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Monday, October 22, 2012

93

Train Help

Let's say someone were to travel by train through the United States for a week this fall or winter. What would be some good routes to take and/or things to keep in mind? Amtrak seems to have a good site, as far as coming up with itineraries goes, but maybe there are some more-creative options/tools out there. And what kind of clothes would someone wear, and/or people would someone meet on a long rail trip these days? Here's a little of what they're currently serving on one overnight train — the dining car menu for the Coast Starlight train, which goes from Los Angeles to Vancouver (they've also got a wine-tasting menu). Would it be sad or especially fiscally unwise to not share a sleeper car with someone?

Are trains cool? What IS cool?

93 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega

I don't want to embarrass you, Edith, but trains are a liberal myth. Joe Biden invented them in 1984. SMDH.

Verity

@deepomega Then how did I get to work and back today, hmm?

(Okay, they're probably not a liberal myth in the UK. We're all evil and socialised what with the NHS and so on, so just the place for them.)

social theory

trains are cool. you can bring your own alcohol. if you're going to do the CA coast, start in San Diego. the train basically goes along the ocean for 2 hours.

disco_clone

http://littleredboat.co.uk/archives/3226 describes a cool project Anna P did a couple of years ago on Amtrak. But the main site where she wrote about the entire journey seems to be no longer maintained :(
Edit: oh no wait! It's here! http://snailrproject.tumblr.com/

disco_clone

@disco_clone oh and it features a train crash, nbd

Anne Helen Petersen

DO NOT take the Coast Starlight. It usually runs anywhere from 5-10 hours later. (I used to take the train from Eugene to Seattle a bunch, and every one knew NEVER to take the Starlight).

But then again.....maybe 5-10 hours late doesn't matter if you're not trying to arrive in Seattle in time for cocktail hour?

Edith Zimmerman

@Anne Helen Petersen What else would anyone ever be trying to do! Noted! Thanks, AHP. I've read the same elsewhere...

Faintly Macabre

@Anne Helen Petersen Aw, I took the Coast Starlight last February from San Jose to LA and it was only a few minutes late, if anything!

Edith, if you don't mind the risk of hanging out in a train station for five hours, I really recommend it! Even in February, it was incredibly beautiful. At times the train is practically going along cliffs along the shore, in areas that are probably inaccessible any other way (said giant cliffs, huge scary waves, etc). I spent most of the ride with my face and camera pressed against the window of the viewing car.

However, unless you're going first class (which supposedly had wifi the length of the trip), I wouldn't recommend doing that stretch alone. I didn't even have cell phone service most of the trip, and after about 6 hours it started getting pretty lonely.

I just remembered that that was the airfare I only heard about because you posted it on the Hairpin--I guess it's come full circle!

(Also, the Philly-Boston route has some really pretty stretches, especially during snowy winters, but it's a whole different animal.)

evil melis

The Coast Starlight from San Jose to Portland is incredible, though. One of the best vacations I ever took; my dad and I rode the sleeper and watched North by Northwest and talked to a lot of retired train enthusiasts. I spent an entire morning in the lounge car staring out the window and periodically falling asleep. "You know what this is, what you're looking at?" this incredibly sweet old couple asked me. "This is America's backyard." In conclusion, I love trains.

Roberta Wilkinson

@Anne Helen Petersen Maybe they've improved in recent years? We take the Coast Starlight between Centralia, WA and Klamath Falls, OR with some regularity, and are always on time. They have a long service stop scheduled in Portland, so it seems like we always get back on schedule there.

hollysh

@Anne Helen Petersen There are so many Amtrak lines that run horribly late. It is worth some serious googling to find out which ones are really bad. I reserve a special kind of hatred for the Wolverine line from Detroit to Chicago, which made it so hard to visit my awesome Grandparents. And boosted prices on the weekends. Bastards.

etc etc

@Anne Helen Petersen Coast StarLATE, amiright?
(Ugh, I know, but I had to.)

Emby

Don't count on Amtrak's wifi to ever work for more than 5 minutes at a time.

Edith Zimmerman

@Emby Hopefully it would stop working completely ... evil travel wi-fi ... weak self-resolve ... : (

OhMarie

I take Amtrak all the time but only in the eastern corridor--like DC/Baltimore up through Philly/New York. There are TONS of people on these trains, lots of them business travelers. I really enjoy it. You can get there like 2 seconds before the train leaves and just waltz on, and they have comfy seats with outlets and wifi. So much better than planes.

OhMarie

@OhMarie Oh, and Amtrak has its own rewards/frequent traveler program. Definitely join up--you can get trips on the less popular routes for so few points!

Julia duMais

@OhMarie I love those so much. I really wish it were cheaper, because man are they a great way to get from DC to NYC and back.

Beatrix Kiddo

@OhMarie I love taking the train-- if only it weren't five or six times the price of the bus, and even more expensive than flying!

OhMarie

@Beatrix Kiddo Yeah, it's pretty steep--I mostly take it for work. I actually flew to New York from Baltimore last year when my husband and I went there for an anniversary trip because the prices were so cheap.

But if you want one of the less popular routes, like to noodle around Vermont or something, it's pretty reasonable!

