Need a Break from Flying? Consider Amtrak.
When I first traveled from New York to Fort Lauderdale on Amtrak, I thought that it would be the first and only time. It was insane hunkering down in a coach seat, in a speeding tin can for 30 hours, when I could have flown and gotten there in a few hours! Not only did I travel round-trip on Amtrak, I also took it again: to Montreal, to Niagara Falls, and even across the country from New York to Chicago, and onward to San Francisco- checking it off my bucket list! Last month, I braved another 30-hour journey from New York to New Orleans… and 30 more hours when I went home 10 days later. It had been a few years since my last train trip.
Why did I do it again? And, more importantly, why do I continue to hop on a long-distance Amtrak train once or twice every few years? Is it because of my fear of flying? Actually, yes, I do have a fear of flying, but it’s not to the point that I have a panic attack as soon as I set foot in the airport (it’s when there’s turbulence on the plane, haha, but in all seriousness, my anxiety of flying will never stop me from booking those tickets). I admit, long-distance train travel is not for everyone. Here is my perspective on the good, the bad, and the ugly of traveling long-distance on Amtrak
More space! Go ahead and recline your chair alllllll the way back (no train rage to worry about!), lift up the footrest, and feel like you’re lounging on your armchair at home (well, somewhat). Chairs are much wider than those on airplanes, and no feeling squished in middle seats either, because there aren’t any!
Go ahead, pack those liquids and don’t overstuff your carry-on while hoping for the best. There’s no way your carry-on bag would be weighed or checked at the gate! According to Amtrak’s website, “Each passenger may bring two personal items, 25 lbs. (12 kg) and 14 x 11 x 7 inches each, and two carry-on items, 50 lbs. (23 kg) and 28 x 22 x 14 inches each, on board .” How about checked baggage? “We are pleased to offer checked baggage service at at a number of our stations and on many trains and Thruway Services.” Amtrak states.
No crappy train food. While not gourmet, meals offered in their dining car for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are not only edible, but pretty much okay compared to the ickiness of most airplane food. Aside from mealtimes, the cafe car has snacks like burgers, pizza, and chips, and drinks like coffee, soda, and beer. When I went to New Orleans, I ordered their burger, which came with a side of chips, and for dinner, the steak with a side of vegetables. Both were good but pricey…but that was to be expected.
Whip out your laptop, grab a cup of coffee, and hang out in the lounge car. Enjoy watching the countryside/buildings/factories whizz by while typing away. Bring your (cafe car-only) snacks, playing cards, or in my case, essays to correct, and spread them out. This is especially good if you need a break from listening to your seatmate chatting away on her cell phone.
Which now brings me to…
No in-train entertainment. You need to keep yourself entertained, especially when the views (see one tree, after 5 minutes you’ve seen them all) become monotonous. And don’t depend on the…
Hit-or-miss basic wifi. Forget about Netflix and chill. The wifi is basic enough to surf Facebook and check your emails, but no streaming services. So bring your playing cards, work on that novel or blog post that you’ve been putting off, or pull out your adult coloring book (actually scratch that- unless you don’t mind not staying within the lines when the train is speeding around curves). Or what if you meditate on your travels. This will help you relax and focus.
If you have a aisle seat, you need to reach over your seatmate to charge your devices. It’s fantastic that there are two outlets. It sucks that both of them are next to the window seat. I apologized to my seatmate as I was charging my phone because the charging wire was stretched in front of her knees (she didn’t mind and told me it was okay, but I still felt guilty).
Like on airplanes, it’s a hit-or-miss with freezing trains. This was the worst. On the NYC to New Orleans train, after tossing and turning until 3 AM, I practically begged one of the train attendants to turn down the AC (I had a coach seat- too frugal to book a sleeping car). She moved me to another car that was slightly warmer, thank goodness! Strangely enough, on the train back to NYC from New Orleans, it was comfortably cool the entire trip. Huh?
Lights stay on at night. Without my trusty black eye mask, there was no way I could have slept since I need almost total darkness to catch my zzzs.
Rain or Shine!
The bathrooms. Why do some people feel it’s okay for common courtesy and cleanliness to go out the train window when they’re not at home? Within one hour of my NYC-New Orleans trip, one bathroom in my car was closed. Why? According to the train car attendant, who made an announcement to everyone in my car after closing the bathroom, toilets don’t need to be overstuffed with toilet paper, men need to pee in the bowl, and pads and liners go in the garbage, not in the toilet. Seriously, maybe I should pack a jar or paper cup next time. Unfortunately, it was no better returning home; both bathrooms were closed and I had to trek to another car to the reasonably usable bathroom.
SHOULD YOU TRAVEL LONG-DISTANCE ON AMTRAK?
Yes, if you see it as an experience in itself similar to camping.
Yes, if you want the experience and can splurge on a sleeping car.
No, if you prefer to spend more time at your destination.
No, if you are understandably nitpicky about cleanliness.
Your turn to share. Have you ever traveled on Amtrak? Would you do it again?
Angie Kassab Barrios
Angie Kassab Barrios
Angie Kassab Barrios is a New York-based English language instructor and part-time traveler who is always dreaming about and planning her next trip when she is not on the go. Between trips, she dives into street photography, always looking for that perfect shot that tells a unique story. You can follow her adventures on instagram @nycglobetrotter