USA by RAIL: 10 on-board tips

So you want to travel the United States by rail. If you’re planning on using Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass, here are 10 on-board tips to prepare yourself for your 15, 30, or 45 day adventure.

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  1. Forget about every romanticized anecdote you’ve heard about train travel. Traveling by rail can be time-consuming and often, arduous. If you have a set destination in mind across the country, you’re better off buying a plane ticket. But if you’re set on seeing America’s landscape…
  2. Bring your own food. On a 55 hour Sunset Limited train from New Orleans to LA, you will inevitably need to eat. Your diet options are bagged salty snacks, microwaved hot dogs & burgers, cup-o-noodles, candy bars, and overpriced cans of Budweiser. If you think hey, I’ll check out the dining car instead, be prepared to be disappointed. Remember, there aren’t sizzling grills and open flames on a confined train. This means even the “freshly prepared” dinner car options are nuked frozen dishes. After a 26 hour Silver Meteor stint from Philadelphia to Miami, your pallor and disposition will rapidly deteriorate. Unless of course you’re used to a steady diet of prepackaged junk food. It’s not the worst to supplement your breakfast bars or other foods you’ve managed to squeeze in your bag prior to the train with a dining car breakfast, lunch, or dinner. But remember, you will be paying exorbitant prices for even a standard continental meal. With a partner, even the most unsatisfying meal for 2 will probably cost you $40 a pop. Times that by 3 meals a day on a multi-day stint and your food costs will add up quickly.
  3. Pack a comfort sleep item. These can include small pillows, a blanket, or in my case, a versatile towel, which doubled as both a pillow and a blanket. You can buy these costly items on the train, but if you have the space, bring your own. Train travel affords the passenger the opportunity, in most cases, to stretch your legs and walk about the train. Bonus if you’re on a double-liner with an observatory car. But most of the time you will be sitting. After 24+ hours of being stationary, you will wish you had that extra neck support. A travel blanket will be clutch because, and I can not emphasize this enough, the train will be cold. At night the internal temperature gets lowered to degrees in the 50s, if not less. Perhaps this is a ploy to sell those comfort items available on the train I mentioned. You don’t need to be excessive. Some passengers cart their entire bedroom set–queen-sized comforters, fluffy pillows, slippers. This is just weird. Plus, once you’ve de-boarded, those items must follow you. Think small. Think practical.
  4. Don’t forget your over-the-counter meds. Sleep aids, ibuprofen, antacids, nicotine patches for you smokers. These items are not available for purchase on-board, so think ahead to what you may need for the duration of your journey. Going back to the food options, you may want to consider vitamins and some kind of probiotics to help keep your system balanced. For those of you who get traveler’s tummy and find it hard to stay regular, probiotics can help, in addition to nature’s laxative, prunes.
  5. Don’t neglect your hygiene. Train restrooms are basically glorified bus bathrooms. Sometimes the smell is worse, if you have a few hundred people crammed into a limited space. Keep your oral rinse handy, in addition to, facial cleansing wipes, hand sanitizer, and wet/feminine wipes. Not having access to a shower for a few days, in conjunction with your questionable diet, will make wet wipes a treat. (Especially for ladies if your time of the month unfortunately syncs with your travel itinerary.) It’s hard to really “freshen up” in a train bathroom, so if you attempt to cart your hbc products or toiletries, you may also want to pack a small travel bag for this reason.
  6. Accept that you will not sleep. There will be a cacophony of coughs, sneezes, chatter, cell phones ringing, bags crinkling, rail screeches, doors opening and closing, babies screaming, overhead announcements, and general clamoring, rattling, and undulating movements. You will not sleep. Time will pass like a sick bay. If you remembered your pillow, eye cover, blanket or make-shift blanket, sleep aids, and (#7) your headphones, you will have a better chance than many. But it will not be satisfying, and your arrival at your destination will be both a victory and a daze. Nodding in and out is an inevitability, but don’t expect REM.
  7. Bring your headphones. If possible, your very expensive noise-cancelling Boise. You will need these to hookup to one of your many devices, whether it be smart phone, iPod, laptop, iPad, or all of thee above. You will not be able to use audio without them. In addition, don’t forget to pack your devices with appropriate chargers. If you have the data, you will need these electronics to get you through the long hauls. Most trains don’t provide free wifi, and when they do, sorry, no streaming. So make sure your data plan can take the brunt of your Netflix binging.
