Traveling by Train in the US – Practical Tips I

Learning that many people here in the US have never even been on a train, and at least maybe not on a long haul trip like this, here is a list of practicalities that might be helpful for anyone planning to travel (overnight) by train in the US. The tips below are based on my experiences from traveling from Los Angeles to Stockholm (and back) by train and ship this summer – taking Southwest Chief between LA and Chicago and Lake Shore Limited between Chicago and New York both ways (and then a ship over to Europe but that’s another story). I found “Saver Fare”-tickets for $193 both directions – not even being a super early-bird or anything. Pretty good value for my money, I’d say!

I had a coach ticket both ways – for anyone with a cabin things would look a bit different of course (all meals are for example included then – and the price lands on somewhere around five times or more higher than my ticket…). For a description of what sleeping in a seat for three nights in a row can be like, click here (link to instagram). 🙂

OK, basics first:

Booking and Seating

Stations

You need to know which station in each city Amtrak traffics – i.e. you can’t just search “Los Angeles” to “New York” – you have to know which station in New York to pick in order to view the results (Penn Station in this case). I just figured this out via a couple of trial and error searches, but an easier way might be to check the destination map first instead, and type in your search after that.

Routes

You can sort your search based on different parameters with the “Sort & Filter”-button. I usually choose “Shortest Trip” to pick the smoothest one, at least for a trip like this when it’s more about arriving to a place rather than “exploring” (and rather check different dates to find the cheapest possibility), but try out what works for you.

“Upper Level” or “Lower Level”?

When you’ve found your route, it’s time to book the seat (or cabin). The first time I booked, the lower level seats were sold out, and somehow I had heard that they were “better” or sought after, so when there were available seats on the lower level for the return I of course chose that. Entering the train I realized that these seats are more for people having trouble going up and down the stairs (restrooms are all at the lower level), and that there is a limited amount of lower level seats. So, I told the conductor that I didn’t need my lower level seat and moved up.

In other words, unless you have a problem moving, there is no reason to book the lower level seats – and they run out fast not because they are extra great and highly sought after, but because there are so few of them 🙂

Seat numbers

Seat numbers are assigned at the station or directly by the train – not when you book your ticket. At Union Station in LA I got a seat number at the Amtrak desk, but that seems not to be necessary, and more of an option if you have a favorite seat you want to take. The more common way was to just show up by the train and you will be assigned a seat when entering there. On the Lake Shore Limited there were no seat numbers given at all, but we could all just pick and choose as we wanted.

Prepping for the Trip

All booked and ready to go? Here are some tips for what to bring to make the whole experience just a little more pleasant (in my world):

Water

Bring water, at least if you’re sensitive to water tasting “badly” (like I am). There is water served on the train (which is an excellent thing), but to me it tasted moldy, so I ended up spending a lot of money and unnecessary plastic bottles from the café onboard on the first trip (I’m a very thirsty person). The second time around I brought my own water – lots of it 😀 – and was so happy for that.

Food

Same here. Bring your own food, if you can. Although I had heard that the restaurant onboard Southwest Chief is quite good, I brought a lot of stuff to eat, which I ended up being very happy about. Unlike on European trains, you can’t just go to the restaurant and order your food whenever you want – here you have to book a table, and they will then call you when you are allowed to go there. To me it seemed stressful to have to wait for their call, and not knowing exactly when that would happen…and in combination with hearing many people being quite underwhelmed by the food quality (airplane-style was a common description), I just ended up eating my own stuff.

Lake Shore Limited didn’t have a restaurant car, but a little café-corner with stuff that I was happy to not have to deal with (as in, eat). So even more important on this part of the trip, to have your own little stack of food.

I don’t know how I managed to bring enough stuff for three days, maybe I will share my list of stuff later on, as I actually wrote down exactly what I had brought with me the first round – a very good thing to do it turned out when I was going to prepare the return trip in New York a few months later…feeling very overwhelmed about what to bring. So, I basically copied what I had brought the last time, minus the stuff I had marked as redundant/uneaten in the end, like a true nerd. And it worked out pretty well!

