My love affair with trains started as a young boy when I would regularly stay overnight at my grandparents home in Willow Springs (a suburb of Chicago). There was a train track about 150 yards from their home. Many people might consider this a nuisance, but I don't remember anyone complaining. In fact, I was always thrilled to hear a train pass by. Day or night, I just loved that sound. To this day, I immediately recall those wonderful memories of my time with my grandparents every time I hear the sound of a train.
I have always wanted to take a bonafide train trip, not just a train ride. I have been on plenty of commuter trains, perhaps the most memorable was a train ride from Paris to Normandy France. In 1999 I took my grandfather to Paris for a week. The central purpose of our trip was to visit the beaches of Normandy where he landed in WWII in the famed U.S. invasion. The train ride took us through the back country of France and gave us a chance to see how 'real people' lived on farms and in small villages. It was about a two hour trip, and one that I will never forget. Nonetheless, I still have never been on extended train trip (cross country, etc..).
Amtrak USA Rail Pass
I have always found the Amtrak website to be confusing. It seems like it is set up for regular train travelers and those with little experience on the rails will feel a little lost. In my own case, my attention was immediately drawn to something called the USA Rail Pass. The pass allows for multiple destinations over a 15, 30, or 45 day period. A few years ago the USA Rail Pass was quite controversial as it was not available to Americans, only foreigners visiting the United States. This was not very good public policy, especially when you consider that Amtrak has received billions in subsidies from the U.S. government. Of course, rail passes such as this are very popular in Europe, but only in recent years have U.S. citizens had access to them on this side of the pond.
Although the original USA Rail Pass allowed for unlimited travel, the current version does have limits. 15 days/8 segments ($449), 30 days/12 segments ($679), 45 days/18 segments ($879). It should also be noted that up to 2 children can travel with an adult at a 50% discount. So, here is the tricky part - segments. This is where being a nerd may come in handy. The strategy is to get from one point to the next as directly as possible and without changing trains. Each time you have to switch trains that is counted as a 'segment' (see below). Maybe there is an idea for a board game here...
From the Amtrak Website -
Because we don't have a direct route from Washington, DC to Oklahoma, City, OK, you could ride the Capitol Limited train from Washington to Chicago (segment 1), then ride the Texas Eagle train from Chicago to Fort Worth (segment 2) and finally ride the Heartland Flyer train from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, City (segment 3). This journey from Washington to Oklahoma City would use three of your allowable segments.
To travel from Spokane, WA to Portland OR, you could ride the Empire Builder train directly to Portland using one segment or you could ride the Empire Builder train to Seattle (segment 1) and then ride the Amtrak Cascades train from Seattle to Portland (segment 2). Both journeys take you to Portland but use a different number of your allowable segments. The map below illustrates some of the limitations of train travel. For example, if I wanted to go to California I would have to first go north a few hundred miles (likely to Washington, DC). Of course, if you live in a northern city you would be in a great position to get to quite a few destinations easily.
Check out this interactive route map
Taking An Extended Multi-Stop Trip
For me, I would just love being able to see the country through the perspective of a train window over multiple days. With a little imagination, you can come up with quite an interesting journey. Check out the story of a twenty three year old that used a rail pass ticket for a thirty day, twelve city trip.
Other Considerations And Strategies
- You can bring your own food aboard (see policies). Many articles suggest taking along non-perishable snacks (crackers, chips, peanut butter, etc...). Of course, you can always buy food on the train. Here is a sample of some of the menus.
- Many trains provide free wifi service (see policies).
- Business class, First Class, and sleeper cars have 110 power outlets, but with regular coach seats this is not provided. So, plan ahead to have your devices fully charged. My understanding is that you can find electrical outlets in some of the common areas as well.
- Check out the free Amtrak podcasts all about train travel here.
If you are just looking for an interesting itinerary and some nice discounts, check out the Amtrak hot deal page for some ideas.
If you have used a USA Rail Pass or have taken a train trip and would like to share you own strategies, please use the space below and we can start a conversation. 2014 is my year to take a vacation on a train - look for an update to this article and maybe a few videos as well. I may wait until the ground thaws before going north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
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