Enjoying Your Trip on Amtrak
Tip#1 Appreciate the beauty of the old stations. These were standing when glamorous movie stars like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Kathrine Hepburn travelled from New York to Hollywood met by throngs of screaming fans and reporters snapping photos of them detraining. Before airlines, this is how America travelled long distances. The detail and grandeur afforded to these stations is amazing. Many have been restored to their original glory, others have not.
Tip #2 Grasp how small it is. Everything on a train is compact, too compact for really comfortable travel. Like the airlines, Amtrak is trying to squeeze every last inch out of the layout to make the most money. It’s hard to judge the room sizes from the photos on Amtrak.com. Here is a description of the various ways to travel by Amtrak.
Coach Coach consists of overhead racks for your stuff and a semi-reclining chair. The best that can be said is they are more comfortable than airline chairs and have significantly more room between rows. A lot of people bought 2 seats side-by-side so they could curl up on the double seats. Some slept on the floor in front of their seats. Coach on most of the legs of our trip had a lot of nice people and a few iffy types travelling there. I wouldn’t want to leave my stuff lying out around some of them. We encountered a self-confessed drug runner, drunks, angry young men and plain scary people in coach. The people in the sleeper cars were all quite nice and friendly.
Roomettes The roomettes are basically two chairs facing each other knee to knee with a window on one side and a sliding door on the other. We saw solitary men in the roomettes and it seemed like a better way to go than coach but still excruciatingly small. I’d only recommend these for singles. The two chairs convert into a bed a night.
Bedrooms The bedrooms are a long sofa in front of a sink with an uncomfortable armchair and a private “bathroom”. One of the things you can do to avoid claustrophobia in a bedroom is to leave your room door open to capture the views across the corridor to the windows on the other side of the train. That does mean people walking down the hall will look in at you as they pass. Take your pick, claustrophobia or exhibitionism. You have that option only with bedrooms; roomettes are across from other roomettes. The windows in the bedrooms and across the hall are good-sized and on some trains back east the bedrooms are vaulted with an upper window as well.
Family bedrooms This is where the sliding door between two bedrooms is left open. This allows the parents in one room and the kids in another with a connecting door. If we had kids, it would be the only way to travel by train. Even without kids, a couple could keep their suitcases open on a lower bunk in one bedroom and live in the other bedroom with more room and less juggling of bags when it came time to get dressed each day.
Tip #3 Have easily identifiable bags I got tired of searching for our black roller bags in a sea of black roller bags and so I ordered this wild luggage from Heys. These bags attracted a lot of attention and comments everywhere we went. The porters saw them and made for us straight away. I guess matching luggage says “big tip” in Redcap Land. They raced to assist us at every station seating us in the first tram going. It made us feel pretty special. Everyone called us “The Canadians with the luggage”. It seems the nicer you are dressed and the better your luggage is, the better service you’ll get.
Tip#5 What to pack for train travel
- Take only a small carry-on bag each. You won’t have room for more no matter what your accommodations are on the train. When it comes to train travel less is too much.
- Pack only 3-4 outfits made from moisture wicking fabric or polyester. This will not wrinkle, take up much room and dries quickly when you wash it. Tilly Endurables sells moisture wicking clothing that is designed to dry overnight. In humid climates, we found it took 2 days to dry.
- Don’t bother with toiletries. Everywhere you travel, even Amtrak sleepers, they have soap, shampoo, conditioner, tissues, towels and body lotion. Also you can buy what you need in the Club Car or at the stations.
- Pack flip-flops rather than slippers. Slippers are what I was wearing when I fell down the perilous stairs. My foot slipped on the step and down I tumbled. Luckily, I only bruised a foot and the waiter and the attendant were very kind and kept bringing me ice packs. Also because the toilets are also showers, the floors are wet. Or other people have been there and God knows what’s on the floor. Flip flops take up very little space and you can rinse them off in your travel-sized combo toilet/shower.
- Don’t bring books, you won’t read them. I am a voracious reader but I found taking books on this trip to be a waste of time. The shaking of the cars is so extreme that I kept losing my place as the book and I careened around in the seat. I must have read the same paragraph 7 times before I quit. Also the interesting passing scenery is a distraction from reading. Some people became queasy reading while the train was moving.
- Don’t bother with laptops. The movement of the train is too much to operate a mouse easily. The electric outlet is near the sink so people can plug in electric razors. If you want to use the table that folds down between the bench and the chair, you’ll need extension cords and the table really isn’t large enough for laptops.
- Pack Travel Scrabble or card games are a better idea for passing the time on a train and they are easy to pack and easy to play on a jiggly surface.
