It’s sad, but true, that the golden age of rail travel has passed, crippled first by the automobile and then brought to near-death by the passenger airplane. Johnny Cash sang about a future in which he’d have to explain to his child what trains were. Well, the days of luxurious Pullman sleeper cars and meals of pheasant and lobster are gone from this land, but train travel is still an option in many parts of the United States. It isn’t the fastest, it isn’t the cheapest, but it is undoubtedly the most relaxing form of travel: no long drive to the airport, no getting accosted by security guards, no cramped seats, no driving long hours, no getting lost, no having to pull over for the bathroom.
Many states and conurbations have regional rail systems of varying scales, usually under the porridge-y name of “Commuter Rail,” which sounds like as romantic a way to travel as being shoved. Unfortunately, there is only one national trans-state rail service now: Amtrak. Fortunately, it still operates daily to thousands of locations across the country, and, with a little bit of forethought and preparation, you, like me, can turn it into Glamtrak.
Where to Go and How to Get There
If you need to be somewhere in a hurry, don’t take the train. That’s not what it’s for and you’ll probably be frustrated.
Beginner train travelers might want to take a short trip at first to see if they like spending time on a train. Amtrak’s Northeast Regional line is easy to use for day trips to major cities from Boston to Washington, D.C. or you could spend a full day on the Adirondack line going from New York City to Montreal.
If you’re comfy enough with that, try an overnight trip — D.C. to Chicago, for example. Or Denver to San Francisco. This is where the first major Amtrak decision comes in: to take a seat in coach or one of the sleeper options. The seats are far more comfortable, large, roomy, and reclinable than the ones on airplanes. Coach seats are competitive with airline prices and cheaper the earlier you buy them. If I’m traveling overnight, a seat is usually just fine.
Sleepers are considerably more expensive, but my rule of thumb is: If you’ll be on the train for more than one night, it’s well worth the upgrade for comfort and ease of travel. In addition, if you’re traveling with a companion, the value is better, because you each pay your fares and a flat rate for the room or roomette on top of that. All your meals in the dining car are included in the sleeper price, with the exception of the Capitol Limited and the Lake Shore Limited trains, which recently switched to dingy cold meals delivered to the bunks of sleeper passengers. Let’s hope more lines don’t follow suit!
There are several sleeper options: the roomette is the most basic and consists of two seats facing each other with a fold-out table in between them. The seats pull out into a twin bed and a bunk bed folds out of the ceiling. The roomette is cozy, to say the least, but they are both perfectly comfortable beds, although not conducive to advanced hanky-panky or wrassling of any kind. The sleeper cars are equipped with several toilets and an onboard shower, which a clever person can use to steam their shirts in a pinch, hanging them up and pressing the timed shower button at its hottest setting until the room fills up with steam. Showering at the same time will save water.
Sleepers are considerably more expensive, but my rule of thumb is: If you’ll be on the train for more than one night, it’s well worth the upgrade for comfort and ease of travel.
The bedroom also sleeps two adults but has an extra chair and a private shower, toilet, and sink, all providing comfort, privacy, and the opportunity to creepily sit and watch your traveling companion sleep. The bedroom suite is two bedrooms combined, sleeping four adults and adding an unnecessary second toilet to the mix. This option is presumably ideal for groups of friends, musical quartets, or traveling swingers. The family bedroom has two adult beds and two child-sized beds but no en-suite toilets or showers, maybe because kids just have it too easy these days.
All of the sleeper options have clothes hangers, air conditioning controls, variable lighting options, a lovely big window, and space for at least one or two carry-on size bags. There is additional space for large luggage on the lower level of the car. Each sleeper car has its own attendant. This person will answer your questions, keep the toilets clean and the coffee pot full, make your bed up in the night and take it down in the morning, and even bring you a meal if you don’t feel like eating in the dining car. They are saintly wizards and deserve to be tipped at least $10 for each night you’re on the train (just as you must tip the famous Amtrak Red Caps if they help you with your bags at the station.)
Eating and Drinking
I mentioned pheasant and lobster earlier because food — indeed, the entire onboard dining experience — was once something passenger trains were famous for. That reputation has long since passed, although airplane food is definitely worse and Amtrak makes an admirable effort in some ways. Every train has a cafe car, where passengers can purchase snacks and drinks. As with most captive travel amenities — like those found in airport terminals and resorts — these things are typically more expensive than they would be in a store. Bring a couple of bottles of water and, if all you want is some peanuts or chips or a candy bar, you might as well bring your own stock.
The cafe car food varies in quality, but my first rule is to avoid any of the hot dishes on offer: these included hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza. All of these things are microwaved, all of these things contain bread, and microwaved bread is like soggy papier-mâché, which is not Amtrak’s fault. A better option are the cold sandwiches, which taste reasonably fresh and come in a good variety of flavors.
Drinking en train is one of the great pleasures of rail travel. If you’ve invested in a sleeper ticket, you may bring your own supply of booze. Some stations, like New York Penn Station, make this easy for you by selling beer and wine. Tuscon even has a lovely little wine shop attached to its station cafe — just be sure you get a bottle with a screw cap. Obviously, beer and white wine won’t keep cold forever on the train, so any Champagne must be immediately drunk, preferably opened even before your ticket has been inspected.
Drinking en train is one of the great pleasures of rail travel.
