USA by RAIL: How to be prepared

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So you’ve purchased your Amtrak USA Rail Pass for either 15, 30, or 45 days of train travel. You’ve looked over 10 on-board tips, and you think you’re ready for “All Aboard.” Have you diligently scoured the internet to prepare yourself for your journey? Trick question. You can never be fully prepared for the rail ahead. But here’s advice on how to give yourself an edge and that little extra sense of security.

The Backpack

When loading up your backpack, suitcase, or generally over-sized handbag, you need to remember economy. In most instances, a backpack will be your carry-on of choice, and it’s important to keep in mind weight and practicality. This means after you’ve scrutinized your luggage, give it a twice or even third evaluation. When selecting a good pack, try and spring for a durable, load baring one. This can run you about $100 a pop if you’re looking for the real deal. And while you’re there, pick up a solid water bottle. Don’t get crazy and opt for an 80L  if you’re a tiny woman. And if you’re traveling as a pair, don’t plan for inflicting the burden of your extra contents on your partner. There will be resentment after walking a few miles around a new city, waiting for check-in.

Check out this site for additional help on selecting your size.

The Wardrobe

Think climate. If you’re traveling for an extended period of time, you may find yourself going from hot and humid Miami to the chilly coastal airs of Northern California. Time of year matters, so research the states’ and cities’ weather conditions in advance. Don’t rely on stereotypes. “California is sunny and warm.” With that ocean breeze, you may find yourself resenting the 7 pairs of shorts and tanks you stuffed into your pack. Be versatile. Think layers. You’re going to want at least 2 pairs of pants and a comfortable sweatshirt or pullover. There may be a good week between having access to a laundry room, so think ahead about your needs. Sweaty feet syndrome? Maybe squeeze in a few extra pairs of socks. Which brings us to shoes. Shoes shoes shoes. Think longevity. Consider a pair of boots or shoes that are comfortable, durable, and will provide some kind of foot/ankle support. This means forget your dress shoes, heels, flip flops, and other fashion footwear. And remember your Dr. Scholl’s, because regardless of where you’ll be, you’ll be on your feet. You don’t need a new “outfit” for each day, so leave your closet at home. Accept that there will be times you wear the same t-shirt 3x a week, so pack your favorite. And, very import, bring a good coat. Especially depending on the time of year, you want to have a coat that will sustain you throughout varying elements: rain, snow, desert heat, and even the icy chill of the train cars at night. Don’t weigh yourself down with a sherpa lining (remember: layers), but don’t leave yourself exposed to nature’s whims. Everything will not go as planned. Waterproof is your friend. Waterproof backpack, waterproof coat, waterproof shoes.

The Accessories

Reusable water bottle. Check.

Electronic devices with compatible chargers and headphones. Check.

Over-the-counter meds secured in a convenient Ziploc bag. Check.

Travel-sized HBC products also secured in  a convenient Ziploc bag. Check.

Weird little things that might come in handy but probably won’t think of: nail clippers, tweezers, bottle opener, small scissors, pocket knife (there’s no TSA, but knives are still on the no-go list, so pack this at your own discretion), chewing gum, floss, hair ties, and a couple extra Ziploc bags. (Why extra baggies? Get caught in the rain or when hanging out on the sandy beach— bags are a sure way to protect your smartphones, iPods, and other small electronic devices. Additionally, your tiny tube of lotion can bust and that extra baggie can save the integrity of your clothes as well as the day.) Check.

Locks for your backpack. This will give you more peace of mind when you’re “sleeping” on the train, or even when traversing new streets. Check.

A notebook or daily planner, a couple pens, and stamps if you’re preemptively excited to send postcards. (In which case, don’t forget to bring the addresses of everyone you’re leaving.) Check.

Lightweight protein bars and breakfast snacks. Check.

And… a  mesh laundry bag (or plastic grocery bag if that’s how you roll) to stow your dirty unmentionables separate from your clean gear. Check.

The Research

As mentioned, you’re going to need to research the climates of the places you’ll be visiting. But in addition, you’re going to need to have done a bit more. The obvious modern day research methods include:

1. The Internet. And your #1 site should be Amtrak. because you’re going to need to this baby in order to have any idea about your travel itinerary.

2. Friends, family, and acquaintances who are familiar with the areas you’re traveling to. You can get firsthand tips on places to stay, snazzy cafes to eat, and horrible, scary, murderous neighborhoods to avoid. Oh, and the wonderful spots for sight-seeing.

3. Books like USA by Rail Plus Canada, travel guides, an atlas…

4. Google maps and other GPS apps for figuring out where you’re going and how to get there in the new cities. (Keeping track of train station and lodging addresses in your handy notebook is a must.)

5.  Public transportation information sites for the unfamiliar bus, BART, metro, and light rail schedules and fees.

6. TripAdvisor for reviews on everything and anything. Plus, the site can give you ideas on local activities, tours, and happenings.

The Rail Pass

You must not lose your rail pass, otherwise your exciting journey will be sorely short-lived. So make sure to tuck it in your fanny pack and keep it close. Jot down your rail pass ID number (as well as your partner’s) in your notebook or daily planner–you will need this to schedule any of your segments (i.e. trains and thru buses). Right next to your ID number, jot down Amtrak’s phone # (1-800-USA-RAIL) for booking. The rail pass is not a free-for-all. You must call ahead to book seats on any train; the rail pass affords you prepaid travel, not prepaid seats. In order to use your rail pass effectively, you must must must know your train schedule. So look in advance! Do not wait. Waiting and teetering on the unknown makes it very difficult to coordinate future lodging and transportation. Know your timeline. If you already know you want to leave New Orleans (NOL) and head to Tucson (TUS), you should know your travel dates, your segments, your route, the duration of travel, what time of day or night you will depart and arrive, and how far the station is from your booked stay. For example, The Sunset Limited from Louisiana to California does not run every day. Just like in the name, the train is a limited route. You could find yourself having to stay in the city an extra unplanned night after you’ve already checked out. These things happen. So be flexible. Like I said, everything will not go as planned, even when you are on the ball. So do yourself a favor and eliminate any conceivable possibilities of additional, unnecessary stresses.