  8. No matter how tempting, don’t get drunk on the train. First off, this will only be cost efficient if you manage to squeak a flask of hard liquor in your bag. Who wants to spend $6 for a Corona? I mean, you’re not in Miami (yet). This is totally possibly, since there is no TSA to pat you down at the train stations. However, you may quickly find yourself on a boat without your sea legs, and no amount of dramamine can save you. Second, if you are a smoker (and did not remember your nicotine aids: see #4) you will suddenly find yourself more miserable and more irritable than imaginable. Yes, there are stops on the train course that do allow for a step-off to stretch your legs or smoke. They are few and far between. And if you find your ride is with a particularly salty conductor, no announcements will be made in that regard. You will see the deserts pass by and wonder, when? when? when can I smoke? The answer is never. Or at least, not until Tucson. And third, if you do manage to step-off for that sorely needed fresh air or smoke, even the clearest of minds can miss the “All Aboard!” call. I have seen this. It’s not pretty. Forgotten passengers screaming and chasing after the train that has departed without them, yet with all their bags and on-board possessions. This happens, so stay sharp.
  9. Evaluate your funds and consider the roomettes if you’re losing it. When you purchase an Amtrak Rail Pass, you will discover that your ticket is only good for seating in coach. You will also (sometimes quickly) discover the vast class difference between the coach and the “sleeper” passengers. Yes, the attendants are nicer to the ticket-holders with rooms. If you’re taking the Coast Starlight from LA to Seattle, you will hear the announcement for wine & cheese tasting in the exclusive “parlor car” and wonder why not me??? Because you’re in coach. Sometimes, the attendants will rapidly traverse the cars, speeding past the restless coach passengers for “reservations” in the dining car. If you miss making your reservation, you miss eating in the dining car. You are left with the prepackaged cafe car options: see #2. There are 3 tiers of ticket-holders. Coach, Roomettes, and Sleepers. The roomette is basically a tiny mobile prison for 2 where you are allotted privacy. A sleeper accommodates up to 4 passengers, and unlike the roomette, provides a small shower in addition to a sink and toilet. However, the sleepers are much more spacious. Don’t let your parents get a roomette, unless they are very lean and nimble. Someone must climb up to the top bunk. And with both bunks set up, you only have room to stay in bed. With each roomette or sleeper upgrade (which can cost you up in the hundreds of dollars on top of your rail pass) you get your dining car meals included. Score! But, and this is important, when traveling with a companion, make sure your partner’s ticket is marked as accompanying the purchaser’s roomette. You must explicitly make sure Amtrak knows that you are a pair. Not all employees will do this automatically (thanks for nothing, Miami). If you luck out and a gracious Southern employee (thank you, Charleston!) notices this, you and your partner can board together, both of your meals included. You do not want to watch your loved one get carted away like a prince or princess at 6 a.m. while you have to sit, alone with the other coach passengers waiting, stagnant until you can board and hope to eventually find your privileged companion somewhere in the labyrinth of sleeper and roomette cars, which, trust me, are on the other side of the train.
  10. Laugh. You must be able to laugh about the trials and tribulations you will face on your rail journey. If traveling alone, make sure to keep your friends and family up-to-date on your misadventures, because laughter is the best medicine. Actually, laughing might just keep you sane. So that boisterous group of elderly Southern ladies are cat calling and slamming down their dominoes from the seat behind you in the observatory when all you want to do is peacefully watch the new Grey’s Anatomy?? It’s okay, they’re laughing. And that’s nice. Their trash-talking is actually pretty funny. So all you want is the godforsaken train to take you away from whatever godforsaken city you are desperately trying to escape… when you overhear “radio issues,” “malfunctioning,” and “we’re going to need a new engine.” Three hours later your train is slowly reversing back into the station from whence it came, and all you have is half of a sad, mealy grapefruit. Don’t worry. Just look at your partner–and laugh.

One thought on “USA by RAIL: 10 on-board tips

  1. Pingback: USA by RAIL: How to be prepared | quinlan kate

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