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High-speed rail efforts gain momentum across the country

6 hrs.

The fields of north-central Illinois may seem like an unlikely backdrop to showcase the future of the nation’s transportation system, but for fans of high-speed rail, they may have done just that.

On Friday, a train on Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor traversed those fields at a speed of 111 mph., 40 percent faster than the line’s normal top speed of 79 mph and faster than any U.S. train outside Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

“It was interesting to see how smooth the transition was from 79 to (111),” said Josh Kauffman, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, who was on the train, along with other officials, including Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

“It was an historic ride,” said Kauffman, “and we’re extremely pleased with the results.”

It was also, perhaps, an unintended acknowledgment of the fact that, after years of high hopes, high-speed rail in the U.S. remains a slow-going affair. Despite the celebratory mood aboard Friday’s train, it’s worth noting that the “historic” high-speed ride only covered 15 miles of the 285-mile route and that extending the service will take years and billions of dollars.

“People keep talking about top speed, but what really matters to travelers is average speed — the trip time itself,” said Kenneth Orski, publisher of transportation newsletter “Innovation Briefs,” and a former DOT official. “Even with billions of dollars in improvements, the average speed won’t improve that much.”

Still, efforts to expand the nation’s high-speed rail offerings continue. Among the most recent developments:

  • Last month, Amtrak ran several tests along its Northeast Corridor, running Acela Express trains at speeds of up to 165 mph — current top speed is 135 mph — on four sections of track in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, as part of efforts to raise regular service speeds to 160 mph by 2017.
  • Earlier this year, trains on Amtrak’s Wolverine service between Chicago and Pontiac, Mich., began running at 110 mph on a 90-mile section between Porter, Ind., and Kalamazoo. At build-out, officials hope to cut travel time between Chicago and Detroit to less than four hours.
  • In California, plans to build an 800-mile high-speed train line between Los Angeles and San Francisco moved forward last month after the federal government approved a section of the route between Merced and Fresno. Construction is expected to start next year, although several lawsuits have already been filed against the project.

Ironically, perhaps, such projects come at a time when train travel in the U.S. in general is at a crossroads. On the one hand, Amtrak carried 31.2 million passengers during the last 12 months, the highest annual ridership total in the company’s 41-year history. On the other, funding for multi-billion-dollar projects is increasingly uncertain at a time of budget cutbacks, ballooning deficits and a presidential election defined by two diametrically opposed views of government.

In the meantime, riders on the Chicago-St. Louis corridor may take solace in the fact that Amtrak expects to begin offering regular 110 mph service on that 15-mile stretch by Thanksgiving and on 75 percent of the route by 2015, cutting trip times by more than an hour.

“The difference between 79 and 110 mph isn’t necessarily all that much, but at 110, the number of people they can carry improves dramatically,” said Rod Diridon Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. “At that point, it really begins to compete with short-hop air travel.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

1 day

Xiaohwa the cat bolted at JFK Terminal 4 on October 18.

Search is on for lost cat at JFK’s Terminal 4

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Google cameras map popular Grand Canyon trails

3 hrs.

Rick Bowmer / AP

In this photo from Monday, Google product manager Ryan Falor walks with the Trekker during a demonstration for the media, along the Bright Angel Trail at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

Google and its street-view cameras already have taken users to narrow cobblestone alleys in Spain using a tricycle, inside the Smithsonian with a push cart and to British Columbia’s snow-covered slopes by snowmobile.

The search giant now has brought its all-seeing eyes — mounted for the first time on a backpack — down into the Grand Canyon, showcasing the attraction’s most popular hiking trails on the South Rim and other walkways.

It’s the latest evolution in mapping technology for the Mountain View, Calif., company, which has used a rosette of cameras to photograph thousands of cities and towns in dozens of countries for its Street View feature. With a click of the mouse, Internet users are transported virtually for a 360-degree view of locales they may have read about only in tourist books and seen in flat, 2-D images.

“Any of these sort of iconic, cultural, historical locations that are not accessible by road is where we want to go,” said Ryan Falor, product manager at Google.

Google announced the trekker earlier this year but made its first official collection of data this week at the Grand Canyon.

The backpacks aren’t ready for volunteer use, but Google has said it wants to deploy them at national forests, to the narrow streets of Venice, Mount Everest and to ancient ruins and castles.

The move to capture the Grand Canyon comes after Apple chose to drop Google Maps from its mobile operating systems and opted to use its own mapping program that was derided for, among other things, poor directions and missing towns.

Steve Silverman, operations manager for Google didn’t directly address the competition in saying: “Just trying to document a trail, it’s going to be hard to beat this.”

Google launched its Street View feature in 2007 and has expanded from five U.S. cities to more than 3,000 in 43 countries. Google teams and volunteers have covered more than 5 million miles with the Street View vehicles on a scale that other companies haven’t approached, said Mike Dobson, president of Telemapics, a company that monitors mapping efforts.

“You could safely say that it’s a standout, well-used application and they don’t really have any competition,” he said.

