I’ve clocked 125 hours on the train in the past ten months.
Ninety-six of those hours were spent on a single trip from Austin, Texas, to Syracuse, New York.
The train became my preferred form of travel after flying started setting off all kinds of anxiety alarms. The experience of going to the airport and then barreling through the air in a disorienting metal tube forced me to keep my feet on the ground.
After my initial train trip from Tucson, Arizona, to Austin, Texas, where I rolled out of bed from the hotel, walked across the street and straight onto the train, I became hooked. Every time I see the bright, streamlined body of the antiquated trains also sends a small chill through my spine. Even as a little girl, I loved the rhythmic sound of a train rolling along the track. Trains beckon to a time that I dreamt being a part of.
Though the train is extraordinarily inconvenient if you’re short on time, it’s the people you meet and the new landscapes you see that keep you coming back for more. On my first trip, I was placed at the dinner table with an elderly African-American couple. They were traveling from Los Angeles to Mississippi; this would be the first trip back home that the husband has taken since he escaped. You see, he was one of three African-Americans to attend the newly integrated college in his town, but when a bullet nearly entered his skull upon riding to school one morning, he decided he had to leave in order to survive. Fifty years later, he was heading back to his hometown for a high school reunion with his new bride.
On my most recent trip from Texas to New York, I wrote about an elderly man returning from a failed visit to see his dying sister (she died the day before he arrived) and a drunk vet suffering from PTSD. I also met a man en route to a new life after abandoning his town, his married girlfriend and her husband that just got out of prison. I saw people of all ages and ethnicities, traveling alone or with their families. Many of them had stories written in the lines on their faces.
I documented my train travels on social media and was surprised to discover that many people are interested in train travel but hesitant to try it.
If you’re curious about train travel, here are some pros, cons and tips to traveling by rail through the United States.
The short answer is: YOU SHOULD DO IT!
(And one large pro I will say beforehand: train travel is one of the most environmentally-friendly forms of travel, period, and planes are the worst.)
–You will see parts of the United States you’ve never seen before.
Like this, the rolling green fields of the Midwest.
-You will see all the delicious ruin porn you could ever want to feast on.
Like this, the abandoned Buffalo Central Terminal.
–You will meet interesting people.
Like this guy, the human version of the man from Up, who missed his sister’s death by one day.
–It’s extremely low stress.
You just roll along, seeing beautiful things like this: the sun rising on Lake Erie.
–You learn how to rough it a little bit.
It’s true that traveling in coach can get a little uncomfortable, but you learn what works for you and make a little nest for yourself. I didn’t shower for over 48 hours; I learned to live with my stink and not worry about what others think of me.
–It’s a very antiquated form of travel.
Which makes it more charming than you could ever imagine.
-It will take you an eternity to get anywhere.
Not only will it take you an eternity- at least 24 hours to go 800 miles- expect to be at least one to two hours late- always. Tip: If you do have all the time in the world, check out Amtrak’s Rail Passes for 15, 30 and 45-day travel. Prices range from $449-$879, which is a steal!
-Your body will hate you.
If you can’t afford a sleeper car on an overnight trip (they’re really expensive, unless you buy way in advance or travel with friends or family), you will be curled up in a ball in coach. Tip: Do yoga and stretching in the Observation Car. People will stare at you, but they don’t look like the type of people who exercise anyways.
-Because you will meet interesting people, you’ll talk to the point that your voice is hoarse.
Sometimes you just want to be alone with your thoughts. Sometimes you don’t want a drunk man standing over you at 5AM saying, “Her, Girl. What’s up?”
-It’s a very antiquated form of travel.
Some people may not like this. Some people may not like the fact that when you drive through a thunderstorm, rain pours into the cars like that blood-in-the-elevator scene in The Shining.
-The food is expensive.
And the food is just so-so tasting. It’s edible, but it’s not five-star dining. It’s tasty diner food that will cost you between $15-$25. There is also a cafe car, but the pickings there are even less appealing. Tip: Because it’s a train, you can bring your own cooler. I brought drinks and snacks on my trip.
-You probably won’t get a good night of sleep.
As I mentioned before, if you can’t afford a sleeper, you will be curled up in coach. Tip: Try to steal two seats. Most of the time you can get away with it. I typically have luck snagging two seats, but in the summer, the trains fill up. Also, because I learned that the trains fill up in the summer, I camped out in the Observation Car at night, when no one is there. The not-so-secret secret is that you can sleep there. Here I was able to stretch across three seats!
Love it! I’ll have to follow in my son’s footsteps and take the train for my next trip.
Great post. I experienced a lot of these pros and cons from Austin to El Paso in April. It was a great experience.
Traveling by train through Texas is great; just wish it was faster!
I have also heard you can negotiate a deal on a sleeper cabin when you get on board. Christian Moses used to swear by this as she also liked to travel by train. Taking The City of New Orleans from Chicago to New Orleans is on my bucket list.
Billy, an Amtrak employee told me the same thing, but an avid train traveler told me it’s not true. I want to believe the Amtrak employee! I want to take Amtrak from ATX to NOLA too. It’s about 15 hours.
Lauren, You have me thinking seriously about planning a rail trip. I love following you on your journeys. Your journalistic skills have continued to get better and better since I first started following you five years ago. It makes me smile…….cj
I take the train from Austin to Fort Worth 3 or 4 times a year. I upgrade to a sleeper car. It is the most relaxing 4 hours of the holiday season for me. Especially after a gin bloody Mary.
On my bucket list, took a sleeper from Syracuse to Chicago, with my young daughter. The train jerked from side to side and it kept waking me up all night long. There was a toilet in our room, nice and private and it didn’t stink. The room was small but fun for my daughter to climb around. Suitcases definitely got in the way. The not very good breakfast, shower (not in room), and coffee were all part of the v. expensive ticket price. The dining car was noisy, wouldn’t have been able to talk to let alone hear anyone. The porter was mean and unprofessional.
Train delayed for about an hour – we had to ‘pull over’ for a freight train. The view from train was good and the best part was the view of Chigago and ethnic neighborhoods as we pulled into the station.
Probably will never do again but worth it once.
My only travel the last several years was to take the train from Washington DC to New York City. You aren’t treated like a terror suspect at the train station, your bag stays with you, and it’s just enough time to read, eat a snack, and doze off before you magically arrive in the Big Apple. Two years ago I retired and moved back to Indiana. I took the train. A 17-hour trip. Not the most comfortable, but I thought it made sense to let DC slowly slip away from me rather than run out screaming with my hair on fire – which is actually more accurate. Glad I did it that way nonetheless. Looking forward to my next train trip, perhaps out West…