Spirits can be brought on in bottles (like a weirdo) or in flasks (like a gentleman). For those looking for a truly Glamtrak experience, do what I do and batch a few stirred all-spirits cocktails (you can usually fit three or four in a flask,) like a martini. Then go to the cafe car and ask for a cup of ice and a coffee stirrer. Pour, stir, and enjoy.
If you have a coach ticket, you are not supposed to bring your own booze. I have seen this rule transgressed in the past without incident, but I cannot recommend such a bold violation. Beer, wine, and spirits are all available to the coach passenger for purchase in the cafe car, although I have seen a man cut off for drinking three beers before breakfast and then arguing with fellow passengers in the observation car.
The ne plus ultra of Amtrak food is to be had in the dining car. Attendants will go around before each meal and take reservations for certain dining times, starting with people in the sleeper car. Dining car food is cooked sous vide and runs the gamut from a perfectly good cut of steak with potatoes to mussels in a white wine sauce to pastas and more ambitious regional and ethnic dishes added to the menu by various restaurant chefs. The salads are iceberg-y and unremarkable, so if you eat meat, by all means, do that.
If you are in a coach seat, you will have to pay for the meal, but the prices aren’t outrageous by any means. As I noted earlier, meals are included in the price of a sleeper ticket, although you will have to pay for any alcoholic beverages, as well as tip your servers.
The dining car brings us neatly to one of the most important aspects of rail travel: it is a social experience. Your fellow passengers are there to enjoy the journey with you, not to compete for armrests or luggage space (on a train, there’s plenty of both to go around). The clearest example of Amtrak’s communal nature is the fact that if you are traveling in a party of fewer than four people, you will be seated in the dining car with strangers. Amtrak does this partly because it’s easier to wait on fewer tables, but I think also because it adds something to the experience; these people don’t stay strangers for long.
The dining car tends to be an older and slightly upper-class social scene because it is mostly people who have paid for sleeper cars. The real fun and mixing take place in the observation lounge, the beautiful glass-domed top floor of the cafe car where you and your fellow passengers “ooh” and “ahh” at the beautiful scenery passing by and get to know each other better.
On Amtrak, I have met a woman going from St. Louis to pick up her blind mother in Little Rock; many veterans (they get a discount,) one of whom I helped with his poetry; members of some bonnet-and-beard variety of old-school Christians who are apparently cool with trains; a rapper named Tony Benefit; a Swedish woman who was a track engineer for London’s light rail system and was on her way to work on a cowboy ranch; church groups; aerophobes; the disabled; exchange students from Kazakhstan; tourists; wonderfully polite people with radically different political views than me; and lots of senior citizens. (Why? Because they also get a discount and often have more time on their hands. The makeup of the sleeper cars skews older and Amtrak accommodates;: you’ll find that 7 o’clock or so is the latest option for dinner.)
You will also undoubtedly meet railroad enthusiasts or “foamers” as the staff disparagingly refers to them because they supposedly foam at the mouth at the very thought of trains. These are people (nearly always men) who will sit quietly in a common area of the train, usually eating a pre-packed meal from a cooler, and then will eagerly leap into the conversation if they overhear anyone mentioning anything about trains. They will tell you how many tons any bridge you cross can bear, how long each tunnel is, which side of the train to look out of when for the best views, what freight company owns which section of track, and what year each station was built. They will also hand you xeroxed articles (often self-written,) about the imminent obliteration of the American passenger railroad written over the course of the last five decades. If you are a patient and interested person, these important keepers of railroad lore and evangelists for the American train are a wealth of fascinating information.
The End of the Line
Amtrak is not a perfect train system. It is not luxurious like the grand trains of India, Africa, and other countries. It is often subject to hours of delays for all kinds of reasons, and it is in constant danger of being further defunded and cut back (which means its always the right time to take it while you can). However, Amtrak is the most impressive, majestic, comfortable, and downright civilized way to see America — taking you from downtown to downtown along both coasts, across the midwestern plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the continental divide, through the deserts of the West from the coasts to the Gulf of Mexico
You can become an Amtrak Guest Rewards member, earning points toward travel and — if you travel enough like me — getting knighted to one of the “Select” tiers with vouchers for class upgrades, lounge tickets, a coupon for a free companion to travel on one trip with you (that’s essentially two fares for the price of one), and a nifty card to keep in your wallet. Speaking of cards, Bank of America offers an Amtrak MasterCard which gives you points for every purchase you make; I use mine so much that I can usually take at least one long-distance trip in a sleeper car for free every year.
If you’ve reserved a sleeper car, you’ll travel in some style — more if you bring your own with you and you’re a friendly type who is unafraid of meeting new people. Not only will your meals be included, but you’ll have access to the various club lounges in the bigger stations, which include everything from free sodas to cheese cubes and crackers to the most unpretentious wine tastings you’ve ever been to. Amtrak isn’t elegance personified, but it is justly proud and decent and the people who work for it are the embodiment of hard work, charm, and professionalism.
You will spend long hours on the train, If that thought bores you or you’ve convinced yourself that your time is more valuable than it really is, don’t take it. Occasionally, you will be able to get off and stretch your legs at one of the “smoke stops,” where some people will have cigarettes and others will jog up and down the length of the train. You can even wander around a bit at some of the longer stops; for example, when an electric engine has to be switched for a diesel or vice-versa (a sacred event the great dandy of the railroad Lucius Beebe once described as “the father giving away the bride”). Most importantly you, like Johnny Cash, will be able to fully explain to future generations what trains were.
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