How to survive your 2-day Amtrak trip

I’ve been on the two-day California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco; the two-night/one-day Sunset Limited between Houston and Los Angeles; and the two-day Southwest Chief between Los Angeles and Chicago.

So, in terms of your basic needs (sleep, food, using the bathroom, and, if you like, prayer), how will you survive??

IMG_20151214_224046
Salt Lake City train station, December 2015; stop on the California Zephyr, Chicago –> San Francisco

Train lay-out

First, know the layout of the train. The trains are pretty cute because they have all these nice touches — like the bathrooms and luggage storage are neatly on the first floor of each carriage, and then you climb these cute little stairs — and it makes you feel like you’re tiptoeing into a new land, past this realm and into the next — and then you’re on the second floor of the carriage, and that’s where the seats are [**if you don’t really think stairs are that cute because you might have trouble climbing them, then no fear — some of the carriages are arranged with seats for disabled or elderly passengers on the first floor]. Across each window are curtains that you can pull back and forth. Then you can walk through your carriage, and the next and the next, and you’ll finally get to a nice big carriage that’s the observation car. There’s no regular seats, just lounge chairs and tables. It’s like your parlor. Below is a cafe car with turkey sandwiches, yummy grapes, and ginger ale, and cheese pizzas, and cheese and crackers, and vegan burgers (quite a nice kitchen).

Sleeping

This account, by the way, is for passengers, like me, too poor to buy a sleeper car. You have only enough to buy a coach seat. Technically, that means you are entitled to exactly one seat, but just listen here. There’s a very good chance you can nab a seat with no one sitting next to you, and if that’s the case, you just stretch out on both seats at night when it’s time to sleep and you’ll be very comfortable. Especially so, because the seats have these massive leg-rests that you pull out from right underneath. It makes the seats twice as wide. So if you lie down, and you have your knees curled up and jutting out a little, they’ll still be supported underneath.

Depending on what train and when you get on, there’s some strategies involved for having two coach seats to yourself all night long:

Strategy #1: you board the train in the middle of its journey. That, at least, has been my experience. This is what I mean. I boarded the California Zephyr at its starting point in Chicago. I was assigned a seat next to someone else. Likewise, I boarded the Southwest Chief at its starting point in Los Angeles. Again, I was assigned a seat beside someone. On the other hand, I boarded the Sunset Limited in Houston. The Sunset Limited had already been chugging all day coming out from New Orleans. Well, all of us passengers boarding in Houston were placed in an empty car, and there were so few of us that everyone (except families who wanted to sit together) got their own seat. It was so comfortable! And throughout the rest of the journey, really no newly boarding passengers were introduced into our carriage, so we stayed the same amount of people and never had to share seats the whole way.

Strategy #2: go get yourself a new seat. So suppose you are in fact boarding the train at its very first stop, and the Amtrak workers herd everyone into a single car. This is exactly what happened to me when boarding the Southwest Chief in Los Angeles. There was a horde of passengers who boarded in LA. Also, they segregate you based on your final location. So everyone who was going from Los Angeles to Chicago had to sit together in the same car, and we filled up the entire thing (and there are like 60 seats per car). I had to sit next to this 70-year-old man who told me, yes, his 50-year marriage had been long, nice, but happy? Um … Well, any case, he was really nice, but by the second night onboard, I really really wanted to stretch out. Every time I took a stroll up and down the train, I would pass through these other carriages where the passengers were not crammed together side by side. Everyone had two seats to their credit, and there were even some empty seats. Those were the lucky passengers who had boarded at stops beyond Los Angeles — they had more room just to themselves, just like I’d had when I boarded the Sunset Limited midway in Houston. So I just took it upon myself, in the evening of that second night, to move to one of those empty seats. I took the little ticket tag that the Amtrak attendants leave hanging over your seat assignment, and re-inserted it at my new seat of choice. It was bad luck, because the Amtrak attendants had cleverly written what my seat number was in the old carriage (seat 8). Well, seat 8 was taken in the new carriage, so I couldn’t do the thing seamlessly, but I found that seat 58 was empty, so that seemed the best bet. Well, no one said anything at all. I had the nicest night ever, lying down and curled up under my blanket and coat, and the next morning, in fact, the Amtrak attendants had swapped out all the ticket tags anyways with new ones. I now fit right in.

Now, this does not always work, but it was my experience on the Sunset Limited, the California Zephyr, and the Southwest Chief. I will add that I did all three of these train trips in December, anywhere from three weeks to one week before Christmas (the time of your trip might affect the crowds).

I have seen other people sleep on the floor of the large bathroom for people with disabilities. You open up the door, and surprise! Someone’s spread out in front of you. It kind of gave me a fright. I do not recommend this.

Once, I was on a 1-day, 1-night trip from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. That train was miserably crowded. It’s called the Coastal Starlight. There’s not much of the magic and mystery of starlight onboard that train, believe me, both times I’ve been on it. I could not find any empty seats anywhere, but I was able to find 2 or 3 seats free to sleep on in the Observation car. So go check that out if you have nowhere else to go.

Last but not least, bring a blanket and a coat so you can be toasty and warm.

Food

You are going to be doing a lot of sitting, so you don’t need a lot of food. Also, the bathroom situation is not as comfortable as you’d probably like, so the less you eat, the better from that aspect.