Amphora

Definitely spring for a sleeper car - it is impossible to sleep sitting up in a rattling train.

tearsforaffairs

@Amphora I disagree! Sleeper car makes it twice as expensive, and I made it through 3 days on Coach without a problem. Mostly because the first long leg of my train wasn't so crowded, so you could spread across two seats and lie down anyway. In the off season, this should be pretty easy to accomplish.

Lucienne

@tearsforaffairs I have had similarly comfortable experiences sleeping in the non-sleeper cars. The Chicago-DC overnight train has seats that fully extend and lots of leg room, and were totally comfortable.

But there is something romantic about a sleeper car.

maxine of arc

@Amphora My cousin works for Amtrak on the west coast and he recommends against sleeper cars because he's concerned about bedbugs. My experiences in coach have been pretty comfortable!

DrFeelGood

@tearsforaffairs Hmm maybe it depends on the train? Once spent 28 hrs non-stop on a train without booking a sleeper car, but it was due to a snowed in airport and not a fun vacay. The seats were so uncomfortable, the air so stale, and the every 5-minute announcements made the trip all together miserable. It took away any romantic notions I had about train travel.

damselfish

@Amphora THIS. I've taken Amtrak from Miami to the north (either Orlando to DC for the autotrain, or Miami to Philly), and the one time I didn't get a sleeper was the WORST MISTAKE EVER. I paced the corridors for maybe 10 hours and sat in stairwells, and even the conductors were like "wtf lady." It's not like I was going to be sleeping anyway, not surrounded by a bunch of strange men.

Though the bedbug comment! AAAAAARGH it's all awful. :(

Well actually no. The times I was in a sleeper were really nice except for the times where I got raging motion sickness and almost wished I had flown. But now I can't unthink bedbugs.

Amphora

@DrFeelGood My one experience was back in 2005, the seats didn't recline and it was a 20-hour ride from Boston to Chicago on regular ol' Amtrak. I couldn't buy any food in the dining car because they only took cash. So it's probably much more okay if you plan ahead a little better ;)

Punk-assBookJockey

@Amphora I found the sleeper cars to be terrifying! Maybe because mine was on the upper level but the rocking of the train while laying down seemed more abrupt and woke me up a lot more than sleeping in the coach seats did. Everytime the rocking would wake me up I was disoriented and was sure we were derailing or crashing or something. But maybe I just slept deeper than I have in coach so it was extra disorienting.

tearsforaffairs

I went on a cross country train trip--from Oakland to New York, with a few days in Chicago on the California Zephyr and the Lakeshore Limited and it was a wonderful, amazing trip. Stunning scenery, fascinating people like you can't even imagine. I probably need to write a whole essay about it. The best.

This is an indispensable resource:
http://www.seat61.com/UnitedStates.htm#.UIWGecU82eE

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@tearsforaffairs that sounds amazing!! I want to read your forthcoming essay!

Lily Rowan

Shit, I just started looking and now I have a plan for myself! A couple of days in Chicago with friends, take the City of New Orleans to NOLA, couple of days with friends there! I don't know that I could actually take a multi-day train trip, but one day sounds nice.

werewolfbarmitzvah

I did this as a teenager with my family, on Amtrak. We started on an overnight train from NYC to Chicago. After a quick layover of a few hours, we spent two and a half days on a train from Chicago to LA, with a very brief stop in Albuquerque along the way. The pros: You get to see the whole country! Colorado, New Mexico, and the border in between Arizona and California are particularly interesting. The cons: It's way more boring than you might expect, and there is also a possibility that the train's bathrooms might break down halfway through the journey and it's stinkfest from there on out. Now, when I did this, I was 16 and it was the 90s, which meant that I couldn't drink, and there was no such thing as wireless internet and devices that can keep you entertained while trapped in a tiny sleeping compartment for 3 days. If you can legally drink, this is probably a lot more fun. And it's also probably much better now in the days of wireless internet. Otherwise, the hours pass very slowly, and some states are more interesting to look at than others (Kansas got old REAL fast!). I finished multiple books. The people you are likely to meet will be families, elderly people, etc. The clothes to wear are whatever you're comfortable with during 3 days in a very confined space - your only outings will be to the dining car, the bathroom (pray that those toilets don't break down! No one should have to smell what I smelled in those broken Amtrak toilets!), and the glassed-in viewing car. Bring SO MUCH ALCOHOL and SO MUCH READING MATERIAL. Maybe some pot brownies, and maybe some really delicious snacks, because mealtime in the dining car, as of 1998 at least, was not the worst but definitely not the best. If you are going with a traveling companion, make sure it's someone you can sit with for 3 days in a very confined space without any major fighting. If you plan to bring a sexual partner, that could help pass some time!

So, to sum up: 1) You will be in a very confined space most of the time. Be ready for that. 2) The bathrooms might break down! Oh my god, the stench! 3) Boyyyyyy, is Kansas large and flat.

werewolfbarmitzvah

@meetapossum Whoaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

thisisunclear

Trains are the best. I spent my formative years on the Empire Service between NYC and upstate NY, where seats on the Hudson River side provide some of the most beautiful views ever. And you can take it all the way up to Montréal!

...plus Joe Biden is a boss, so listen to Joe Biden and take the train.