Coffee

I’m a coffee-lover. So for a trip like this, bringing my own coffee-stuff is a given. It’s also a nice little procedure each morning, to take out the coffee and prepare your cup of yum. You can get hot water in the café, so that’s easy peasy! One of the train-friends I made had the same morning-routine, only with mate instead of coffee. That also served as an afternoon-socialisation thing, in that they could invite people they met (like me! 😀 ) to the little “ceremony”. Super sweet and fun.

Warm stuff for the night

The best thing I brought for the train after water and food, was a blanket, to cozy up at nighttime in the seat. Some of the cars were also really really cold (which I do prefer to them being too warm though), so I was very glad for my wool blanket and my wool cardigan, which served as a double-blanket or pillow at times. Talking about pillow – I brought a pillowcase, to put clothes in for pillow, just to not have to carry a pillow around. That works fine for me, but this of course depend on how much you love having a fluffy one to rest your cheek on 🙂

Speaking about luggage…

As always, try to minimize your luggage when traveling. It makes it all so much easier. I had way more things with me than would have been optimal this time – after all I was going to be away for a few months, doing all sorts of different stuff like camping, dancing etc and wanted to be prepared for it all. Luckily enough Amtrak has a check in service for luggage – you check it in at your starting place (if you want to) and get it back at your final destination. So smooth to not have to deal with all your stuff during the trip, especially if you have train changes involved.

At the Stations

Amtrak ask you to be at the station well in time before departure. If you’re leaving from LA it’s even a good idea to put in extra-extra time, as Union Station LA is a cool one to spend some time at. There is a newly restored bar to have drinks or food at, and at my return back, arriving early in the morning, I stopped for a delicious crêpe before continuing home. The station is wonderfully beautiful, worth its own place in a travel story.

The same can not really be said about New York Penn Station. A stressful and less than beautiful place, really (in other words, take your time to not get stuck in traffic and miss your train – but don’t plan for extra time just for the fun of it). The announcements for the tracks are made only ten minutes before departure or so, resulting in masses of people watching the screens and then moving in big hoards towards the trains once the announcement is made. I found that waiting for the announcement on the lower level was “better”, in that you are then closer to the tracks and don’t have to walk in the middle of everyone down the stairs (brrrr for a slightly claustrophobic person).

In transit – Chicago Union Station Lounge

On both my trips between LA and NY, I changed trains at Chicago Union Station. The first round we were very delayed, so there wasn’t so much time to spend there at all (barely enough time to jog into the big old waiting hall and see the movie-famous stairs before jogging back to the track and enter the next train). On the way back, we were also delayed by an hour or so, but I still had four hours to spend. I had read about the Metropolitan Lounge, and was curious to see what it was like. So I paid the $25 and went in.

For the situation I was in – bringing a bit too much luggage (even after checking in half of it) to easily stroll around the city, traveling alone (thus having to keep track of my bags even when going to the restroom), having spent one day on a train with a so-so restroom and facing another two days on a train again, I’d say that it was worth it. Had I had less luggage and/or a travel-companion, I probably would have rather spent the money at a bar or a café a few blocks away (there seemed to be quite a few OK ones when I took a walk).

However. Being able to drop off my luggage, and having access to clean – although wayyyyyyy too perfumated – restrooms, felt like a very nice thing right there and then. And – they have showers! Which I of course had to try, since I was there, even if I had only been traveling for a day. And they were very clean and spacious and just…nice. So that would be a good reason to pay the 25 too – if you have more travel ahead and you think you would feel better after a shower – do it (they even give you a towel – obviously it’s greener to use your own than for them to wash a bunch of towels after one use only, but very convenient if you don’t have one with you)! You need to ask for a key card (leaving an id card in exchange) at the reception, and there are only two showers, at least in the ladies’ room, so just make sure you go there in time before your departure if that’s your goal with the visit.

They also serve drinks and coffee in the lounge – and some snacks. But nothing worth the money in itself, I’d say. You also will get to board the train before “everybody else”, which could be a positive thing since you only get a seat as you board (so if you have a fav seat this would be a good thing for you).

In short – depending on your situation the lounge could be super-worth it, and other times, not so much.

∞∞∞

I hope these tips will be helpful for your trip – now head over and book it if you haven’t already:

www.amtrak.com/tickets-reservations

I also would suggest taking the time to read about the land you’re journeying through while on the train, starting for example at

www.native-land.ca

Some of my thoughts around this all can be found here:

www.pancakesonthethird.com/2019/09/28/stolen-land

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