By John Pitt
Updated Feb, 2015
American trains have always had a strong hold on the popular imagination, inspiring countless songs, stories, scandals and legends. Their rugged style and old-world charm sets them apart from more mundane means of transport and, as Homer Simpson has said, ‘Nothing beats flying across the country on a train.’
Trains are safe, pollute less and rarely suffer from weather delays or long security checks. You won’t be surcharged or given jet lag or made to take your shoes off.
You stay in touch with an ever-changing landscape and between the cities and small towns you can comprehend America’s sheer size, seeing what the country looked like before McDonalds and Coca Cola. Often the places you visit can’t be seen any other way. Trains serve most big cities as well Disney World, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.
You can travel from coast to coast, go to more than 500 destinations, explore the Rocky Mountains and ride alongside two oceans. The following are some of my favorite Amtrak journeys: The California Zephyr, one of the world’s great trains, goes from Chicago to San Francisco by way of America’s heartland and the high plains of Colorado, climbing into the Rocky Mountains via the Oregon Trail.
Pioneers came this way, as did gold prospectors, the pony express and the first continental telegraph.
Which guidebook? Bradt’s indispensable USA by Rail (which I wrote) includes maps, full route guides, city information and details of how to find your way about strange train stations. The book also covers trains in Canada. Allow at least half an hour before departure time and choose a window seat for better views, more privacy and a corner to lean against when sleeping.
You can bring two pieces of hand baggage and the check-in service allows an additional three items. Serendipity is one of the great things about train travel as you can easily mingle with fellow passengers if you wish, watch a movie or just enjoy the passing scene. There is nothing to compare the legroom on any train compared with what you get on a cross-country bus or anything in the air. So enjoy and stretch out!
Lounge cars offer great views through their huge wrap-around windows and you can have a drink in the bar, where a relaxed atmosphere sometimes encourages strangers to tell you their life story in hair-raising detail. Dining car meals may include regional specialities such as barbecued spare ribs or fresh salmon. Lunch is better value than dinner but anything alcoholic tends to be expensive.
Get Cash or Bring a Card
Many people bring their own food supplies on board, though this isn’t encouraged. Tickets and meals can be paid for with cash, credit cards, or travellers’ cheques designated in US$. Amtrak trains are known for running out of certain food items, so just in case, stock up with snacks
and non-obtrusive or smelly foods just in case.
There are no places to obtain cash, except by cashing a travellers’ cheque, so take enough money to last the journey.
Lots of hotels can be found close to train stations and station staff are a good source of advice. Sleeping on board is no problem either, given generous reclining seats, dimmed lights and a free pillow from the attendant.
Top tip: Choose a seat in the middle of the car, away from the sliding doors, and take a coat or blanket to ward off over-enthusiastic air conditioning at night. Sleeping compartments, available for a supplement, are ingenious if none too spacious.
You get extra privacy and it’s a unique experience to hurtle through the night in your own personal travelling capsule. Complimentary tea, coffee, fruit juice and a newspaper are served each morning and the fare includes all meals in the dining car as well as access to Amtrak’s exclusive Metropolitan waiting rooms (I once hobnobbed with comedian Bill Cosby at New York’s Pennsylvania Station). Arrive early to avoid rushing on board.
Always wear shoes when moving about the train and use handrails when boarding or climbing stairs (long-distance trains are mostly double-decked Superliners). Using maps and schedules cleverly you can organise your route to reach places early in the morning, refreshed and ready for a day’s sightseeing. If you are only staying a short time you can leave checked bags with Amtrak and pick them up later for the next leg of your journey.
Top tip: When travelling overnight through scenic areas try to make your departure date just before a full moon.
The Sunset Limited
After Salt Lake City, you cross Bonneville Salt Flats and the beautiful Sierra Nevada. The Sunset Limited’s epic journey takes you from Florida to Los Angeles, making a dizzy crossing of the Mississippi River outside New Orleans before traveling among bayous, white egrets, alligators, mansions and fields of sugar cane. After San Antonio the train joins the Rio Grande, taking a day to cross the sagebrush and mesquite prairies of Texas.
The Southwest Chief travels between Chicago and the Pacific, following part of the Santa Fe Trail first used by Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, wagon trains and stage coaches. You cross the Mojave Desert and pass Dodge City’s famous Boot Hill burial ground. From Williams in Arizona you can travel to the Grand Canyon. The Crescent goes from New York to New Orleans through the Blue Ridge Mountains and idyllic Shenandoah National Park.
Beyond Atlanta lie sleepy southern towns with sun-bleached houses before the train makes a dramatic crossing of Lake Pontchartrain, skimming a few feet above the water on a six-mile causeway. The Coast Starlight operates between Seattle and Los Angeles and passes some of America’s highest mountains as well as the emerald forests and waterfalls of Twin Peaks country.
Beyond San Luis Obispo California the train runs along tracks set high on cliffs, with splendid views of the Pacific surf and beaches. Tickets Prices depend on distance and the standard of service provided but special deals often mean big reductions, with prices up to 75% less than the equivalent air fare. Students and seniors qualify for a 15% discount.
You can make reservations at Amtrak’s website, station ticket offices and designated travel agents, or by telephoning a free 24-hour number. Top tip: Book as far ahead as possible, especially during summer when some routes can become very busy. Passes are available for travel throughout Amtrak’s 25,000-mile rail network.
For each type of pass, currently priced starting at $449 for 15 days, you can travel a certain number of travel segments within a period of 15, 30 or 45 days. A full list of Amtrak-appointed agents outside North America can be found in the USA by Rail guidebook.
Amtrak Railpass prices are:
$459.50 for 15 days, 8 segments
$689 for 30 days, 12 segments,
$899 for 45 days, 18 segments, kids passes are 50% of above.
A pair of binoculars, a good book, a deck of cards (poker games in the bar have been known to last until dawn), maps (preferably showing rail lines), a light blanket, earplugs or an eyeshade if you are a light sleeper, bathing and grooming items (some trains have showers), a pocket torch, sunglasses, a cheap digital watch with an alarm, a small first-aid kit, bottled mineral or spring water (which will taste better than that from the drinking fountain), fresh fruit, nuts and other snacks. Wear comfortable clothes, especially shoes.
John Pitt has traveled over 75,000 miles as author of the USA by Rail guide book, published by Bradt Travel Guides. For more information and advice on train travel in the United States and Canada, see his website.
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