Jen Kiaba@facebook

@thisisunclear This is my work commute and I love being sleepy-eyed and watching the sun come up along the river. Mmmmm

noReally

The Coast Starlight is great, but in a seat it's pretty much like a red-eye flight only slower. And with a sleeper, super fun but costs more for two than two plane tickets. Like, a couple hundred dollars more.

megafauna

@noReally as with planes if you manage to book in advance the sleeper car becomes way affordable--i.e. two people, oakland-portland roundtrip, $600. probably about the same as flying, but sleeper car+wine tasting! also food is included. five months in advance.

noReally

I booked two Southwest tickets, Portland to Oakland for this weekend, $375 booked thirteen days out. Could have spent even less if I hadn't insisted on non-stop. I checked Amtrak first. The Starlight wouldn't work, but the Cascades would have been around $500 for two in a sleeper. Train in coach is an economy, but a sleeper is a luxury, even if the difference between a 1:50 flight abd leaving at dinner time and arriving at breakfast isn't relevant.

hands_down

Trains are the best! My dad travels via train from Florida to DC several times a year (always in a sleeper car) and he always meets lots of interesting people who seem delighted to share their life story.

MonaMonzano

I love the idea of trains, but I had two horrible experiences riding Amtrak when I was in middle school. Once, the tracks washed out and we had to evacuate! And another time we hit a man! I fully support your Amtrak adventure, but maybe avoid the stretch of tracks between Southern WV and Chicago. They are cursed. Or maybe I am cursed.

Julia duMais

fondue with cheddar

@Julia duMais I would definitely ride Amtrak if he sat next to me.

maxine of arc

The last time I took a train, I passed a dog standing on the roof of a two-story house. What were you doing up there, dog?

Anyway, that's my Amtrak endorsement.

laurel

@Chesh: I saw a deer, drunk from eating fermented fallen apples, stagger around in someone's backyard from a train rolling through Pennsylvania.

backstagebethy

Last summer I went from DC-San Fran in coach. I was supposed to come back the same way, but my train was canceled for two days straight and I had to get to Chicago so I ended up flying (and getting no reimbursement from Amtrak--just a $100 voucher that expired within a year, which is DUMB because why would I plan another trip with you after you stranded me on the west coast?!). I had no problems being in coach that long--I only had a seatmate the first night, DC-Chicago, and he slept in the lounge car. Between the lounge, the cafe, and sprawling out on two seats I was fairly comfortable.

I would get a sleeper car if I did the trip again. Privacy + showers + free meals in the dining car. And we ran late the whole time, so I didn't get to see anything in Portland, like I'd hoped--so plan for delays.

rosaline

If one were doing a trip of any length and did not have a sleeper car, I would strongly recommend dry shampoo! You can kind of wash yourself with a bathcloth in the little train bathrooms, but your hair is another story.

schrodingers_cat

I took Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA and back one summer and it was awesome. Sleeping in coach is like sleeping in a first class airplane seat, and the scenery was awesome. I routinely take Amtrak Cascades between Vancouver and Seattle, but that's usually a going home on college break trip, and friday nights the train is packed with students and the dining car runs out of booze before we get to Seattle. So fun, but probably only if you're still a student.

garli

Lateness is a pet peeve of mine so I can't recommend Amtrak in California for any reason.

Myrtle

This is my obsession, so you've come to the right place Oh my gosh yes to trains and to the Coast Starlight in particular. I took it from LA to Oakland on a honeymoon. Once past Ventura, the tracks wing out to the coast and you're in the TV commercial, the closest thing to the ocean. We had a room and I loved reserving a seating for dinner. The candlelit tables with their white snowy tablecloths, the gracious porters- argh. I've downloaded the Amtrak app and have also discovered they have a great rate on a tool around California deal. I think it's a week for 159? One can't go over a stretch that has already been used once. But it looks like it goes right up to the CA/OR border and some cute little town. I'm planning to go as soon as there's snow up there.

Legs Battaglia

I am enchanted by the names of the various lines. Let's take the Palmetto! Or the Crescent! Or the Ethan Allen Express!

beerd

Can you arrange a whistle stop? The problem with train travel is you aren't allowed OUT that often. To explore.

Of course, depends on the type of train travel. Edith, are you planning on hopping freight? Always check the car before you climb on, bring a hose key, and breathe a wet handkerchief in the tunnels.

snakeantlers

@beerd
instead of a wet handkerchief, i just bring a couple garbage bags with me to fill up with fresh air. (:

beerd

@snakeantlers
In the interests of clarifying whenever someone has the misapprehension that I've done something cool--I've never ridden freight myself. But garbage bags of air! I like your style. Anything peditricians claim will kill you as a child may save your life as an adult.

cooolcat

I am a huge advocate of Amtrak, so yes, yes take the train. I am sad to report that I have not gone on the cross-country trek of my dreams, yet, but it will happen. Airplanes are just so horrible and cars make me so queasy. Ah.

