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Riding Across The Country via Amtrak: First Impressions and Advice

mountains.JPGLast week I had a chance to return home from Washington DC by train. I chose to do so because I was going out there for an awards ceremony/trade show, and my plane ticket costs were reimbursed. I paid the difference on the return trip, and decided to see what it would be like. I've taken two road trips via car to and from DC (one lasted 2 weeks and I made stops all over the place, the other was a 3 day nightmare from DC to Seattle*), so I figured I'd see something new.

Overall the experience was pretty good. I'll talk more about specifics of the trip in another post - here I'll just throw out a few thoughts if you're considering such a journey yourself.

First, if you've ever ridden a train in Europe or Japan, the TGV in France, seen "The Orient Express," or "Strangers on a Train," take those beloved memories, put them in a safe place, and temporarily forget about them. You simply cannot compare Amtrak to any of those systems. That doesn't mean Amtrak sucks - it's just not the same. So put that aside and be open-minded.

Next, remember that to compare costs, you can't compare with an airline ticket price. An airplane can fly over any and all traffic, flies about 500 miles an hour or so, and so on. If you compare taking the train to driving a car, then you have a more apt comparison. When I drove across the country both times, I was driving alone, so I would have to stop at some point and find a Motel 6 or something and get some sleep. Add to that the cost of food along the way, and of course gasoline, oil, etc. and you start to realize driving such a long distance isn't that cheap.

Sure you could do all sorts of things to tweak the price, but here's something to consider - in a car, if you doze off or look at scenery, you can get killed. On the train, you can walk around the train, have a beer and look at scenery in the observation car, play cards, watch a movie, whatever you want to do. Also, if you do as I did and get the sleeper car, all of your meals are paid for.


Which leads me to another point: food on Amtrak isn't that bad at all. I was put off by the negative nabobs who would make jokes about the food (despite never having ridden Amtrak ever), and of course, they were wrong. Is it artisan haute cuisine with foraged shiitake mushrooms hand crafted hourly by artisans? No. But it was certainly better than what I'd end up getting in the middle of Nowhere (usually fast food), and because I was by myself, they seat you community-style, so I got to meet many of my fellow passengers. And, as a sleeper car passenger, they had a little room with free ice, free bottled water, and free juices and mixers. Not bad. The ice was useful when I wanted to chill down a couple of Old Style beers I'd picked up in Chicago.

Sleeping on the train is a challenge. If you opt out of a sleeper car (as I did for my overnight from DC to Chicago), it can be difficult. A veteran train rider who sat next to me explained all sorts of tips, but the biggest one was to bring your own light blanket, and your own small travel pillow. The seats do recline, and I saw many people doing fine, I slept maybe 3 hours. Fortunately the trip wasn't that long and I got some rest in the first class lounge in Chicago. In the sleeper cars, it's not so bad, and you have privacy too!

Other details: If you want to have a drink on the train, and get a sleeper car, bring your own on board. So long as you keep it in your cabin, they don't mind. That said, a train, which moves fast and can often be a bit bumpy when making turns, etc. is no place to be drunk or hungover. Besides, you want to be awake when all that awesome scenery, from the Rocky Mountains, to Utah, to the Sierras, can be seen - after sundown there's not a lot to see.

The best part, however, is that you get to truly see the country in a way you can't do on an airplane or in a car. You get to meet people from all walks of life, and you don't have to worry about speed traps, gas stations, etc. The staff always treat you really well, and overall, the experience is civilized, not the failwhale with wings known as air travel in many cases. (Although, my trip out to DC via Virgin America was amazing.)

The one caveat is that thanks to the geniuses in DC, et al, freight trains will always have priority on the rails, which is the cause of the great majority of delays at Amtrak. I didn't experience any myself, but this has been known to happen. (Bad weather on some lines can cause avalanches, which can delay things too).

I'll be posting some pictures on Flickr once I sort them all out ,and write about some of the specific people and things that happened on my trip later.

Comments

Thanks for the report. My wife and I took Amtrak from LA to Boston in 2005 and (except for some bumpy track in AZ and NM) it was a pleasant trip. We went first class from LA to Chicago both ways, first class to Boston and coach back to Chi-town. One of the advantages of First is that shower in the lower level of the sleeper--to avoid that "bag of dirty sweat socks" feeling when your arrive at your destination. There nothing quite like getting all fresh and clean while the BNSF main line goes zipping by between your toes! And you're so right about meeting all sorts of people in the diner and the lounge car--can't do that on one of those new-fangled flyin' machines! Not sure how the weather was during your trip, but there's such a nice, snug feeling about being in a warm, cozy train while the elements rage outside.

Thanks for the report; very interesting, makes me want to try it sometime. I was glad to read that you didn't get pre-empted by any freight trains. How long was the trip?

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