Enjoy the journey
Trains can provide your vacation transportationor be the focal point of your trip
By Chelsey Simpson
In the less populous regions of America, west of the Eastern seaboard, train travel occupies a place in many people’s hearts – but not in their daily lives. Passenger trains are the stuff of folk songs, Western legends and bandit tales; cars and planes are the way we get around. When it comes to vacation planning, however, trains shouldn’t be overlooked. They can be a cheaper, faster and less-stressful way to get from point A to point B, but most train enthusiasts will tell you it’s the journey in between that really matters.
“I think every reason you would be going down the interstate highway is a reason you would be riding Amtrak,” says Marc Magliari, a media-relations manager for Amtrak. “In a lot of places and a lot of ways, we make more sense than driving.” He notes that some people ride the trains because it’s cheaper; but others are traveling upscale.
Amtrak, the nation’s primary passenger-rail provider, operates 21,000 route miles in 46 states. For many riders, reaching one of Amtrak’s 500 destinations is the main goal, while others are simply along for the ride and the scenery. When it comes to sightseeing, there are also a number of non-Amtrak excursion trains operating across the country, such as the Pikes Peak Cog Railway and the Branson Scenic Railway.
Michael Gleason owns and edits TrainTraveling.com, which offers a wealth of information about excursion trains and Amtrak. He also sees good reasons to take to the rails.
“Some people will go anywhere just to ride a train,” he says. “Some people have never liked flying, and some feel flying is just getting worse and worse. There are destinations that you can get to faster on a train, by the time you wait at the airport, get your luggage and make your way into the city.”
Planes allow you to cross the continent in a matter of hours, but if your trip isn’t that far or you aren’t in a hurry, taking a train could be a good alternative and a focal point for your next vacation. Here are some things to consider:
When you weigh the duration of a train journey against a comparable flight, make sure you consider how early you will have to arrive at the airport, as well as its location. While you don’t want to invite the kind of cinematic drama that comes with arriving at the last minute and running to catch your train, it also isn’t necessary to arrive more than 30 minutes early for Amtrak service in most situations. And while airports are usually on the outskirts of cities, train stations are often in the heart of downtown.
Amtrak is an especially good alternative for flights with an in-air time of one hour or less, which means train travel might be a real time-saver if you plan to visit multiple cities within a region.
Traveling round trip on Amtrak doesn’t always come out cheaper than driving or flying, and there are often far fewer scheduling options. The real bargain aspect of rail travel is that long-haul trips can serve as your transportation, entertainment and lodging all in one. For example, if you really want to see America, you could buy two tickets with a Superliner Roomette (sleeping car for two) on the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles. If you booked several months out for a trip in mid-July, the one-way cost would be about $550 for the 43-hour journey. If you decided to drive the same route, you would have to figure in gas prices and hotel stays, the view might not be as scenic, and you would have to do the driving.
Sleeping cars are an especially good deal for couples and families, because Amtrak charges by the room for sleepers, not by the person. Children through the age of 15 receive half-price fare.
If traveling light is not your style, Amtrak allows as many as three checked and two carry-on bags on some of its routes, and three additional pieces can be checked for just $10 each. Unusual items, like ski equipment and bicycles, can also be checked on many trains without an extra charge. Food and even alcohol are also allowed as carryons, so plan a picnic, bring a corkscrew and make the ride a party.
Trains are an experience. Many Amtrak routes offer a real departure from the billboard-lined interstate, charting a course instead through the backyards, small towns and wild spaces of America. For example, Amtrak’s California Zephyr passes through two mountain ranges and the Painted Desert; the Adirondack and the Vermonter are prime leaf-peeper routes in the fall; and the Empire Builder passes through Glacier National Park.
Comfort is another plus of train travel.
“Our coach seating is comparable to most airline’s first class, and our business seating exceeds that,” Magliari says.
Food, restroom breaks and general leg stretching are also easy.
When it comes to planning a trip, Amtrak.com and TrainTraveling.com are both great resources. Amtrak offers an interactive route atlas and a space to order free planning publications. A virtual tour of each sleeping-cabin option is also online.
Information about deals and discounts is also available at Amtrak.com. Military personnel, veterans and AAA members are just a few of the groups eligible for discounts. Magliari says booking well in advance of your trip is a good way to snag the best fares.
TrainTraveling.com has information about Amtrak, excursion trains and regional commuter trains. You can browse routes by region or state, and each listing includes a short description and a link for more information.
If you’re taking a longer trip, research public transportation options in your destination city or make plans to rent a car. Amtrak recommends Washington, D.C., New York City, Orlando, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, Portland and San Diego as the cities with the most attractions easily accessed by foot.
Or instead of one big destination, chart a path that includes several stops. Start in Chicago and stop in Memphis, Tenn., for some barbeque and Elvis; head on to Jackson, Miss., for culture and civil rights history; then stay a few days in New Orleans before heading back.
Be aware, however, that there isn’t regular service in all smaller communities, so, you’ll want to explore the availability in your area. Amtrak’s Illinois Service travels through 30 Illinois cities statewide, including stops directly in many of the cooperatives’ areas: Carlinville (MJM Electric Cooperative), Macomb (McDonough Power Cooperative), Bloomington (Corn Belt Energy Corporation), Marion (Southern Illinois Power Cooperative) ... and other stops that are likely near or on cooperative lines.
Magliari recommends first-time riders, especially those who will be traveling with children, take a day trip first before committing to a long or overnight journey. Amtrak is making improvements. Soon all of their trains will have electric outlets at every seat so laptops, DVD players and other entertainment devices can be used easily.
Traveling by rail certainly isn’t for everyone. But if you don’t mind getting lost in scenery, climb aboard, settle in, and enjoy the journey.
For additional information on the sites to see in various cities and other Amtrak opportunities, visit Amtrak.com.