This post isn’t about anything I normally write about. However, another viral post stemmed my desire to write about my own train experience. This is my opinion of an exciting opportunity that I encourage you to experience at least once in your lifetime. Oh, and by the way, this is an article for the average Joe, not the average Amtrak railfan. I know you guys have your own religion.
Last year, Derek Low shared his experience traveling across the US by train for $213. His trip? 3,400 miles from San Francisco to New York.
My husband, being a train buff, had his own plans, and earlier this month, we embarked with my 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter on a nearly 4,000 mile trip (total was 3,968+ miles) from NYC to Washington DC to Chicago to Denver to Salt Lake City to San Francisco to Los Angeles. And we did it for free (technically, for 70,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards [AGR] points). The full interactive map of our experience is below, as captured by the Android app called GeoTracker.
You’ll notice we missed some underground connections, as GPS signals are lost. Naturally, that meant we didn’t capture the 18 “states” (17 states plus our nation’s capitol) we covered in full (NY, where the trip began, is nowhere to be found), and that probably means our full mileage wasn’t totally calculated. But in the end, our trip took us through:
- New York
- New Jersey
- Washington DC
- West Virginia
Note: The first 5 miles of this isn’t accounted for since it refers to the first miles underground from NY>NJ. Also, we didn’t go 154mph. The max speed any of our 3 trains–we went on three routes total–was allowed to go was 110mph along the Northeast Corridor (NEC). Away from the NEC, max speed is 79mph due to the rails not being designed for high speeds. But even then, there were many parts of the trip that were slower than 79mph due to freight train traffic, single tracking, slow orders, and maintenance. And I wouldn’t trust the vertical distance number either.
So how did we accomplish this? And how did the kids do? Let’s talk about the experience in detail.
A Free Amtrak Trip? Yes
I didn’t make it up when I said our trip was entirely free. The cash equivalent for this trip would have been $3,400, which is quite different than the $213 Derek paid.
What we did unfortunately isn’t as easy to do in 2016 as it was in 2015, but in truth, it all comes down to points. Amtrak has a guest rewards program that allows points, or miles, to be redeemed for rail travel. We’re not frequent train travelers, so we didn’t accumulate most of the points through Amtrak in the most traditional fashion. Instead, we leveraged other promotions, transferring points into the Amtrak program. For example, one can sign up for credit cards for a bonus, and that is exactly what we did.
The thing that differentiates the 2016 program from the 2015 program is a zone system. The points cost for 2015 travel between zones was fixed regardless of the price of the train ticket in dollars. Therefore, if you went from zone 1 to zone 2, the cost in points would be the same even if the route was longer or more costly. However, in 2016, the amount of points needed to ride more expensive routes increased in correspondence with the ticket price in dollars of the route. Just like ticket prices fluctuate based on demand, so do point prices–but this was not the case in 2015. Thus, it is slightly more difficult to accumulate the points necessary to take the exact route that we took to go for free, though it is still possible to take cheaper routes and to put money into the itinerary if desired.
We took three trains to maximize the value of our points under the old program and to give us great scenery and have fun family time. The total travel time was 5 days with minimal stops as outlined below.
The first train was from NYC to Chicago via Washington DC, on the Cardinal (train #51). You may argue that this is counter-intuitive to go south and then go north… which is probably why the train was relatively empty (edit: nope, someone from Amtrak told me that this was due to seasonality). Mind you, it was also Superbowl Sunday. (No, we didn’t watch the game, but people on our train tried!)
The first leg began at 6:45am EST Sunday and we left on time. We arrived to Chicago around 10am CST Monday and had three hours to kill at Union Station before we boarded our second train. We spent a lot of that time walking around the Chicago French Market and sitting in Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge.
The second train, the California Zephyr (train #5), was from Chicago to San Francisco (technically Emeryville, which is across the bay, next to Oakland) via Denver and Salt Lake City. This was our longest segment. We boarded on a Monday at 1:15pm CST for a 2pm CST departure and did not get to San Francisco until 3:15pm PST on Wednesday. (Notice the timezone tracking? Try to keep track of timezones when you’re on a train and don’t know when you’re actually moving into a new timezone. That was … interesting.)
