How is taking a train over a long distance?
July 12, 2004 3:49 PM   Subscribe

ExperienceFilter: so I'm going back to Cali (from Texas) in a couple of weeks to be in a dear friend's wedding. I'm a cheapskate, and deathly afraid to fly (though I will if I must), and have found, much to my surprise, that Amtrak offers the cheapest ($276 vs. $375 bus and $400-800 air) round-trip fare by far. However, the few people I've spoken with all semi-shudder at the thought of taking the train long-distance, mainly due to unexplained delays. What's your long train ride experience? Is it worth the cheap fare?
posted by WolfDaddy to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total)
Last winter I went from Portland Maine to Durham NC on the train. It was a wonderful -- wonderful experience. The sleeping compartment on the way down was tiny but just enough for one person, and I felt like a kid on christmas or a character in a 1940's film lying in the top bunk watching America go by.

My total delay time round-trip was 17 minutes. Plus, Amtrak offeres a wonderful-lounge for (business class) passengers which included unlimited internet access and a safe place to leave my stuff while I spent my four-hour layover in Washington DC exploring the parts of the Smithsonian which were within walking distance of Union Station.

Everyone on staff I met ... baggage folks, the servers, everone ... was without exception friendly and helpful (and I have a very high standard for good service.

If your trip is overnight, I very highly recommend spending the extra to get a sleeping car compartment. Otherwise, if your trip is all during daylight hours, I think you'll be fine and comfortable in the regular cars. There was a TV available in the (business class) car I was in, but I had a couple of books for the trip which made me happy enough.

I urge you to try it. Yes, certainly, there can be delays in train travel, but there can be awful overbooking and delays on the airlines as well (some co-workers just spent 57 hours in Logan and ended up not going to Japan anyhow...). I would do it again in a heartbeat and I think its totally worth the cheap fare.
posted by anastasiav at 3:59 PM on July 12, 2004

Wolfdaddy, if you really want to take the train, you need to factor in *two full days* for delays or problems on the tracks, or there's a good chance you'll miss your friend's wedding. Trains are wonderful but if you're not doing a regular east coast commute route, you can count on being at least five hours late and as much as a full day or two.
posted by pomegranate at 4:12 PM on July 12, 2004

While I can't say anything about long-distance trainrides, when my wife took Amtrak across Missouri she was very impressed by the regular 110V power outlets at each seat.
posted by zsazsa at 4:22 PM on July 12, 2004

I've taken the train up and down the east coast many a time, from the southern tip of Florida to Massachusetts, with my longest trip being 23 hours, and I think that trains are just great. By way of habit, I bring a few paperbacks, a DVD or two to watch on my iBook, and pretty much always a baton of crusty French bread, a small jar of jam, and some brie. That, my friend, is traveling in style.

The only caveat is that you don't want to take the train to get somewhere at any particular time. In my experience, "at any particular time" means within 8 hours or so. If I were taking a train from here in Virginia to Boston, and had to be at an evening wedding, I'd shoot to get there the day beforehand, early morning the day of the wedding at the latest.
posted by waldo at 4:26 PM on July 12, 2004

East coast trains are sort of efficient and so people from that area tend to have this glowing idea of what trains are like. This does not apply to the rest of the country, and particularly not the west coast.

Saving a couple of bucks isn't worth the logistical nightmare of dealing with Amtrak. I'd sooner hop a Greyhound than get on Amtrak.
posted by majick at 4:29 PM on July 12, 2004

I took Amtrak from New Orleans to Chicago several years ago. It was pleasant (well, except for the strange middle-of-the-night spat with my boyfriend, but that's not really Amtrak's fault), particularly in contrast with the horrors of what taking a bus would have been like, but we did arrive many hours late due to inexplicable stoppage in the middle of Illinois.
posted by scody at 4:58 PM on July 12, 2004

I've taken Amtrak for various trips along the West Coast. It's a great ride, far more comfortable than any other mode of travel. You can actually arrive feeling relaxed. It's definitely not reliable, though. Easily half of the Amtrak trips I've taken were delayed one way or another; the longest delay I remember was some three or four hours.

The train is great if you have plenty of time and no particularly pressing deadlines. Alas, this does not describe most of my travel these days, but I still look forward to taking the train whenever it's practical.

I'd sooner hop a Greyhound than get on Amtrak.

