Take a moment to think back to the last time you traveled by air. What was it like getting there? Finding reasonably-priced parking? Dealing with lines, gate changes, and hoping you remembered to bag all your liquids? After a few hours actually on the plane, how did you feel? Maybe miserable, cramped, frustrated, sleepy, or bored? And if you don’t shop in the petite section, bruise-kneed and highly irritable? I love airports, and I used to love flying, but more and more I’m having straight up irritating and distressing experiences. To travel home for the holidays this year, I decided to forgo that option and instead booked the cheapest sleeper ticket I could find. And now, after my first cross-country Amtrak ride, I never want to go back. After a few hours on the train in my own modest "roomette," I felt downright cheerful, ready for adventure, and was wishing time would stop. It’s one majestic view after another getting you in touch not only with the untouched beauty of America, but also your creativity, inspiration, and that sense of zen that’s so notoriously elusive these days. If you’re looking to travel in the states anytime soon, skip the plane and take the train. Here’s 7 solid reasons why (and yes, all pictures are from inside train windows):
It's vacation time. You’re packed and ready. You make it to your departure point and park your car for free. You have your QR code ready on your phone. You sit down in a large, open room with a Peet’s coffee stand a few feet away from you in case a caffeine emergency crops up (it does). There are maps everywhere for you to get lost in. You notice it’s almost time for departure when a man yells loudly across the room letting you know how everything is going to work. He says that everything is on time, that you should try to get a seat on the left, and lets the other passengers know how to get their seat assignments. Lo and behold, a few minutes later, your chariot awaits. After a short walk, a man smiles at you, takes your luggage, and tells you to hop on. You look at him suspiciously, wondering if he’s going to open your luggage or ask you to take off your shoes, but he never does. You quickly get to your assigned space, fearing he’ll soon realize his mistake. You tuck your bottle of wine away nicely, in preparation for a raring good time later tonight. A little while later, another man comes by to ask you for your ticket. The kind man from before returns and tells you his name (probably something like Mike) and that if you have any questions or ever need anything, he’s the one to go to. Everything has started to move, and you’re on your way. Care for some candies or coffee?
...And that's how your journey starts: 0% stress and worry. That’s documented fact, right there, folks, and I’d happily say it under oath. Just about the opposite of any airport experience I’ve ever had, that’s for sure. The only thing Amtrak can’t do is rival the speeds of their airborne counterparts. But that’s fine – do we really have to be in such a rush to get from here to there? Take your time. Leave your Tylenol and your Xanax at home, folks. For once, you’re in good hands.
Sure, you’ve dined on beaches. Maybe you’ve boozed on yachts (you’d be alone on that one) or had hors d’oeuvres in high rises – but have you ever noshed on cheesecake to ever-changing views of tree-covered mountains, serene lakes, winding rivers, rolling hillsides, forgotten boom towns, and miles upon miles of endless blue sky? A meal in the dining car (included in the price of a sleeper ticket) may be one of the most unforgettable meals of your entire life. And while it may not be the best burger you’ve ever had (nor will it be the worst), it may be one of the meals you’re most grateful to have experienced. Pro tip? Let your diet go for a day as dessert does not disappoint.
And apart from just the dining experience, this train is going to be your home – maybe for even a few days (San Francisco to Chicago is roughly 50 hours). So plop yourself down in the observation car (the one with the floor to ceiling windows on both sides) and get ready to be in for some jaw-dropping, panoramic views. Your room will offer great views, too, if you’re looking for something a little more secluded. With your eye off your window, you’ll constantly be wondering what you’re missing – like tunnels of evergreen trees, train tracks that seem to float on the edges of cliffs, and paths that seem to sink into the depths of scarlet-hued canyons. If you want to be really prepared, bring some masking tape to adhere your camera to the window. Your arm is going to get tired snapping vista after vista.
For a long-distance train ride, you’ll want a sleeper car. Coach is fine – in fact, it’s much roomier than economy class on airplanes – but the sleeper car is where it’s at. It’s your own world for as long as you’re on the train and you are king or queen of the castle. Prices vary, but for one person, yes, it’s going to be more expensive than a flight. However, keep these cost-defraying points in mind:
- You get 2 free checked bags and 2 free carry-ons (and I was explicitly told on the phone that I could get a 5th on, no problem). With some airlines, that could easily be equivalent to $100 in hidden fees. If you’re the type that can’t travel light, the end prices may not be so different.
