There’s something dreamy about being on a slow track, traversing our vast America by train — rather than pummeling through cities on the zippy, futuristic rails in places like Japan or Germany. Last fall, Amtrak launched a residency for a few writers, so that they could get a taste of that quiet reflection and perhaps a bit of languid chatter. One of the literary travelers, Lisa Schwarzenbaum, puts it this way: “Time unfurls at a more ‘human’ pace. There is such incredible ordinary amazing everyday life to observe from a train window.”
To be clear, a multi-day train journey isn’t the most time-efficient or, in all likelihood, the most affordable option. But for those who have a bit of flexibility in their schedules, why not trade the steering wheel or the security lines for this sleepier, calmer mode of travel? We checked in with Lisa and other residency writers — Jennifer Boylan, Bill Willingham, and Marianne Kirby — for their best tips on taking an overnight Amtrak journey. Here’s what you need to know.
The dining car: On most major long-distance routes, a more formal dining car — separate from the typical cafe car — is open for three meals daily. (Check Amtrak’s website for specific amenities on different trains.) For dinner, you can make reservations if you’ve booked sleeper tickets; if you’re in coach, try walking in, or put your name on the list for open seats. The tables are communal, so unless you’re in a group of four, you’ll make some friends. And that, in Bill’s opinion, is the best part, “conversing with strangers who most likely are train travel enthusiasts.” Room service, at no extra charge, is also an option.
The steak: Speaking of dining, it seems like the New York strip steak might be one of the best items on the menu — and it’s cooked onboard, not microwaved. Jennifer certainly raved about the meal. It’s available on several day-trip routes, too.
The Parlour Car: This 1950s era lounge is one of the highlights on most Coast Starlight trains, which traverse California’s valleys from Los Angeles to Seattle. Not only is it a wine tasting venue, the car also encompasses a downstairs theater. If you have nostalgic images of train travel as they appear in the movies, this car — with panoramic windows, wood paneling, and plush seating — will be most like what you’ve seen on the big screen.
The Sightseer lounge: This top-floor space on double decker trains provides huge windows for the best views, with chairs that face out rather than front. All travelers can snag a seat on a first-come, first-served basis. You’ll find the lounge on California Zephyr, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, and Texas Eagle trains.
Be Prepared For
Varying temperatures: Depending on the route, your journey could cruise from mountains to desert, from snow to sun. Do some research ahead of time and pack accordingly. While you stay indoors, you may feel slight drafts when someone’s passing through train cars, particularly if you’re situated by the doors in coach.
Layovers: Just like with flights, you might be faced with train layovers — but don’t despair. Getting off the train will cure any cabin fever that hits. Shorter breaks are good for a breath of outside air, while lounges are available for first class ticket-holders for longer breaks at the bigger hubs. (We hear the ones in Boston and Chicago in particular are pretty swanky.) You can leave your belongings in your rooms, but we suggest taking your valuables with you.
Amtrak legs: “I guess it is similar to what sailors feel on dry land after being at sea,” Lisa says, describing the sensation as feeling like you’re “still rattling along in motion on train tracks” even after you’re disembarked. The sensation will likely be greater if you’re traveling on a one-level sleeper car, closer to the ground.
Also Good to Know
About showers and bathroom: Depending on your ticket type, you’d use a communal shower or a private one. Bill was worried about cramped washing conditions, but he attests that there was “more room in the Amtrak shower than the campgrounds in America’s public showers.” And even for a “self-proclaimed fat person,” Marianne says the bathrooms and corridors were just fine. Pro-tip: Towels are provided, but bring your own hair dryer if you need one.
Consider multi-leg tickets: If you want to get on and off at different stops along the route, and you can get on and off stops and meet up with friends along your route.