- Don’t pack DVD’s. I tried watching movies on my laptop but trains are noisy with the clickity-clack of tracks, the whistles and the engine noise and we could barely hear the dialog. If you wanted to do this, pack headphones.
- Pack Ear plugs (wax ones) are the only way to go. The walls between the bedrooms/roomettes or lack of them in coach means that you can hear everything your neighbors do, how often they go to the bathroom (the flushing mechanism is very loud), if they speak loudly or snore-you hear it.
- Pack a sturdy pair of shoes. The junction between trains is perilous. The train sways and jolts so much that stepping from one car into another, you can suddenly find one foot up six inches higher than the other. If you step on the crack between the cars with flimsy footwear or barefooted you can lose toes. People have, they told us.
Tip #6 Commotion about the motion Whistles, swaying, the rhythmic clickity-clack of the tracks are calming to some people. To others it is an endless annoyance, to a few it can be nauseating. My husband had dislocated his shoulder shortly before we left and the rocking motion acted like a kind of therapeutic massage on his sore muscles. I felt like a child again in the back seat of my parent’s car. I found I napped a lot because of it. I found it to be relaxing and it didn’t bother me if I sat facing the direction of travel or not. But some may. Be prepared to be slammed against walls. If you are frail or have a bad back or arthritis - don’t travel by train. I am fairly nimble and I got slammed so hard into the edge of my sliding door that I badly bruised my breast. bruising soft tissue is very hard to do, you really have to impact to get a bruise there. I found that in order to counteract the swaying motion, my abs, legs, hips and knees got terribly sore. Motion sickness medicine, muscle relaxers or Tylenol is good to have on hand.
Tip #7 Be social. Dining Car They seat you with other people so prepare to have to make small talk during meals. You can ask your attendant to bring your meals to your room. But no one does this. After being in your cubicle for hours you look forward to careening out your breast-bruising door, down the narrow hallways, through the toe-eating junction and eating train food in the dining car with strangers. Observation car During the day, the observation car is a good place to socialize. For some reason the drunken idiots congregate in the observation cars and often sleep there at night. There aren’t very comfortable seats there, but at least they are pointed at the windows. All other accommodations make you crane your neck to the side to see out the window. On the Starlight Express (Los Angeles-Seattle) they have a Club Car just for the sleeper car. It has comfortable swivel chairs which was the most comfortable seat on our trip.
Tip #8 Don’t forget to tip Even though the food is all included when you book at bedroom, you need to leave a tip for the waiter. They are folks who balance over you with a hot pot of coffee as the train bumps and sways so you’d better make it a good one. The person who looks after your room, converts it while you are at dinner and breakfast, and helps you with any requests should be tipped as you leave the train. We got extremely good service on 2 occasions and ok service once. We tipped our room attendant between $10-20 for his attention to us.
Tip #9 Don’t expect cleanliness I found the trains to be pretty dirty. There is a lot of dust and on one train our bedroom smelled of mildew. I doubt they ever vacuum the carpets, upholstery or curtains going by the fact that when you sit down puffs of dust flies up. The public bathrooms get filthy very quickly and they never empty the trash in your room even during long trips which can become smelly. A travel air purifier is a good idea. Wet wipes also come in handy. If you are a clean freak, bring some Clorox disinfecting wipes.
Tip #10 Expect “Train Food” When you book a sleeper room, you get free food 3 meal a day, anything on the menu. It’s a great deal, even if it isn’t the greatest food. I call it “train food”. It was pretty bland, dull, repetitive and often they didn’t get a full shipment of supplies which meant that some menu items were not available. The diner food was better than the Club Car which was just microwaved hamburgers, hot dogs and junk food. The diner car served microwaved meals. The best thing on the menu was a pot roast that was called Flatiron Steak. The vegetables are cooked to death, rubbery and served piping cold. The potatoes are palatable and the desserts weren’t too bad. But if you’re hoping for fine cuisine after reading the menus online, don’t get your hopes up. It was just okay. They use the same bottled water on every train. I found it to be undrinkable. I would strongly suggest you bring your own water or drink juices or coffee that are free to sleeper car passengers.
The bottom line? I’d travel Amtrak again, now that I know where to find the big bathroom and who you have to yell at to make them clean it. I’d leave a lot of stuff behind. I’d stay awake through Montana nights to look at the stars. I’d order the pot roast again. I’d enjoy the cold little bottle of champagne or sparkling cider the attendant brings you at the beginning of your trip. I’d savour lying in bed listening to the train whistle and drifting off to the rocking of the train. I’d listen for the echoes of the golden days of train travel in the old stations. I’d enjoy travelling up the coast of California looking for sea lions and dolphins. I’d wear sturdy shoes a padded bra and maybe a helmet.