Amtrak tips and tricks
June 29, 2013 11:03 AM   Subscribe

This August my best friend and I are going from Minneapolis to Seattle and then on to Oakland via Amtrak. What useful things don't we know about long distance train travel? What should we take to eat?

Minneapolis to Seattle is basically one day and two nights. Seattle to Oakland is 23 hours, morning to morning. We've both been on a lot of trains (in the US and elsewhere), but never for more than a couple of hours.

Mostly I'm concerned about the food situation. However, I'd appreciate any answers to questions I don't even know I have.

There is, of course, food available on the train, but it's expensive, potentially not that good and not terribly appealing to vegetarians. What could we take that will be appealing 20 hours in? (Note: my friend is allergic to peanuts. I keep having thoughts like "Well, we could just eat pb&j. It'd kind of suck but it'd work. Oh wait...") Any really clever ways of keeping things cold I wouldn't know about as someone who's eaten a lot of packed lunches in their life? What 'cooking' facilities are there? Is the hot water mentioned in a pervious Amtrak food thread actually hot?
posted by hoyland to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This is the best portrayal of the pros and cons of contemporary American train travel I've ever read. It's very good-humored and immersive, and it's also food-centric, given that it was posted to
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:09 AM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I should be clear that we're intending to bring as much of our own food as possible. We're also well-versed in the vagaries of Amtrak, unless it's something specific to a trip of more than, say, five hours.
posted by hoyland at 11:18 AM on June 29, 2013

Honestly, I personally would take a little cooler or even one of those insulated lunch sacks with some dry/aged cheese (except I'm vegan now, so I personally can't). When I traveled to work in China some years ago, I just plain ol' packed a big wedge of asiago and it had sweated a little but was fine even after an extra 24 hour delay due to weather. So take some asiago or some sharp cheddar or aged gouda or something and then have it with good crackers. In my experience, hard/dry cheese actually does not go bad quickly if it's kept cool and wrapped tightly.

Admittedly, I tend to be lax in the ZOMG-refrigerate-it-now department, but I would take (assuming non-vegan status): good apples (easy to eat, not as scented as citrus); cheese; tasty crackers; a couple of containers of cherry or grape tomatoes (wash and dry them completely and then repack); hand-made trail mix; baby carrots for early in the journey...honestly, when I took the Shanghai/Beijing train back in the day, I brought several small soft round whole wheat loaves (bigger than a dinner roll, smaller than a standard loaf) and grape tomatoes and Laughing Cow and had tomato/Laughing Cow sandwiches.

Alternatively, I'd make a big container of brown rice/almond/olive/spinach pilaf for the first meal and then other stuff for later.

That's going to be a long trip if you're not in a sleeper car.

When I've taken long train trips, everyone gets lulled by the train and goes quiet after the first hour or so, which is really nice. Bring some books. I particularly enjoy reading James Baldwin's novel Another Country on train trips myself.
posted by Frowner at 11:21 AM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's going to be a long trip if you're not in a sleeper car.

I've taken one cross-country Amtrak trip, and this is my thought. A sleeper cabin is a must if you can afford it. Traveling for days in a seat was tough and left me mainly with memories of feeling dirty and gross.
posted by Unified Theory at 11:28 AM on June 29, 2013

Are you guys riding in coach or getting a sleeping car? If you're riding in coach, bring pillows and blankets for sleeping. I would really recommend neck pillows and lumbar support, they shaped those seats in a bizarre way that makes them really uncomfortable. (At least for me, a person who is 5'5".)

For "cooking facilities" there is a microwave in the cafe car, IIRC they are willing to heat up your own things for you, but that could have changed since the last time I rode, so don't rely on it. That is about it for cooking facilities you have access to.

The food in the cafe car is pretty much just junk food snacks which are indeed overpriced; for an "entree" you can get burgers or veggie burgers or a few other junk-foody things. I thought the veggie burgers were edible.

But, between Minnesota and Seattle, there will be a dining car and it will serve a regular breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Again, it will be slightly overpriced, but there will be vegetarian options (usually pasta-based). I thought the food was perfectly good, but keep in mind I was 22 and not at all food-picky the last time I ate it (though I was a vegetarian), so if you are any kind of foodie you might disagree with my assessment.

Here is another thread with more long-distance Amtrak trip info that you might find helpful.
posted by cairdeas at 11:35 AM on June 29, 2013

Oh, and in the dining car, there are four people to a table and they fill each table with people before assigning anyone to the next table. So if there are two of you, you will be seated with two strangers at the table for your meal. If either of you have any kind of social anxiety about something like that, you might want to skip eating in the dining car.
posted by cairdeas at 11:36 AM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a vegetarian who takes Amtrak on a evening-to-afternoon overnight route in coach a couple time of year. I assume you guys are in coach instead of a sleeper, since all your meals are provided through the dining car if you have a sleeper. I don't have any brilliant ideas, but here are some things I've eaten on the train:

- non-squishable fruits (apples/grapes/oranges - bananas never work out for me)
- celery/carrots
- raw red pepper (don't slice it ahead of time so it won't need refrigeration - bring a small paring or pocket knife. Just be careful about the motion of the train while you're using it.)
- cheese & crackers, with the types of cheese that do okay without refrigeration (Laughing Cow, string cheese, hard cheeses, etc.)
- granola bars
- trail mix

I don't get as hungry riding the train as I do on a regular day, so this gets me by.

