At fifty something years of age, I have a number of things on my bucket list. This past week, two of them finally got checked off; the first was a trip into New York City and the second was traveling by train. Up until this past trip, my travel options always revolved around fly or drive. Any trip less than four hours was by car, anything more than four hours was by plane. I do not know why train was never an option, except perhaps that I had seen Silver Streak one too many times.
This trip came about as the result of an unexpected, but much celebrated wedding announcement of two very dear friends who decided to tie the knot in New York City just before the Christmas holidays. Driving to NYC was not an option because of the horror stories I have heard about going through the Washington/Baltimore/Philadelphia/New Jersey corridor. And the flights were relatively inexpensive. But for some reason, this time I also checked out Amtrak. As it turned out, I could travel by train for about half the airfare cost, and the travel time would be about the same as driving, without the headaches of major metropolitan area rush hours or overturned saltine cracker trucks on the Beltway. So, I decided to try something new and bought myself a round trip ticket on Amtrack’s Northeastern Regional.
In short, I’d have to say it was one of the most enjoyable travel experiences I have ever had. Of course, living in a city on the Northeast corridor might have made it easier for me personally than someone who lived, say, in Iowa, because I could get where I wanted to without changing trains or bunking down for the night. But for the millions of us who live in BosNewYorPhilaBaltimorington, it’s a great option.
I rode up in coach and back in business class, largely because I wanted to see if there was an appreciable difference in the amenities versus the modest price difference. One leg of the trip was an early morning ride, the next was on a Friday afternoon, just before Christmas. Along the way, I discovered some tips and tricks that I hope will help new train travelers traverse the tracks without trepidation.
E-tickets: If you have a smart phone, Amtrak will send you an e-ticket. Use it. You do not have to print out any boarding documents, simply save the *.pdf file they send you on your smart phone. The conductor will scan it after you board. No paper documents to hunt down through your luggage or handbag. Easy. Peasy.
Luggage: You can take more luggage on a train, another pleasant bonus! This not only means full cans of styling mousse, but that you can also return with a boatload of souvenirs. Next time, I will be taking an empty tote bag up with me, because my little airline carryall ended up looking like a pregnant hippopotamus ready to give birth at any moment.
Coach or Business?: First off, the seats on a train are more spacious than on a plane, unless you do your air travel up front. Each side of the train has two seats, one window and one aisle. There is plenty of legroom, whether you are in coach or business.
Unlike most airlines, you do not get a specific seat number on a train. A reserved seat merely means you are guaranteed a seat on that particular train, not that you have seat D13 in car 4, for example. Where you sit is first come, first served.
I found business to be considerably less crowded on both trips, and most folks in business appeared to have empty seats beside them, unless they had a traveling companion. I had no difficulties getting a window seat with an empty aisle seat beside me, even though I boarded later than most.
Coach, on the other hand was nearly completely sold out on both legs of the journey. The coach cars were much noisier as well. There is a “quiet car” in coach where cell phone usage is not allowed. On the platform, people scrambled to get the best seats in coach, so if you are a solo traveler bogged down with a pregnant hippo sized carryon, you will likely get an aisle seat.
Take a camera: (phone or stand alone). You may see amazing sights on your trip. These are things you do not get to see from the air, or if you are busy watching rush hour brake lights on I-95. Charming little towns, a body of water hosting thousands of migratory birds, national monuments, spectacular skylines, sunrises and sets, all can be seen from the window seat of your train.
Sunset on Amtrak 125
Take a neck pillow/blanket: Had I taken my travel neck pillow with me, I probably could have slept on my journey. The ride on the rails was much smoother than I had anticipated and I could have easily nodded off on my ride home after the sun went down. Instead of a blanket I took a coat that was soft enough to serve as a bah-bah and it kept me nice and toasty on the train.
Take a refillable water bottle: Train water is really not very pleasant. Fill it before your departure; replenish it on the way at designated longer stops if you can. If you travel business class, the cafe car will give you complementary bottled water. I found vendors at most of the train stations would fill up my container with water for free.
To Cafe or not to Cafe? That is the question: The route I went on had a cafe car that served largely cold sandwiches, chips, and packaged snacks. The prices were pretty outrageous, but not any different than most modern day flights. I brought my own snacks because I didn’t want to waste calories on train food before I got to NYC; and then on the way home, I wanted to undo some of the caloric damage I had done whilst at the Chelsea Market. But I interviewed passengers around me who had gotten a boxed meal from the Cafe Car and they all said it was quite decent.
Pack a busy box: When I was little, my parents would pack each one of my sisters and I a ‘busy box’ to keep us occupied on the long road from Kansas to North Carolina. It consisted of coloring books, crayons, blank paper, bingo boards and the like. For my train trip I packed two hardback books, reading glasses, my iPod, headphones and a notepad. Amtrak has wifi and electrical outlets with which to recharge your devices. All Aboard Indeed.
Ask for help: The conductors and train attendants are there to assist you. I saw one elderly woman almost take a header down the steps trying to wrestle her suitcase down to the platform. She didn’t need to do that. The Amtrak staff is exceedingly polite and friendly. They helped me put my pregnant hippo of a suitcase in the overhead bin, take her down when we got home and took her all the way to the platform, where I easily wheeled her to my car for the short ride home.
Overall, I found train travel more appealing than I had anticipated and I plan to enjoy more trips up and down the Northeast corridor over the silver rails. It was the antithesis of most of my normal travel experiences, much less stressful than either flying or driving.
If you have any tips or tricks for train travel I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading.