Thursday, July 14, 2016

5 Tips for Traveling by Rail in the United States

I love Amtrak! No, this is not a sponsored post. I am not yet on that level. Nevertheless, I love traveling by train and in the US, Amtrak is the way to go. The only way to go because it has a monopoly. Sure, there are pros and cons to train travel but if you can embrace the quirks and go with the flow, you will learn to love the journey as much as they destination.

Last time I took the train, it was the California Zephyr from Truckee, CA to Denver, Colorado but I've often taken the Coast Starlight from SF to LA. Both routes are stunningly beautiful! So here are my tips for getting the most out of your journey...

Coast Starlight

1. Expect delays
My number one tip is to know what you're getting into and expect delays, better yet embrace them! Compare a train trip to a road trip with the same departure and arrival city and you will see, in most cases, the travel time for a train is more than doubled. When I travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles by car it can take me as little as 6 hours but by train I'm looking at a 12 - 13 hour journey. Why? There are a few reasons: stops, speed limits, route, delays, etc. The train stops in most major and plenty of minor cities along the way to pick up and drop off passengers. Each stop takes 5-20 minutes and they add up! Also most passenger trains are cruising along at between 60-80 mph and mandatory speed restrictions can reduce that to a glacial 5 mph. Combine that with a winding route and lots of precautionary delays and you will understand why train travel is not known for timeliness. So read a book, listen to your favorite albums, journal, take pictures. Just go with it.

Truckee, CA

2. Choose your accommodations wisely
Coach seats on the Amtrak are surprisingly nice. Spacious, comfortable, and seemingly clean most of the time. You'll have standard features like a foot rest, tray table, even outlets. Coach seating on a train is far more spacious than on an airplane, plenty of legroom and the seats almost fully recline. With that said, it can get pretty crowded in the coach cars and with many people traveling for more than 24 hours without proper beds, I find it can get pretty weird. Imagine people sprawled out over multiple seats, shoes off, blankets pulled fully over their person, snoring, shifting, a juice bottle rolling like a tumbleweed through the aisles. If you can swing it, go ahead and make yourself at home.

However, once you go roomette, you never go back. The roomettes on an Amtrak train are glorious little miracles and I think they're well worth the added cost. Basically it's a small private room that consists of two over-sized seats that fold down into a bed. There is ample storage, a mirror, radio, lighting, curtains, blankets, pillows, a mattress topper, and extra outlets. The best part is the huge window that affords stunning views of the countryside or ocean while you lounge in your own private space. The added value of upgrading to 'roomette' is the service. A dedicated attendant is on hand to prepare your bed and deliver meals and coffee, if requested. Also with the purchase of a roomette all your dining cars meals are included!

Roomette view the Colorado River

3. Eat in the dining car
If you don't eat in the dining car at least once, you're missing out! Not because the food is spectacular (actually it's pretty terrible) but because this is the quintessential train travel experience. The Amtrak staff will walk around the train and take dinner reservations, starting with the sleeper cars. When your reserved time slot is called you make your way to the dining car and you will be seated with four of your fellow passengers. What seems awkward is usually pretty wonderful. I've met some amazing people this way that I am still friends with to this day! If 4 strangers exchanging travel stories over Salisbury steak and apple juice while cruising through the most remote parts of America doesn't sound fun to you... well, maybe it's an acquired taste.

4. Meet people
This goes hand in hand with paying a visit to the dining car but another great place to meet people is the observation car. This train car has windows on all sides including the ceiling! The views especially around sunrise or sunset and unbelievable. So it's easy to strike up conversation here. Talk about where you're going, where you've been, or just the spectacular scenery. You'll meet all types of people on the train and adventure travelers are probably in the minority. But everyone has a story and this is really an opportunity to make a connection that might not otherwise be possible. You could meet some people and end up staying up all night, drinking wine, and playing silly games. I would know!

5. Save money
If you're a super budget traveler, coach is a great option but there are other ways to get the best deal. Obviously check for deals on the Amtrak website, they are always offering them. If you have AAA you get 10% off and if you're considering traveling by train often, I highly recommend it. Also sign up for Amtrak Guest Rewards, I've heard it's a great program and I've met several people on the train just taking pleasure trips because they racked up enough points to do so. You can also save money by packing on your food and drinks, especially alcohol if you plan on hitting up the snack bar for $5 mini wines. Usually if you're traveling domestically by train you're already saving money over airfare. Good job!

Observation car on the Zephyr

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