(Psst: The FTC wants me to remind you that this website contains affiliate links. That means if you make a purchase from a link you click on, I might receive a small commission. This does not increase the price you’ll pay for that item nor does it decrease the awesomeness of the item. ~ Daisy)
48 hours on a train can be a lot. Well, it was 96 hours because I took a round trip!
Recently, I needed to travel from Tucson, AZ to Centralia, WA. I really didn’t want to deal with the airplane and driving was out of the question. Flying would have been quicker but also required me to use either Portland or Sea-Tac airports, then take multiple buses/shuttles after that. Also, the cost was much higher, especially considering all those different kinds of fares. You can check out this article, or this one for tips on Frugalite-friendly travel.
By contrast, the Amtrak station was about a mile from my destination and the fare was less than half the cost of the plane tickets alone. As a bonus, I wouldn’t have to put up with TSA indignities and cramped spaces. Plus, there were more types of items allowed on board, such as small tools. So after some thought, I decided to take the train. I researched a lot before my trip so what you will find below is a synthesis of that research, and what I personally found to be true during the trip.
Travel light – but not too light
Pack light, but bring food. You are allowed 2 big suitcases and two carry-on-size bags or personal items. You can even take a cooler if you want. However, you will also have to carry all that during any train changes and load it yourself, so it pays to be efficient. Have all the stuff you might want to use on board in your small carry-on, and stuff for use at your destination in your large bag.
Bring earplugs, a pillow, and a light blanket or coat
A sleep mask might also be a good idea. The seats recline and even in Coach, there is a fair amount of room, however, there’s also a big gap between the seat and the window so you’ll want something to wedge in there. I slept quite well on the train, the motion was quite soothing. You may want to consider melatonin or similar if you usually have trouble sleeping.
Put yourself on “train time.”
Part of the magic of train travel is the way it works. Yes, you take longer to get somewhere, but you also have opportunities that just aren’t available anywhere else. It can be quite restful to travel by train and you will see aspects of the countryside that nobody else sees. So if you embrace that rather than being in a hurry, it will be good for your mental outlook and help you enjoy the trip that much more.
Leg Room and other seat factors
There is a lot of legroom on a train but sometimes they do run low on baggage space. So if you have a really large bag you might want to check it. Seat width could be a problem for some. It’s definitely better than on an airplane but not as king-sized as coach seats used to be. So if that is a concern there are places online where you can see measurements and pictures of the different trains. Long-distance routes have more room than short-distance routes. The long-distance routes are the ones with pretty names like Empire Builder or Coast Starlight.
If you have mobility issues, ask for the lower level when buying tickets
Amtrak Trains are double-decker. The seats on the lower level are near the bathrooms and easier to reach, but they are limited. You don’t get to stay in them unless it says so on your ticket. So if you are trying to get a lower level and your ticket doesn’t say that, talk to an employee as soon as possible so they can fix it, particularly if you have mobility issues.
Pack food and a water bottle
Said water bottle should be small enough to fill at the sink. I personally found the water to be just fine on board the train, your mileage may vary depending on route. Light food such as what you would use for hiking will be good here. Things that resist crushing and don’t need refrigeration are best if you don’t want to pack a cooler. You can buy food on board but it’s about what you would expect at a convenience store in terms of price. You can find menus on Amtrak.com.
Have a budget
Even though I advise packing food, it can be fun to eat something hot on the train. The food offered in the Deli Car was pretty good, and I sampled some of it on my trip. However, it’s a good idea to read the menu ahead of time, pick a couple of things you want to try, and then stick to that plan. That way Vacation Spending doesn’t take over but you still get to try something you wanted to. It’s a similar principle for when you’re dieting and it helps you enjoy yourself while staying in control. If you were curious, Dining Car rates are as follows, as of June 2023: Breakfast is $20, Lunch (reservation only) is $25, and Dinner (reservation only) is $45. it’s a sit-down, three-course meal, and community dining so if you are traveling alone you’ll be sitting with a stranger, and if you are a couple you’ll be sitting side by side facing strangers.
Dress in layers
It can be warm or cold on the train, so dress in layers so you can add or remove them as needed. Wear the most comfortable shoes you own. I wore comfortable clothes I could sleep in, sort of an athleisure thing and it helped. I also had a poncho-style cloak that doubled as a very nice blanket. I’m so glad I brought it!
