroll through Amtrak’s list, type in a city or search nearby. I had trouble with the local search, which failed to pull up any stations despite the nearest being less than 23 miles away.
Another perk of the app that won’t necessarily save you time but could save you money is access to your Guest Rewards, redeemable for ticket upgrades and discounts for hotels, car rentals, cruises and more.
Megabus USA: as streamlined as its routes
While the Amtrak app is a great development for the train industry, the very thought of riding on a train seems archaic. The bus isn’t much better, but one company in particular has made bus travel much cheaper and a lot more convenient. Megabus turned bus travel on its head, and was much faster than Amtrak to release an Android app. The Megabus USA app lets you plan and track trips, save multiple trips and pull up bus information such as route names, trip durations, departure cities and predicted arrival times.
This app is primarily for tracking busses and managing itineraries, which limits its convenience factor, but a recent update allows for ticket purchases in-app. Another shortcoming of the Megabus USA app is the restricted regions it supports. We’re still waiting for east, west and south central regions to be added to its tracking service.
United Airlines puts you first
The most common travel method is by air, so this has spurred the entire airline industry to offer more services through mobile apps. After all, the more customers can do through an app, the more money airlines can save on in-person services. United Airlines has been particularly proactive with their Android app, making the experience marginally more pleasant.
Like Amtrak’s Android app, United Airlines lets you search and book flights right from the app, track itineraries and access your Mileage Plus rewards. There’s even some preemptive actions you can perform through the app, such as checking-in and setting up a mobile boarding pass (e-ticket), so you can skip the lines and the kiosks once you arrive at the airport. Another very important perk is flight status push notifications, automatically sending updates for any United flight (helpful for the traveler as well as the person picking them up from the airport).
Proactivity has its benefits for United Airlines, including a string of features that haven’t made it to Amtrak’s app just yet. One such feature is a map of your airport, helping you navigate gates, restaurants, shops and United Club locations. And unlike both Amtrak and Megabus, United offers a list of amenities you’ll get in-flight, so you’ll know which planes have Wi-Fi, movies, food service, etc. And in an effort to keep stress levels low, United’s even included a Sudoku game in their app, hoping you won’t notice flight delays.
When all is said and done, I’ll probably still fly to most of my destinations. Airports are a hassle and the flight industry doesn’t seem to know up from down, but United and other airlines have put a great deal of thought into their Android apps to save you time and stress. If Amtrak turns its app into more of a resource, that would greatly add to its service-oriented capabilities. As for Megabus USA... nice to have, but not as much value.