MY ADVICE, since I take trains all the time (particularly in the Northeast Corridor, where I've never personally once run into an issue of lateness, though others have stories): Sign up for Amtrak Rewards. Better yet, sign up for the Amtrak Rewards MasterCard. I think this is pretty much the ONLY time I will rep some credit card, but the mileage deals are ever so sweet. It's REALLY easy to rack up points, and doesn't take that many to redeem. I get a free train ride ever few rides or every few uh, larger purchases. I used to pay college tuition on the card and just be ridin' and ridin' those rails for months after.

calamity

I took the California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco this April. It was about 36 hours, as I recall. We had coach seats, but the train was half empty at any given time. They're pretty generous seats as it is, and while I am only 5'3, I didn't have any problem setting up a makeshift bed out of two of them.

The ride through Colorado was great - you really weave straight through the mountains, and the views are breathtaking. Lake Tahoe in California was also gorgeous. Nevada was only exciting for like 20 minutes out of what seemed like interminable hours spent passing through. Utah is also supposed to be very nice, but unfortunately we left late, and passed through after dark.

The dining car food was overpriced and pretty gross. We ate there once, but after that I supplemented the snacks we had brought with the stuff they offered in the snack car - Cup o' Noodles, microwavable personal pizzas, etc. High dining? No, but honestly, it was tastier and cheaper than anything the dining car itself offered. They also sold fairly cheap booze - I think it was $6 for one of those mini-bottles of wine. Maybe $4? Something even. If I did it again, I'd bring alcohol of my own - the official line is you're only allowed to drink outside of the dining/snack cars if you have a private room, but as long as you're not playing beer pong against your seatmate, no one cares.

Bring lots of books, and an iPod with a long battery life. As we were coming from Colorado, we had a friend get us a weed cookie, which made the scenery a lot more interesting. (If you end up ignoring my advice and eat in the dining car, however, be forewarned that if you're fewer than 4 people they'll make you sit with other people. My friend and I didn't realize this, and went to go eat just as our baked goods were starting to kick in ... it was awkward.)

Overall, I'd definitely recommend it! I'd never been west of Texas before, so I wanted to see as much of the "West" as I could within the single week I was gone. I'm hoping to make it back to California to take the Coast Starlight sometime in the next year or so.

E
E

Whoa. I JUST took the Coast Starlight yesterday from Oakland to LA. Internet synchronicity!

I thought it was something of a mixed bag. I'm glad I did it, but I also don't know that I would need to do it again. We had coach seats and I think a sleeper would probably have suited my personality better.

Cons:
The car they put us in smelt of diapers and it was stuffy. The other cars we walked through had varying levels of smell and heat- ranging from overly warm to too cold. Also I'm afraid the baby next to us was a demon child from hell. The toddler in front of us was charming, but the baby across the aisle screamed for all 12 hours, and the only time he stopped was when he was watching loud beep boop boop type things on an iphone. It was pretty rough.

Also the food selection was somewhat limited. They served regular meals which you could reserve for (and if you are riding coach, watch out, because the time slots fill up with the sleeper car people first so we only managed to get one of the last dinner reservations and ate at 4:30). Between meals the options at the snack bar are not ideal. They were out of everything remotely healthy, any ice tea without sugar, etc. They do have lots of freezer pizzas to microwave. Plus the snack bar guy went on a lot of breaks, so if meals and beverages matter to you, you might want to bring a stash. We were eating our sad and expensive potato chips and crappy mug brand rootbeer and looking longingly at the two older ladies pulling bags of sugar snap peas and TJ salads out of their cooler at lunch.

Pro:
More legroom, more pillows, nice scenery, the chance to get up and walk around, the observation car with big windows, all the things to look at out those windows. If you want to sit at a table and sip some tea and look out the window with a journal, it's going to be good for that.

Pro/Con:
The people. This is sort of a mixed bag. It would depend on your personality and how amusing you find everyone. I think having your own sleeper car to retreat to would be a plus. At meals they seat people 4 to a booth, so you get seated with whomever is there. It's a small talk whirpool. I handled it ok, but I was borderline on it. Breakfast was charming southern retired ladies and we had fun with them- they asked us about iphones and said we looked like newly weds (I said, "we're neverweds" and it killed. "Mercy, that's wonderful, I'll have to remember that so I can talk like you young people"). Dinner was a former principal who wanted to talk about what was wrong with the world (ideals of 60s sold out to money) during the entire blissful coastal portion of our ride. That was less enjoyable to me- he was interesting, but I would have preferred to stare out the window.

And there were a few characters who we could hear talk talking away loudly the whole time in the observation car on subjects like, "I'm not racist, I don't see color/The trouble with religion is/ I just hiked through burning man...man./ Oh, it's a play? How do you spell it? M-A-C-B-E-T-H...hmm ok... (Seriously! He was in his 20s!)."

So I doubt it will be lonely, or if it is lonely it will be the loneliness of a person who signs up for a tour bus.

orangeyouglad

All I know about 'glamorous train rides' comes from that one episode of Sex and the City.

"I just need the weight of a man on top of me!"

plonk

i freakin LOVE trains. sleeper cars are fun but the way they're set up i can't imagine having to share one with a stranger--they're somehow way more intimate than the ones in european and asian trains. however, the regular seats are big and comfy enough that i can imagine it being doable to just sleep in one. but if you get a sleeper then meals in the dining car are included, AND in that case if you're traveling alone or with one other person you will more than likely be seated at a dinner table with a nice old couple, or an amish family!

on one of the east coast trains i observed what were clearly college kids doing a highly practiced travel routine--up in the lounge/observation car (don't remember what it's called--it has giant glass windows and seats facing the windows) they'd climb into a sleeping bag in one of the chairs, get all hoodied and earphoned up, and watch a movie on their laptop in the deepening dusk. it looked amazing.

hollysh

@plonk The Amish have Amtrak on lock! I always see Amish people mulling around Union Station in Chicago and hope for an opportunity to chat to someone from the community, but it's never happened. Although one time I saw an Amish woman walking around with a happy meal, which was kind of weird.

cinnamonskin

@plonk Mennonites, maybe? Sort've the same style of dress, though.

Trilby

I took Amtrack from Laramie WY to Seattle a good number of years ago and I was not impressed. It took WAAAAY longer than driving because we had to pull over to let frieght trans pass. The train tootled CONTANTLY so sleep was impossible. I must say the food was delicious. They sit you down (with strangers if you're alone) and serve you on a white tablecloth and it's much yummier than it has any right to be. Also, EXPENSIVE!!!! Having done it, I do not recommend!!!!!

meetapossum

$7 for a grilled cheese and chips?? Ugh.

I wish trains in the U.S. weren't so expensive. I did stupid amounts of train/ferry travel in Europe (when I "lived internationally"), and it was always awesome, despite British trains being chronically late and the one time the train had to stop on the way to York because a pony was "playing on the tracks."

Also, I have a certain affection for NJ Transit and the double decker trains. And the quiet car! Oh, the joys of the quiet car.

cinnamonskin

@meetapossum The quiet car! I took Amtrak through the whole country, and to and from work for ages, and I made a playlist called "the quiet car". I just found out (now that I take planes all the time) that the United Lounge in some airports has a whole "quiet room". Bliss.

Edith: Headphones, snacks, a love of looking out the window, ability to sleep sitting up, and a cover story. That's all you need, really. And sometimes, people will sell their Amtrak upgrades, but the fine print is a headache.

The ladies at Penn Station Amtrak first class lounge in NYC have the best collection of celeb photos, ever. All the famous take the train in the NEC.

Oh god and if you smoke, the smoking section (undercar?) is the worst place ever, like times a million creepy airport smoking lounges, Nicorette, the end.

ViciousCersei

Here's how the train works:

On the way to your fun destination, you will meet lots of interesting people in the dining car who you will talk to all night about art and travel.

On the way back you will wake up in your coach seat to find your non-english-speaking seatmate's hand on your butt. You will then be kicked out of the lounge car for sleeping.

In other words, the train gets old fast, but if you're going to do it, I agree with the suggestions for routes out West. The trains in the South pass through the parts of towns that were booming when the lines were built, and are usually not booming anymore. The trains in the Northeast still represent a practical form of transportation, so there's less of a sense of adventure.

Roberta Wilkinson

In every car, there is almost always at least one self-talker or crazy-loud-breather.

Don't sit by that person. Don't BE that person.

Sit by the old English lady who was a nurse in WWII and hear about how she met her husband, the American GI.

Elsajeni

Amtrak trains over most of the country have to pull over anytime a freight train wants to go by, which is always, and so are routinely late and sometimes INSANELY late. (I hear that in the Northeast they're actually predictable/useful for commuting, though.) The last major train trip I took was a round trip from Houston to Tucson; on the way there, we ended up about 4 hours late, and on the way back, we arrived 23 HOURS LATE. And as other people have said, it can be hard to sleep (even in a sleeper, the train itself is noisy and jostly) and the food is unpredictable (if you don't get a dining car reservation, you're at the mercy of the snack bar, which is never open). Honestly, I would choose a long road trip over a long train trip.

I will say, though, that I like the sort of pretend-glamour of riding in a sleeper, and that the people I've met on the train have always been very nice. If you do it, you will meet:
1. Retired people.
2. Australian tourists.
3. Amish families.

Veronica Mars is smarter than me

What IS cool?

Story/question of my life.

whizz_dumb

@Veronica Mars is smarter than me I'm pretty sure that skateboarding pitbull is the definition of cool. Or simply a pitbull in sunglasses. For humans, not trying to be cool and not caring about being cool is a start.

whizz_dumb

@whizz_dumb wait, this baby is cool.

alexbaca@twitter

I travel by train often, mostly with friends who are also transportation/rail geeks. A group of us did Minneapolis back to D.C. last summer on the Capitol Limited. I've also done D.C. to Chicago (Capitol Limited) and Portland to L.A. (Coast Starlight).