Get up and move around
One of the greatest things about a train is being able to walk around. On some routes, there is an observation car, which is a fantastic way to get out of your seat bubble and see the route more clearly.
Bring things to do that work offline
Wi-fi signal will be very spotty so whatever you do, bring stuff you can enjoy offline such as books or downloaded games. I saw this as “enforced downtime” so I took it as a time to relax. I also brought a power cord. The outlets at the seats are standard house outlets so you’ll need a USB adapter if you want to charge anything. Make sure to spend lots of time staring out the window too. The train is hypnotic and can be quite soothing.
If you get motion sick on trains, take precautions
You already know what works best for you to ward off motion sickness, like Dramamine or ginger. I don’t have that problem but the swaying of the train could trigger some people. Similarly, if you have allergies or some other medical condition, be well prepared for flares. The body does funny things under stress.
Hang on to something when moving around
I got my “train legs” pretty quickly and didn’t have trouble walking around, but it’s still a good idea to maintain a gentle hold on something when up and about. The tracks can get rough at times.
Bring unscented hand sanitizer
I didn’t do this and boy I suffered! The hand sanitizer I grabbed for the trip had a very strong floral fragrance that made me sneeze every time I used it. So don’t be like me, only get something that says “unscented.” You’ll thank me later. On the other hand, you will want some, because, towards the end of the trip, some parts of the train can be a bit funky.
Before your trip, check off the little things. Most of the small things you might want can be packed in a tight space. Think pain reliever, stomach remedy, a band-aid or two, glasses wipe, night mask if you need one, vitamins if you take them, etc. Having that stuff on hand will prevent you from having to buy them at a premium. I will say that the “comfort kit” isn’t too bad. You get a small blanket, eye mask, and ear plugs for $20 and that’s about what it costs on Amazon. So if you think you might need those things and can’t make do some other way that’s not terrible.
Carry a small amount of cash
Amtrak does take credit and debit cards, but in case you need something on your trip and the reader is out, it does make sense to carry a little cash. Just keep it in a protected spot and don’t let on you have it. I didn’t have any safety concerns on board but it’s good to be careful.
Be friendly if you want to be
You’ll meet some really cool people on the train. I did! I found that most people were mellow and polite and quite a few of them were interested in conversation. Everyone else I know who has taken a train like this has said the same.
Courtesy goes a long way
In my experience, fellow train travelers were pretty polite. There are some basic rules of etiquette such as no loud conversations after lights out, using headphones or earbuds when listening to music, don’t put paper towels down the toilet, and that sort of thing. If you do basic stuff like that you’ll be golden. Common courtesy plus basic preparation will make your journey a lot more fun.
Bonus tip: most trains have a secret bathroom
For all my fellow Frugalites, here is something not everyone knows. Near the bathrooms at the end, there is a door marked “lounge.” There is another restroom and a couple of sinks. It’s usually cleaner than the others!
How did my train trip go? I found it to be extremely relaxing, maybe a little too relaxing! I had brought art materials and had planned to do a lot of sketching and drawing, but I kept finding myself hypnotized by the view out the window. Hours might pass and I’d barely notice. I also kept falling asleep. I found the train to be so incredibly soothing that it was soporific. All my seatmates were cool and because I had such a long trip, there were times I could stretch out and have both seats to myself. I liked being able to recline and put up the little leg rest at the bottom of the seat. That made my rest a lot more comfortable. I also made heavy use of my hooded poncho, because it did a great job of blocking the light from outside the train.
Would I do it again? Probably so. Would I want to do it often? Not really because it’s such a big time commitment. The final thing I learned was this: Not to envy the rich people in the sleeper cars too much, because they apparently roll around on their beads with each bump and jostle while I’m better braced in a seat down in Coach!
Would you ever travel by train somewhere? What’s your best suggestion for saving money while traveling? Do you prefer airline travel or road trips to trains? If so, why? We’d love to hear from you, so let us know in the comments.
Rohvannyn Shaw lives in suburbia but still values old-fashioned skills and techniques. When she’s not preventing her sourdough starter from taking over the world, she’s baking, grilling, reading, writing, illustrating stories, gaming, or keeping up with her cats. She maintains a website dedicated to creativity at http://mind-flight.org, as well as an art portfolio at http://rohvannynshaw.com.