We spent the night at the Hyatt House Emeryville, a beautiful hotel right across the street from the Emeryville station with nice views. In the evening, we took BART under the bay into San Francisco and spent a night on the town sightseeing and riding cable cars. The following morning, we took our third train, the 8am PST train, on the Coast Starlight (train #11) and rode down the California “coast” for an arrival at LA 12 hours later, which was our final destination (we got in at 8:30pm PST).
In case you were wondering what we did after that, we made it an excursion (not limited only to trains) where we spent a few days in Los Angeles and then we returned home–by plane.
Also, in case you were wondering, here is the actual performance of the train against our schedule (departure and arrival times)–we did quite well and ultimately arrived early at the end of each leg.
Our Overall Room Experience
Bearing in mind that we had kids, we didn’t sit in coach or the newer business class seats (which are fancier seats in an open space, similar to coach, but with Internet, and only available on some trains). Instead, we traveled in sleeping cars in roomettes (two for the four of us), which are “first class” cars (officially called “sleeper class” by Amtrak) with private bathrooms (where applicable), beds, and doors. This was very important for our privacy and also ensured that the kids actually didn’t bother the people around them.
Below is a pretty accurate video tour of a roomette. To be very clear, though, this video is only applicable to the first train we were on (the Cardinal). The second and third trains we boarded felt narrower with no bathroom in the room; instead, there was a bathroom down the hall and three other bathrooms downstairs (the two final trains for us were double decker trains; the first train was only a single level train).
The single level sleeping car, called a Viewliner, had windows for the upper and lower berths (visible from the beds), but the double decker train, called a Superliner, only had windows on the lower berth, making it impossible for those on the top bunk to see anything.
Speaking of bunks, the kids were on the top. As a mom, this terrifies me, especially on a moving train, but there are seatbelt straps that extend from the bottom of the bunk that get attached to the ceiling, so people up there won’t roll out. Another thing about these bunks: it is very important to be mindful of the bed above your head, because if you stand up and forget it’s lowered, you will hit your head HARD. I did it three times.
Oh yes, there were showers too. The objective of showering in an Amtrak is that you’re not supposed to like it! In fact, there’s little pressure and the water doesn’t usually stay on or the temperature is out of whack. But hey, that was similar to the hotel we stayed at on solid ground in Los Angeles too.
On the first train, it was very difficult and annoying, not to mention narrow, to go to the bathroom in a tiny little toilet in your room. Therefore, we did prefer initially to use the more public bathrooms available to the entire train–until that public bathroom started smelling really really bad. Then, I took the extra effort to enjoy using the bathroom that was right next to me in my roomette, which ended up being pretty convenient at night.
There are two types of first class sleeping accommodations: the roomettes we were in and bedrooms. The bedrooms were a lot larger and more comfortable, and those bedrooms have bathrooms inside them, but I realized on the second and third trains that the bedrooms got pretty smelly! I had to hold my breath when walking through to get to my room from the dining car. I guess it was a blessing that we didn’t have private bathrooms in our rooms for most of the trip.
On the second night on the California Zephyr, there was an issue with heating–it was so bad that it must’ve been close to 80-85 degrees only in my room and we were temporarily displaced to a much more comfortable room. Fortunately, the sleeping car attendant, Brandon S., was kind enough to accommodate that room swap–it would have been brutal otherwise. Meanwhile, it was close to 100 degrees during the daytime with the sunlight shining into the car.
Another thing about the whole experience: there are different cars throughout the train that you can maneuver through. On the trains we were on, there were two sleeping cars (each consisting of bedrooms and roomettes), a car with business class seating (if available, pictured below), coach car(s), a sightseer-lounge car (also if available and also pictured below; alternatively, there’s a plain lounge car), and a dining car. There is also a cafe (which we never went to). On the double decker trains, luggage can be stored downstairs near three bathrooms, but on the single level trains, you store them right above you in your room, making it harder to get to. I preferred going downstairs.
Do Kids Do This?
It seems most parents don’t trust their kids to go on long excursions like these. We ended up seeing very few children the entire trip, and most of them were on the shortest leg (8 hours).
I saw one kid possibly a few years older than my children for a bit of our first leg, but then it was pretty empty until we ran into another girl a little older than my son on our last leg (and a younger baby, which impressed me).
