Riding the Rails

Last year, Anna Lord and her husband, Alex Fleig, boarded Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” train bound for Chicago, along with their 10-month-old boy and 3-year-old girl. From Seattle, Washington, it’s a 45-hour journey. Lord is wary of planes and likes that traveling by train is more environmentally responsible. Amtrak is 17% more efficient than domestic airline travel and 21% more efficient than auto travel on a per-passenger-mile basis, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. She enjoyed the journey so much that she booked a second trip this year.

“It’s a pause, this lovely space outside your regular time,” Lord says.

Lord is one example of the U.S.’ burgeoning rail community. In part due to spiking gas prices and airline frustrations, long-distance rail travel was up 24% in 2008. The passenger line covers over 22,000 miles in the U.S., including routes like The Sunset Limited (Orlando-Los Angeles) and Crescent (New York-New Orleans).

Katie Alvord, author of Divorce Your Car (New Society Pubishers), has taken over 50 train trips—an estimated 100,000 miles aboard. Alvord typically reserves one of Amtrak’s sleeping cars. “I”m willing to pay the extra money so I”ve got my own compartment,” she says.

Alex Fleig, Anna Lord and their two kids are set to embark on a 45-hour train ride. © Lora Shinn

While both Roomettes and Bedroom units include meals, they’re tiny compartments—the Roomette is a mere 3’6’’ by 6’6’’ and the Bedroom’s just a bit bigger. “It helps if you enjoy camping,” says John Pitt, author of Bradt’s USA by Rail guide. Larger Bedroom Suites and Family Suites include shower facilities in-room. And in the second-story sightseeing Lounge Cars, windows wrap around the train’s roof, providing a panoramic view of passing scenery.

“You can mingle with fellow passengers, watch a movie in the evening, have a drink at the bar and watch the changing landscape pass by outside,” Pitt says. “The relaxed atmosphere seems to encourage people to tell their life stories to complete strangers.”

Alvord says she’s still in touch via e-mail with other rail passengers she’s met on her journeys. “There’s nowhere else you can go, so people open up,” she says.

Lord agrees. On her last journey, she chatted with Mennonite moms who take the train as a matter of religious principle. “I had conversations that would not have happened under any other circumstances,” Lord says.

Seven Tips for Long-Haul Travel

1. Make friends with your car attendant—he”ll be with you for the entire trip.

2. Pack easy-to-prepare foods like soups and oatmeal, as well as muffins, hard cheese, nuts, dried fruit, trail mix and granola bars; and easy-to-eat fresh items like oranges, green beans, carrot or zucchini sticks and apples.

3. Bring pillows and blankets from home, or take a pillow case and ask the attendant for two pillows to put inside, suggests Pitt. Lord brought washcloths for cleaning up and a “wet bag” for any items that got soiled. Wear comfortable clothes, too, especially shoes.

4. To stay warm, choose a seat in the middle of the car away from the sliding doors, and take a coat or blanket to counteract the “over-enthusiastic air conditioning,” Pitt suggests.

5. Kids appreciate small cars and other tiny toys, drawing supplies, stickers and books on tape (or iPod). Children ride for free or at a significant discount, depending upon the route and time of year.

6. Pitt’s essentials: binoculars, a good book, a deck of cards, maps (with rail lines), earplugs or an eyeshade if you are a light sleeper, bathing and grooming items, a pocket flashlight, sunglasses, a cheap digital watch with an alarm, a small first-aid kit, water from home (Pitt says it’s tastier than the drinking fountain) and cash for the entire journey.

7. Sign up for Amtrak Guest Rewards, which offers free trips for frequent travelers at www.amtrakguestrewards.com.