This is a Train not a Plane
Having been frustrated beyond measure with the airline industry, for my latest trip I looked for other travel options to our destination. I chose to take the Amtrak Train. What a wonderful surprise this turned out to be. Here is a brief review of what it’s like to take a train these days.
When we arrived at the train station there were security guards present outside of the station, one was a canine unit. That was the extent of security beyond showing my ID when I got my ticket. It was so refreshing not to start our journey with the usual terse security assault we are now accustomed to in airports.
We were particularly late, cutting it very close to departure time. We found the people at the station to be extremely helpful and caring, radioing ahead that we were on our way. Trains are very time focussed and take their schedules seriously. When it¹s all aboard the train is moving out! In fact, there was someone directly behind us that did not make the train. This is not advised travel practice by any means, being there at least 30 min. before departure is suggested.
Getting on and off the train is a cinch. Employees are at the platform to direct you to your car. You provide your ticket, board the train and stow your luggage right inside the door. Once you are sorted it’s off to find your seats. Once your seats are located, you place a colored strip of paper given to you above your chairs and that’s it, you are free to explore.
The train is mostly coach cars with the following exceptions. Bathrooms and handicap coaches are on the bottom. The upper decks are where coach seating is located. There is a wonderful observation car in the middle of the train that has tables, booths and great seats that face the large landscape windows. I found the train to be a very social experience. People are meeting and conversing with one another or using tables for games, electronics etc. Power outlets are both at the tables and at each coach seat making electronic device very useful on the train, however it does not provide Wi-fi.
Beyond the observation car is the formal dining car. It is nicely placed with white table tops, silver and flower¹s on the table. Wine and beer are available with meals. To my delight, the food was delicious. A dinner menu example included pork shank, cedar planked salmon and NY steak. On our trip we had dinner and breakfast. I ordered breakfast out of boredom and was surprised when it was quite good. I am a big egg critic and the scrambled eggs were a nine! The price for dinner was moderate to high cost, but worth the experience. Breakfast was much more reasonable, real butter with my croissant was a bonus!
It is very clearly explained that the dining room has community seating and groups of three or less will be sitting with other passengers. My son found this quite exciting, eager to see who would sit with us at breakfast as they had the night before. I was surprised when I was told they only accepted cash at breakfast. Every other cost on the train could be purchased using a card.
Tip: Always good to have a little cash on hand.
If the dining room seems a bit much for you the well equipped snack car is found below the observation car. They serve all beverages including wine and beer and assorted other packaged snacks including sandwiches, burritos, pizzas. They also have several booths for sitting in outside of the tiny snack shack. These are less known and often available when the observation car is full. We took advantage of a booth and used it for craft time, which took up a good hour!
“This is a train not a plane.” This quote came over the intercom many times as a humorous reminder that passengers are encouraged to get up out of their seats and explore and mingle. How refreshing!
One of the best parts of the trip are the people. In general, passengers had a friendly and inquisitive nature. At no time did I feel concerned or threatened for our safety or even that of our belongings. Passengers seemed eager to meet one another and share about their own journey, help each other where needed and generally just a good sense of community which in travel these days seems a bit of a rarity.
The only change I would make for future trips would be to spring for the extra expense of a roomette. This provides the traveler with a private room for traveling that turns into 2 beds for sleeping. It¹s an additional cost, but it includes all meals in the dining car. I traveled with my 3 year old son. He was able to sleep on the floor which provided me with both seats to sleep on. It was doable but not a good night¹s rest and perhaps the only time I was concerned. I was worried my son would wake in the night and didn’t want him to move, so I slept with my leg across to the footrest of the chair in front of us.
The conductors provide a pillow for each traveler which was nice, but I was very glad to have brought thin blankets and extra pillows. The train was quiet and felt safe overall throughout the night.
One slightly humorous tip I will share. At one point late in the night I urgently needed to use the restroom. There was a young couple very much in love in seats across from me. I thought they would be safe to keep an eye on my sleeping child while I speedily went to the bathroom. When I asked them to keep watch of him they eagerly shook their heads but seemed surprised. It was not till the next morning I realized they did not speak much English at all. So good tip, make sure the people you have watch your child speak the same language just in case there were to be a problem.
Of course one of the best parts to any train ride is the countryside. It seems you see the country from the back side rather than the front and all the treasures that are hidden from other forms of travel. Window are large, seating is comfortable and many different seats are accessible for different points of view.
Tip: If you really want to assure yourself of a quality spot in the observation car, go to your original seats, clip the slip of paper above them, and then go immediately to the observation car.
There is a sub-culture you are aware of when riding the train. One of our oldest forms of travel provide passengers with a relaxed and open way to travel. The only time I saw personnel from the train be anxious or perhaps terse was with the schedule. You do not get off the train unless it is a fresh air stop. If you choose to do so they make it very clear this will be your final destination. When the conductor’s say All Aboard! they mean it. They give the all clear and the train is instantly in motion again on to the next stop.
Cost was the biggest incentive for me to choose the train. We traveled from Portland, Oregon to Oakland, California.
Planes: two adults (no price cut for children ages 2+) tickets to San Francisco would have been $700 with 13 hours of travel time on the plane. In past years this was at most a 2hr flight. Now you must change planes in either Phoenix or Las Vegas making each leg over 6hrs. On the plane you are not encouraged to move anywhere, in fact if I remember correctly they do not even allow people to stand next to the bathrooms anymore.
Trains: Our tickets cost $300 round trip for myself and my son (his ticket was half the price as mine) we had a total of 32 hours travel time. Obviously time is what you give up when traveling by train but the comfort level while traveling makes this very doable. I went for the thriftiest option and chose not to get the roomette, if I had upgraded it would have been about the same price as our plane tickets.
Taking the train proved to be a fantastic choice for us and provided quite an adventure for my son who is a huge fan of trains. I think this is by far the most comfortable way to travel and provided us many opportunities to explore the world and bond together.
It felt good to make another choice for travel this time. Thanks Amtrak for a great trip. Airlines take notice, I am sure I¹m not the only one making other choices for travel and taking my hard earned money elsewhere.