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Hit The Rails For A Different Kind Of Vacation

Empire Builder
Southwest Chief
Coastal Starlight
Texas Eagle
Sunset Limited

We are huge Amtrak fans and travel by rail when possible. Our first reason is that Amtrak is much more suited for backpacking and skiing than airlines. You can bring packs, skiis and other equipment on Amtrak but airlines prohibit it, or require you to check it with the risk of your equipment being lost and arriving several days after you do, which of course ruins your trip.

There's the vehicle issue. We used to drive everywhere. But we were putting thousands of miles on our vehicles each trip, which really slashed their trade in value. It also cost us a fortune in gas and tires and often left us tired on arrival at our destination. With Amtrak, at worst, we just rent a car at our destination for the last few miles, and often Amtrak takes us right there, such as Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Winterpark, Disneyland, Whitefish Mountain or Crater Lake. In a few cases we can call an Uber for a shuttle of less than five miles.

Amtrak is the national rail passenger network, so it runs trains everywhere, with dozens of short commuter lines extending out from major cities. But the only ones that concern us are the long distance lines. There are eleven : the Capitol Limited, Cardinal, Lakeshore Limited, Empire Builder, Coastal Starlight, Crescent, Palmetto, Southwest Chief, Zephyr, Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited.

The Capitol, Cardinal and Lakeshore are connector runs from New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston to Chicago. Ohio Valley residents board these trains in mid trip, usually at Pittsburgh, Charleston, Maysville, or Cincinnati but sometimes at smaller stations in between. The connectors arrive and depart at awkward times, like midnight or 2 a.m.You just have to grit your teeth. Once aboard, you can crawl into your bed and sleep until being awakened for breakfast. You'll eat as the train pulls into the city.

You can travel coast to coast on Amtrak very cheaply by buying a Coach seat, bringing some food with you (Amtrak allows it) and buying the rest in the Dining Car or the Cafe Car. These Coach seats are quite unlike airline seats. Amtrak's seats are much larger, further apart, and lean all the way back to make a bed. Amtrak enforces quiet and dark hours between 10 pm and 6 am. These seats are very comfortable and far apart. With the train's motion gently rocking you to sleep, you can sleep better here than on the ground in your sleeping bag.

However, we recommend you buy a roomette. If there are two of you, you each buy a Coach seat. Then you buy a roomette, splitting the cost 50-50%.

Amtrak roomettes are quite cozy. During the day there are two comfortable seats facing each other next to the window with a table between them. At night, the beds and table convert into a lower and upper bunk bed. At right is shown a lower bunk. Amtrak provides sheets, blankets and pillows.

Frequent Amtrak riders with the money buy two roomettes across rhe aisle from each other. This allows each rider to have a lower bunk and use the upper bunk for luggage. The riders thus have a window on each side, so they can look out either way.

But if you're on a tight budget, you can do with just one roomette. You flip a coin to decide who gets the top bunk. There are two steps built into the wall to help you climb up. Once up there, it's surprisingly comfortable. There are nets and pockets to store items, reading lights, and plenty of room between you and the ceiling. The only problem is you don't have a window but when you're trying to sleep that can be an advantage. It gets quite dark in that upstairs bunk once you turn off the reading lights.

Showers and rest rooms are down the hall. There are three on the first floor and another one upstairs. The shower has a railing you can grip if the train starts swaying, which can happen going around a steeply banked turn. Amtrak provides soap, washcloths, face towels and large towels.

If you have a backpack, large ski duffle or skiis, there's a luggage storage area near the car's entry door on the first floor. Moat people just take a small pack to their roomette.

With a roomette, you automatically get three meals a day in the Dining Car. It's a good menu, including pancakes, oatmeal, omelettes, fruit cups, eggs and biscuits, tacos, wraps, fajitas, burgers, chicken, steak, crab cakes, salmon, chilliquilles, large salads and very good desserts (the cheesecake is outstanding). You can have wine, beer or mixed drinks. The Dining Car is roughly equivalent to a 3-4 star restaurant back home, except its menu is a bit more limited. You'll be seated family style, that is, if there are only two of you the hostess will seat two others with you to fill out the table. It helps everyone get acquainted.

There's no TV or Wifi on Amtrak. The biggest attraction is the Observation Car. You sit in soft, well padded swiveling chairs and watch America drift by. Bring a pair of binoculars and you can watch for wildlife. Bring a good camera and you can take great photos. There's a cafe on the lower level where you can buy beverages and snacks. Many riders spend their whole trip, dawn til dusk, in the Observation Car.

Certain stretches have become famous. The Empire Builder through Montana and Washington. The Zephyr through Colorado, Utah and California. The Coastal Starlight through the Cascades, the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys and the seacoast. The Southwest Chief through Arizona. The Texas Chief across the desert and along the Mexican border. The Sunset Limited through the Louisiana Bayou. The Cardinal through the Shenandoah Valley and the New River Gorge.

You can usually use your cell phone and your IPad except when you're far out on the Sonoran Desert or North Dakota Plains, deep in gorges in the Rockies or Cascades, or deep in the Bayou. But you can only use them to surf the internet, send or receive email, or check messages. You cannot usually send photos, upload anything to a website, or download anything. There are plenty of plugs, in your roomette and in the Observation Car, so you can stay fully charged. You can use your laptop for work either on the table in your roomette or at one of the tables in the Observation Car. There is a way to link your laptop to the internet. If your phone is properly equipped, you can use it as a hotspot and plug it into your laptop. This will allow you to upload photos and text to a website. But realize you'll be using a lot of data to do so. Your cell phone bill for the month will be high when you return home. Businessmen can deduct this as a business expense but if you're just on a recreational trip that won't be an option.

There are two other sleeping car options. One is a Deluxe Room. It contains its own bathroom and shower and has more space. It could sleep three if the three were close, like two parents and a child, or three very good friends. The bottom bunk is big enough to work as a double. The top bunk is the same size as in the roomettes so is still just a single.

There's also a Family Bedroom, which sleeps four.

But the Deluxe is more than twice the cost of a roomette, so it's cheaper to rent two roomettes than one Deluxe. The Family Bedroom costs more than a Deluxe.

You can make all your arrangements by going to Amtrak.com. You can also call 1- 800- USA - Rail (1-800-872-1477). But Amtrak is popular. The big western runs are especially popular. And the western runs in June, July and August are incredible popular. So you must make reservations a couple of months in advance. The Coach seats are a little easier to book closer to the actual trip, but roomettes are almost always booked solid. So like signing up for a national park backpacking permit, you should plan an Amtrak trip well in advance.

Amtrak will email you your tickets and you'll print them out and bring them with you.

Unlike airports, you don't have to arrive at the Amtrak station two hours early. 30 minutes is fine. But you do need that 30 minutes. These are long trains and you need time to find your car. You'll need time to show the conductor your tickets and then find either your seat or your sleeping compartment. Finally you want time to arrange your bags and settle in before the train starts moving.

If you're going backpacking, obviously you'll have everything packed in your backpack. If you'fre going skiing you'll be taking a large ski duffel. iOtherwise, a wheeled bag works best. Buy one of the 40 square inch models that, on other trips, can qualify as carryon baggage on an airline. Eagle Creek makes an ideal model that has both wheels, straps and a hip belt.

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