I also like to buy a burrito or sub sandwich or similar right before I get on the train and eat it a couple of hours into the ride, to shorten the amount of time I'm without "real food". Usually, the more fruits and vegetables I eat (vs. heavy things like cheese, trail mix, etc.), the better I feel.

Other useful things for overnights:
- I feel less gross after sleeping on the train if I shower at the last possible minute before catching the train. I also like to keep my hair braided the whole time to avoid being annoyed by my unwashed hair.
- A bandana tied over my eyes makes it much, much easier to sleep.
- If you have a choice, try to get a seat in the middle of the car so you're not disturbed by the doors opening / toilet flushing / light from the bathroom all night.
- It can be really chilly in the train in the summer - bring layers or a light fleece blanket.
- Long train trips are great for difficult books - because I'm away from the distractions of my regular life and have hours of open time, I can really immerse myself in the story. If you ever wanted to start Infinite Jest or similar, now is the time!
posted by fussbudget at 11:43 AM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can use sunflower seed butter in your sandwiches instead of peanut butter, or almond butter if your friend is only allergic to peanuts and not true nuts. Some kind of protein butter plus whole wheat rolls and jam or jelly would be great. You could swipe some single-use jam packets from a restaurant, buy some little jars or just take a large jar in a cooler.
Thirding the Laughing Cow/Babybel cheese plus small tomatoes for sandwiches or on crackers. Avocado is great too, you could get a few small ones to eat. I've cut up vegetarian deli slices to have with cheese and crackers and those'll last you for at least a day or so in a cooler.
For long trips I also like those seaweed snacks you can get at Trader Joe's or health food stores. I know it's not the same, but it feels like you've eaten a green vegetable. Any of the TJ's dried veggie or fruit snacks might be good too, though check their sugar and salt content.
posted by janerica at 11:49 AM on June 29, 2013

I've done this exact route and it's beautiful. You'll be passing right by one of the most beautiful places in the United States, Glacier National Park. There is actually a train station on both sides of the park, East Glacier, MT and West Glacier, MT. If there's any way you can stop over and visit a few spots like St. Mary Lake, you won't regret it.

The train from MT to WA is a large double-decker one, with an observation deck, and a dining car. You should eat in the dining car at least once. If you're a party of fewer than 4, you'll be seated with other passengers. It's a great way to meet some of the other people you'll be traveling so far with.

I disagree that a sleeper is a must. A sleeper is incredibly expensive and if you're at all able to fall asleep on airplanes or buses, the large reclining train seats will feel luxurious.
posted by the jam at 1:55 PM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We are going in coach. We're going straight through to Seattle, stopping for a few days and then on to California.

Am I right in thinking we should be wearing trousers and not shorts? (Probably obvious. I usually wear trousers on buses.)
posted by hoyland at 4:37 PM on June 29, 2013

I've done that trip a number of times. I have never brought a little cooler or those insulated lunch bags but that's a great idea. I bring cheese and crackers, salami or beef jerky, hummus and cut veggies, nuts, cookies, yogurt, trail mix, fruit. I like to snack so that's fine for me. Personally, I would skip the sleeper and skip the dining car.

The bummer about that trip is the scenery is really dull until Montana, but you get there in the middle of the night.

Also, the trains get delayed a lot so bring extra food, a deck of cards, some knitting, your ipod, etc., and plenty of patience.

Have a nice trip!
posted by loveyallaround at 4:41 PM on June 29, 2013

1. If you get the sit down breakfast, the 'eggs' sometimes can be reconstituted egg powder. Bad if allergic to it.

If you tip heavily, they may give you free hot water for tea and such.

3. If you bring a power strip, and get a seat with an outlet, you will make a lot of friends.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:42 PM on June 29, 2013

The Kitchn has lots of posts about fridge-free food ideas (for work, camping, train and road trips, hotel rooms without mini fridges, etc.) You could start with this post: Ideas for a 4-Day Train Trip.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 5:46 PM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Trousers will be better than shorts in the summer when they're cranking the air conditioning. I like to wear pajama pants for optimum comfort sleeping on the train. Bring a pair of socks, too.
posted by fussbudget at 6:13 PM on June 29, 2013

Light trousers on the train. There should be room for a small rolling soft side cooler; I use one from TJMarshRoss that cost about twenty bucks.