Some notes:
-Contrary to popular notion, the "Starlate" was not late! Probably because there is a long service stop in Portland. I was glad to have a friend with me, but I stared out the window most of the ride. I love staring out of train windows.
-If a train is late, sometimes Amtrak will put you on an intercity bus if you are en route to a transfer. This happened between Minneapolis and Chicago.
-Yes, Amtrak trains have to yield right-of-way to CSX trains. America! Prioritizing freight over rail! This is problematic especially around Pittsburgh right now, as CSX is doing some sort of construction.
-Whoever said seats recline fully is lying. They recline, like, 3/4 of the way. This is fine for one night. Any more than that and I'd recommend a sleeper car (especially if you, like me, sleep in the fetal position). This is the downside to traveling coach with a friend: You can't lay across the two seats even if the train is somewhat empty, because your friend will have booked the second seat. (It's not likely that there will be an entirely empty row.)
-Take a melatonin/Sleepinal/whatever and a shot of whiskey when you need to sleep. This has kept me from waking up as frequently as I might otherwise.
-Trains are noisy, jangly, everything you would expect from a tremendously outdated rail system. If you live in a city and sleep with your window open, the noise level is comparable.
-Sleeper cars will also get you access to special dining cars, wine tastings, etc. This depends on the route, but appeared to be a thing on the Coast Starlight.
-Internet is not a thing, and cell service is often not a thing, too. I bring a 3G USB stick in case I need to get online for some reason, but that stops working when my phone loses reception (because, 3G). So, books.
-Your skin will break out. The air gets gross. You're not really standing up often. You can get off and stretch your legs during smoking stops. Drinking a lot of water helps. Bring face wipes, baby wipes, whatever.
-Bring a blanket. Trains get cold at night, and sleeping zipped up in a jacket is really uncomfortable.
-Bring snacks.

Also, as someone mentioned above, the Amtrak Guest Rewards program, as well as the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard, is baller. I signed up during a 32,000-point bonus offer, which is, like, four free roundtrip trips to New York. Points go further on routes that are less popular than the Northeast Corridor.

I will travel by train as long as I have the ability to take the time off for it. I absolutely love it. (And I love that I can bring my bike! I have a folding bike, but some trains have roll-on, roll-off bike service. And you can usually pack your full-size bike in a box, if you're really serious.) But it's not for everyone. My mom, rather than take the train back up from Charleston, booked a flight home after riding down there, and she was in a sleeper car.

alexbaca@twitter

Oh, and: If you book a sleeper car, your meals are included—or at the very least dinner is. Amtrak food is good, but expensive. But the sleeper-car option will save you money on meals.

hollysh

@alexbaca@twitter DON'T TAKE THOSE INTERCITY BUSES! I took one once when my train from Milwaukee to Chicago was delayed (which is rare, my beloved Hiawatha lane is almost always on time) and the bus driver got so lost it took us FOUR HOURS to do a trip that usually takes less than two hours in low traffic. There were no toilets. The bus was freezing. It was horrific. Amtrak refused to refund us at the customer service desk in Chicago, so we called and complained to the customer hotline and they gave us each vouchers.

cinnamonskin

@alexbaca@twitter Amtrak food IS good. I was always surprised. Avoid the things that others bring around that smell weird, like the burger pizza things, and you're set. The times I got upgraded to first class (ridiculously easy) the breakfast was especially straight up delicious. Blueberry waffles, mimosa, thank you sirs.

herebullet

I'm quite fond of American trains. I once had a lovely autumn train adventure in the eastern U.S. I rode first from Pittsburgh, which has a beautiful old station (though unfortunately you spend your time waiting in a sallow lower level room), to Washington, D.C. We cut down through West Virginia during peak autumn colors, so I spent a lot of time in the lounge car, where most of the sides are glass. I met an older civil rights activist who was going to Harper's Ferry for the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid, and we spent a good couple hours conversing. I spent a few days in D.C., going to my favourite Smithsonian museums, then took a Chinatown bus to Philly (very cheap, slightly scary). After a few days there, I took the train to Harrisburg to visit my uncle and aunt, and then back to Pittsburgh.

The rides from Philly and Harrisburg were on the Pennsylvanian. It was mostly business commuters, and not busy, so I had both seats to myself, which makes a world of difference in comfort. I was pretty content to just look out the window and listen to my 'train rides' playlist. On the route back to Pittsburgh is the historic Horseshoe Curve near Altoona.

The Capitol Limited was actually more comfortable in the sense that it is made for longer journeys (Chicago to DC), so the seats recline, and there is a lot of leg space. I am currently living in NC and hoping to make the train journey to DC soon.

Shannon Rooney@twitter

Obvious Joe Biden cache aside, DO IT. Trains are super fun. Time magically melts in a sleeper car and you find yourself lounging around drinking wine and reading for hours and hours and hours. And then you are rocked to sleep before waking up for your free breakfast.

I just took the train from Philadelphia to Chicago (and back) and gaped at the gorgeous scenery until I fell asleep. The observation car is nice and all (and the people truly run the gamut from crazed to lovely) but there is some romance to retiring to your private room with a half bottle of wine and your reading.

Avoid the wifi (when it's available) and enjoy doing something so different. Bring a hoodie and an extra pillow because the sleeper car pillows are kind of meh. Bonus: everyone else will seriously be a senior citizen, so enjoy feeling very young.

Alli525

Bowties! Bowties are cool.

prosecuted hamburglar

Meh... I loved taking trains when living in the northeast, but had a not-so-great experience taking Amtrak back home to LA after Christmas in Dallas.

The first night was spent stationary in San Antonio, as a different train had to come "pick up" our cars to make the journey out west. We arrived in SA around 10pm and were told the train would depart a few hours later (maybe 5am?), but in the meantime we were free to go explore San Antonio if we wanted. So the bf and I walked around until midnight, then headed back to the train to sleep the rest of the night off. This proved difficult when they shut off the power and locked the doors so they could hook the car up to the new train--- the car became unbearably hot and stuffy! Not to mention the folks around us had no trouble sleeping, meaning super loud snoring.

