I mentioned earlier that my mother and I took my nephew for a train trip to St. Louis for Spring Break this past week. My nephew is a train fanatic (my former sister-in-law now refers to trains as “porn for eight-year-old boys”), so this was to be the trip of a lifetime for him — we arranged a destination which would ensure that we’d sleep overnight on the train, and we booked one of their first-class bedroom accommodations for the trip.
The trip was indeed a lot of fun for my nephew, and it was an intellectually interesting experience for my mother and I. But, it wasn’t nearly as comfortable as we sort of imagined before leaving.
Read on for further description and for my tips for Amtrak train travel.
First, the bedroom we got, which included its very own bathroom was quite tiny. Think smaller than my cube at work (which is admittedly, pretty darn large for a cube). But, even my nephew was nonplussed. He’d previously been on a cruise with his mother, and he promptly informed us that their cruise ship cabin was considerably bigger than the train bedroom. Cool.
The bathroom was closet-sized, and just the smallness made it challenging to, ahem, “use the facility.” My mother and I are slim, so anyone who’s overweight could find it particularly tight. Oh, and the shower was combined with the toilet, so you nearly have to straddle the throne when you shower. My mother just opted not to shower, perhaps partly out of a fear of slipping since the train sways a lot, though I can’t see that anyone of normal size would be even able to fall inside that coffin-sized space.
If you’re travelling with other people in your cabin, changing into clothes after you shower could be quite challenging to do without flashing everyone — you have to get your clothes from outside where it’s dry, and you’d want to carefully put them on inside the bathroom without touching the walls much so you wouldn’t get them wet. I was able to do all this, but it’s just not easy.
First-class status got us paid meals, which were sort of a relief — the dining car feels quite spaceous and airy after being in the cabins, so it was really nice to be waited on and to have good sized picture windows to gaze out of. (Yes, the bedroom also had a good window, but the narrowness of the walls makes it slightly less fun to watch out of compared with the longer dining car with windows running down both sides.) The menu was very limited, however, and it was possible that they could’ve already run out of entrees. There’s a vegetarian entree at lunch, but oddly enough, not one at dinner. I’m not vegetarian, though I’ve been eating more vegetarian meals lately to balance out my diet, so I wasn’t happy to have little choice for dinner. The meals are likely microwaved, and there’s no chance for substitutions. Drinks were not included in the paid status, nor were tips, of course.
The lounge car is also a great respite from the closeness of the bedroom, and it’s quite nice when it’s cleaned and vacuumed. Not only does it have the picture windows, but sort of clerestory windows or skylights along the upper corners running down the car. This gives a great openness, and sky view. Some of the seats in some of the cars are swivels, but most are stationary, oriented looking out the windows.
The major quality issues were me having to haul almost all the luggage, which was heavy, and the low quality of sleep that could be had.
I have very high tolerance of environmental noise during sleep, but the combination of noise plus the sometimes violent train motion made it nearly impossible to sleep on the first leg of the trip. The train blows its horn quite frequently as it goes across the countryside, which is something that I was already accustomed to from my childhood, since my grandparents’ winter home in Memphis was right across from some train tracks. So, the horn is actually kind of a wistful, nostalgic sound. But, the clattering of tracks and slamming of doors between the traincars could be quite loud at times.
The worst of it was the train motion when we were trying to sleep. Now, we were on the second story of the car, and mom and my nephew slept in the lower bunk. I slept on the top, and I’m sure the motion at the top of the train is much more pronounced than lower. It’s so violent at times that the upper bunks are equipped with a net of straps on the open side, to keep you from flying out.
The train motion overall could be a hardship for people who get motion-sick. My mother and I have stomachs of steel, though, so this wasn’t an issue. But, there are warnings aplenty around the train about holding on to things will traversing the cars, and this could also be a big challenge to anyone who has walking problems already.
You sorta have a preconceived notion that modern passenger trains would be sleek and smooth — like those Japanese magnetic-field suspension trains or something. This just isn’t the case — you really have to get your “sea legs” and sometimes the motion impacts on you are hilarious. The Amtrak trains really have a low-tech feel, as though not all that much has really changed since the late nineteenth century.
