Amtrak Overnight - A review
Now that I have experience with Amtrak’s overnight routes, I wanted to clear up how the whole experience was for me, as a younger guy. Unlike most of the other writings you’ll find, I’m a fairly normal 20 year-old who travelled alone. I don’t have a particular soft spot for dressing up the Amtrak experience or anything.
Overnight travel on trains isn’t for everybody - or most people, really. I love seeing new things myself and don’t care much for being locked in the same place for a while. That’s pretty normal, but most people don’t like the time associated with travel and choose methods that are quick, but not nearly as comfortable or scenic as the train, like air travel. The scenery and my lack of experience in the middle and southwest parts of the USA enticed me to give three days of my life away towards seeing it all.
The train is actually slower than driving for long distances from Virginia since it wraps to the Northern part of the country to go west. It was neat seeing Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Chicago for the first time though. There was snow on the ground of most of the country when I rode, so that really made traveling through these flats a treat. Seeing the southwest unfold was the great part of the trip though - that’s the part that made it worthwhile. The desert may sound boring but seeing the glow of the sun out there in the end of December had a nice warmth to it! My trip ended on a commuter train down the west coast that hugged the Pacific coast more than the 5 does!
Here’s my quick description of what was good and bad:
The best part of the trip, hands down, was the view across the country. Sure, you can fly across America in 3.5 hours, but you miss a lot of really special landscape. Seeing the little towns and cities that give America its personality really was a privilege. Going through the backyards of many folks home gave a small, quick glimpse into their lives. The landscape transforms in literally 90 seconds over in the Southwest from flat to dry to mountains to eternal desert. The train cuts through many parts of the country that aren’t around roads and can’t be seen while driving. Some of them so remote, that you have to be on the train to see them! There are several other routes you can take as well; one leading through the North to the Northwest, another leading through the Rockies, and the last running through Texas. Most people take the route through the Rockies, called the California Zephyr, but I rode the Southwest Chief - a decision I do not regret.
The train is a really comfortable way to travel. Getting on the Capitol Limited to Chicago, I was surprised by the sheer size of the coach seats. Seriously! It was a class unrivaled by any domestic airline or regional rail service. The seats basically turn into La-Z-Boy recliners because of how much they can recline. They have lifting leg rests and the lot too. Being that I spent three days in one of these, I have no complaints whatsoever. As far as the ride goes, it is comfortable for the most part. Going through the mountains in Pennsylvania was the worst part in the whole country. The train rocks side-to-side the whole time, but it’s really comfortable and helps you sleep a little bit better. Some of the tracks aren’t welded, but they just make a gentle click-clack sound that never bothered me, they also aren’t as bumpy as I thought.
Another neat thing about the train is meeting people. Being stuck in the same vehicle with about 300 - 400 people overnight, you’re bound to at least small talk with some of them. I met some interesting folks and we talked a little bit (I only talked to a guy my age for a couple hours at the most). The older folks aren’t as bad as I imagined, they keep to themselves. A lot of younger people meet up in the Observation car and play card games and drink. Like the bar, I guess? Since some of the people on the train are really weird, meeting people was nice, but not the best part by any means.
Amtrak’s overnight routes usually have a Observation car with lots of windows and places to sit. People are pretty social in this car and like to enjoy the view with each other. It was packed when I rode and a really neat place to just hang out. When it’s light out, it offers a nice panoramic view of the countryside (under FRA regulations, which means there are still beams between the windows, so it’s not perfect). The observation car sits right about the Cafe car, so snacks were plenty close by.
Amtrak staff were surprisingly great - literally. I’m used to the extremely rude staff on the Northeast Regional and the ghetto staff at Washington Union Station. I was surprised to walk onto the train to a kind, helpful coach-car attendant. The staff on the overnight trains aren’t busy every second of the day and will sit down and chat with some people. They even joke around with some of the passengers. I expected them to slack and goof, but that’s not what I found at all. I can’t speak for the sleeping car attendants; but everybody else was great and made my three days pleasant.
The amazing thing about overnight trains was how close it was to on-time for traveling near 2,000 miles. An hour or two from the scheduled time is pretty incredible given the weather and Amtrak’s usage of freight tracks. The train arrived into Chicago an hour late and the train into Los Angeles arrived almost 2 hours early. Chances are on-time performance isn’t your biggest priority when you spend two days on the same vehicle, but Amtrak does very well.
Food and drinks were always nearby on the train, through the Cafe car or through the Dining car. The cafe car had plenty of snacks and drinks - including alcohol - to keep you satisfied. I packed my own snacks and didn’t attend to the Cafe car too much, but getting a drink other than water was nice. Speaking of water, there are water dispensers on each of the coach cars, so if you’re thirsty, you’re not too far from water. The dining car is a nice experience. The food wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great either. You are seated with other folks if you’re alone, but eating with strangers was fun. The menu isn’t super-expansive, but it has something for most people. I won’t comment on the prices just yet though - they’re in the Bad section of this review.
Being a twenty-something, being connected to some sort of cell tower was quite important to me. There is no Wifi on overnight routes, because there is no infrastructure to actually provide internet to the train for a feasible amount of time. But even with my Sprint iPhone, I could tether into usable internet for about 1/3 of my trip. It looks like a small number, but it’s incredible given that at least 75% of traveling is done away from areas covered in towers. In the flat states, the towers could be 30+ miles away, so the internet wasn’t always fast enough to even load Wikipedia, but Twitter worked well. If you’re curious on the specifics, you can make the whole trip on a 1 or 2GB tethering plan. The internet works best in cities and next to highways (some of which are followed well into New Mexico and Arizona). Don’t expect 3/4G by any means, but 2G is good enough for Twitter, blogging, and reading the news. Again, I was on Sprint, so I roam free and often, but I’m uncertain of Verizon’s or AT&T’s approach towards this.
