As many of you might already know, Steve and I decided to surprise my parents for Thanksgiving. Since our trip was planned so last minute (two nights before we left) we struggled to find flights and the journey, layover and delays included were not ideal, but the reward of seeing my family was so worth it. We spent 4 nights in New Jersey eating, playing scrabble and just enjoying some quality family time. One of the struggles I face living across the country is how to spend my vacation time. I obviously want to see my family as much as possible but I don’t necessarily want all my vacation time spent in New Jersey, the struggle is real. This Thanksgiving Steve and I opted for a bit of an adventure. A journey I’ve always wanted to try and I am so glad I did. Instead of flying back to Los Angeles, we decided to take the Amtrak.
A cross-country train ride?! Train travel is extremely popular around Europe however you never really hear Americans traveling by train, at least not past their daily commute. I was very excited for this experience. We purchased sleeper car tickets that left from NY Penn Station on Friday, November 24th and arrived in Los Angeles Monday, November 27th. Three days on a train with only a short stop in Chicago. My family thought we were NUTS! I was so excited to just check out for a couple of days, read books, binge Netflix and watch America pass us by.
It is very exciting when you buy a sleeper cabin because it’s “Luxury First Class.” It felt very ala Orient Express, at least it did until we boarded the trains. Let’s just say luxury is very loosely interpreted by Amtrak. The sleeper cabins are incredibly small. Now, I wasn’t expecting wood floors, queen size beds, and marble sink tops, but I quickly realized we were going to be roughing it for the next 3 days. Steve was shocked. Somehow he didn’t realize the beds were bunk beds. The first part of our trip departed from NY during Sunset and the train rode along the Hudson River towards Albany and it was really beautiful. We had dinner on the train, slept through the night and woke up in Chicago.
We spent a few hours in Chicago, walked down the river and Michigan Ave. and got delicious deep dish pizza. After our little rendevouz around the city, we headed back to Union Station to board out next train for Los Angeles. The Southwest chief was a double-decker train, and luckily our cabin was on the bottom. The trains to tend to sway a lot and if you’re on top you feel the movement a lot more. Our trip took us through Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kanasa, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. It was very cool and such a unique vantage point. My favorite part of the trip was cruising through New Mexico which had an incredibly colorful terrain.
Aboard the train, we spent most of the time in our cabin but also ventured to the dining cart for all of our meal and spend some time on the observation deck. Once we got past the fact that the sleeper cabins are really pretty crappy, we loved the trip. You’re going rough it for a few days but you also get to see the country in a way you wouldn’t be able to if you were driving.
Things to know before booking on Amtrak:
Get a sleeper cabin.
If you are taking a multi-day trip and planning on sleeping on the train, you should absolutely get a sleeper cabin. Although they aren’t the luxury Amtrak claims, you do get a full bed to sleep in and after sitting in the same seat almost all day, you want to be able to turn off the lights and get some peace and quiet. Sleeper cabins can be a bit pricey but they do include food which makes a big difference. The food in the dining cart is expensive and ads up quickly so it’s great to have it included in your seat price.
Since the sleeper rooms are so small there is barely any space in the rooms for your bags. On our second leg of the trip, we took the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles and there were luggage racks outside of our room for you to store your carry on bags because space in the actual cabin was so limited. Unfortunately, the luggage racks are not secure. We questioned the security several times but were constantly reassured that they were safe. Well, they weren’t. One of my bags was rummaged through and items were stolen including my bag. Luckily, I did not have anything of much value in the bag, but still, you do not want to be robbed- ever! It was a pretty crappy way to end the trip. We filed a police report but Amtrak claims they are not liable for any personal items. Major bummer.
Amtraks are sometimes delayed due to freight trains on the tracks in front of them. This happened to us while we were headed to Chicago and it was a bit of a bummer because it gave us less time to explore the city on our layover between trains. The good thing, train stations, unlike airports in major cities are usually in the heart of the city with lots to do in close distances so even a few hours allows you to do some exploring. If your train is delayed more than 2 hours Amtrak will give you a credit to use for future travel for your inconvenience.
Service is great (for the most part).
Everyone on board the train was incredibly helpful and very friendly. You do rely on the service staff to make your beds, clean your rooms, make your dining cart reservations, etc. and I was impressed by the staff on board. Everyone was incredibly gracious. Off the train, Amtrak’s service could definitely improve. Their customer relations department is closed on the weekends so if you’re taking a weekend train and need to talk to someone you have to wait until Monday. When I called to report my stolen items I was very disappointed with the service I received and the “it’s your problem, not ours” attitude.
You eat with strangers.
The dining cart was actually my favorite part of the trip. Not because of the food, which was way better than I expected, but because we were sat with strangers for each meal. How often do you eat dinner with people you don’t know? Probably not very often! You’re forced to share a meal and have a conversation with a stranger and I loved it. Everyone was a unique story and I loved meeting the people we did on our journey.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience. This is not a trip for someone who a) needs to get somewhere quickly or b) can’t rough it in a bunk bed for a couple days. If you’re thinking about taking a trip and have more questions, let me know!