USA by RAIL: How to be prepared


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.