10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling Across America by Train
In July of 2017, I took a 15 day cross country train trip from Washington, DC to California and back, stopping at six National Parks in Utah, California, and Colorado along the way. I am by personality, a gigantic overplanner, so I figured by scouring the internet for hours on end, I would be able to learn everything I needed to know to successfully travel across America by train. While I did learn tons of helpful logistical information about Amtrak train travel for first-timers, car rentals, and National Park access, I learned a whole lot less about how to actually live comfortably and not burn out while traveling for two weeks straight.
Here are ten things I wish I had known before traveling across the US by Amtrak train:
1. Your seat is your home. Choose wisely.
I thought I would be good at this. I’m always a picky sitter and figured I could navigate to the best seat in the train car easily with my pro sleuthing skills. Turns out there are a lot more variables than I considered (not so “pro” I guess).
We spent most of our train time on the Capitol Limited (DC to Chicago, IL) and California Zephyr (Chicago, IL to San Francisco, IL), so if you’re taking a different train, your experience may differ. For the most part, the way the seating cars are set up is doors on both ends to travel to different train cars, two seats on both sides of the aisle, and a stairwell in the middle which typically goes down to bathrooms and extra luggage storage. It’s important to know where you are in relation to the dining, lounge, and cafe cars, which are typically in between the coach car segments and the sleeper car segments. Unfortunately you don’t get to choose which coach car you are seated in, you will be placed according to your final destination, but you can choose your seat within that car.
Now let’s get down to what this all means. The further you are away from the lounge car, the less foot traffic noise you will have to deal with of people walking back and forth between your train to the lounge and dining cars. This is good. The doors ARE noisy and sometimes don’t work correctly (more noise). If you happen to be right next to the lounge car, that’s great for convenience, but I would recommend sitting at the far end of your car from the door to eliminate sound transfer when the doors are open and reduce foot traffic by your seat as much as possible.
Okay, we know what to prioritize based on where your car is in comparison to the others, but what about within the car itself? If you want to stay at the far end of your car away from the direction of the lounge, don’t stay in the very first seat or two. Again, the opening and closing of the doors is noisy, and there are lights in that area that are always on for safety when transferring cars (even at night). Also avoid making home in the few seats directly across from the middle stairwell that goes to the bathroom. It’s another higher traffic area (if the bathrooms are full and a line backs up; also where people disembark the train) and the lights in the stairwell stay on all night which for me was a big issue for sleeping.
This may sound incredible picky but I want to outline a best case scenario at least by my standards so you can pick and choose what is important to you and what probably won’t bother you. Because that being said, the chances you spend at least one leg of the trip right next to a whiny kid, an adult that doesn’t know volume control, or someone that’s just too friendly is almost guaranteed, so prioritizing comforts you have control over can help ease the annoyance of things you don’t have control over. The longest single segment I had on this trip without disembarking was 32.5 hours, with the total train time being just under 150 hours in 15 days. While you might be relaxed and excited just to be traveling by train in the beginning, you will likely become more and more particular with experience and as the exhaustion of travel starts to wear on you.
2. Prioritize comfortable sleep.
I traveled with my boyfriend on this trip and for me, having a travel companion was incredibly beneficial for train travel (see tip 8). Now, this completely depends on your comfort level with people you don’t know, but one benefit of traveling with a companion on overnight trips is not sleeping next to a complete stranger. Don’t get me wrong, talking and meeting new people on the trains is one of the best things you can do, but sleep is a whole other level of comfort and it’s perfectly reasonable to feel more comfortable sleeping next to someone you know. Know your own limits.
On the other hand, my boyfriend and I thought we could save space by packing only a single blanket to share. Cue mistake number one. The trains can get chilly overnight and even if you’re not usually one to need bundling up, it is nice to just have something familiar and comfortable around you since you likely won’t be sleeping in your preferred outfit (or lack of) of choice. We ended up purchasing a second blanket at our first real destination (Moab, Utah).
I brought a super squishy down pillow and my boyfriend brought a neck pillow we picked up a couple days before the trip. I liked using both. The neck pillow was helpful for taking naps or watching movies in our seats during the day, but I preferred a real pillow at night. The neck pillow we could attach to the outside of the suitcase which helped with space while the real pillow had to be shoved inside (again, it was super squishy down though so this wasn’t much of an issue).
To be 100% honest, I barely slept any of the nights we were on the train. I am a very light sleeper in the best of conditions and it was just one of the things I had to suck up and deal with. If you are a light sleeper or naturally a stomach sleeper, know that this will be harder on you.