- You get 3 meals a day included in the cost of your ticket, plus complimentary coffee, juice, water, candies, and cookies available 24/7 within half a dozen steps of your sleeper. Get dessert and a soda or tea with every meal (also included) and you’re looking at an extra $45 a day minimum. And the meals aren’t small – breakfast in particular is quite large and quite scrumptious. Want bacon or a side salad? All add-ons, minus alcohol, are also free of charge.
- Travel in a group and your cost goes down significantly. There’s an initial fee for the room (that’ll be part of person #1’s ticket), but it’s only around $150 per person beyond that. So while one passenger may cost $450 dollars, two passengers cost $600, and so on and so forth. If you have another one or two (or five) people with you, it may actually be cheaper to take the train, depending on your final destination and the time of year.
While introverts may not find this point to be particularly alluring, bored travelers and extroverts will appreciate the camaraderie the train offers. You’ll be able to indulge in the stories of some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet; after all, why aren’t they on a plane? If you dine in the dining car, you may be asked to dine with one or two others – and that can be one of your first questions. On my last trip, while I chowed down on my oatmeal (mmm, oatmeal), I sat across from a British couple I’m convinced has seen everything there is to see. There was so much to talk about I didn’t know where to start, so most of the time I shyly deflected responsibility with my constant chewing.
Not into dining with strangers or just not feeling it? Not a problem (been there, done that). You can always get your food to go, too, and munch away in your room or in the observation car. Might as well not skip it – it’s free! Find your attendant and they’ll bring it right to you within minutes, hot and ready to enjoy. Just remember to tip him or her later.
A train ride is a vacation in and of itself. Heck, next up on my to-do list is to write a piece on taking trains “just because.” After all, it has everything: your hotel, your travel companions, and all of your “destinations.” But what it also has that most vacations don’t is a jam-packed, revolving-door of a scenic itinerary where you don’t have to lift a finger. Hours of gazing out of windows, relaxing, and doing whatever you’ve been putting off doing because you simply don’t have the time. You can write. You can sleep. You can read. You can sip wine and hunker down for a movie marathon. You can do the nasty (well, if you’re really careful and a bit daring). You can plan world domination. And if you close your door, not a single soul will bother you while you do so. No kids, no pets, no work phone calls (turn that sucker off). Just you and the possibilities that lie in the next couple of days.
Because train rides are so magically zen-full and other-worldly, Amtrak has even started out giving free round-trip rides to a few lucky writers. They know the experience they have to offer and thousands of hopefuls have been clamoring to receive the prize. But even if you’re not a writer, you’ll still feel the sense of calm that washes over you as you skirt quickly through the world, feeling as if your own has finally slowed down.
For however long your train ride is, a sleeper ticket is a ticket into a journey all your own. Instead of being cramped into a row of people with barely enough room for the book you’re reading, you could have a night full of red wine (bringing your own alcohol isn’t discouraged), card games, movies, music, getting handsy, and having a damn good time (just don’t get too rowdy). As long as you don’t smoke anything, you’re in the clear (if you do, you will get kicked off). Would you rather have 6 hours of jail time or 40 of virtual freedom? That’s what I thought. Sure, everything is what you make of it, but would you rather make something of being stuck in the Trader Joe’s parking lot at 5 PM or being stuck on the open road at sunset?
There has been a ton of controversy over government aid being given to a “mobile money-burning machine.” Everyone has their own claims, and no two sources seem to line up when it comes to the final numbers. What is known, however, is that Amtrak gets about $1.5 billion dollars a year from the federal government. It sounds like a lot until you know that the net subsidy to highways last year was just over $25 billion, and even cruise ships got $8 billion dollars. Cruise ships! Imagine the train system we could have – a la just about anywhere in Europe – if we allocated the amount of money to trains that we did to cruise ships.
What’s more, Amtrak’s carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per passenger are only 2/3 of a long-distance domestic flight. In layman’s terms, that means taking the train is 30% more environment friendly than flying. It gets people and traffic off the highways and is better for the planet? Sign me up.
But, unfortunately, Amtrak is going to remain an afterthought when most people book their travel plans if something isn’t done to change the stigma. We need to start riding, and we need to start riding soon. Amtrak offers discounts to AAA members, has publicized reduced “smartfare” prices midweek, and offers great bulk rates, too. And no, they’re not paying me to write this. I wish. If we all show our support, means of American travel could receive a long-overdue overhaul.