There is a romanticism in train travel. It recalls America’s westward expansion, the golden age of luxurious travel across India and the Orient, and the coming-of-age Grand Tours of Europe. But, for the most part, train travel is slow travel, particularly in the U.S. where routes and schedules are limited. Unfortunately, we just don’t often make time for the journey in our modern jet age.
Why We Love Train Travel
Over the past few years, we have made it a point to travel by train, and we have really enjoyed it! That includes short commuter trips and longer cross-country treks with Amtrak, Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail), TGV in France, and others. These trains are distinctly different than inner-city rail and “tourist attraction” railroads. (Although, there are many fun and worthwhile examples of the latter.) Aside from the enduring romantic notion of “riding the rails,” trains have some serious advantages compared to airlines (no middle seats!) and road trips (no rest area “facilities” to suffer).
While there are pros and cons to train travel, the two that most people focus on are time and price. Train tickets are usually less expensive than airfare (pro), but you need to plan for much more time on the train than in the air (con). Those two things are usually the deciding factors when debating whether to travel by train. We think there are more benefits to consider, though! Here, then, are our top five reasons to love train travel!
Room To Spare
If you are a creature of the coach section, you are going to love the train. Even traveling coach on Amtrak gives you ample space with nary a middle seat to be seen. There is room to stretch your legs without leaving your seat but, if you find your space a little confining, you can make your way to the lounge or snack car (though not all trains have these). On scenic routes, there is often an observation car, and many trains also have a quiet car if you just want to get some rest. (Try doing that on a bus!) At very least, it is nice to get up and walk a bit on a long stretch between cities. Business Class gives you even more space, and additional amenities such as complimentary beverages and power at every seat.
Extra space extends to mealtime, also, if you are on a train with a dining car. There is nothing quite like sitting down for a meal in a moving diner. One highlight of our time on the Coast Starlight was having dinner with a view of sunset over the Pacific while making friends with fellow travelers.
If you are traveling long distance, you could opt for one of several rooms in the sleeper car, giving you comfortable seating and a place to grab some shuteye. Roomettes accommodate a couple, while suites and family bedrooms accommodate up to four. (Options vary by train.) Many do include a private bathroom, and some long distance trains have communal shower facilities.
Baggage is Okay
While airlines have conditioned the traveling public to pack as much as possible into a single small suitcase to avoid paying “exorbitant” fees, Amtrak welcomes your non-emotional baggage. Each passenger is allowed two carry-on bags up to 50 pounds each, as long as they are no larger than 28 x 22 x 14 inches. For the record, the airlines’ carry-on limitation is one piece of luggage no larger than 22 x 14 x 9, plus one “personal item”. On top of that, Amtrak allows two free checked bags, and up to two additional checked bags at just $20 each. It’s almost enough to make you pack more just because you can!
Though this is not yet standard on every train, free Wi-Fi has been available on every Amtrak train we’ve boarded. This makes the train a great mobile office, if you must get some work done. Otherwise, you’re free to stream a movie, satisfy your inner game addict, or post constant Facebook updates of your entire trip. Free of charge. Airlines, hotels…are you listening? They have free Wi-Fi. On the train. If Amtrak can do this, so can you guys.
Actually, this can be a pro and a con: not all that is seen through your train window is all that scenic. Sometimes, you see urban blight or suburban backyards, but most of the time it’s brilliant fields, stunning sea shores, or majestic mountains. Depending on your route, it could be all of the above in one beautiful trip! If your train has an Observation Car, we highly recommend grabbing a seat – several face outwards so you are not constantly twisting in your seat or craning your neck to see the sites. Ask a steward or Conductor which side will have the better views, and get there early for a good seat. Also, many trains have National Park Service Trails & Rails volunteers with presentations related to the route, while several others have Trails & Rails podcasts you can download for the trip. Regardless of your destination, watching the passing scenery is one of the special treats of train travel, as you see the world closer to eye level instead of from 30,000 feet.
Aside from what you see through the train window, you’ll be treated to grand architecture in some cities. From the glamorous Los Angeles Union Station to the soaring Beaux Arts Union Station in Washington, DC, train stations tell nostalgic stories of their cities, and often reflect the ambition and optimism of bygone eras. Unfortunately, not every stop along the rails is a highlight; some are little more than a platform and a sign. The Great American Stations, presented by Amtrak, is a good resource for finding terminals worth exploring, and learning a bit about the history (and future) of train travel in America.
One more thing we really like about train travel: they have really cool names for the routes. California Zephyr. Pacific Surfliner. Missouri River Runner. The legendary City of New Orleans. Seriously…does it get any cooler?
Have you taken a trip by train?
We’d love to hear about your experience; what you enjoyed most about the trip and how you liked (or disliked) the train. If you haven’t traveled by rail, what are you most looking forward to, or perhaps most anxious about? Let us know with a comment here, or on our Facebook page. And thanks for climbing aboard!
Details & Disclaimers: This review of Amtrak travel was neither solicited nor compensated. The opinions and photographs are our own. However, if Amtrak is reading, we’d be happy to climb aboard for additional experiences and reviews! (hint hint)