Have you ever driven over a set of train tracks and wondered what it would be like to use Amtrak train travel to travel by rail? Or maybe you’ve taken plenty of commuter trains, but never realized that you could use the same mode of transportation to see the country.
Daryle & I had taken trains in Europe, Zimbabwe and Morocco as well as the commuter trains running up and down the coast of the northeast U.S. (the train in Zimbabwe from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls was an adventure to say the least) but we hadn’t ventured to try Amtrak train travel in the U.S. – until this Fall.
We had decided it was time to visit family in Illinois and found incredibly inexpensive one-way airline tickets from Denver for $65. In an attempt to make this trip not only a family visit but a real vacation as well, we booked several days in Chicago, before heading out to family in the suburbs. We also decided to take Amtrak’s California Zephyr for the return trip – a 17-hour cruise through the heartland of America. As an experiment, we decided to forego the added fee for sleeping accommodations in favor of sleeping in our seats. We learned a few things we’d like to pass on about long-distance train travel in general and sleeping in particular.
Amazing Things About Train Travel
You don’t have to be at the station hours early like at the airport. You show up with your ticket and file on when the train arrives.
The cabins are spacious. Your seat has plenty of legroom and rows are spaced far enough apart that you can recline your seat without feeling like you are infringing on the space of the traveler behind you.
You can move around freely – get up and take a walk, get out at one of the stops along the way to stretch. There is generally an observation car and a café car as well. The observation car has swiveling lounge chairs and a curved glass-paneled ceiling for an even better view of the scenery, while the cafe car sells sandwiches, sodas, and snacks and has tables, ideal for sitting to write or for playing a game as the countryside rolls by.
Everything on a train seems relaxed.
People are generally friendly and talkative, the exact opposite of air travel, where it is highly unlikely even the person in the seat next to you says more than “hello”. The optional dining car experience is a good example. Three meals a day are available in the dining car and if you have a party of 3 or less, the dining car host will seat you with another person or group. Frequently a meal in the dining car is a brief chance to meet delightful people on a different journey and from a different place. This is one of my favorite train-travel opportunities. I always enjoy meeting people when we are traveling and hearing a bit of their story and having dinner together is a perfect opportunity.
Rather than worrying that talking to a stranger in the passageways would be awkward, it would be awkward not to talk to your dining companions. Maybe you’ll make new friends, and if you find you aren’t really enamored with their company, dinner doesn’t last that long and you can quickly escape back to your seat.
You can bring pretty much whatever you want.
Well, there are limits of course, but the luggage size and weight limits are much higher than for air travel and there are no additional fees, so you can be more liberal when packing. On our recent trip, we were allowed two large pieces and two carry-ons. Food is also allowed and since the luggage limits are more generous, it’s actually reasonable to pack a lunch.
You can enjoy the journey.
Instead of being magically transported to your destination, like in air travel, you get to see every mile in between – well, except for the part you pass through at night. This may be exactly why you prefer air travel and that is fine, but I love staring out the window at countless small towns and the “inside” of cities. Unlike highways, designed with what the traveler will see in mind, railroad planning was purely utilitarian. The train tracks are almost always through parts of town you would likely never see otherwise – you see the back sides and the alleyways, go through the factory districts and the outskirts. I find this view fascinating and can spend countless hours watching it all roll by.
Downsides Of Amtrack Train Travel
Trains are almost always late.
It’s not a way to travel if you are in a hurry and you shouldn’t plan any tight connections. I’ve been told by many people about how their train was late and both times we’ve traveled overnight, we’ve woken up to find the train still and silent (ie. not moving) for some indeterminately long period of time. Our last ride from Chicago to Denver was about an hour late, which is pretty much on-time in train terms.
As already mentioned, the train isn’t fast.
That’s the point, but if you embrace the chance to slow down, this slower pace becomes the best part of train travel. Enjoy it, bring that book you’ve been meaning to read, a journal to record the thoughts you have as you let your mind unwind or a game to play with your family or traveling companion. Eat dinner with strangers. Enjoy a drink in the café car as the world speeds by.
It’s not a particularly smooth ride.
Reading was fine, but writing a bit more challenging. However, the tables in the café car make writing and laptop work a lot more reasonable than trying to use the seat-back tables. Music and downloaded books are perfect. I spent some time working on my Spanish with Duolingo. It’s a chance for some of those things you never get around to.
The cabins are often cold.
You may want to take advantage of that extra luggage allowance to bring a blanket and make sure to dress in layers and wear or bring socks, even if it is 100 degrees outside. If you don’t want to schlep a blanket around at your destination, you should be able to pick up an inexpensive fleece blanket at Wal-Mart or another discount store for under $10. When you reach your destination, either pack it up or donate it at a charity shop.
Sleeping can be tough.
Our most recent trip was an experiment to see how well we could sleep in the regular coach seats. The answer for me was “not very well”. If you can sleep on an airplane, you can most certainly sleep on the train. However, I rarely get any sleep on an airplane, even a red-eye and I found the train seat only marginally better. The seats do recline a bit farther than airplane seats and there is a footrest that kicks out for your lower legs, but I still couldn’t get comfortable and found myself curling up on one side, then the other, then stretching out on my back, sleeping about 20 minutes each time. It was passable, but not comfortable. (The addition of the aforementioned blanket would likely have helped as well as I got colder and colder as the night went on.)
If you can afford it, get a roomette; these tiny bunk-like accommodations are surprisingly comfortable but will add several hundred dollars to your trip. If not, be prepared for a crappy night’s sleep. It’s a cheap ride and you can catch up on sleep when you arrive. On a side note, there did appear to be a good number of empty seats on our train, so depending on your route, if you’d like to take a gamble, you may be able to move around and get two seats side by side for a bit more room.
So, there you have it, the good, the bad and the ugly of Amtrak train travel in the U.S. My feeling is that most of the negatives can be mitigated with good planning (like bringing a blanket) and a relaxed travel schedule and that overall it’s a delightful way to travel that allows travelers to enjoy not just the destination, but the journey as well.
Amtrak train travel