I'd say a thermos for a hot meal the first night. Keep food cold with frozen water bottles - as you eat nthrough your cold stuff you can drink the water. Bring a pre prepped meal as your boarding meal. I'll usually pick up a meal, pack food, board train.

I don't know if I've been unlucky but I've started carrying Lysol wipes for the bathrooms. Might be my routes; though I take under eight hour trips, some are at the tail end of very long routes.

Phone chargers, noise canceling head phones, small pillow & light blanket or jacket to pillow or to snuggle under.

A few granola bars & durable fruit for delays.

Keep an eye on the train for a few weeks, using the website or their app. I make pretty regular runs currently, & have an idea bout the usual delay when there is one. If I'm on a longer run, we get in late, they skip my stop, then bus me back from a major stop. If I'm only doing little stops, it's bus all the way. I actually cancelled this weeks trip because I had the flexibility to do so & skip the bus.

The nice lady at the amtrak phone line (hi Christine!) explained they contract coach busses "like greyhounds" for those runs. I've ridden actual Greyhound so there's not as much room as your train car; the rolly bag might not work out & you may need to check baggage you hadn't planned on.

Read the amtrak baggage rules. Generally two decent sized carry ons and your pillows don't count toward that (nor does your grab & go lunch).

Take a couple card games, & just have fun! Very envious. I'm saving up travel points & PTO to do something similar in a few years.
posted by tilde at 9:28 PM on June 29, 2013

Oh, & Waiting on a Train is a good little read.

If you guys are students, you can join to get discounts, military = discounts, & or National Aassocation of Rail Passengers for discounts. AAA too; never tried it, though.
posted by tilde at 9:36 PM on June 29, 2013

I just want to point out that these are both relatively short journeys, as travel in the history of humanity had gone. I'm not sure I'd bother with an elaborate cooler, because you'll just have to drag that around once you reach your destination.

I think I'd bring some boiled eggs for breakfast, a loaf of bread and some jelly and a protein spread; some apples and cheddar cheese; dried apricots and non-allergenic trail mix. I'd fill in with liquids and a post-dinner candybar/treat from the dining car, which you're going to want to visit out of sheer bordeom if nothing else.

I guess a small cooler you can fold flat in your luggage, chilled with a frozen bottle of water, would be a good compromise. If you did that, I think I'd pack cold cuts, hoummus and sliced vegetables for dipping.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:01 AM on June 30, 2013

I wouldn't trust the hot water to actually be hot, but you can get the guy in the snack car to let you use his microwave. It might not work for prepackaged foods, but hot water, sure.

One thing: Eat in the snack car/viewing room. Not that you have to buy food from the snack car or anything, but I know I find that I start finding it kind of disgusting if I'm just sitting in the same place for more than half a day, especially if I'm eating where I'm sleeping. Getting up and eating somewhere else will give you some semblance of routine. On the same note, it's a good idea to get up and walk around the platform during smoke stops. It'll make you feel better.

Also, the showers are tiny. Watch your elbows.
posted by dinty_moore at 6:34 AM on June 30, 2013

They are not allowed to let you microwave things in the snack cars. I've been on several train trips this year and have witnessed several tense exchanges when people expected to be allowed to do so, and were not. Perhaps it is possible to persuade some of the cafe workers (though honestly they're always awfully busy, so I'd be amazed if they had time to microwave something for you even if they were inclined to do so), but it would be foolish to build a food plan that depended on being able to heat anything in a microwave.
posted by not that girl at 8:50 PM on June 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm back and it was awesome! For posterity, we took:
-black bean and squash empanadas from Veganomicon (with a jar of salsa)
-a lot fruit snacks (I am like a small child and get really grumpy when hungry)
-six bottles of water
-some single serving fruit-flavoured iced tea mixes
-jar of peanut butter
-jar of nutella

We put it all in an insulated grocery bag with three of the waters frozen to refrigerate the empanadas. The empanadas were an excellent idea. The iced tea packets were a way better impulse purchase than I expected. On the way to Seattle, we had one lunch and one breakfast in the dining car. (The breakfast was kind of lousy. We should have eaten our last empanadas, I think.) We didn't really restock in Seattle other than water and had lunch in the dining car on the way to Oakland and then split the cheese and cracker tray from the cafe car plus the Triscuits with peanut butter and/or nutella for dinner. (I, uh, may have had coffee and fruit snacks for a first breakfast just before we arrived, which don't go that well together.)

We took a power strip extension cord, but didn't use it. I had an eye mask and blanket, which were useful. I should have taken a sweatshirt, but didn't. We didn't try persuading the cafe car attendant to heat anything for us. On the train to Oakland, there was a sign saying they wouldn't (and I think they made an announcement to that effect). That train was much more rules-oriented--there were endless announcements about wearing shoes and not letting children wander around, neither of which was mentioned going to Seattle.
posted by hoyland at 2:53 PM on August 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sounds like a lot of fun. Glad it worked out. :)
posted by tilde at 7:45 AM on August 19, 2013

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