The return trip was better for me — I got more sleep. Perhaps I’d adapted slightly to the sleep challenge, but it could’ve just been sheer fatigue.
Here’s just some tips which could be helpful to you if you’re considering Amtrak travel:
- Pack lightly. You can check a couple of suitcases, but keep in mind you still might have to lug them around the train station. At very least, pack your carryon bags as lightly as possible.
- Pack snacks, particularly if you’re picky. There is a snack bar on the lounge car, but it’s pretty skimpy on offerings. Figure they won’t have whatever it is you’d most like to have.
- Keep valuables such that you could easily carry them with you – like in a wallet or purse – so that you can take them with you if you go to the dining or lounge cars. I didn’t see any way to lock these bedrooms, so if your whole party has gone out, there’s no one to guard your stuff, apparently.
- Plan on being substantially late to your destination — perhaps by a number of hours. Sometimes the trains don’t depart on time, and even if they do, they sometimes get delayed by freight trains running in the same routes. This is a pretty frequent event.
- If you have special dietary needs, pack your own meals to take with you.
- Show up to the dining car early! If you show up near the later end of your period, you risk not having certain entrees available since they apparently only have room to store limited quantities.
- If you’re in a party of two or by yourself, you could end up seated with total strangers in the dining car, as it’s “community seating”. If thatÂ bothers you, you can ask your conductor to bring your meal directly to your bedroomÂ car, if you’re inÂ first-class.
- Take a DVD player with you. They have TVs on the lounge car, but I never saw them turned on.
- Take some games to play if you go with friends/family.
- If you’re prone to motion-sickness, better take some Dramamine or similar drugs with you.
- Consider taking sleeping pills, because you might not get enough sleep otherwise. If you do this, you should probably tell your conductor you’ll be doing that, and ask him to wake you before your stop.
- It’s possible to turn the PA system off in your room — do that before going to sleep so that the engineer’s announcement about smoking stops won’t awaken you.
- Consider doing just a sponge bath with the provided washrags — I found that to be a much better experience than trying to take a shower.
- My mother complained of pain/stiffness from the thin matress. You might consider taking extra padding orÂ a sleeping bag/bedroll if you’re sensitive about sleeping on moderately hard surfaces.
- I had no prob in unfolding/refolding the bunk beds, but I can see that it could be physically challenging to many. Ask the conductor to assist you if you need.
- Tip your waitperson in the dining car!Â I think they may get a lot of cheapskates, and you might get the same waitperson at the very next meal or on the return trip.
- No WiFi service for my laptop, of course. They do have 120V plugs in the bedrooms, though.
- Cellphones seemed to work in plenty enough areas — you’re passing through towns with enough frequency that there seems to be enough time to have brief conversations.
- Make sure you have transportation arranged to/from the train stations before you depart. These are not like airports with waiting queues of helpful taxi drivers!Â I use my PDA to find taxi companies and call them, but I can imagine non-wired people not being as prepared.
- Consider not shaving, if you shave. I shaved on the initial trip, but I opted not to on the return. It’s some sort of miracle I didn’t cut myself on the first leg of the trip. If you must shave, consider bringing one of those electric razors to do the job.
- Take bottled water with you and/or soft drinks. Why pay the steeper train prices for it?
- Nice side: no oppressive security checks like for getting on airplanes! No X-ray machines, no metal detectors. There’s a very cursory check of your IDs against your names on the train tickets.
- If you want to take photos out the windows, expect to see mostly uglier, industrial sides of towns. You won’t really have opportunity to step off at stops for picture-taking, either. For the few glimpses of picturesque scenes, it’s worthwhile to have a fast digital camera, or else use fast film that doesn’t require long exposures, or else your scenes will all motion-smear.
In some ways the train travel was fun and interesting. In other ways it was like roughing it or camping, neither of which are very thrilling to me for vacation.
I’m still uploading my vacation pics from this trip, so check back if you’re interested. One place I took my nephew was utterly fantastic — a wonderland for kids — I’ll blog about that cool St. Louis attraction in another day or so.