- Bring socks to wear while sleeping unless you’re comfortable sleeping in your shoes. Do not go barefoot please.
- People will snore. If you are a light sleeper and are comfortable wearing headphones while sleeping, you probably want to do it.
- Try to tire yourself out as much as possible before going to bed. It’ll be easier to ignore distractions.
- If you’ve never traveled by train before, the first night will probably be the hardest so don’t get discouraged. There is a constant rocking of the train which took me several legs to get used to while my boyfriend got over it right away.
- If you have money to splurge, get a sleeper car. Especially if you’re traveling for more than one night in a row. It’s VERY expensive though (we did not do this due to money, but the increased comfort is so valuable if you can afford it)
3. Personal hygiene will get questionable.
You may think you can take sink baths and stay clean for 2.5+ days at a time. I mean, how are you getting dirty on a train anyway? Wrong. Sure, they’re not quite as teeny as plane bathrooms, but try putting toothpaste on a toothbrush or washing your face while swaying back and forth and hitting bumps every 10 seconds. It’s hard. And people are dirty (please don’t be one of them). For these reasons, I spent as little time as possible doing basic hygienic tasks… which… took a toll. Here’s a few tips that might help make it more comfortable and keep you from arriving at your destination looking like you haven’t slept in three days and smelling like a trashcan.
- Bring wipes for your face, hands, and body. Hand sanitizing wipes are great to use before eating and after returning from the lounge car (there’s a lot of people on these trains and not everyone covers their cough). Washing your face is almost impossible on the train, so if you can swap face wash for face wipes or even make some to take, that will be super helpful and help you feel less grungy and oily after long segments. Deodorant only lasts so long. At some point, you just need to wash those pits, and as I mentioned, washing anything in the tiny train sinks is near impossible. Again, wipes. They are also helpful for more than just the underarms if you catch my drift.
- This one is going to sound weird but trust me. There are several bathrooms under the seating car and also usually one or two in the cafe car below the lounge. Try them all. Not all bathrooms are created equal on Amtrak and after using the tiniest stall possible for an entire two day trip, I discovered a much larger bathroom with a bench and two sinks two doors down. Imagine my frustration that I had not been using this all along.
- Know when to go. Or just when to clean and groom yourself. There are times when the bathrooms are always busy and times when they are empty for hours on end. Go then and take your time brushing your teeth, taking a wipe bath, even flossing. It will pay off. Some of the stops along your route will be longer than others and the conductor will typically tell you over the speaker when the train will be stopped for longer than usual. This is a great time to use the restrooms for changing, cleaning, etc. while the train isn’t swaying back and forth and you aren’t at risk of accidentally tumbling into unclean waters. If it’s a particularly long stop or you have a layover before switching trains, you can find a restroom in the train station to change and freshen yourself up in.
- If you are going for more than a week, try to do laundry at least once a week. This will prevent your entire suitcase from getting incredibly stinky (especially if you are traveling in the summer) and reduce the total amount of clothes you have to pack.
4. Ice… cold… beer. Know your spending/comfort balance.
My boyfriend and I came into this trip knowing it was a stretch to afford on our budget. We purchased the 15 day Amtrak Rail Pass for $460 each, $80 for a National Park Pass, $4-500 for car rentals and gas, and almost $600 for AirBnBs. And that’s before feeding us anything for two weeks which, when spending approximately six of those fifteen days on a train, gets really REALLY expensive. Why? Because train food will cost you an arm and a leg. Eating in the dining car is fun, but we only did so once or twice simply because spending $20-$30 each on a less than filling less than amazing meal every day 2-3 times a day was just not in the cards. Instead, we subsisted on overpriced, prepackaged cafe car offerings, and the nonperishable food we managed to pack and carry on the train with us. I realize I sound pretty bitter about this situation but it’s hard not to when your train conductor is coming on the intercom every 30 minutes whispering, “Ice… cold… beer. Ice… cold… beeeeeeer.” Don’t get me wrong, this was incredibly hilarious every time but also really made me want a $6-$10 cold one at least 4 times a day.
So where did that leave us? We wanted to prioritize our off-train meals because I’d much rather spend $30 at an incredible cajun-creole restaurant and conveniently located hipster brew taproom in Berkeley, CA than a well-reheated meal on a train any day. But we also didn’t want to starve. Going into the trip, we knew train food was expensive. And that’s why we decided to pack Soylent (a meal replacement drink) to feed us for one meal a day on the train. After the first large segment of the trip, we realized just this and cafe food was not enough, so we decided to purchase peanut butter, bread, and other nonperishable snacks to bring with us on the train. It wasn’t ideal, and I would have loved to get a decent lunch and dinner every night in the dining car. But it just wasn’t in our budget. We sacrificed some comfort, and still probably spent more than intended. If you have the money to do so, one hot meal with real meat and vegetables and maybe a beer a day does a lot for the soul while traveling cross country.
