Since coming out to Utah for college over five years ago, I find myself travelling long distances several times a year. My most frequent trips are back home to Missouri to see my family or to California to visit my boyfriend’s family. When planning how to make these trips in the past, the only two options I considered were flying or driving. Driving home takes about 20 hours so flying takes significantly less time, but it’s more expensive and you have to battle the security lines and other airport “joys”. Either way, these methods of travel are not very comfortable and I dread the actual travel part of getting to Missouri or California.
This month I discovered the airline industry’s best kept secret: TRAINS! Did you know that trains still travel throughout many cities in the United States? I’m not talking about the super long cargo trains you see carrying heavy loads of products through the countryside. I’m talking about comfortable passenger trains like the ones you see in old western movies. Not only do they still exist, but they are a super cool way to travel!
Some of you may be sitting here thinking I am a complete idiot for not considering trains as a method of travel before. After all, some people travel more by train than any other transport. However, after I bought my train tickets to get to California I spoke to many people about my Christmas plans. The majority of these people did not know that passenger trains still existed and the rest did not realize that these trains travelled cross-country. Because of the number of people I spoke with who had either never heard of passenger trains or who had never ridden one themselves, I decided to take you through my train rides from this past week and share my experiences with you all.
Booking the trip
Since I had never ridden the train before, I was a little unsure of how to book my trip. Luckily, Google is awesome. I simply googled trains from my starting point to my destination and immediately found a few sites to book my trip through. The main site I found was amtrak.com. This is the hub of the various cross-country trains and even buses. I also happened upon the site wanderu.com, which appears to be a version of discounted flight sites that includes train and bus tickets. Both of these websites also have app versions if you want to try them out on your phone.
I was lucky enough to find a train hub in Salt Lake City and a station in Sacramento, where I was heading for the weekend. Trains do not run as often as planes do, so keep that in mind when booking the train. For my trip, there was only one departure/arrival time on either side. Your dates/times will have to be a little more flexible when you take the train since you are at the mercy of their schedule and it takes longer than flying.
But overall, it was pretty easy to book! Just like when buying a flight, you enter your travel dates, locations, and number of travellers. It gives you the option to select the type of seat/room you’d like to book and then you pay! On my particular trains, there were four types of seat options: Coach, Superliner Roomette, and Superliner Bedroom. The Coach seats just save you a spot on the train basically and then you sit wherever you can find an open seat in the Coach cars. The Superliner Roomette is a small room with 2 seats and 2 pull out beds. The Superliner Bedroom has beds, an armchair, a shower/toilet in the room, and more. I’ll discuss these in more detail later in this post.
My First Train Ride
My train left from Salt Lake City just before midnight during the week prior to Christmas. I arrived at the station an hour before my train left as instructed. There were plenty of open parking spaces in the Amtrak parking, which I was grateful for since some stations do not allow you to reserve your parking spot ahead of time. I walked into the station and spoke with the man behind the glass counter. I explained to him it was my first time riding the train and he patiently walked me through the process of boarding and checking my bags. I left my checked bags with him and waited for them to call us up for boarding.
When the train arrived, we all shuffled outside and the conductor scanned everyone’s tickets one at a time before directing us to the correct cars. I will say, all of the train staff throughout my whole trip was very friendly. However, you do have to ask questions when you are not sure about something. Because the train process was unfamiliar to me, I had to ask a lot of questions throughout the trip. I saw other new passengers struggling a bit at different points because they would not ask train staff questions. Don’t be that person! The process is way less stressful if you know what is going on and they are more than happy to answer any questions you have.
I took a Superliner Roomette on this trip and I’m so glad I did! I boarded the train and went to my room. I did not see another soul on the train the whole night since the others had boarded the train before me.
The bottom bed was already made for me and I was able to lock my sliding glass door and close my curtains to block noise and sound. I could control the temperature in my room and there were several settings for the light, as well as a reading light. There was an outlet for charging devices and a small closet to hang up any clothes or coats you needed. I didn’t need it since I was the only person in the room, but there is a second bed you can pull down from the ceiling and built in steps to get you safely onto the top bed. They even provide pillows, blankets and water bottles to keep you comfortable! So after checking out my room, I laid down on the bed and slept through the whole night on the train.
In the morning, the conductor started announcements to let everyone know breakfast was open in the dining car. Another perk to the Roomette and Bedrooms is that meals are included! So of course, I had to try out the free food. I walked to the dining car and the staff seated me with two other Utah girls since I was travelling alone. I was a little anxious at first about sitting with people I didn’t know, but three out of my four dining car experiences were super fun! Breakfast with these girls was a blast. I learned all about them and where they were from and where they were headed. In the meantime, I enjoyed my breakfast of pancakes and bacon with hot chocolate. Drinks were included with the price of every meal, and the desserts were included with the price of lunch and dinner.
While I was at breakfast, the train staff converted my bottom bed back into two seats for me. After a few hours reading in my room, I headed back to the dining car for lunch. There were several options on the menu for lunch and it looked like they had a vegetarian option for every meal.
