Riding the Rails with Amtrak
Updated: Jan 15, 2019
What life is like aboard the Amtrak Southwest Chief
When I first visited Europe on a girls trip, we frequently rode trains to get between cities. It was the most economical (and in some cases) the fastest way to get from destination to destination. Yet, back in the U.S., it would be many years until I step foot again on a train. Long distance train travel seems a very European mode of transportation. But I think more Americans should jump on that travel "band wagon". I am now a convert to train travel whenever possible and I'll share why below.
First a little background on my first discovering train travel as a viable long distance option. My entire family (extended family too) lives in a little town in Kansas, about 30 minutes outside of Topeka. When I lived on the East Coast, the easiest way to visit was flying coach into Kansas City and driving about 1 1/2 hours to their town. Once I moved to New Mexico, I discovered that driving saved not only money but the stress and aggravation of flying.
However, due to health issues, I tire very easily and driving that long distance every few months doesn't always work. Quite by accident, I discovered that the little town of Lamy, NM had an Amtrak station and was only 20 minutes from my house. I was even happier to discover that the route ran straight into Topeka, KS. It seemed like fate that this fit so perfectly with the route to see my family.
So a few years ago, I booked my first train trip in an Amtrak sleeper car aboard the Southwest Chief and got ready for an adventure. Amtrak stations vary from town to town but most are small and quaint with a little bit of a retro vibe. When I arrived at the Lamy station, I was quite surprised to learn that I didn't need to go through any type of security or check in. I simply plopped myself down in the 50's Southwest waiting room and waited for the train.
An important note: the train can sometimes be delayed when pulling into small town stations. It usually makes up for the delays along the route so if you're destined for a big city stop like L.A. or Chicago, you'll probably still arrive close to on time. I've been very lucky and have only experienced a few minutes delay on all of my trips but I was fully prepared for a several hour wait if needed. Slowing down is part of the allure of train travel and I don't think it's such a bad thing. You can check the train status before driving to the train station so there's no waiting around on a dirty floor like at the airport. You can extend your vacation a few hours due to a late train. Bonus!
Now as far as life aboard the train, I was fascinated to discover that it is so much more than sitting in your seat for 12 hours and watching the scenery pass by...although I would be happy to do that! Most Amtrak trains have similar features but I can speak to the specific amenities aboard the Superliner Southwest Chief. If you get tired of sitting in your seat, an hour lounging in the observation car is the perfect fix. It has huge windows that let you take in the whole landscape as it coasts by. It is also a great place to chat up fellow travelers and share stories. There are sometimes even games being played at the four seater tables.
After spending some time watching the landscape and fellow travelers, you can step down stairs for a bite to eat from the cafe car. It's honestly got some pretty good options for train food. Much better than airplane food in my opinion. I've gotten a hot dog and chips before and the attendant was kind enough to give me a cup of ice for my canned soda. It all tucked neatly into a little cardboard tray so I could carry it to my sleeper room.
What's even better than snack options from the cafe car? A retro dining car! I may have been a bit too excited when I first saw this wonder on wheels. I mean, who else grew up watching old movies of characters travelling glamorously by train? I felt like I had stepped back into a 1950's black and white film as I walked between the booths draped in white table cloths, elegant place settings and aromas of seared chicken and rosemary. If you splurge for a sleeper car, ALL of your meals are included. I've had lunch and dinner in the dining car on multiple occasions and I can attest that it is sooo much better than airplane food.
When you're finished eating, you may feel a little dirty after a few hours of travel. No need to worry, because you can shower on the train too. Yes, you can be productive even while traveling to your destination by fitting in a shower, hair wash, shave, etc. If you get the standard seat option, there are restrooms and showers available on the bottom level of each car. It's the same if you stay in the more affordable "roomette". If you stay in a larger "bedroom" option, it comes complete with it's own in-suite toilet and shower combo.
The observation car, cafe car, and dining car are all great options if you want to get out of your seat. But, honestly, my favorite part of any train trip is just sitting in my seat, watching the changing landscape pass by my window. For every trip, I bring lots of books and movies on my kindle. Yet, I always end up staring out the window, feeling an immense wave of calm and peace.
Although I use train travel as simply a way to get between destinations, there are some that use it as a vacation in itself, enjoying the full experience as they ride along gorgeous parts of the country like the Pacific Northwest or portions of the Lewis and Clark trail in the West. If you're tired of seeing your fellow millennials post the same repeated vacation shots of tropical beaches or Grecian hillsides, why not go for a unique adventure that you're not seeing on social media? I promise it will be an adventure of a life time that you won't soon forget.
This is the first part in a series about my travels aboard Amtrak. I'll share a full post about sleeper accommodations with lots of photos in my next article.