I've done my share of Greyhound travel, and in my experience they are just as prone to delay as Amtrak. The delays usually don't last as long, but you still can't count on them to arrive on time.
posted by Mars Saxman at 5:00 PM on July 12, 2004

I don't think Amtrak owns much track length in the west, so they lease trackage rights from UP and BNSF, causing some really long delays if the freight companies have a hotshot or a military train that needs the tracks.

But if you factor delays into your planning, it's much nicer than Greyhound, driving or flying.
posted by cmonkey at 5:02 PM on July 12, 2004

I've loved the several trips I've made by train, but do second the notion that it's a _leisurely_ way to travel.

I loved the freedom to walk around... and the foot rests at my seat which made stretching out convenient.

I have, however, had awful experiences on Grayhound.

Awful: an eight hour break down on the side of the highway in the middle of the desert.

At least if the train is delayed, you're inside and have plenty of space to move.
posted by silusGROK at 5:02 PM on July 12, 2004

About a decade aog, I spent nearly a month on Amtrack on one of those All Aboard America things. I got one ticket, with three stops and it cost $250 which was a deal back then. We had very few delays of any consequence and the ones we did have were mostly in the middle of the night, it seemed like. However, I have friends who have come up to see me in Vermont from New York and been delayed four hours on an eight hour trip. The good news about the delays is that if you bitch enough they will usually give you part of your ticket price back. The bad news is that, well, you're delayed. I've done a few more trips up and down the west and east coast and experienced no appreciable delays.

I did the whole thing without a sleeper car and if I could afford a sleeper car, I'd get one. When the train is empty, you just spread out, but when it's full it can be bad news. Other tips: bring a lot of dried foods in bags and try to eat one [or fewer] meals in the dining car. Spend the money you saved on beerin the club car and make friends. It's easy to make friends and pretty much essential on long trips unless you really like staring out the window. You can often get hot water for free or cheap so you can bring little cup o' soups or oatmeal or whatever. When I went I packed half clothes and like half travel crap [sleeping bag, food, board games, books, laptop, etc]

Also, busses for long trips are pretty miserable. There's only one bathroom, the light and air are all weird, and there's just a stranger bunch of people on the bus as opposed to the train. My vote is for Amtrak.
posted by jessamyn at 5:08 PM on July 12, 2004

You can also bring your own alcohol on Amtrak trips.
posted by cmonkey at 5:12 PM on July 12, 2004

Right after college I traveled a big loop through the West via Amtrak, with some bus links to connect the dots where it doesn't work via train (you can train from Chicago to Denver/Boulder, but if your looking to go down to New Mexico from there, you'd have to backtrack east; an overnight bus from Denver to Santa Fe was a memorable excercise in sleep deprivation).

As everyone else has indicated, taking the train was interesting, scenic (and WolfDaddy, I was on the route you might well travel into Cali -- between Santa Fe and SoCal you pass through a lot of gorgeous scenery. We saw coyotes and roadrunners from the window, and a lot of beautiful geology), and contemplative. You don't just teleport from one environment to another, as you do in a jet -- you experience gradations of change along the way.

However, being young and on-the-cheap we did several overnighters without a sleeper cabin. Bad idea, bad idea, bad idea. Extended periods in those train seats and without privacy made for cranky, sleep deprived passengers. I don't know that the price savings of the cheaper seats are worth what even the younger me found to be an unpleasant way to spend more than one night.

Also, there were one or two major delays and many minor ones in a month of travel, and at least one time when we nearly missed our Seattle-Glacier Park leg because they changed the train departure time at the last minute. AND THERE IS USUALLY JUST ONE TRAIN A DAY to where you are going. What everyone says about the uncertaintly of Amtrak's scheduling in the western U.S. is true (I've taken the train a lot in the Boston-Washington corridor; it's a different story. Lots of trains, so even a delay is usually manageable).