For this meal, I munched on a black bean burger and some chocolate cake while talking to my meal companions from China and a lady travelling from Colorado. I loved hearing the Colorado lady’s opinions and about the Chinese family’s experiences in America. They decided to take the train cross-country from Chicago to San Francisco even though it was more expensive than flying because they’d heard it was such a great experience, and they agreed it was worth it to them.
At this point, we were riding through the Sierra Nevada mountains and it was an absolutely breathtaking sight.
My sisters said my videos looked like something from Harry Potter, and it honestly did.
Within a few more hours, I arrived in Sacramento and learned that not all train stations are created equally. I took my carry on bags and stepped off the train to find out there was a much longer walk to the station than there had been in Salt Lake City. After trekking through the tunnel to the building, I was surprised at how much bigger and nicer their station was than the one at home. The staff brings the checked bags up to the station for you and you just hand them your claim ticket to pick up your bags. Just like that, my first ever train ride was over!
My Return Trip
My return trip was similar to the trip to California, with a few notable differences. One of these differences being that I left at 11 AM instead of 11 PM so I spent most of the day travelling instead of travelling through the night. When I got to my Roomette, the bed was put up and the two chairs were down for daytime travel.
The trip as a whole did feel a little longer since I was awake for more of it, but still short enough I did not feel too restless.
Meals were included again, so I had another Black Bean Burger for lunch and tried the cheesecake for dessert. You can take meals or desserts back to your room so I took my dessert back to my room and snacked on it while I watched some Netflix.
For dinner, I was seated with a guy my age travelling to see family on the east coast and a couple from Utah who only live about 20 minutes from me. We had great conversation over a steak dinner and chocolate dessert before separating to go back to our respective rooms. While I was at dinner, the staff converted my seats back into a bed for me so it was ready when I got back.
Since my stop was in the middle of the night, they did not announce it over the loudspeaker. Instead, the train staff members knocked on my door to let me know my stop was coming up in a few minutes so I would not miss my station. I got off at Salt Lake City and headed to my car to drive home. My train trip was over!
Inside the Train
Overall, I would say I loved my trips on the train. The staff was super friendly, I met some really cool people, and the scenery through parts of the trip was gorgeous. I loved exploring the train. I walked through several coach cars on my way to and from the dining car and I have to say I was impressed. The seats had much more legroom than a plane and they did not seem too noisy, especially through the night when the train enforces quiet hours.
There is a separate car called a sightseeing car where passengers from any car can go and play games or snack or just enjoy the view. It’s a great option for people travelling together who want to sit at a table and do something together. Near this car is the snack car, where anyone can go throughout the day to casually purchase snacks, drinks, or sandwiches. The prices here were slightly over what a vending machine would charge.
The food in the dining car was good. I would not say great or amazing or remotely worth the outrageous prices they charge for the meals UNLESS you have a room of some sort and the meals are included. If you are travelling coach, I would recommend either bringing your own food or sticking to the snack car since the food quality is not worth the price.
-When you are unsure about something, don’t hesitate to ask a member of the train staff.
-If you are travelling at night and can afford the upgrade, get the Roomette, especially if you are traveling with another person.
-If you are planning on eating a meal in the dining car and you hear an announcement that they are starting a waiting list, get to the dining car asap to get a number for the waiting list or you will not be able to eat there.
-If you check bags, make sure to keep your claim ticket somewhere safe and secure and easily accessible. You have to have your claim ticket to get your baggage at your destination.
-Tip the staff. I was not aware my first trip, but I learned that you are supposed to tip the train staff. If you eat in the dining car, leave a tip for the servers. If you are in a Roomette or Bedroom, leave a cash tip on your bed/seat in your room when you are exiting the train at your final destination.
-If you will be leaving your car at the station, check ahead of time to see if you need to reserve parking or get to the station early to get an open parking spot.
-No security check like at an airport.
-Allows for more luggage than a plane. (I had two free checked bags and 2 free carry ons)
-Personally, no nausea like I get on planes.
-The socialization. Meeting people in the dining car was an unexpected perk!
-Access to food through the dining car or snack car.
-More room all around. You can walk around whenever you want, you can take fresh air breaks/walks at the station stops, and if you have a room you can lay down in a bed for the night.
-The view from the windows (at least on my trip) was amazing.
-You are free to work on other things while you travel since you don’t have to drive.
-My train did not have wifi. Some of them do, but many of them do not. I was able to use the hotspot on my phone for my tablet and computer through most of the ride, but there were tunnels and other areas where I did not have a signal.
-Takes longer than flying or driving.
-Food is overpriced.
-Limited departure times.
Let me just say in closing that if you have never traveled by train, you are missing out. It was an experience that I never really wanted to have prior to booking this trip. I only did it because I found out the prices were way better for me. Now that I’ve done it, I can’t wait to do it again! It was so fun and so different than any other way I’ve traveled before. Trains truly are the airline industry’s best kept secret, because now that I have traveled by train, I will always check train tickets before plane tickets when I travel in the future. Next time you are traveling, you definitely need to consider taking the train. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Here’s a more detailed video compilation of my adventure! I give you a video tour of my roomette, compact bathroom, and show you additional scenic views!
Would you add a train ride to your bucket list?