With gas prices rising and airport security lines snaking longer than ever, why not book your next domestic vacation on an Amtrak train? Writes Jim Loomis in All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide, Third Edition, “Compared to the alternatives, it’s comfortable, relaxing and civilized.” Here is what he’s learned from experience about making a trip by rail as pleasant as possible.
Plan ahead. Most long-distance trains, especially the sleeping car accommodations, sell out very quickly. That’s particularly true during busy summer months. But no matter when you travel, it’s a good idea to make your reservations at least 90 days in advance (and ideally sooner than that). Get a timetable at www.amtrak.com/schedules.
Enlist a travel agent. Consider turning your preliminary itinerary over to a rail-savvy travel agent and letting him or her double-check all the details, make suggestions, and then handle the actual reservations. A good one can sometimes work out a lower fare and will know some tricks of the trade, such as booking you in a sleeping car that’s right next to the diner so you won’t have to walk through several cars on a moving train three times a day for your meals.
Save money on a sleeper. If you want comfort and privacy on a long trip, a sleeper is a must, but they can be expensive, particularly during peak travel times. One way couples can save is instead of reserving one large sleeper, booking two small “roomettes,” or sleepers without private bathrooms–ideally ones directly across the corridor from each other. You will give up a lavatory in your room, but neither of you will have to climb into an upper berth, you’ll have views from both sides of the train, and chances are the cost will be a lot less than the cost of one bedroom, often a lot less.
Bring a blanket. If you’re riding in coach, you won’t get a complimentary blanket, even if your trip is an overnight one. The temperature on rail cars is notoriously hard to regulate, and in the summer in particular, the air conditioning can make them quite chilly.
Arrive early. Most Amtrak trains operate just once a day (and some run only three times a week), so missing yours can spell disaster. During busy times, trains are often sold out (especially sleepers), so you might have to wait even longer than 24 hours to catch the next one. Note: The times listed on the schedules are departure times, not arrival times.
Have fun. Train trips aren’t for impatient types. Read a book, knit, do a crossword puzzle, or simply watch America unfurl outside the window. To calculate your speed as you do, divide 3,600 (the number of seconds in an hour) by the number of seconds it takes you to travel one mile (the distance between two mileposts). If it takes the train 53 seconds to travel one mile, you’re going 67.92 mph.