If you have time, patience, and can get a good price on a sleeper car, it might be perfect. But I would make sure you've got all three.
posted by BT at 5:22 PM on July 12, 2004

My daughter and I took Amtrak from the SF Bay Area (nearest stop for us - Martinez!!!!) to Portland, OR for my sister's wedding in 1994 and although we had a 7-hour delay in Redding due to something on the tracks, I would have to call it a wonderful experience. Highlight: we got to see the Cascades from a thrilling viewpoint I've never before or since experienced. We couldn't afford sleepers, so we "settled down into the clickety-clack," as Joni Mitchell sings about, and watched the night go by, pillowed on each other. We saw movies for free, the observation car was just fabulous, and as Jessamyn says, the folks you meet on trains are not anywhere near as scary as those I've met taking Greyhound to Santa Barbara and back. One more thing about trains and buses - you'll find that their terminals, depots or what-have-you, often lovingly restored, like Portland's downtown station and Union Station in L.A., are often in the center of town, unlike airports, which are by necessity located on the outskirts.
posted by Lynsey at 5:50 PM on July 12, 2004

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for sharing everyone! I've gone ahead and booked the trip--didn't get a sleeper as even the cheapest tripled the fare--but went for 'lower level reserved coach' which as far as I could tell offered way more roominess than the regular coach fare. I'm totally prepped for delays--this is actually going to be a 2-week vacation, and I'm leaving a week before the wedding and am looking forward to traveling through the Southwest US in this fashion, then heading up the coast to Santa Barbara. My last train trip, from Santa Barbara to Palm Springs about 12 years ago, was a ton of fun and I definitely met more interesting people than on a plane or bus.

My 2nd week I'm going to be in the Bay Area, but trying to get from Santa Barbara to San Francisco via Amtrak is ... problematic! Two bus trips inbetween two train trips. I thought a train would just shoot straight up the coast, but apparently not. Weird. So I'm renting a car for that. Whee!
posted by WolfDaddy at 6:11 PM on July 12, 2004

It's not the delays that gave me a bad Amtrak experience - it was Amtrak deciding to have my train leave two hours early, and leaving me with the option of staying another unplanned night, or taking the Greyhound, which took 50% more time and was 200% more uncomfortable. Most miserable trip of my life. Anyway, the moral is, always call the night before to make sure your train's leaving when you think it is. Other than that, yay trains.

Also, you may want to avoid Greyhound if you have an aversion to sitting next to newly-released prisoners... every long-distance bus trip I've taken seems to have had at least one.
posted by Gortuk at 6:48 PM on July 12, 2004

Amtrak? Isn't that the one that crashes every year?

As for Greyhound: DIE GREYHOUND DIE! There is no greater evil than being stuck beside some gradually-dying, unwashed, tubercular geezer who insists on sharing his life story and spittle with you for twelve continuous hours. Shudder. Twitch. I'll never recover from that experience.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:21 PM on July 12, 2004

Had a great Amtrak experience going up and down the coast of California... beautiful ride, and it was all on time. I've heard plenty of bad about the timing of longer, cross state trips, though.
posted by weston at 7:24 PM on July 12, 2004

I have taken Amtrack across country and loved it. We went all out and got the sleeper compartment, which was great. Very cool if you like trains. Very romantic if you go with someone you love. Some trains have better scenery. I have no idea about Texas to California. Mountains are generally pretty spectacular by train.
posted by caddis at 7:38 PM on July 12, 2004

I *heart* Amtrak. It's not as good as European trains, but it's way better than buses, and I loathe flying on principle. You may want to upgrade to a sleeper car for one night on the train (ask the conductor) since 2 nights in a non-reclining chair are rough. I've sprawled in the bar lounge though and that worked. On the west coast, if you had a sleeper you got meals in the dining room free, which is nice. I felt a little like Inspector Clousteau. I was delayed once for 8 hours because some drunk bozo parked on the track (he wasn't in the car or it would have been longer) and once for 5 hours because of daylight savings. See, if the train gets off schedule a little, then it tends to multiply. But if you aren't on a rigid schedule, that stuff is more interesting -- viewing car wreckage outside the window with a glass of wine is kindof fun. And the train that goes up the west coast goes closer to the ocean than the highway, so it's very very pretty. Take the train from Santa Barbara to Oakland, then take a bus or taxi to SF. It's really worth it.

Wolfdaddy, why don't you blog your trip so we can live vicariously.
posted by dness2 at 7:38 PM on July 12, 2004

but trying to get from Santa Barbara to San Francisco via Amtrak is ... problematic!