On the other hand, you will want to eat because what’s cozier than stuffing your face as you watch the vast landscapes of the country unfold out the window? Here’s how I managed. For breakfast, the best cost-benefit analysis seems to be to go to the dining car and eat their scrambled eggs. It’s pretty good, and it comes with a side of potatoes (or grits, but yuck), and a small croissant. Slather everything with butter (I end up using like 8 of those little butter tubs, which are free and available), and that will be quite nice and filling. It’s $8.50, and that’s about the price of scrambled eggs and potatoes in most cafes, no? And it will last your stomach a long time. That is honestly the only thing I recommend you get from the dining cars. I do not recommend the dining car menu for lunch or dinner. First, the food doesn’t sound all that good — and the stuff that did sound good had pork sausage in it, or something, so I couldn’t eat it anyways. There was stuff like seafood, which I don’t really like. And for dinner, there’s an option of a big steak. Now, this is the last thing you should eat onboard a train when the bathroom situation is so dire. When I was on the Sunset Limited, everyone who ate the steak woke up the next morning complaining about how many times they’d had to use the bathroom, and how crummy they felt. You don’t want this to be you. They do have this nice pasta dish for dinner — but it’s $16 and I don’t think it’s worth it.

Amtrak observation car train
Amtrak observation car

But you can’t survive all day on just scrambled eggs, so what to do? Well, instead of the dining car, go to the cafe car for lunch and dinner. The offerings are pretty good. There’s chicken sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, and you can grab as much mayo and mustard as you like; there’s small cheese pizzas and vegan burgers and fruit and crackers and cheese and chips and big juicy grapes and chocolate and other comfort food. Now, the prices are quite high for what you’re buying, but cheaper than the dining car. They also sells all sorts of sodas, but I don’t recommend buying those — empty calories, and more bathroom trips, and too expensive.

And last but not least, bring lots and lots of snacks with you. I think about a third of my suitcase was just snacks — both salty and sweet. I had:

  • I had 12 little packets of tiny fudge-dipped oreos, yum, yum, yum, except I don’t know if these packets were a good idea. Each one only had like 7 cookies in it. Maybe buy a few of the larger packets instead
  • three apples as a way to clean out my refrigerator
  • eight packs of wheat-and-cheddar sandwich crackers, each of which had 6 little cracker sandwiches in it
  • and something else I don’t remember.

These were nice choices because everything was so individually packaged; so eating one little packet in one go would not result in any contamination of the remaining packets. Nor, like if you bring a big bag of chips, for example, would you have to leave it partially uneaten, leaving it open to the possibilities of spills or messiness. One the other hand, the individual packaging is not good for the environment. On the other hand, you’re on the train instead of the plane, so you’re already doing (almost) the most good you can.

I ate the snacks whenever I wanted; and had scrambled eggs for breakfast; and would buy one single sandwich from the cafe car at night; and one night I was feeling kind of full, so instead of a sandwich I had juicy grapes; and that was it! The snacks lasted two cross-country train trips, several overnight bus trips, and the various stays along the way — it was three weeks in total.

Also, if you are on the Sunset Limited, there’s a certain stop — but I don’t remember which — was it El Paso? — where someone called the burrito lady is standing outside the train tracks, and has a sack full of warm burritos in all flavors, and sells them. The vegetarian ones were only $2. They weren’t that great, to be honest. But very popular. We stopped in El Paso for like 30 minutes, so there was time for everyone who wanted to buy one. She will sell it to you and then give you a Christian blessing.

Amtrak train El Paso
El Paso train station stop; on the Sunset Limited, Houston –> Los Angeles.

If you are on the Southwest Chief, the station in Albuquerque has a restaurant with burgers and pizza. That was very popular, too, though again, I’m not sure if greasy food is the best choice for your train trip. And that brings us to the next topic:

Bathrooms

The way the trains are set up, the bathrooms are all on the first floor of the train, and the seats are all above on the second floor, once you slip behind the bend of the little magic staircase. It’s nice that way, because although you can get up those stairs, the smells of the bathroom mostly don’t seem to follow.

Now, what about the bathrooms themselves? There are about 5 per first first floor, all smushed into one half of the car, and they are tiny closets mostly. Actually, way smaller than most closets. I’m small-sized, and really there was not enough room for me between the door, the toilet, and the sink. It’s kind of gross. But there’s three other options:

1) at the very end of the hallway with the bathrooms, there’s one more door, with a slightly different sign. It’s a “lounge”. You go into the lounge, it has two sinks in it and a cushioned bench and a big mirror. You can brush your hair and do your make-up here, if you like, or freshen up. And there’s one more door inside the lounge, and that goes to one more closet-sized bathroom. It’s still small, but it should mostly be women using this bathroom. So less traffic and a little neater. I recommend it.

2) the bathroom for handicapped people and elderly. This is a large bathroom present on the first floor of the cars. But not all the cars. Sometimes, the first floor is split between racks for luggage on one side, and the bathrooms on the other side. Other times the first floor is split between seats for elderly and disabled passengers one side, and bathrooms on the other. If the cars has the seats for the elderly and disabled on the first floor, then it also has a large bathroom, with plenty of room to move around in. The trick is, if your particular car does not have this bathroom, then just go to the next car over. Is it wrong of me to recommend that people who are able-bodied use this handicapped bathroom? Hmmm, that actually only just occurred to me. Just don’t stay in there too long in case someone who actually cannot use the regular bathrooms is in need.

3) if the closest-sized bathrooms in your car are really dirty, then again, go over to the next car and see if those bathrooms are any better.

Prayer

I will write another post about prayer on the train, stay tuned.

Final thoughts

Think of the train ride as part of your trip, and enjoy it. Most likely, you’ll get to talk to some friendly, interesting people, and be alone with your own thoughts. Don’t count on having wifi. Enjoy the scenery. Enjoy the escape. Just cuddle up on your seat, alone with yourself and your thoughts, and let the train rock and hold you tight.

Amtrak train trip landscape
New Mexico or Arizona, onboard the Southwest Chief, Los Angeles –> Chicago

2 thoughts on “How to survive your 2-day Amtrak trip”

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