So how do you entertain a kid? Fortunately, we live in the digital era, so we kept our children busy with Amazon Fire tablets and DVDs, not to mention my son enjoys taking photographs and had many opportunities to do so. For the most part, the children were super well-behaved. James, the attendant in the first dining car on the Cardinal (an awesome guy, by the way), praised the kids every time they went into the car for a meal.
Still, you can’t assume little kids are going to be little angels for 5 full days. Kids are kids, and siblings are siblings. There was one tiny instance when my children raised their voices and the old lady who had just gotten on the train had to make a big stink of it even though she had a door she could’ve easily closed to ignore the literal 10 second outburst. Meanwhile, by the end of the trip 6 hours later, she said “you’re a good mom.” Regardless, the argument I had with her confronting them put a little bit of a damper on the trip for awhile. This is the same lady who made a lunch reservation, and when it was announced, her husband was in the bathroom, so she spent 20 minutes knocking on the bathroom door to tell her him that he’s going to be late and to hurry up! I think the guy had to go and wasn’t going to get out of the bathroom to eat… but I digress. We all know that we don’t always have the best neighbors (and we also know that it goes both ways!)
Let’s talk about the food situation for a bit. First, sleeper car passengers get meals included for free. Coach passengers will have to pay for their meals; business class passengers may get a voucher to partially pay for meals, but it’s best to check with Amtrak on the specifics. On each and every leg we were on, the food was the same: reheated frozen food (for the most part). I should note, though, that we keep kosher, so our food opportunities were even more limited (read: airline food. Literally. The company that furnishes the food for us also caters to several airlines, but this is another method of transport so I suppose that’s to be expected).
Despite ordering food in advance and making very specific orders for the ~40 meals we were planning on having on the train, there were a lot of mistakes made: either the food didn’t make it on the train (we didn’t get breakfast after boarding in NYC and food was delivered to our car only in Washington DC) or they didn’t give us what we ordered. In fact, by the end of the final leg, we had nothing at all. The food was simply gone, despite assurances that the food would be there (and we called in advance to not only order the food but later to confirm its arrival on each train). There were also major problems with the kitchen staff not reading the heating instructions, so things exploded in our cute little airline packaging. It was a fun five days.
The lack of meals (and the disinterest in eating the same thing again and again) required us to improvise, so we occasionally had to opt into vegan options (garden salads with kosher dressing) and even eating Haagen-Dazs ice cream for lunch (which is kosher) instead of the food we ordered. Still, I’d also argue that eating lettuce and tomato with dressing is tastier than a lot of the kosher food, especially due to very little variety. Think about it this way: eating the same boring airline food for 5 days is not ideal. Trust me on that.
Speaking of variety, though, this isn’t limited to the kosher palate. There are not many options at all on any of the trains–and if you had a later reservation, food mostly ran out regardless of whatever dietary restrictions you adhered to. All of the legs have the same meals, regardless of whether you’re ordering a special meal or not. Even if you weren’t doing the kosher thing, you’d still get bored of the food, in all likelihood. Here is a link that contains the regular menus for each of Amtrak’s trains, including the ones we rode.
My suggestion: bring snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. Of course, you run into the dilemma of “but I get free meals” if you have a sleeper car, but you may not end up eating most of your meals anyhow and need something to hold you over.
So why would anybody do this? I mentioned before that it’s a great opportunity to bond with your family and to, frankly, chill. But there’s more to the excursion than just sitting and hanging out with people you know, live with, or love. There’s a tremendous opportunity to experience scenery like never before.
The railroad tracks go through desolate and otherwise inaccessible areas that provide stunning views of the landscape. One of our train routes, the California Zephyr route, is considered the most scenic Amtrak trip you can take in the United States, with beautiful views seen within the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Plus, the same train travels along 267 miles of the Colorado River. You may think that riding along this route in the winter would be boring or full of snow and no color from flowers, but you would be wrong. The snow-capped mountains made for beautiful winter scenes, and the snow allowed you to see evidence of all the wildlife. There were animal tracks everywhere, giving you views of where animals trekked in the forests and through streams–not to mention there were also plenty of animal sightings, such as elk, deer, cows, horses, bald eagles, and dogs that would chase the trains as they passed. (Side note: In the more tempered part of the trip, we saw at least two dead cows being eaten by crows and vultures. Sorry, we didn’t get photos of those.)