I'm pretty sure Amtrak runs a route from Santa Barbara to Emeryville, which is right across the bay from San Francisco.
posted by cmonkey at 7:42 PM on July 12, 2004

Yet another positive train experience (Denver - Chicago). It's very civilised, if you have the time. I like being able to walk around and buy a cup of coffee, sit and read and then gaze out of the window, as you roll past people's back yards ... Definitely better than long distance bus. That flight sounds expensive though; have you tried budget airlines such as Frontier?
posted by carter at 7:57 PM on July 12, 2004

Have ridden amtrak from Houston to KC and back and the bus from Dallas to KC. Stay the hell away from he bus. Seriously. Run away. Deny it exists.

I've found the train to be a genteel, relaxing ride. Sure it's long, delays, etc. but the comfort level and the relaxing motion of the train combined with the generally good nature of those on the train, make for a swell ride.

posted by damnitkage at 8:08 PM on July 12, 2004

Just thought I'd chime in by saying that I rode Amtrak rountrip across the country from Boston to Oakland and back and it was a blast. I did this right after I graduated from high school, so it was definitely some big rites of passage thing for me. I slept coach the whole time, which was a bit uncomfortable. For instance, it was annoying when some guy who was sitting next to me back from the club car completely tanked and tried to wrestle my blanket from me. And it was weird when some very pregnant woman fell asleep with her head on my shoulder. But I was able to stop in Chicago on the way out and stop in New Orleans on the way back to break up the monotony.

And I have some fond memories of the experience: hanging out in the club car as we were going past the Colorado River and all the kayakers mooning us and all the senior citizens in the car who have done that route hundreds of times chuckling. Having that one dinner in the diner car with a Japanese tourist as we went through the deserts of Utah at sunset. Or talking with these Amish guys about how estate taxes screwed them over as we were going through the corn fields of Iowa at six in the morning and the sun was rising.

And as everyone else said, expect delays of up to eight hours (had to significantly cut my itinerary in New Orleans because of this).
posted by alidarbac at 8:15 PM on July 12, 2004

Train trip reminiscences; I love it! I took the train from New Orleans to Boston with a friend, on the cheap, so we didn't have sleepers, and we had a blast. We ended up making friends with everybody, especially the employees, and drank lots and lots of wine, as I remember - some people had brought jugs. We brought dried fruit, bread, cheese, nuts for munching, books, cards, travel Scrabble, and vodka. The no-sleeper thing will sort of exhaust you, but it's about 20 million times better than the bus. And, don't forget, fantastic snapshot views - take your mini digital and see what kind of crazy runaway photos you can grab.

It's good you're going as the beginning of a vacation, as opposed to trying to keep to some tight time schedule - the train trip will just be the first in your series of adventures, so you can kind of stretch out and be expansive about it. I second the blogging idea. Do. It. Wolf. Daddy.
posted by taz at 11:38 PM on July 12, 2004

Response by poster: Erm, um, well, I don't have a laptop, y'all.

...or a blog

I am going to jot down my experiences for my own use. What say I add 'em here, after a fashion answering my own question? Then, anyone who searches AxMe for "train" will get this thread, which is purty good if you ask me.
posted by WolfDaddy at 7:55 AM on July 13, 2004

Haven't had any real long train trips, but I've had pretty good experiences riding the Pere Marquette from Holland, MI to Chicago -- the amount of leg room alone made it ten times better than any plane flight.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:37 AM on July 13, 2004

Amtrak is great. Slow but interesting. Check out the train status page or post to misc.transport.rail.americas for average delays for your route.

Greyhound is bad. The stations are often on the bad sides of town (I'm looking at you, Oakland and Los Angeles). The seats are too cramped and the buses often smell funky.
posted by calwatch at 11:35 PM on July 14, 2004

Does Amtrak have the WiFi yet? I'm thinking of going via train to Hellfest later this month and driving with a friend back.
posted by Lizc at 3:33 PM on July 15, 2004

Some trains are testing it out, but mostly the commuter trains.

Get Verizon Wireless and use the free Quick Net Connection. It's 14.4, but it's better than nothing.
posted by calwatch at 10:33 PM on July 20, 2004

Response by poster: Well ... the train was supposed to arrive at 9 PM.

It won't get here til 3 AM. While I won't care about delays while I'm on the train (or to paraphrase Carlin, "Fuck you dad, I'm getting in the train") I do so very want to leave NOWWWW daddy.

[/V. Salt]
posted by WolfDaddy at 10:25 PM on July 30, 2004

« Older Forward-Facing Car Seat   |   Johnson O'Connor Aptitude Test experiences? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.