As I mentioned in tip two, if you can afford a sleeper car, get one. Particularly if you are traveling for more than a day at a time. They are quite expensive, but you get excellent service and all meals are included with the price. Apparently some rooms even have private toilets and showers?? Again I wouldn’t know, but if your budget allows this luxury, take it.
5. Spend at least two nights at each destination.
One of the hardest things you will do, particularly if this is your first big cross-country trip, is decide where to go. There are SO MANY amazing sights to see, food to eat, and experiences to be had. We ended up with the following destinations: Moab, Utah to see Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park (2 days, 2 nights), San Francisco, CA (2 nights, not consecutive), Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park (1.5 days, 1 night), Yosemite National Park (1 day in the park, 2 nights), Denver, Colorado to see Rocky Mountain National Park (1 day, 1 night). That’s six National Parks and I was still upset we couldn’t figure out how to fit in Yellowstone somehow. I love that I got to see friends and family and see so many different sights (I had never been to any of these parks before), but I can’t help but have some regret that I didn’t get to stay longer at every single location. It was so hard traveling through Arches and realizing the places and hikes I wanted to go on most would just take too long since we only had one day for the whole park.
I know it is so tempting to fit as much in as possible, but take my advice and stay longer at each destination even if it means you see less overall. Go to the places that are most different from what you are used to; they will be the most rewarding. Every National Park I saw was absolutely stunning, but the landscape of Arches and Canyonlands in Utah was so magnificent, so vastly different than anything I had ever seen, that it has left the biggest impression in my mind and I most regret not staying there longer.
Stay as close as possible to wherever your destinations are. It will save so much time driving to and from your destination each day. If you are going to parks, try and stay in the actual park and book early!! We made this mistake and by the time we had our itinerary down (mid Spring for our trip in July) and were ready to start looking, there was literally nothing available in Yosemite. Instead, it was a 15-30 minute drive to get into the park, but then another hour or so to get to the main valley of the park. That’s around 3 hours lost just getting to where we wanted to be, and it prevented us from being able to go to the park for more than one day.
6. Spend as much time as possible out of your seat.
You will start to get cabin fever on some of the long legs of the trip if you are truly going across country and have several legs of the trip over 24 hours long. And you probably won’t have wifi at all. Even if you are doing something that could be done in your seat (watching a movie, reading a book, sketching, having a snack), get up, go to the lounge car or the cafe car, and do it there. The cars are literally brighter (because there’s no window shades) and you won’t feel like you’re living in your seat. Make sure you get up and move around at least every hour or so. Chat with the cafe car attendant, they are usually super friendly. Meet some of the other passengers on the train in the lounge car… the veteran train travelers will be rather apparent quickly and always have cool stories to tell. Be sure to get out of the train just to stretch whenever you have longer than usual stops.
7. Bring your camera. Don’t use it in the train.
Whether you have a DSLR, point and shoot, or just your cell phone, give up all hopes of getting good pictures of the amazing sights you’ll see from your window right now. It’s pointless. As an artist, I wanted to capture these memories as well as gain source images for future paintings. Every. Single. Picture I took from the train was awful. There is simply too much of a reflection (you can hold your lens right up to the window, but you usually won’t be able to capture the scope of what you want to that way), too many people also all trying to take pictures, and too little time (these beautiful sights are fleeting), to capture something stunning while on the train. I regret not simply sitting back in the lounge car in wonder over the beautiful sights in front of me. In fact, I made sure to do so on the route home after looking over my terrible pictures. It is disappointing, to be sure, that you can’t share with the world the canyons you pass through, the wildlife you see, and the expanse below as you chug up a mountainside, but savor it for yourself rather than not at all. If anything, take a video to share with friends and family. You can look up, down, out both sides of the train car that way. It won’t be a beautiful and frame-worthy picture, but it captures the mood of the car when passing through something really amazing (which is really cool by the way) and the sheer expanse of things, and your friends and family will appreciate seeing what you’re up to.
If you want to take some pictures, take them of your friends or other passengers (with their permission) looking out into the beautiful landscape while on the train. Those do make great photos and memories of the people you’re with, not just the places you see. Also you may have better luck in the seating car versus the lounge car for landscape photos. It’s generally darker so less glare and you can get your camera right up to the window more easily (assuming you have access to the window seat).