The next day brought on elbowing our way into seats in the lounge car as we sped through the desert. We read books... drank some beer... enjoyed the views...We also made a reservation to eat in the highly rated dining car. Then as the evening came forth, announcements were made that the dining car was running behind, so patience was appreciated. About an hour and a half after our original reservation time, we finally were seated; only to be informed that they had run out of all food except for the $17 enchiladas.

"I wouldn't buy them if I were you," said our waitress.

So that night was microwaved hot wings and beer, which to be honest wasn't that bad in the grand scheme of things. And bonus! Sleeping that night came a lot easier!

TLDR version: go with the sleeping car for journeys over a day, your meals are guaranteed.

karencarrot

I'd say go for it! I've taken the same trip on Amtrak twice and the first time was OMGawesome!! while the second time I couldn't wait for it to be over. It's definitely worth a try though.

If you want to spend a week travelling on Amtrak, don't expect to go both far away AND back on a train within that time frame. The trip I took was from Denver to St. Louis via Chicago both times. Between Denver and Chicago is a section of the California Zephyr route. This distance of around 900 miles, which could be driven in 12 hours if one drinks enough coffee and doesn't stop often, took more than 24 hours on the train. Oh yeah, and that was only as far as Chicago. The Chicago-St. Louis stretch was at least as fast as driving though, so that was nice. But I'd never been so happy in my life to see my sister as I was at the end of the journey.

Here's the pros:
-seeing everyone's backyard when you pass through small towns
-seeing other scenery that can't be viewed from anywhere but a train
-having LOTS of relaxing time for listening to music and reading
-meeting interesting people
-drinking wine from a carton (on the D.L.)
-being able to sleep somewhat comfortably in coach if you don't have someone sitting next to you, which you do by raising both footrests all the way, putting on a couple hoodies and curling up into a ball.
-pretending you're on a ship when you walk around from car to car.
-they give you a box for your bike on the Superliner trains. On smaller trains, you can put it on without the box.

Cons:
-having your journey take at least twice as long as driving (on the big trains)... seriously, once I saw a monarch butterfly flying alongside my window in the train car for at least 10 minutes.
-paying at least twice as much for your ticket as you would pay to fly, or probably 4 times as much for a sleeper
-not being able to tell time by your cell phone out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night when you wake up. seriously, it makes the night last forever.
-crappy, terrible "food"

So bring your own food! Like lots of fruits and vegetables! Bring your own booze! Like, lots of it! Bring plenty of books, an iPod and a charger! Don't mind if you get smelly, everyone else will be too!

J A S M I N E D@twitter

Southwest Chief from Chicago to LA - I did it both ways two years ago in September, and it was gorgeous. The scenery in Colorado and New Mexico is not to be missed.

I'd also try the Empire Builder which runs between Seattle and Chicago. That goes through Glacier National Park, though in winter I'd be careful of delays due to snow.

The Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington, DC can be scenic, especially once you get to the countryside in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

hollysh

You can buy a hop-on, hop-off rail pass thing with Amtrak, which I think is probably more worth it than sitting on a train for a million hours without any sizeable stops. The pass also includes stops with VIA rail in Canada, so you can head up that way!

vernon hardapple

Oh yeah Edith, do it! We got a Superliner Roomette (EXACTLY) on the Southwest Chief from LA to Albuquerque (on our way to Santa Fe) on our second day in the US a couple of years ago and it was wonderful: surly/awesome dining car wait staff, talking to a lovely couple from Colorado about their cabin and mountain lions, watching tiny towns on Route 66 go past in the moonlight whilst staring out the window from my bed with horrific jetlag in the middle of the night, friendly Mennonite families, views of LA carpark oilwells followed by beautiful desert... It was like the Southwest Chief gave us a big hug and said "America: let me show you it." Disclaimer: the lounge car was a bit gross. Otherwise... trains yes!

astrangerinthealps

@vernon hardapple The lounges, yeah. Some people live for the lounges, but they're not my favorite. I usually go in there, get my eating done, and get out. Granted, every train is different.

LaLoba

I worked in North Dakota and commuted by train every three weeks for 30 hours on the Empire builder. These are things I did on the train:

Befriended an Amish family
Threw (actually THREW)a drink in someone's face who deserved it
Befriended a porter who always tried but never succeeded in sneaking me into a sleeper car
Met an old ex-con taking a soul searching train trip by himself to Phoenix where a man who he had once met and inspired him had died
Sang old timey songs with an old rail rider until midnight
Drank many, many free drinks with roughnecks (threw only one drink in one face!)
Saw the sunrise at the top of the mountains in Glacier National Park
Wept openly
Was asked once if I was "one of the girl geologists" (no I am not)
Many more.

Blushingflwr

I love traveling by train. It always makes me feel very European. But also - no TSA, no turning off your electronic devices (and some trains even have outlets to keep your devices charged), the freedom to get up and move around a bit. It's slower, yes, but depending on where you're going, it isn't necessarily that much slower when you factor in the "arrive X hours early" time. I traveled from DC to CT on the train a couple of years ago, and it was great. My one concern is always making sure I get off at the right stop, especially when I'm going somewhere I've never been.

