Planning a train trip from San Francisco to NYC, need advice on affordability and what are the best routes to take to see the most of the northern part of the country.
March 18, 2009 6:57 PM   Subscribe

How does one maximize their trip experience on a train from San Francisco to NYC without going over budget?

A group of friends and I are scheduling a trip later in the fall to do the coast to coast Amtrak route from San Francisco to New York City. We are on a college student's budget (translation = as affordable as possible), however, we are also very interested in seeing as much of the country on the way as we can. There are two routes to NYC from San Fran (according to Amtrak's site), one goes through Reno and one goes up to Portland. They both meet up at Chicago and then go NYC.

Looking for travel tips, previous experiences, affordable places to buy a one-way train ticket (we will be flying back to our hometown from NYC), the best route that has the most to see, and anything else fun and exciting between the two cities.

If anyone has done this trip, please let me know how it went, how long it took, and anything you would consider important for those planning this.

Thank you!
posted by penguingrl to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
One member of the group, at minimum, should spring for, at minimum, a Roomette.
posted by box at 7:11 PM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wonder if maybe you should take a look at the Green Tortoise website, who do some cross-country trips along, I believe, both the routes you're tossing up taking -- or other tour companies who offer similar cross-country bus trips. Doing so could provide you with at least a good general overview of what the trip looks like going both ways, since these types of tours stop at all the "big" places that I assume you'll want to see. If one looks particularly great just on the basis of that, it could help you decide which route to drive -- then from there you can add and remove stops as required.
posted by springbound at 7:17 PM on March 18, 2009

I've done this. I didn't know what I was doing, so it wasn't very pleasant.

My recommendations:

Get at least one space in a sleeper car. I found it impossible to sleep sitting up, particularly with the noise of the train. So I ended up spending the whole trip sleep-less, and was absolutely miserable at the end.

Bring your own food and drink. Otherwise, because they know you're a captive customer, they will gouge the hell out of you.
posted by mikeand1 at 7:19 PM on March 18, 2009

True that about the food and drink. There's water on the train, so take advantage of that with a reusable bottle, and maybe some tea or Crystal Light or Emergen-C or something. And maybe bring a small power strip, and a 3-prong to 2-prong adapter (if memory serves, some of the Amtrak outlets don't have the ground). Sunglasses and/or a sleep mask, headphones with some decent isolation, a deck of cards and/or a GameBoy/DS/whatnot--come to think of it, bring a lot of electronic stuff--something to read, maybe a little blanket and/or pillow, you get the drift.

(And be sure to bring some weed and a Leatherman tool.)

(I am beginning to think a train trip might make a great Mefi meetup.)
posted by box at 7:39 PM on March 18, 2009

If you spring for a roomette or other sleeping car accommodations, meals are included in the price of your ticket. Plus you can sleep horizontally on a fairly comfortable bunk bed, which makes a huge differences (at least for me). No sense saving too much money if you won't be able to enjoy your trip.

P.S. Amtrak's chronic lateness is epic and legendary, but it's still a great way to travel if you're not in a hurry. And you'll see a lot more of this country than if you fly, and get a sense of how big it really is, and how diverse the geography is, and (sadly) see how much of it has fallen into decay. Abandoned factories, rundown houses, small towns struggling to hang on - it's a bit shocking if you live in a prosperous metropolitan area to see what the rest of America looks like today. Anyway, it will be an eye-opening trip but it's not all doom and gloom, so have a great time!
posted by Quietgal at 8:05 PM on March 18, 2009

Don't plan on getting in on time. Cross country trips can be several hours late on each leg, which could put you days behind schedule.
posted by decathecting at 8:13 PM on March 18, 2009

Seconding the sleeping car suggestion for ONE passenger. Then rotate your sleep-times. It will make you all much less cranky. Other than that, find some party-game type time-killers for your group, or bring along a lot to read.

Also: two people can watch a netbook or iPhone-size videoscreen pretty comfortably together. And there are AC outlets on trains.
posted by rokusan at 8:37 PM on March 18, 2009

Hey - i've done this from DC to San Francisco. I cannot stress how important it is that you get a sleeper car for at least one part of it. I did the Capitol Limited in coach from DC to Chicago, and did the sleeper from Chicago to San Francisco. i'm doing the Seattle to DC route in September (Empire Builder)

Please tell me you're taking the Zephyr, because it is an AMAZING journey. Utterly amazing. Mefi mail me and i'll show you photos. That is supposed to be the prettier route, although the Empire Builder (the other route) is also supposed to be the 2nd most beautiful

Total cost was $480, and for three days of all meals (that's diner car meals with as much food/drink as you want - never had to pay for another coke or anything). That's not a bad deal at all if you think about it. Without the sleeper, the ticket price would have been $184. You also get a newspaper, free coffee all the time, etc. (since you're on a train, the coffee does add up). and remember there's a shower too, which is key on a 3 day trip.

I'm kinda iffy if Amtrak staff will let you rotate into a roomette, because they know who is riding in the sleeper car and who isn't.

Also, is full of railfans and obsessive middleaged men who love trains, but it's the best source of information for how to get the most out of your ticket.

Here's some ways to cut your costs:

- if you're going to get on and off (not sure if you are), spring for a amtrak pass instead of one ticket. you cant get on and off the rtain normally.

- you can upgrade to a sleeper onboard for cheaper, although its not always available. read the website i showed you for more info.

