Five Tips for Traveling by Train in the US – part 1

A list of tips for travelers who feel like seeing the country in the old fashioned way, by rail.

Though there have beenwhispers of President Obama’s future plans for a high-speed rail system in the USA, it doesn’t seem like that dream will come to fruition for quite some time.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t use that unique, beautiful, cheap and easy form of travel today.  In fact, with an administration that is already portioning out some of the federal budget to the already established Amtrak system, now is a particularly good time to plan a trip by rail.  I recently took a trip from Boston’s Back Bay Station to Los Angeles’ Union Station on Amtrak’s train system.  It was an extraordinarily rewarding experience, and so different than traveling across the US by the more conventional means: airplane or car.  If you are a traveler looking to see the country, meet interesting fellow wanderers, and save money, then here are some tips on how I did just that:

Book in Advance

For most stations, it is possible to buy your ticket from an Amtrak counter.  However, though you could probably just go from city to city and try your luck with counter hours and ticket vendors, I found it was easier to book before you leave.  The Amtrak website is navigable, and often if you do some proper googling you can find coupons to enter online and save money.  If you don’t like using the net to book tickets, than give Amtrak a call. Their phone system is voice operated, and actually works well.  If you want to talk to a real human being, it is easy to just say “operator” a few times until you get someone on the line.

If you don’t choose to book in advance, you may find some unpleasant obstacles.  For instance, I had planned on stopping in Lamy, New Mexico on my way to see some friends Santa Fe.  I was going to try and buy my ticket there, but out of curiosity used the website to figure out how much the ticket was going to cost.  Luckily I found out then that there are no ticket attendants at the station in Lamy, and it would have cost me $15 to have the ticket express mailed to an earlier destination, not to mention that would have been a major hassle.

Pack Light

I cannot say how happy I am that I only had one bag on me while traveling.  Rolling up my clothes and then vacuum sealing them in Ziploc bags by sitting on them, I was able to fit more than enough clothing for my week long trip.  Sure, it got to the point on some of the longer treks where I was turning my underwear inside out, but if you aren’t willing to get a little dirty while traveling, then long train trips (and budget adventures for that matter) may not be for you.

Having one bag makes it easy to keep track of your things and move quickly when transitioning between stations.  I always felt a surge of pride when I would get off a train and zip right by those people that had to wait at baggage claim to collect their things.  Of course, this isn’t just a tip for people traveling by train, but for some reason minimalism seems particularly appropriate for such a curious and old fashioned form of travel.

Make Friends

This is probably the most important, and my favorite tip.  Make friends on the train!  It is so easy to do.  During my trip, it seemed that most train travelers are also eager to have conversations.  It is not like airplanes where you are so crammed in you can barely move your arms to cut your dry salmon.  It is not like cars where you can have long conversations with your handful of travel companions.  Trains are organized to facilitate conversation.  You can move about, switch seats, turn in your chair.  People come and go at every stop, and though it can be sad if you only have a few stops with someone who piques your interest, the shuffling effect of the train makes for minimal small talk.  And everyone has a story.  I met a female corrections officer, 2 Amish woodworkers, a gold miner and a self-proclaimed hillbilly trying to travel the world with no money, and I met them all in one train car.

Aside from just fighting off boredom, it is always useful to have someone watch out for your stuff.  On some of the more crowded trains, it can be a burden to have to carry all of your things with you to the bathroom or dining car.  Though I didn’t experience any theft on rail, it was nice to have a seat mate or person across the isle who I could ask to keep an eye on my stuff while I moved about the car.