I’ve tripped across the United States by car and flown from coast to coast, so when we made plans to travel to New Orleans this past spring, I knew I wanted to go by train. I’ve had overnight train travel experiences in Norway and Kenya, and it seemed implausible that I had yet to enjoy slow train travel in my own country.
And so we booked our tickets for a trip aboard the Sunset Limited, an Amtrak train which runs from Los Angeles to New Orleans over the course of nearly 48 hours. Now a veteran of long-distance train travel on three continents, I feel confident in offering the following train travel tips:
For Train Travel in General
1. Pack snacks. Some trains have dining cars, but not all of them have edible food or the food is astronomically expensive. You may also be able to buy snacks, but chances are they aren’t all that healthy, and the selection might be poor. When you’re stuck on a train track 12 hours from anywhere, the last thing you want is to be hungry, so come prepared with a variety of stuff to nibble on. Bonus points for healthy snacks, especially because you’re not going to get a lot of exercise on board.
2. Wear shoes. In some countries it’s against the law not to wear shoes, but in all countries, it’s just a good idea. I’m not saying you can’t slip them off when you’re sitting at your seat or once you’ve hunkered down in the observation car, but wear shoes whenever you have to walk somewhere and please, under every single circumstance you can think of, wear shoes in the bathroom.
3. Bring wet wipes and toilet paper. After a long day and a long night with canned train air, you’re going to want to take a shower. No can do … but the next best thing is a good wipe down with a wet wipe. I find them particularly helpful for waking up in the morning. As for the toilet paper, some trains will have it, others won’t at all, but all will be running a little low by the time the ride is over.
4. If you’ll be on the train for longer than one night, get a sleeper. I don’t mind riding coach. In fact, the seats are quite comfy and way roomier than trying to squeeze into an airplane seat. They may even recline quite nicely. I can sleep for one night in these seats … and “sleep” is probably a stretch. More than one night, though, and I’m a mess. I’ve spent nights in sleepers on trains, though, and I sleep amazingly well, so the extra cost for the sleeper is worth it. There’s nothing like the lull of the train to rock a person to sleep.
5. Unplug. Some trains are beginning to offer free wireless internet service, but I strongly suggest you leave the laptop off. One of the greatest things about riding a train is that it epitomizes the concept of slow travel. This is your opportunity to pull out a journal, catch up on a good book or just watch the landscape roll by. Rarely do we have the chance just to relax anymore, but you can still carve out that time on a train.
For Amtrak Train Travel Specifically
1. Check for discounts before booking. I can say for certain there are no long-standing discounts for media or former Peace Corps volunteers riding on Amtrak, but there are cheaper rates for children, military personnel, AAA card holders, students, seniors and a whole host of other people. The company also frequently has deals on certain lines, and there’s also a guest rewards program that allows you to earn points as you ride (sort of like frequent flyer miles). Check before you book to see if you qualify for a discounted ticket.
2. Expect employees to be angry with Amtrak but not with passengers. I don’t know what’s going on at Amtrak’s corporate office, but the employees on the trains are not happy about it. While the staff aboard the Sunset Limited was very polite to the passengers, when passengers voiced concerns or had problems with something on the train, I heard the staff tell them that they should call the corporate office and say something about the issue. The employees would go on to say that they’d tried to address the issue themselves with headquarters, but that “they don’t listen to anything we say.” So expect problems and don’t expect staff on board to be able to do anything about them. And don’t take it personally if they seem overworked or frustrated. It’s not you, it’s the company they work for.
3. Bring a blanket or sweatshirt. The Sunset Limited was cold, especially at night. I had a hoodie on with the hood up, was wearing warm socks and was covered with a sarong and I was absolutely freezing. The air conditioning was up so high I could hear the fan running. Even if you’re traveling in the south in the dead of summer, prepare for frigid conditions.
4. Fully charge any electronics before boarding the train. If you want to use a cell phone, iPod or laptop on the train, it better come fully charged because you might not find an outlet on an Amtrak train. One coach car had outlets at every seat, our car didn’t have any. You would think that the observation car (where people hang out, play cards and relax away from their own seats) would have them but there was one single outlet in the entire car and a long line of people waiting to use it.
5. Don’t compare prices with other forms of transportation. By the time you compare the price of your ticket and the price of any food you bought on board with the amount of time it took you to reach your destination, you may wonder why you didn’t just fly. Amtrak isn’t cheap, especially if you get a sleeper car. But taking the train in the United States isn’t about getting somewhere fast or inexpensively. It’s about appreciating a form of travel that might as well be a lost art. And, if more people start utilizing the trains that we have, perhaps someday it will become a common, easier and less expensive way to travel around the United States.