Time, delays, sidetracking; but that’s why I love train travel.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Chances are fairly good that if you are using Amtrak for the sole purpose of arriving on time at a specific destination, you will be frustrated. If you have to travel long distances – overnight, perhaps – and you can’t upgrade to a sleeping berth, you might be uncomfortable. If you need to be somewhere fast, you could spend your time willing the clock to race forward instead of leaning back and watching the scenery.

For a rail vacation, though, the whole purpose is the train trip itself, the destination being a secondary highlight. It’s about the sound of the wheels, the swaying on the rails, the chance to see the countryside properly, and that magical, haunting whistle that tells you that you are going somewhere.

Like any kind of getaway, it will be better if you can spend a little extra money on it, but it doesn’t have to be much.

An upgrade from coach to business class on Amtrak is not nearly as daunting as a comparable air upgrade, for example. The difference is noticeable. It’s generally much quieter; your legroom is bigger, and the seat usually has a fold-down table and access to electrical outlets. Morning commuters have access to free coffee, packaged pastries and newspapers, while travel later in the day generally means that a light lunch or supper, and occasionally wine (depending on the area) will be brought to your seat.

Amtrak actually has a “Quiet Car.” Oh, for a quiet section in airplanes …

For longer trips, a spartan sleeping berth, called a roomette, is far preferable to a seat. This is decidedly more expensive, but if your point is to enjoy the trip, this is the way to go. On most of the Amtrak lines, this is pretty basic but very comfortable. One of the nice extras is that all meals are included in the ticket price, whether you are delayed or not.

Two facing seats in your private cabin fold down to make the lower berth, and the upper bunk pulls down. The curtained door slides shut and locks for complete privacy. There’s enough room to sit on the bed with your legs between the bed and the door, and a place to stash a carry-on bag, but not much more. Great for a solo traveller, but if your companion has any habits that irritate you even in the most microscopic way, one of you will be spending the night in the observation lounge chairs.

Some routes include an in-room toilet in a roomette, but most share a WC and shower with other passengers at this basic upgrade level. You can easily sit in your cabin and have a friendly conversation with your fellow passengers across the aisle, so we are talking dormitory-style, in a sense. Check with Amtrak for more spacious options featuring more amenities and privacy.

The passengers are half the fun! People who travel by train tend to be utterly fascinating and quite unintrusive. They tend to be readers, writers and music enthusiasts; historians, naturalists and philosphers. If you want to be left alone, though, you will be left alone. But honestly; wait until you have had a couple of conversations with fellow travellers and you may be amazed at how quickly the time passes.

Some comparisons between air and train travel:

If the plane is delayed, you are stuck on the tarmac in your seat with little or no access to toilets, food or water, fresh air or even the ability to move around the cabin. Not a place for the claustrophobic. Come to think of it, not a place for anybody. Then again, an air “delay” may mean only a few minutes or so. Downside: you could be stuck in an airport if you miss a connection, and if the delay goes on, it goes oooooooonnnnnnnnnn. Upside? You will probably get there before the train does.

Best thing about air travel: The speed, the sense of flying, the ability to disappear into your own world via personal movies, music etc.

Worst thing: Delays where you can’t move, the squished/trapped feeling, so-so airline food.

If a train is delayed, you may move around the train, chat with your fellow travellers, pick up a refreshment from the snack car and head up to the observation lounge to snuggle up in a large comfy swivel chair, watch a movie or look for a National Parks representative to give you the low-down on where you are. Then again – a train “delay” may mean being almost a day late. Upside: You’ll at least have a comfortable seat, and if you have upgraded to a sleeper, you won’t have to worry about finding meals or a place to rest. There’s no extra charge for the extra time. The downside? You must be flexible about your arrival time. You might reach your destination at 3 a.m. instead of 10 a.m., so make appropriate arrangements. Most train stations are not in the nicest areas of town.

Best thing about train travel: The trip; the passengers; watching the scenery; getting a real sense of where you are; the ability to be private if you want or to socialize if you don’t. As mentioned above, some trains carry National Parks Service rangers who will give you all sorts of details on history, wildlife and terrain. Train food in the dining car is very good! Snack cars have – well, the usual.

Worst thing: A delay can often mean a serious change in your travel plans. Though you won’t be charged for extra meals or accommodation if you have booked a sleeper, you may have to plan on an extra night in a hotel at your destination if you are making any kind of connection, and you may not arrive in time to use that hotel. If you have booked simple coach seating, this is when your inner monster might start growling.

When I hear that train whistle, though, my heart starts to beat just a little faster, and I start to think about where that clickety-clack, swaying steel magic carpet could take me next.

For more tips and stories about train tips, don’t forget to join us this Friday, March 19 at 6 p.m. PDT for a live chat with Greg Gross. We’ll be talking about wine tours and wine/train combos, too.

Click here for the live chat replay of “Chug Chug: Wine and Trains” with Greg Gross.
National Train Day is May 8, 2010.


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