As the sun rose Monday, Luc Vincent, Google engineering director, strapped on one of the 40-pound backpacks and set down the Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River — a nearly 10-mile hike that goes from 6,900 feet in elevation to 2,400 feet. He hiked back up from Phantom Ranch, which can be 30 degrees warmer than at the rim, through the South Kaibab Trail and also gathered data on other trails.

The so-called trekker captures images every 2.5 seconds with 15 cameras that are 5 megapixels each from the rest areas, the steep switchbacks, the change from juniper trees to scrub brush and the traffic that moves aside as a courtesy to mule riders.

The GPS data is limited, so Google must compensate with sensors that record temperature, vibrations and the orientation of the device as it changes, before it stitches the images together and makes them available to users in a few months, Falor said.

Hikers that were on the trail when the data was gathered will have their faces blurred — an attempt by Google to ensure privacy. Street View has run into problems in places like Europe and Australia for scooping up information transmitted over unsecured wireless networks.

A removable hard drive on the trekker stores the data gathered at the Grand Canyon. Tourists looked at the trekker strangely this week, as if it was something from outer space.

Sharon Kerfoot, a first-time visitor from Alberta said being able to view the terrain ahead of time, gauge the difficulty of the hike and know just how wide the path is would benefit those considering a trip to the Grand Canyon. She and a group of friends headed down the same path as Vincent but on mules, not foot.

“I think it’s an excellent idea to give people a broader perspective on what they’re getting into,” she said.

What the images won’t tell visitors is how much water they should carry down the trails, how to prepare for temperature changes, what type of food to bring and how much, and how best to protect the natural resources, park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge said.

“Stitched together with other information out there, the technology could be valuable,” she said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

6 hrs.

High-speed rail efforts gain momentum across the country

1 day

Xiaohwa the cat bolted at JFK Terminal 4 on October 18.

Search is on for lost cat at JFK’s Terminal 4

2 days

Woman who jumped overboard from cruise ship rescued

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Tips for traveling with grandchildren

We know how you feel — your grandchildren are perfect, adorable little angels who bring you and the rest of the world nothing but joy. And if they don’t, you can always give them back to their parents, right? Not if you decide to travel with them!

Still, if quick visits and even overnights leave you longing for more time with your grandchildren, consider traveling with them. More and more seniors are finding that trips with their grandchildren are great bonding experiences filled with wonderful memories — if planned carefully.

Talk to their parents
Talking with your grandchild’s parents is the first step in planning a successful trip. The parents will know if their child is ready to be away from home without them, and they will be valuable resources when planning the destination and activities their children tend to enjoy. Children bore easily, so it is important to know what really piques their interests. Your grandchild’s parents will also be able to tell you about sleeping and eating schedules, and it is best that you try to stick to these, even on vacation. Children thrive when they know what to expect and are most comfortable in a routine.

Do a test run
Even if you and the child’s parents agree that he or she is ready to travel, have a test run. After all, you won’t know about homesickness until you’re already away from home, and it is best to find out if your grandchild is miserable away from his or her parents on a day trip rather than a weekend-long vacation. If you’ve never spent time with your grandchild without his or her parents, this is a good opportunity to do just that. Take the child to the zoo or to the beach and see how it goes. If it doesn’t go well, maybe your grandchild isn’t ready to travel with you, or maybe you just need to warm up to a long weekend with several more day trips.

A test run will also help you assess your own limits. Remember, children have seemingly endless energy and are difficult to keep up with. If you find yourself wiped out after just a few hours, you may need to either scale back on your travel plans or wait until the child is a little older.

Prepare, prepare, prepare
After you have decided on a destination, explain to your grandchildren where you will be going and what they can expect from your trip. Will they be traveling by plane? What sort of a place will they be staying in? Children are at their best when they know what to expect and surprises are at a minimum.

Make sure your grandchildren have proper identification, including contact information, on them at all times during the trip, and be sure to have a recent photo of them in case they get lost. You should also have a notarized authorization form from your grandchild’s parents in case he or she needs medical attention. Make sure you are crystal clear on medications and dosages if your grandchild will be taking any during the trip.

Get the kids excited
Read about the chosen destination with your grandchildren and then ask them what they hope to get out of the trip. That way, everyone’s expectations can be discussed and (hopefully) met.

When we asked for tips from our members on this topic, Travelmommy told us her parents have taken several trips with her young children and the experience has been very positive. “Usually my folks send a card before the trip with a map or a picture of where they plan to take the kids, but last time they sent a video,” she said. The video they sent was called “Shae by Air,” and Travelmommy told us the video was instrumental in preparing her children and getting them excited for a flight with their grandparents. “The premise of the DVD,” she said, “is that children, even small ones, have the capacity to understand what to expect and what is expected of them, and with that the ability to be respectful, good little travelers.”

If you’re looking for organized travel opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren, check out the family programs from Road Scholar or the Sierra Club’s multigenerational trips. Lindblad Expeditions offers family-friendly and learning-intensive expedition cruises to destinations around the world. (Read more about six reasons you’ll love an expedition cruise.)