The first bad thing about rail travel is recycled air. At first I was completely clueless on why they would make people deal with it, but after entering a 9◦ Flagstaff, it was pretty clear that heating air 60◦ is a waste of Diesel compared to reheating cabin air. It was only bad because people haven’t showered and some idiots attempted to smoke in the bathrooms. They received a nice shouting from Amtrak attendants, however. It didn’t really stink other than the occasional brake dust, which is strong enough to wake you up, but that isn’t an issue unless you’re on a curvy route. There are several opportunities to walk off the train to smoke, which I took for fresh air, but since everybody is smoking outside anyways, it wasn’t much help. The air is kept moving the entire time, so if anything did happen to smell bad, it would disappear in good time. I know you’re wondering about the bathrooms - they’re not an issue at all, since they were downstairs. I recommend packing several cough drops just in case stale air gives you a sore throat.
While on the subject of fresh air, another bad thing about overnight travel are the restrooms and how to stay sanitized. The restrooms were very tiny, to the point where I wondered if larger individuals could use them. There are handicapped restrooms on some cars, but not all of them. The restrooms didn’t smell horrible, but they were bearable at best. There are plenty of them if one is dirty though. Not going to dwell on that though - staying fresh on the train is a challenge, but doable. Some cars have dedicated changing rooms, which are marked as female only and they look at you real funny if you use them, since they don’t like. Other cars have changing areas in the restroom and the handicapped restroom to change and freshen up in. There are no shower facilities in Coach class, so staying fresh is a matter of deodorant, baby wipes, and learning to wash your hair in train sinks/bathrooms. It was a challenge for me, but I got it after a while. It was hardest to rinse and dry off given my lack of towels. It’s probably polite to clean up after destroying the sink while washing hair as well. Changing wasn’t too bad in the changing area/handicapped restroom as well. But like I said, since the actual dressing/lounge room has a female logo on it and doesn’t lock, best just stay out of there as a guy. Oh yeah, brush your teeth too. There is no excuse not to here.
Food prices on the train were a nightmare. Expect to pay 3-to-4 star prices on food that wasn’t that great. The cafe car was no better. I guess prices are supply/demand thing, so expect to pay if you want to eat hot food. It wasn’t really clear if you’re supposed to tip either, I did because I didn’t want to be a terrible person, but I certainly didn’t tip 15%.
Train stations are a lot of fun, much more easy and enjoyable than airports, but since the TSA isn’t groping you to get to gates, there are crazies and homeless in them. Washington Union Station has plenty of homeless sleeping in gate waiting areas and they look pretty scary. I’m surprised the Amtrak police don’t throw them out. The Washington Union Station staff are also a joke. Some of the rudest human beings you’ll experience. The Chicago station was cleaner, but once the crazy women walked off the street into the station and looked people in the eyes, telling them that they “hated god,” I made my way out as soon as possible.
Sleeping on the train was quite the experience. Sheer exhaustion got me to sleep well enough. They dim down the cabin lights, but getting to sleep in an upright position, next to a stranger, was not fun. The train isn’t what I’d call bumpy, but passing another train at 120mph while they are blowing their horn could knock me out of a real bed. Sleeping was done in 2-hour segments for me. Music helped, a lot. I can’t speak for sleeper-car passengers, but coach was hard to fall asleep in.
Dealing with luggage on the train was a pain. Not because there wasn’t room - there was more than you can imagine - but because you don’t want to leave your valuables behind with strangers ever. I had to carry my backpack to the bathroom each and every time and I had to carry it every time I switched cars. I hard somebodies purse got stolen, so this is your fair warning that if you carry nice things, take them with you everywhere. But fear not for suitcases, if they’re in-sight, people aren’t going to dig through them or snatch them. People were still decent. I recommend a cheap TSA lock for bigger bags that may have to be stored downstairs. Don’t make it conspicuous though.
The few points above could have been best summarized as overnight travel on trains is better with a partner. A friend would have been nice to travel with. Having a partner makes the whole luggage and sleeping arrangements more bearable. If you’re a couple, cuddling to sleep would make it so much better for both of y’all. Plus you’re guaranteed a friend in the observation car, diner car, and have somebody to play cards with and all. So if you travel alone, expect weird seatmates who sleep weird and to watch your belongings well.
I’m kind of disappointed I have to write this part, but some stuff that went down on my trip leads me to not recommend taking the overnight train as a family. The train has a bar and plenty of individuals were enjoying it - mostly young people traveling alone. People weren’t crazy-drunk, but they were a little “happier” than I anticipated. I caught a little bit of underage drinking, but they would probably be drinking at home if not here. There were plenty of cuss-words flying around too. I also have to formally recommend not taking the train alone if you’re a young female. If you don’t heed this, expect to be hit on and not have a good place to run to. And for the purposes of protecting your family, yes, there were couples engaging in inappropriate acts near public places.
Overnight train travel was a great experience for me, but don’t expect people’s best around your children - but for better and for worse, if you’re thinking about taking the train across the USA, I will formally recommend you do so. Reading this, I hope you can form a good picture of what you do and don’t need, and can decide the best arrangements for travel.
If you think this is for you, pack light and enjoy your ride!
Edit (5/6/2016): if this post helped you decide to travel across USA on train, please tweet me @kylehotchkiss and share your experience. This post seems to rank pretty high in Google for overnight reviews and I’d like to embed some tweets here with others experiences as well.