The Lodging

Vet your lodging. This is what all those scathing Internet reviews are for. You might think you’re saving yourself $$ by opting for the “only $49 a night!” motel. But you’ll be paying the cost later when you need to shell out for bedbug removal. Maybe you value your beauty rest. But maybe that hostel you booked is directly above an all hours nightclub. These things matter. Keep into consideration the location of your hotel/hostel/Airbnb host, especially if you’re set on getting around by foot. Know the proximity of your lodging to the train stations and locations of interest. Those taxi rides can add up (and also be a particularly unique nightmare), so do yourself a solid and download the Uber or Lyft apps if you have a few days in major cities. “Your friend with a car” is half as expensive as a taxi cab and in most cases, more reliable. For extended stays, consider renting a car as the most cost-efficient option if you’re interested in checking out multiple cities in one state. And if you’ve never stayed in one before, a hostel can be a particularly cost-cutting boarding option. For $60 a night you can get a private room for two. Know your perks. If you’re traveling on a budget, take note of which hotels and hostels include breakfast with your stay. You’ll resent needlessly spending an extra $15 every morning when you could have gotten your coffee and toast for free. Some boutique hotels even offer free cocktails during happy hour, saving you and your partner $20+ a night, so take advantage of your amenities.

The Neighborhoods

Researching the cities you’re visiting is essential for safe travel. You may find yourself stranded outside the train station in Oakland at 11 pm. The closest BART is a 15 minute walk taking you under the freeway. You don’t want to be under the freeway. Know where you are. This is also important for booking your room. That affordable place in the Tenderloin might seem like a good idea, but come nightfall you’ll wish you paid to stay in a better neighborhood. Check out a breakdown of neighborhoods on a city map, and take the time to do “best” and “worst” searches. Keep in mind areas you may we walking through and around during your visit. Even scenic city parks can often become temporary housing camps for an increasing homeless population. When exploring a new city, be aware of state laws and regulations. That fruity hurricane you toted around with you in New Orleans’ French Quarter will get you fined in most other cities. (Note for Europeans: Open container laws are enforced in the majority of the United States.) Strolling around discretely puffing a joint may be overlooked in Northern California, but will get you arrested elsewhere. And similar to New York, many West Coast cities are putting the kibosh on public smoking. Don’t light up a smoke walking around anywhere in Coronado, CA–the entire island is smoke-free on any public property.

The Costs

And if you’re a particularly fastidious person, keep a record of your expenses to stay on budget. In advance, researching the costs of hotel stays, hidden booking fees, downtown restaurants and hot spots, popular tourist sights and attractions, and transportation options will give you a better idea of what you’ll actually be spending in each city. Additionally, that coach seat might not cut it on a 55+ hour haul from the east to the west coast, so plan for the unexpected. Give your wallet breathing room when mapping out your rail journey. Opting for a ticket upgrade may add an unplanned $200 to your segment, but it might make the cross country travel more bearable. And when booking lodging or rental cars online, remember that you need to present the physical credit card when checking in or picking up. Don’t leave yourself stranded. So give yourself an edge, and do your research.

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.

USA by RAIL: 45 days around America introduction

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His & Her Backpacks

As Jimmy and I prepare for our final stages of packing, I’d like to thank everyone who gave us such a warm farewell. We will be heading out on Sunday, October 11th to our first destination Miami, Florida. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the rail pass, let me clarify. Our 45 day USA rail pass through Amtrak will allow us to take 18 “segments” during the 45 day period. Each train constitutes as a segment, thus we must map out the cities we’d like to see based on the number of segments it would require to do so. If you take a look at the Amtrak system map above, you’ll see that navigating the country by train is not linear. This means that in order to get to one of our must-sees (New Orleans!) from Miami, we’ll have to take the Silver Meteor (up the East Coast) to Washington, D.C., then get transferred to another train (the Capitol Limited or the Cardinal), until we take our final train City of New Orleans down into NOLA. For further clarification on train routes, see picture below.

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Amtrak Routes by Specific Train 

Hopefully that will give you an idea of how organized I will have to be to diligently keep track of departures, hotels, and timelines. The first 3 weeks will be fast-paced, because Jimmy and I need to get to the Phoenix, AZ area by Halloween for the Monster Mash Festival in Tempe, featuring headliner Tool (and Primus). Exciting, exciting. Post-Halloween, Jimmy & I will either head up the west coast and back towards PA through the badlands, or double-back to check out more cities on our must-see list. Feel free to contact me along the way for any questions (or concerns). I will be updating Facebook regularly with photos and stories from the rail.

Kate Must-See: Charleston, SC. / New Orleans, LA. / Austin, TX. / San Francisco, CA. / Salt Lake City, UT. / Denver, CO. / Portland, OR.

Jimmy Must-See: Atlanta, GA. / New Orleans, LA. / Anywhere in the desert like AZ. and NM. / Portland, OR. / More of the desert / Nashville, TN.