8. There are benefits of traveling with a companion.
Let me start by saying I 100% do not want to discourage someone from traveling alone. But as I didn’t travel alone and can’t speak to it, I do want to share with you some of the benefits (expected and unexpected) I experienced by traveling with someone.
- Shared Costs. This one is a no brainer. If you have to rent a car. It’s half the cost. If you’re going to a National Park, cost is per car. You can split Lyft fares and hotel/AirBnB costs.
- Shared supplies. You can share some packed items like shampoos, sunscreen, and wet wipes to reduce what each person carries individually.
- Shared time. If you have to rent a car, one person can drive while the other sleeps to both improve productivity and decrease your chance of burning out.
- Having someone you are comfortable confiding in and sleeping next to. I had more than a couple minor health issues during the trip, one of those being bruising my big toes so badly at our very first park that I *should have* gotten them drained to reduce the extremely painful swelling that happened. Having someone with you to literally help you walk back to the car and offer to drill through your toenail for you was invaluable.
- Safety. As unfortunate as it is that this is true, safety is a big concern when traveling alone as a young woman. To have a male companion put the majority of my worries at ease when traveling in subways, walking through the city, at night, and when few other people are around. With the exception of one incident on the train, everyone at the National Parks and on the trains were extremely nice and not threatening at all. In all likelihood I would have been perfectly safe by myself or with a female companion and there is a problem in our society that we have to feel otherwise. That being said, travelling with a companion anywhere, as a male or female and with a male or female is always safer when it is someone you trust completely.
9. There will be unforeseen delays. Plan accordingly.
Train delays happen. We had a fire alarm go off in the station as we were boarding in DC (cue total panic on my end), an unexpected stop due to a medical emergency in the middle of the night, a change of routes due to a purple sign with a D signifying we would derail if we went further, and just normal minor delays because we are human and not perfect. Fortunately, we usually managed to still arrive within the hour of our expected time, which meant that we had scheduled in enough wiggle room for any layovers, car rental pickups, hotel/AirBnB check-ins that we had planned. Know that not everything always goes to plan and either have a backup plan or be flexible enough to plan on the fly. Know whether you can get refunds on car/house rentals, tickets, and anything else you paid for in advance. Fortunately, Amtrak is typically SO accommodating if you miss you train or need to reschedule. We spent what seemed like hours on the phone with Amtrak booking our destinations in the beginning and they were very helpful in advising us on where/what times to book in relation to our other plans.
Giving yourself some extra time between legs of your trip also just lets you get out and stretch a bit and enjoy your temporary stop. We had a layover in Chicago both ways to switch trains and I was able to try my first (and second on the way back) Chicago deep dish! It was great just to get even a glimpse of somewhere new.
10. Consider your ultimate priorities because you can’t do it all.
I’ve laid out a lot of tips and a lot of “ideal” situations, but in the end this is your trip and your priorities, necessities, and budget may be different from mine. It’s important to map out the things you definitely need, the things you want in order or importance, and the things that would be luxuries that you probably will skip. Our must-do’s were Arches, Yosemite, San Francisco and Sequoia. Yellowstone would have been on there if at all possible, but it was just too out of the way. Our wants were reduced travel times, minimized expenses, and getting to see as much as possible. To the expense of these wants and needs, we didn’t get to stay in each location as long as we’d have liked to, we didn’t pay for those extra comforts on the train that would have been really nice to have, and we still didn’t get to go to all the destinations we would have liked to because we only had a 15 day rail pass.
You may prioritize differently or have different starting parameters and that is crucial to planning out your trip beforehand. Take these tips to help influence and inform your decisions, not make your decisions for you. Because you can’t do it all. Know that there will be good (amazing sights, meeting great people, flexible travel) and bad (difficult sleeping, questionable hygiene, longer travel times) to any train trip and that you’ll be most successful if you’ve thought about these scenarios and what’s important to you beforehand so that you can make the best out of whatever comes your way. Know your strengths and faults. My strength was self-entertainment. I was able to do a ton of sketching which took up some long hours of the ride. My fault is I’m a very light sleeper and all of the different elements from noise to lights to the swaying of the train combined made sleep virtually nonexistent for me.
There’s 101 more things I could tell you about traveling by train or about my broader trip in general. I hope to do the latter in a future post. But these are the things I didn’t expect, didn’t account for, or simply didn’t know in advance despite my in-depth research. I hope it helps you make the best of your cross country train trip, and I would love to hear where you’re going! If you love National Parks and travel like I do, check out my park series gouache paintings on my Etsy site and soon to be available here.
As my grandpa would have said, happy motorin’.