My parents, Mark and Cindy, recently celebrated their 40th anniversary with a cross-country train adventure on Amtrak. They purchased Amtrak's USA Rail Pass and made several stops during their cross-country adventure, visiting friends and family and seeing some of the country's sites.
Read more as I interview them about the pros and cons of Amtrak travel.
Q: What are some of the benefits of taking a train for a cross-country trip, rather than driving.
Cindy: Taking the train is a much more relaxing way to travel than driving because you don’t have to stay awake the whole time or be concerned about distracted motorists. I took books and knitting with me, and we also had a chance to sleep on the train.
Mark: It's also more comfortable because you can get up and walk around to stretch your legs whenever you need to.
Q: How about comparing the train to an airplane? Are there benefits as compared to a flight as well?
Cindy: One benefit we already mentioned. On the train, you can get up to walk around whenever you want, whereas on a plane, you can walk around briefly in a more crowded space only when the seat belt sign is off. The seats on the train are larger with plenty of legroom, and they are more comfortable than economy airline seats as well, so it is just generally more comfortable.
Mark: And you can keep all your luggage with you, so you don't have to worry about needing something only to realize it's in your checked bag in the cargo area of the plane.
Cindy: An even bigger benefit, though, is being able to stop in multiple places along the way. We spent a day in Chicago, two nights in New Orleans, two nights in Houston, two nights in Arizona, three nights in San Francisco, and two nights in Denver.
Q: Are there any specific benefits to using Amtrak's USA Rail Pass?
Cindy: The price is the biggest benefit. There is no way we would have been able to drive all those miles for the price we paid for our rail passes.
Carolyn: Not to mention the wear and tear you would have put on your vehicle.
Cindy: The convenience of having a food car was helpful as well. And while the food selections were nothing special, the prices were fairly reasonable. And while not all personnel were great, we did encounter one really wonderful conductor and some lovely staff members.
Q: What about the disadvantages of the Amtrak USA Rail Pass?
Cindy: The biggest issue was that we were never on time for any travel segment.
Mark: We left on time only once during the entire trip. And we never arrived on time.
Cindy: The earliest we arrived was about an hour and a half late. On the leg from Chicago to New Orleans, we got about an hour south of Chicago and came to a stop. After waiting quite some time, we were informed that there was a freight train broken down on our track. By the time we got going, we were six hours behind schedule. Then because it was so hot that day, rather than running their normal 80 miles per hour, they were able to run at only 65 miles per hour, putting us even further behind schedule. We arrived to New Orleans 8 hours after our scheduled arrival.
Carolyn: Did this lack of dependability cause other issues for you?
Mark: Oh definitely. We were supposed to arrive in Maricopa in the late afternoon, but we didn't arrive till the middle of the night, so by the time we arrived, the rental car company was closed. We were finally able to get a car from their sister company, but it was a hassle.
Cindy: And three times we had people waiting for us - you and Emmett in New Orleans, our friends in California, and our nephew in Denver. We were late getting in each time, so it was an inconvenience for both us and for the people waiting for us.
Mark: Another issue was that, when the train was late enough that passengers had to eat an extra meal on the train, the train ran out of many food items.
Cindy: And I mentioned that we did have some great Amtrak personnel, but there were others who were decidedly not great. One young conductor in particular was arrogant and rude.
Mark: And often when the train made an unexpected stop, all personnel would disappear because they didn't want to have to answer questions about what had happened.
Cindy: One other issue is that, although the seats are more comfortable than a plane, the USA Rail Pass does not include a room in the sleeping car, so you are traveling for longer periods of time, often during the night, without a bed. And the actual full dining car is only available for those who pay for a sleeping car. The USA Rail Pass does not allow for an upgrade to business class, so a coach seat is truly your only option.
Q: Do you have any words of advice for others who are considering the Amtrak Rail pass?
Cindy: Take an eye mask and maybe ear plugs, plus some kind of little sleeping pillow and a small lightweight blanket (some trains will be really warm and some will be freezing). Take snacks, especially if you have dietary needs. Most of the food is on the "junk food" spectrum. Don't plan to do anything the day you are supposed to arrive. Keep your plans flexible. Use your phone to check their website to stay updated on your estimated arrival time.
Q: Is this something you would do again and recommend to others?
Cindy: I think we would do it again. Knowing what we know now, we would be better prepared and would plan things a little differently, but yes, we would do it again. For people who want to make multiple stops around the country, the USA Rail Pass is a great value.
Q: What was your favorite site that you saw on your trip?
Cindy: The San Francisco Bay Area is beautiful, and we really enjoyed the World War II Museum in New Orleans, but you really can't beat the beauty of the Grand Canyon. We did a helicopter tour of the Canyon, and it was just breathtaking.
Thank you, Mom and Dad, for talking with me about the best and worst of the Amtrak USA Rail Pass. We were so thrilled to be able to spend time with you during your around-the-country adventure!
For those of you who are looking for an alternative to a road trip, and who find the idea of train travel romantic or intriguing, I hope this has helped you gain some insights into a long-distance train trip. The Rail Pass really is a great value. You can choose up to 10 segments, which you can use over a 30-day period. At each train station where you disembark, you use one segment. Choose from train lines like the Sunset Limited, the California Zephyr, the Empire Service, and the Adirondack.
I will also say that, when I visited Amtrak's website to plan a trip itinerary, I found the website difficult to use and the various train lines confusing. Fortunately, you can call Amtrak and have a live person help you plan your train routes.
Currently Amtrak does not have blackout dates for USA Rail Pass holders, but do check the Amtrak website for any changes and to make sure that there's availability on the trains you wish to take, as Amtrak does limit the number of seats available for pass holders.
Train travel via Amtrak is a truly unique way to see the United States. Amtrak offers occasionally offers limited-time discounts for their rail passes, so if this is something you are considering, keep an eye out for ads or check their website frequently.
I hope you enjoy your next cross-country train trip, and follow along on our adventures, as you may see another post about our own long-distance train adventure.
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