Riding the rails!

Elkhart Train Station

I understand that train trips aren’t technically road trips, but in the winter, sometimes its good to have travel options. And, oh the things you can see! This year I booked my holiday travels on Amtrak, from KC to DC, really having no idea what I was embarking upon, other than trusted friends said it would be great.

They were right.

(Disclaimer: I traveled a long distance over 36 hours each way during the holiday season, so experiences may vary.)

Kansas City skyline

I knew that weather doesn’t wreak havoc on train travel the way it does on airliners. Sure it takes longer than flying, but so do car trips. Plus, you can get up and stretch your legs, grab a bit to eat, etc., all without slowing down forward motion. And the conversations can be great. I chatted with a soldier back from Afghanistan and Iraq, an Amish school teacher, a recent grad from NYU, a former rugby player …

Here are a few tips that might help you along the way.

Pack 2 bags. One bag for your final destination and one for your trip. Bag sizes are much more lenient than airlines, and you don’t have the added expense of checked bags. Amtrak does have a few rules, so check their website first.

Remember, you have to tote your own bags, so don’t pack more than you can deal with. There will be some distance to walk in order board the train, often outside. (Boarding in Kansas City was an icy mess.) Sometimes there are Red Caps to help out as well, but not at all stations.

Things that are good to pack in your carry-on:

  • Slip-on shoes, if you aren’t already wearing them. (I train-ed in the winter, so I wore my boots.)
  • Something comfortable to sleep in that is also ok to wear in public. Although they have pillows and blankets – you might want to bring your own.
  • Toothbrush, toiletries, etc. (I like the facial wipes/makeup remover cloths – easy to freshen up without packing towels, etc.) Showers are available, think small.
  • Reading materials, movies, etc., if staring out the window and/or chatting with fellow passengers isn’t your thing. Preload your entertainment – don’t expect wifi, and sometimes along rural stretches there isn’t even cell service.
  • Head phones/ear buds – all electronic devices need to have sound off otherwise, in order to not disturb fellow passengers.
  • Chargers for your electronics (outlets may be by your seat, and are definitely in the observation car.)

As for your bigger suitcase, you can either check it in or store it on the lower level of the train as you climb aboard. (Don’t make the rookie mistake like I did by lugging it up the narrow stairs.) I didn’t see that many people checking in there bags, probably since they were going to be using stuff. Keep in mind that the bags below are unattended, so do this at your own risk. (I didn’t have any troubles.)

If you chose to ride reserved coach, it will be more likely a lot cheaper than flying, with a ton more leg room. You will have a seat reserved, but the seat number will be assigned as you board. The chairs recline, so that you can sleep comfortably on longer trips. There is plenty of room to store your carry-on over head or even by your feet.

I spent little time in my actual seat – most of my time was spent in the great glassed-in observation car. A great place to watch the world go by. Don’t be surprised when total stranger sit down at your table – there is very limited seating. If you get a sleeper, it will be more expensive than flying, but you have a private place to sleep & hang, your meals are included, snoring isn’t an issue, and there are fewer folks sharing the bathrooms. I justified it by thinking of it as a motel room – a tiny, expensive motel room. Please don’t forget to tip the staff – just because your meal is included doesn’t mean the tip is.

Random shots from the train

There is room for you to have your suitcase with you if you get one of the bigger sleepers, but be forewarned – the “roomettes” which sleep 2, are pretty tiny – not much room in that ette. Basically, they are chairs that face each other with the space about the width of a seat plus a foot and about 6 1/2 feet long. Makes for a tight squeeze. And it is a bunk bed situation. (Suitcases cannot fit under the folded out bed.)

I didn’t sleep that great, but that’s just me. I know some people that sleep like babies with the rocking motion of the train.

Oh, and walking through the cars can be a trip … the swaying and rocking makes you walk like a drunken sailor. Another case for reasonable shoes.

With a sleeper reservation you have additional perks. You can also wait in a special area before boarding and pre-boarding is an option. (I didn’t realize that sleepers were considered “first class” and missed out on that perk.) You can store your bags for free in the waiting area, if you have a few hours layover somewhere and want to go explore.

Train leaving DC

Most of the Superliners (long distance trains) are double deckers. Top levels tend to sway more. Often the bathrooms & showers are on the lower level. I liked the lower level better, but I think if you request it, it will cost you more. (I just got lucky, ask to be sure.)

Random shots from the train

The food – meh, it’s not bad, it’s not great. Yes, they have cocktails. You will need to make reservations for the dining car. Basically that entails telling the dining car person what time you would like to be seated for your meal when they come by your seat at the beginning of your trip. If you are traveling alone or with just one other, you will be seated with others. A big rolling picnic with strangers. You can also grab something in the lounge car (lower level of the observation car.) Or you can bring your own snacks (and drinks if you have your own compartment!)

Drawbacks

As I mentioned before, no wifi. OK, this can be a blessing as well, but you should plan accordingly. I have LTE on my phone and tablet, so it didn’t effect me that much. But when we were really rural, there wasn’t phone service either. Again, I didn’t really care.

Trains don’t seem to be on time. They are close, and usually there is a lot of time between connections. Freight trains have the right-of-way, thus delays are unpredictable, so sit back and relax. My final leg of the trip was delayed 1 1/2 hours … they were waiting on an engine. If I was flying that would have freaked me out.

I will do this again.

Train leaving DC, Random shots from the train