Amtrak. America’s very own passenger train system. Is it still a thrill to hop onboard a train and listen to the clickety-clack of the rails? To watch the towns and farms go by? To sleep in a private compartment and eat in a dining car?
Yay and nay.
I’m just back from a round-trip ride on The City of New Orleans, Amtrak’s train that runs daily between Chicago and New Orleans. A plane takes about 2.5 hours. The train? We settled in for the scheduled 19 hour trip, which meant an overnight each way.
It was definitely an experience! Here’s what happened on my first long-distance train ride:
Smoother and easier than air travel…mostly
YAY! Check-in could not have been easier. None of the hassles of an airport’s TSA trolls and the 3-1-1 rule. Stroll into the Metropolitan Club at Chicago’s Union Station and give the friendly woman your name. Proceed to the lounge area for comfy chairs, snacks, and beverages. Buy a cocktail if you like. Keep your luggage with you or take it to the efficient baggage check person.
When it’s time to board, there are plenty of people to direct you to your car and tell you how to find your sleeper. The attendant for your car drops by to welcome you and to give a brief rundown on where to find the dining car and what time to get there. They answer your questions, pull down the top berth for the night, then put it back up in the morning.
Nay. Our first attendant was pleasant, but not proactive. We had to ask for help with the berth, both at night and the next morning. He left us guessing about meal times and where to find the coffee that was always supposed to be there. On the return trip, our female attendant was a delight. She introduced herself, asked when we wanted the beds set up and when we wanted to eat. She checked on us throughout the trip.
Speaking of sleeping compartments, be prepared for a toilet smaller than a plane’s. It also serves as a shower–apparently you sit on the toilet seat and an overhead sprinkler hoses you down…there’s a drain in the floor. I wanted to try it, but just couldn’t get past the germs and general concept. Then there was the movement of the train, which made any activity more complicated and unpredictable.
Tasty food, sullen servers, and designated seating
YAY! The food was great. While the menu is limited (very small prep area) there was a variety for each meal. Dinner choices were beef bourguignon, Mediterranean chicken, or a shrimp noodle bowl. Non-alcoholic drinks are included. Breakfast featured the best sandwich ever…McDonald’s would weep. There’s also a cafe car that sells snacks, drinks, and adult beverages for the duration of the trip. Amtrak pricing is decent, better than air travel.
Nay. Passengers are assigned a table in the dining car, based on when they arrive. “Sit here, side by side,” we were commanded. No option to sit elsewhere, even with lots of empty tables. Let’s just say we had some “interesting” dining companions; they probably liked us about as much as we liked them. Servers were snippy on both legs of the trip, impatient and monosyllabic. Not that we were looking for deep conversation, but the lack of politeness was surprising. Nevertheless, we tipped, which is more than I can say for our mealtime companions.
Great views and LOTS of time to enjoy them
YAY! The observation car is nifty. Seats–both single and double–are arranged for maximum viewing. It’s right next to the snack car. Side tables hold those snacks and drinks with clever “corrals” that keep things from spilling when the train hits a bump. Plenty of outlets for devices. Part of the car has tables. Passengers did some work or played cards. It was relaxing to sit and watch how the contours of the land and the vegetation changed as we headed south…and again, returning north.
Nay. Be forewarned that you really, really need to plan ways to be entertained for 19 hours. Amtrak says there’s complimentary Internet on its trains, but I couldn’t connect. Thankfully, I always have a book, so I was able to pass the time. Our phones worked using data. The ride can get quite bumpy, so it’s probably not the time or place to write letters or pull out your adult coloring book.
While it’s sometimes good to drop out of the daily rush and be in the moment, unless you intend to meditate or sleep the whole way, you may feel, well, bored.
Our trip back to Chicago was delayed six hours because of freight train vs. semi-truck accident. Because Amtrak shares tracks with freight trains, we sat for what seemed like an eternity. Bottom line: Bring more to do than you think you’ll need.
Overall, it was a good trip. I’m glad I did it…but I probably won’t be an Amtrak passenger again for awhile. How about you? Yay or nay?
Need some Amtrak travel tips? 10 Amtrak Train Tips You Should Know
Looking for a good book to take with you? Bill Bryson Writes the Best Travel Memoirs
Want to learn more about public transportation? Read How to Ride a Metro Subway: Step-by-Step Instructions.