- A student advantage card will cut 15% off the cost of a ticket, which is more than worth the membership fee (just use a school alum account if you arent a student currently)

- Have Continental Miles? You can transfer Continental OnePass miles 1 to 1 to Amtrak Guest Rewards. Why does this matter? Because a 1 zone trip on a sleeper is 10k Amtrak Guest Rewards, a 2 zone is 20k, and a 3 zone is 35k. So you're potentially talking about 35k airline miles getting you a free 3 day ride cross-country with all meals. awesome. (and a regular ticket is 5k, 10k, and 15k respectively)

- ALSO - you can take up to 100 lbs of carry-on luggage (unless you're taking the Cardinal from Chicago to NYC - dont do that), as well as another 150 lbs of carry-on luggage for free. Each additional bag is $10 more. I actually moved cross-country for half a year this way.

and then stuff to bring:
yes, a outlet strip, cards, laptops (i had verizon wireless broadband, which was awesome). though parts of the rockies dont even have phone service - you're going through a canyon there. munchies and a water bottle.
posted by waylaid at 9:08 PM on March 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

When I moved from east coast to west coast, my wife and I took the train. We had a sleeper for the first leg and rode in coach the rest of the way. Having the sleeper rocked - and yes, you should screw on a train. I highly recommend it. Riding coach sucked for me as I don't sleep sitting up well.

Be sure to step off the train at the stops, especially in the sparsely populated areas. We were stopped for a while in the middle of f'ing nowhere at night because of a large rock on the tracks. While we were stopped, I stepped out and spent time just staring at the immensity of the sky as seen from a prarie. It was nice to be able to see the Milky Way clearly.

There is usually an observation car. Spend a lot of time there.

My mom used to be a Zephyrette, so it was interesting to hear it from her point of view.
posted by plinth at 9:50 PM on March 18, 2009

There's no better place on earth to drink than a train. And there's no worse place to have a hangover. Believe me on this: moderate your drinking, or you'll be sorry.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:08 PM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Per Quietgal, you do stand to see a lot of "Abandoned factories, rundown houses, small towns struggling to hang on" on a long train trip. But that's because the routes were laid down a century or more ago. Typically, tracks go through the oldest part of town. (Can you imagine the uproar if someone wanted to build new tracks through any of this country's prosperous suburbs?)

Those views are real, but not representative.
posted by justcorbly at 5:56 AM on March 19, 2009

done the zephyr eastbound twice, and the empire builder westbound once, albeit both times in the mid-to-late 90s. things may have changed since, but probably not, judging by recent shorter haul east coast amtrak experiences. if you're on a tight budget a sleeper may be out of reach. i was always ok sleeping in a fully reclined amtrak seat (and they recline way more than any other form of transport i've ever encountered) but i'm a good sleeper. the only issue i can remember is that sometimes a loud snorer can disrupt things but most people are pretty respectful in coach--given most of them just want a good as night's sleep as you do.

the zephyr eastbound used to be timed a lot better than westbound in terms of journeying through the rockies (i.e. remember that you don't see much in the middle of the night). unless you have a lot of time, i'd recommend that over the empire builder, purely because it's a whole day more travel time to get to go north to portland (before you even start eastbound) although the trip through the cascade mountains is very cool.

and you must be mentally prepared for possible severe delays. i would say a few hours late is par for the course; significantly more is probably pretty regular. also, the 2nd time i traveled the zephyr, lincoln, ne to chicago, il, took place on a bus due to some weather incident. a bummer, but something that again happens with regularity afaik.
posted by iboxifoo at 6:47 AM on March 19, 2009

I have to agree with waylaid about probably not being able to rotate several people through a sleeper. I've ridden trains many times over the past 20 years and each time I've gotten a sleeper the porter has been a big part of the trip, always making sure to get to know each of his passengers and being incredibly helpful and personable.
That isn't to say that maybe they personally wouldn't look the other way if multiple people were sharing a sleeper, but I'm betting that they are officially not supposed to allow this.

If you can ride from SF up to Seattle (The Coast Starlight) and then from Seattle to Chicago (The Empire Builder) you will see some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Part of the trip goes through Glacier National Park in Montana. Not to be missed.

Delays will happen without fail. And they can be very, very long. A few years ago I had to fly out of Dallas (I live in Austin) and I decided to just take the train up instead of driving and dealing with parking and traffic and whatnot. The train trip was supposed to take about 3.5 to 4 hours.
We ended up arriving in Dallas over 12 hours later. The crew said this wasn't all that uncommon, either. I would say to give yourselves a good three days leeway between scheduled train arrival and any flights or time-specific plans you make in New York.

And while delays will absolutely be part of your trip, you will be taken care of by Amtrak. Last time I rode Amtrak I missed a connecting train because of the late arrival time of the train I was on. I had to spend the night in Chicago to wait for the next day's train. Amtrak put me up in a downtown hotel (not super-luxurious, but not seedy at all), gave me food vouchers for that night and the next morning and even gave me a calling card in case I needed to contact anyone about my delay.
posted by Brody's chum at 11:59 AM on March 19, 2009

Delays aren't that bad right now - normally, delays happen because of the freight trains running on the same lines. The economy is in such bad shape that freight rail traffic is way down - hence - no delays. I had a two day train trip come in EARLY because there simply was no freight trains in the way.
posted by waylaid at 12:10 AM on March 20, 2009

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