Published September 22, 2009
If waiting more than a minute for an elevator makes you mad, chances are train travel is not for you.
But if you’re wondering whether riding the rails might at times be the better way to go, read on.
Are you a control freak?
If you believe that the journey is as important as the destination, you might be a train traveler. However, “you are NOT a train traveler if you want 100 percent control over your schedule; you are then a driver,” suggests J. Bruce Richardson, president of the United Rail Passenger Alliance. “There are many flaws to train travel as there are to any other activity. At times, trains are delayed, or equipment malfunctions, [or] there are grade crossing accidents,” he adds.
That said, Richardson notes that “train travel seems to bring out the best of many people, coercing conversations with newly made friends.”
This serendipity is one of the best aspects of rail travel, agrees John Pitt, author of the guidebook USA By Rail.
“I've heard marvelous stories sitting by chance next to Tennessee Williams’ former chauffeur and once watched a football game on TV with Bill Cosby in New York's Penn Station waiting room,” Pitt recalls. “You can easily mingle with fellow passengers on board, watch a movie in the evening, have a drink at the bar, or just enjoy the passing landscape.”
Do you enjoy hub hopping?
If you doubt trains can be practical as well as fun, consider how popular rail travel is between the 'old countries.'
“Train travel within Europe gives the traveler the opportunity to mingle with the locals, sit back and relax, and view the scenery of each country, while bringing the traveler from city center to city center without the hassle of having to go to the airport or rent a car,” notes travel industry professional Rose Schwartz, formerly a business development director for Rail Europe Group. She points to the Eurostar trip between London and Paris as a quick and easy way to reach the cities and avoid its airports.
Hub hopping makes just as much sense in the United States, where many city centers are served by Amtrak.
“You arrive right at your destination in the heart of the city, not 20 or 30 miles away where you need additional transportation to reach your destination, says Amtrak spokesperson Cliff Cole.
The hub-to-hub strategy is also useful beyond urban areas, Cole suggests, “if you’re visiting a destination like a national park where you can take tours when you arrive and really don’t need a car.”
Is the price right?
Coach fare train travel is one of the least expensive ways to see the country, Richardson says, and “Europeans often marvel at the low cost of Amtrak fares for coach seats.”
How you factor in meals will affect your budget, of course, and while coach passengers pay for food a la carte, meals are included in Amtrak sleeping car fares. Snacks and liquor in the lounge car cost extra in both cases. As with most restaurants, “lunch is usually a better value than dinner for those on a tight budget,” according to Pitt, and “many people bring their own supplies of food and drink on board, though this isn't encouraged and may be impractical for longer journeys.”
Cole notes that cheaper fares are generally available when you book in advance, particularly mid-week and Saturday as well as midday and late evenings on trains running on Amtrak’s popular Northeast Corridor, bound by Washington, D.C. and Boston. For long distance travel throughout the Amtrak system, fares tend to be lower November through March, excluding holidays.
At all times, except for weekday travel on the high-speed Acela train, Amtrak permits every full-coach fare adult to bring two children aged 2 -15 at half price. And except on weekday Acela trips and the Virginia to Florida auto train, senior citizens ride for 15 percent off the regular coach fare.
Sleeping on the go can save extra dough.
Is overnighting on a train cheaper than a motel would have been? That depends on what sleeping class you book. “Obtaining a comfortable night’s rest is easy even in coach class, given a certain amount of practice,” Pitt says. Reclining seats and dimmed lights, as well as the “gentle rocking and the hypnotic rumble of the wheels” may ease your trip to dreamland, he adds, as will booking “a seat in the middle of the car away from the sliding doors.”
Richardson acknowledges that airplane seats have nothing on the comfort and legroom of coach train seats, but observes that the togetherness of sleeping bodies in a single train car may inspire you to weigh the costs of a sleeping car, especially if you have a family in tow. Sleeping car “bedrooms range from snug 'roomettes' to family sized affairs,” Pitt notes, and are priced accordingly.
Long-distance train restrooms typically come equipped with showers and most bathrooms on all trains have infant changing tables. And in a nod to Western civilization, there are plenty of working outlets throughout most cars.
Bring a blanket, earplugs, a sleep mask, camera, binoculars, a map with rail routes indicated, a wad of singles for tips and a good book. Small pillows are provided, as are bed linens in sleeping cars. Lounge cars sell aspirin and other incidentals, but Richardsom urges self-containment, especially for traveling families.
Also keep any meds and your photo ID out of any checked bags, as you won’t have access to checked baggage during the trip, Cole says, adding that Amtrak allows two bags at no charge on short distance trains and two checked bags and a single carry-on on long distance trips.
See if these trips pack appeal.
Among Amtrak’s offerings, Pitt and Richardson like the California Zephyr, running from Chicago to San Francisco “by way of America’s heartland and the high plains of Colorado, then climbing into the Rocky Mountains via the Oregon Trail,” says Pitt.
Richardson and Ann Lombardi, a tour leader and co-owner of The Trip Chicks, are fans of Amtrak’s Empire Builder, running between Chicago and Seattle/Portland “with almost 60 miles of mountain peaks and glaciers in Glacier National Park on the Fargo to Seattle line,” Lombardi notes.
Outside the Amtrak system, Colorado’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad were recommended by Schwartz as well as TV journalist and travel blogger Lisa Lubin, who describes the ride as “a once-in-a -lifetime thrill as it winds through the San Juan mountains for a three hour journey of spectacular scenery and old-time nostalgia.”
So are you train traveler material? There may be only one way to find out.
Until then, says Pitt, consider that “American trains have style and old-world charm, and as Homer Simpson rightly said, ‘Nothing beats flying across the country on a train.’"