Also, I just looked it up, and it seems like Amtrak (at least on some trains/routes) has what they call a "roomette". I got one of those when I took DeutscheBahn from Berlin to Munich when I was studying abroad, and it was a nice compromise. You had privacy, and the seats fold down to make a bed, but it was less expensive than a traditional sleeper car (no shower, but we went straight to the hostel when we got to Munich. A hostel where, funny enough, we actually did end up with an en suite bathroom).

CrazyJ

Oh! Trains! Love! I live in the NE corridor, but am originally from Alberta. Yes Canada. I quit my last job before Christmas and planned it so the new job started in mid-January, so had a full month to do a North American tour and see all my friends and family. And I did it by train! DC, Hartford, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, Seattle, San Diego, LA, St Louis, Chicago, and home. It was awesome.

If you're going some distance, check out the month-long passes, I found it a good deal in the States, although sadly not worth it in Canada. However, Via Rail in Canada has awesome sales.

What everyone else said - bring snacks, bring reading (hello kindle!), earplugs aren't a half bad idea too. I did a fair bit of studying for the GRE. The roomettes are annoyingly small, but great for when you are on stranger overload. One night sleeping in coach is fine, for more than that try and get a deal on first class.

The Starlite and other west coast trains are gorgeous, but if you've never done Route 1 along the coast, I'd do that instead. The Canadian, which goes from Toronto to Vancouver, is absolutely amazingly awesome. The showers occasionally freeze up in winter, but love love love love - I tell everyone to take it - beautiful remote northern Ontario, dotted with lakes, then through the Rockies! I'm from there, and still can't stop raving, two years after the fact. Food on board is pretty awesome, as are the folks - rocking 90-something off to see family was my favourite.

Bring your chargers, bring cards, bring lots of layers, and get outside every chance you can get - exercise is just about impossible if you want cardio.

And take a good camera and lots of pictures! Right up agains the glass to avoid reflections.

I loved being rocked to sleep, and the sound of the train horn makes me nostalgic. And by the time I got home, I was so well-read, well-fed, relaxed, and done with strangers, I was thrilled to get back to work!

astrangerinthealps

I've traveled a lot on Amtrak, all over the country except California. My favorite route is New York to Montreal. For the first half of the trip you're right on the Hudson, with a nice view of the Catskills. For the second half you're riding along the side of a mountain, with Lake Champlain far below. Best of all there's no overnight: you leave New York in the morning and arrive in Montreal in the evening, with plenty of time to go out. 

I'd also recommend the Coast Starlight, at least between Seattle and Eugene (that's as far south as I've been). The trains are shiny and new and the scenery is lovely. Don't miss the dahlia farm just south of Portland. The Empire Builder isn't bad except that you cross the Rockies in the middle of the night (derp). The trains west of the Mississippi are nice because they're taller (more clearance under bridges) so you get a better view. The line through West Texas isn't bad, although beware the midnight-7 am layover in San Antonio if you're going on to Dallas. Parts of the trip across Missouri are absolutely stunning. There is also some nice scenery between New Orleans and Atlanta. 

I don't think I've ever eaten in the dining car. The snack bar is all right for a day or so (contrary to popular belief it is almost always open) but I highly recommend bringing your own food especially if you're traveling multiple days. Each car has a drinking water tap. Bring a refillable bottle so you don't have to drink out of paper cones. 

Sleeping is tricky. I think the best option is to travel in coach with an intimate partner so you can sprawl against each other (don't forget blankets, pillows and earplugs--a puffy comforter that crushes way down in your bag is ideal). I've taken a sleeper twice, once by myself and once with a boyfriend. It's comfy, but not that comfy and you end up feeling sort of isolated during the day. I'm not a person who needs to talk to every stranger, far from it, but I do like seeing other human faces over the course of the day, and I missed that in the sleeper. The most awkward is sleeping next to a stranger. Don't be shy about moving--make sure you've got a congenial seatmate before bedtime, and that the people around you aren't too loud. Ask a conductor for help if you need to--you don't have to do a lot of explaining, just say "I need to switch seats" or "Please help me find a female seatmate" or whatever. 

Other tips: the quiet car is the best. If you see one (I think they're only in the NE Corridor), take it--unless you're a loud group of British tourists, in defiance of all stereotypes, who get peevish when asked nicely whether they meant to sit in the quiet car. Don't be those people. I've only been on a car that was supposed to have wifi once, but as I recall it was spotty. There are two outlets on the wall for every pair of seats in coach so you can count on using your laptop or your e-reader or whatever. Once I traveled from North Carolina to DC next to a woman who had a Glade plug-in air freshener in the outlet. That was gross. But I doubt you will run into that same woman.

kasa

A friend of mine used to say, "Amtrak! America's way to travel... with weed!" in a nice singsongy voice. Apparently the Seattle to PDX trip was frequently supplemented by weed breaks in the bathroom, FWIW

kasa

@kasa Also: Seattle lines carry Ivar's clam chowder and local beer in the dining car. DECADENCE.

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