Five Tips for Traveling by Train in the US – part 2

Bring Your Own Food

A $6 dollar cheeseburger that is microwaved in plastic?  I think not.  The food on Amtrak is not only disgusting but overpriced.  I was traveling on a very small budget, so I didn’t even give the dining car a shot.  But I did visit the snack vendor several times, where they serve bagels, juice, chicken wings, pizza, alcohol and more.  It is train robbery.  The food is unhealthy and, since there is no oven, sickeningly low in quality.  The alcohol, which is a substance complimentary to train travel, costs six dollars for a nip.

It’s not worth it, especially when you realize how easy it is to get all kinds of food and drink, alcohol included, onto Amtrak trains.  There is no carry-on checking, and even if there was no one seemed distressed by the fact that I had my own food.  Sure, hot meals are pretty much out of the question unless you get some fast food from the train station, but you can bring on lots of snacks, pre-made wraps or sandwiches and desserts.

Go For the Observation Car

Though not all of the trains I took had them, both of the trains I took to get across the west had observation cars.  These are cars that have large windows that stretch almost from the floor to the ceiling.  There is no assigned seating in the obvservation cars, instead they have booths and seats arranged in groups of three or four.  The seats face the windows, but are angled so that conversation with your fellow observing travelers is easy.

Out train windows you get a strange and fascinating glimpse at American life.  Think of where the train tracks go in your hometown.  Most tracks seem to pass on outskirts, where the noise and rush of the train will go unnoticed by the townspeople.  The result is an interesting perspective on the outer limits of America, from tiny little towns to big cities like Chicago and Boston.

Even better than the towns is the natural beauty that can be seen from the observation car.  The Southwest Chief, which runs the route from Chicago to Los Angeles, with many stops on the way, passes through the plains of the Midwest into the Rocky Mountains.  If you have seen those mountains before, I promise you you’ll see them in a different way when passing through their circuitous valleys by rail.

I also suggest catching some shut eye in the observation car if you are on an overnight trip.  Though most times I was able to find two unoccupied seats to curl up on in a passenger car, occasionally there was only one seat available to sleep on, my own.  This often meant a head against a cold window, or worse, a head against the shoulder of my seat neighbor.  Luckily, early in my journey, I discovered that the observation car is open all night.  Seats were abundant, and once you adjust to the light, you can fall asleep rather peacefully in there.  Because of the giant windows, I was awoken twice by the sun rising, first over the bleak and snowy plains of Iowa, then over the rocky mountains.  Not a bad way to wake up.