Another important planning note is that winter means there are fewer hours of daylight which reduces the ability to see all the scenes and sights, but thankfully, the most important elements of the trip are seen during daylight if the train is on time. We couldn’t have asked for better weather; we were so lucky to have wonderful sunny skies throughout and really got to capture the beauty that surrounded us while we zoomed (edit: that may be an exaggeration. In some more scenic areas, we were going about 30 mph) through these various regions.
At our last leg, the Coast Starlight took us on the California Coast, high atop the cliffs looking at desolate beaches. The views were stunning, though I do wonder why that part of California isn’t very populated. It was very solitary for much of that coastline travel, and there were very few signs of life.
Yeah, I got an Amber Alert in Virginia. (And yeah, I didn’t know how to take a screenshot on my new cell phone.)
When we started going through the Colorado Rockies, we had these incredible views–including this one of a freight train in the distance on the track in front of us, slowing us down and giving us more time to relish in the sights.
Not long after that, we stumbled upon this herd of elk.
This is the Colorado River in the Rockies. As mentioned, we passed through 267 miles of it by train.
Can you see the cows?
We saw nearly all of our sunrises and sunsets. This is sunrise in Nevada.
This is Donner Lake in California.
In the distance, you can see Mountain View.
More beautiful California.
And this is some of the other scenery we enjoyed.
As your average Jane and not a member of the Amtrak religion, I was hesitant to go on this trip from the moment it was booked; in fact, I tried to postpone having my husband make his reservations as much as possible. I’m more of a homebody than someone who rides on trains all day. If I have work-related things to focus on (I was on vacation except for the occasional client email), it is even harder because I knew it’d be hard for me to do work without the Internet.
Bearing that in mind, I made sure to buy a Verizon MiFi that gave my laptop Internet access, especially because the train cars occasionally do have Internet, but the Amtrak Internet is slow and leaves much to be desired. At the end of the day, I was much happier on my MiFi. Note if you do something like this, you need a data plan that supports it. I used about 10GB total during my one week trip (not much video or music streaming, but I definitely consumed a lot of graphics and wasn’t a stranger to check-ins on Facebook, which likely consumed most of that data).
I ended up not using my laptop as much as I thought, with more of an emphasis on doing work on my Android phone, and that worked well. (And yes, that still consumed data, so you still need a decent data plan!)
I also want to acknowledge that we did hit some dead zones where the Internet didn’t work, giving me more opportunities to absorb my surroundings (scenery and people).
Even with beds, the roomettes aren’t that comfortable, so there were rough nights for us. But despite this and the issues with food and heating, I’d do it again. There’s something really relaxing about going on a train through some of the most beautiful scenery you’ve ever seen–not to mention this was a great experience for me to spend more time with my husband and two of my three kids (we have a younger one we left behind with family). As mentioned, the weather in most of the areas couldn’t have been better; the Colorado Rockies were gorgeous and there was not even a cloud in the sky. We saw animals and trains in the distance, and again, it was even cute finding dogs chasing the train as we passed through farmland in California. Nowhere could you experience American landscape like you would be able to on a train. There’s no way you can travel through 18 “states” in such a relaxing and carefree manner because someone is at the wheel and you’re just along for the ride–not to mention you don’t have to worry about traffic either, and getting in early each time is an added bonus. This is an unforgettable experience that’s highly worth it, especially when you go with people you love. (I highly recommend not going alone. But if you do go alone, you will be sure to meet new people in the dining car where you must sit at a table of 4, coach cars, or lounge/sightseeing cars.) Take the time to get to know the train crews too; many are very nice and have great stories to tell.
In the last 12 months, I went on a road trip (from NY to Chicago) and on a train trip. I’ve always been more of a frequent flyer (though lately I’ve grown fearful of flying). I’m definitely starting to prefer having long distance trips on wheels, be it train wheels or your own vehicle. The experience is unbelievable and it’s a great way to enjoy the world and the people who matter most to you.