Friday, June 28, 2013

Lessons learned traveling on Amtrak

We just returned from a whirlwind vacation visiting Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City and Boston - via Amtrak.  Having lived in the Midwest for most of our lives, traveling by automobile has always been our vacation mode of transportation preference.  But the thought of trying to navigate any of our vacation destinations by auto, quickly had us booking tickets on Amtrak.

We started our journey in Chicago actually where we boarded a plane and landed in D.C.  From there we took Amtrak to our next three destinations.  I learned quite a bit about Amtrak from the experience.  Here's my tips!
  1. Pack Light - Each passenger can have two bags each under 50 pounds, but I recommend packing those bags light because the majority of storage is above your seat (like an airplane) and you'll have to heave-ho that luggage above your head.  Plus, you'll need to quickly (and I mean QUICKLY which I'll explain next) in most cases transport that luggage up a few steps and/or from the platform onto the train that is easily a 2-5 inch gap to maneuver your luggage over.
  2. Be Aware and Be Prepared to MOVE FAST! - Boarding an Amtrak train reminds me somewhat of the beginning of an Amazing Race episode. It's nearly a sprint to the train.  Once the train's track is announced in the station's holding area, be prepared to "B-Line it" to track's gate.  Why all the rush?  Well, your ticket guarantees you a seat, but you can count on families already being on board from previous stops and their kids will be sprawled across two seats each as well as other single travelers who plop down in one seat and try to stake out both seats by placing their purse, briefcase or laptop case on seat #2.  You'll understand this completely if you've ever had a "C" boarding pass on Southwest Airlines.  Finding two seats together or two empty seats (to spread out in if traveling alone) is nearly impossible if you don't happen to be the train's originating station or get on FAST!
  3. Food is Available but Maybe Pack a Healthy Snack - Every train has a cafe car where "airplane-like" snacks are available as well as "what you'd expect" pre-packaged sandwiches. It works if you're starving, but it's not ideal.
  4. Port-A-Potties - Ok, so it's not REALLY a port-a-potty that is on-board, but it's a typical "airplane-ish" restroom that reminds me of a port-a-potty. Not the best facilities.  My best recommendation regarding this is to remember that this is a train that jostles around on the tracks.  It is NOT always a smooth ride so if inclined to use the facilities while on-board, go when the train is at a stop. You'll thank me for that tidbit of info!
A few other tidbits to note:
D.C. Amtrak Station
  • The train stations are mostly quite nice that offer fast food options and other sundry-type items.
  • I always felt 100% safe.
  • Each seat has access to an electrical outlet and there's free wi-fi that worked quite well for us.  I've heard though of other riders who experienced intermittent signal and problems streaming videos or music.
  • The views from the trains can vary from incredible and picturesque to graffiti-laden.

 Overall, Amtrak is a good experience and great transportation between cities where automobile traffic is already horrible to navigate.  However, if traffic isn't an issue, I, personally, prefer taking a car on vacation.  I guess I'm just a little spoiled having lived in the Midwest where traffic is rarely a problem.

View from train going to Boston
View entering Philly

Platform approaching Boston
View leaving New York City

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