If an organized tour is too cost-prohibitive, consider going it alone. How about camping at a national park? Not only do seniors enjoy deep discounts at the parks, but there are plenty of kid-friendly activities like hiking and wildlife viewing. Had something a little more relaxing in mind? Rent a vacation house at the beach — kids never seem to tire of the ocean and the sand. Remember it’s not as much about where you go as it is about the memories created from the time spent together.

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Search is on for lost cat at JFK’s Terminal 4

1 hr.

Remember Jack the Cat?

The former stray made headlines and more than 24,000 Facebook friends last year after escaping from a pet carrier in Terminal 4 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport that was bound for an American Airlines flight to California. Two months later, Jack fell through a ceiling panel in a customs area in JFK’s Terminal 8. But by then he was so ill that, despite extensive veterinary care, he was euthanized 12 days later.

Courtesy Jerry Cheung

Xiaohwa the cat bolted at JFK Terminal 4 on October 18.

Now another cat has escaped at JFK, and the cat lovers at Where is Jack, Inc. — the non-profit formed to honor Jack’s legacy — are concerned that neither the airline involved, China Airlines, nor officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are actively searching for the pet or giving her owners adequate information. 

On Thursday, four-year old Xiaohwa (the cat’s name means “little flower” in Chinese) was being checked in for China Airlines Flight 19 to Taiwan by a friend bringing the cat to its owner. But Xiaohwa bolted when the traveler removed her so security officers could inspect the pet carrier.

“We called Terminal 4 to ask people to look around,” a China Airlines employee told NBC News after the passenger reported the cat had escaped. “That’s all we could do,” the spokesperson said, as the passenger didn’t have a picture of the animal.

Xiaohwa has been missing since Thursday. Her owner, Iris Yu, says she’s having a hard time finding out what is being done to find her pet.

“I am so worried and wondering where she is,” Yu told NBC News from her home in Taiwan. “I have been calling the Port Authority and the airline every day trying to ask for details about the search, but they just tell me to wait.” Yu moved to Taiwan 10 months ago and paid $120 for a ticket for the cat to travel with her friend as excess baggage. She spent hundreds of dollars more for documents, health exams and other travel preparations for the cat.

Yu’s boyfriend, Jerry Cheung, lives in Brooklyn and has also been trying to get information about the cat’s whereabouts. “After the incident we were told it’s the airline’s responsibility but the airline’s phone just kept on ringing with no answer for several days,” he said.

The Port Authority told Cheung it would put out some small animal traps with food and “wait it out.”

“This is what they did with Jack and it didn’t work,” said Mary Beth Melchior, founder of Where is Jack, Inc., which has offered the airport help for active searches of lost pets. “Passive searches for lost cats rarely, if ever, result in finding the animal in a timely manner that allows the animal to remain healthy,” she told NBC News.

Although Xiaohwa has a microchip and has a history of being street savvy, she may have already used several of her nine lives. Yu and Chueng adopted the cat after seeing and feeding her for two years on the streets in their neighborhood. They took her in when she was sick and pregnant and nursed her back to health despite a veterinarian’s suggestion that the animal be euthanized.

In September, the Port Authority approved plans for construction of a $32 animal handling facility at JFK that will handle up to 70,000 domestic and wild animals annually and “set new national airport standards for comprehensive veterinary, kenneling and quarantine services.”

Find more by Harriet Baskas on and follow her on Twitter

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Most common travelers’ tipping mistakes

54 min.

Photo © iStock

A few coins can cause a lot of drama.

College professor Gene McManus was having a quick dinner in Sydney and had just gotten back his change from a sarcastic waiter. “I thought, I’ll show you, I’ll leave a 2-cent tip,” says the Canadian, “so I left these two small, ugly coins that looked like Life Savers.” The next day he returned to the restaurant and was greeted enthusiastically and shown to the best table. “Turns out that ugly coin was a $2 coin,” says McManus. “I’d tipped $4 on a $12 bill.”

The most ironic part of the story? McManus’ waiter likely wasn’t even expecting 2 cents—because in Australia, restaurant patrons rarely tip at all.

Since travel offers us countless opportunities to thank those who ease the way for us (valets, drivers, bartenders), it also offers myriad chances for making tipping mistakes. And though most of us have made the occasional gaffe—unintentionally stiffing a deserving hotel housekeeper, for instance, or expecting a tipee to make change—learning from these can ensure a more rewarding travel experience for everyone involved.

“Tipping is part of your vacation, and it’s also part of doing business when you travel—and you need to budget for it,” says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and the owner of the Protocol School of Texas. “You’re tipping for the moment, and for future service—so that they will remember you the next time.”

Her rule of thumb for traveling overseas? When in doubt, ask a concierge or guide for local tipping protocol. In the U.S., she advises, “If they touch it, you tip them.“

If it’s any comfort to tip-happy Americans, people from other countries are often just as clueless about tipping when they come to our shores.

One Australian travel insurance agency has even decided that their clients need educating: “Since Australians don’t tip at home, there is great angst about it, and they have come to blows over it,” says Phil Sylvester of the Sydney-based World Nomads Group. “We finally decided it was a safety issue that needed addressing—as in, ‘Don’t get into a fight, learn to tip.’”

More from Executive Travel:

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