TRAVELLING BY TRAIN IN THE USA – THE DO IT YOURSELF TRIP

 

An Australian traveller shares her ‘do it yourself trip’ which she organised on the net.

We started planning our USA train journey a good ten months before departure and made our booking online direct with Amtrak.

Amtrak Train
Amtrak Train

Train travel in the USA is easy and inexpensive. Fares are market driven and become more expensive closer to the time of departure and all cities have weekly public transport tickets that allow great freedom to explore for  yourself. Places like San Francisco for example, offer good value day tours that provide delightful mixes such as visiting Muir Woods to see giant sequoia trees and then driving past Janis Joplin’s old house.

Our train journey during the US spring last year consisted of a vast loop from Los Angeles to New York and from there to Washington and New Orleans and then back to L.A .

Before embarking on the rail journey, we gave ourselves a couple of days in Los Angeles to recover from the flight. Los Angeles is a sprawling car-based city but at the Union Station downtown there is an information booth where maps and information about getting around is given with great friendliness and assistance. Here we discovered the ‘tap card’ for LA with help from a kind woman in the Metro office. She took one look at us and gave us seniors tap cards which we then took to a machine and loaded with cash to cover the 35 cent fares per travel event.

Buses wend their way all through Los Angeles and when you want to transfer to another section you simply ask the driver for a transfer and pay. I think the cost was a dollar. Trains are very easy to fathom but transport maps are essential to get full value. Public transport allows you to see, listen and to interact much more with the locals and fellow passengers. If you get lost so begins another adventure or another conversation and if in doubt, someone always can be asked for help at a bus stop or a station. As travellers we don’t try to go everywhere. We carefully pick and choose which galleries, museums and neighbourhoods to explore. We particularly like diners and cafeterias where we have found the people polite, helpful and chatty. The advantages of being an independent traveller is essentially about pace and focus. We meet storytellers everywhere and we schedule enough time for this to happen.

Grand Central Train Station
Grand Central Train Station

In New York we returned number of times to the Strand Bookstore and The Metropolitan Museum. One of the most charming New York Museums is the Rubin Museum located in Chelsea which houses a peaceful haven of Himalayan art.

In Washington we visited the Space and Aeronautical Museum where aircraft hang from the ceiling depicting the history of flight . There’s a great buzz about the place. In a dome shaped theatre, we sit in fully reclining chairs looking up at the 360 degree dome. The lights go out. We’re in Central Park then zoom, we leave Earth. Whoopi Goldberg narrates the story of Space, the birth of stars from gas, the red dwarf and the brown dwarf and the amazing spectacle of what space contains. We see the layers of our sun and hear it’s history. We watch the birth of a star and realise the insignificance of Earth amid the scale of Space. We are both stunned in amazement as we come back to earth. It’s not just the wonder of the technology that has produced this experience but also the aesthetic. We are both very glad to have done this and to cap an extraordinary day, our taxi driver speaks a form of Urdu into his mobile for the entire journey back to our hotel.

Back to our train journey. In the south we waited often for freight trains carrying chemicals. Signs of hard times were evident. We did not see people walking and passed many boarded-up housing. Sometimes what you see makes you want to contact Michael Moore. On some routes there are miles of car parks for commuters. On other routes there are mountains, deserts and forests. Never did we open books as pages of the country just kept on turning. At one stage we were in the dining room chatting away and looked up to discover we were actually on a line between two countries. On one side stood Mexico with tracks in the grass. On the other was El Paso with a lone policeman leaning against the window of his car.

Red Cap Railway Assistant
Red Cap Railway Assistant

Are you tired of getting taxis to airports and joining procedure lines for hours on end? Would you like to meet some very interesting other travellers? Try the train for solutions. They leave and arrive in the middle of town. Imagine the thrill of arriving in midtown Manhattan. Train stations operate like air terminals.  You book your luggage through and sit in the waiting area until the train is called and the track announced. If you’re wobbly on your feet or use a stick there is a red cap system where staff with red caps help you down to the train, sometimes using electric trolleys like golf buggies. They are great fun and tear down platforms through small tunnels and other mysterious paths to the tracks. This helpful service can save you miles of walking with luggage which by now you should have whittled down to a very small carry-on. Believe me there is no spare space in the roomette. Luggage racks are provided on board and downstairs if you don’t wish to check your luggage through. As for meeting fellow travellers, the dining cars are communally organised and the random nature of who you may end up sitting alongside is a delight. As you chat swapping notes about book clubs or films, an ever changing landscapes deserts or snow slides by.   You could be listening to someone’s life story or hearing about how beavers ate through three trees in one night. Maybe you will hear about the academic life on a remote campus while the stars watch over empty cowboy country outside. In some ways these journeys remind me of pilgrimages and quarantines where storytelling has been such a major activity.

Passenger Buggy with Red Cap Assistant
Passenger Buggy with Red Cap Assistant

The more research you do, the clearer it all becomes. You have several choices with USA trains. You can get a pass for so many days or you can take a specific route like the Californian Zephyr or you can plot your own routes. There’s an Amtrak app for iPhones and iPad or you can just find the options online. The first time I printed out my own train ticket here at home in the bush and it was so simple that I kept on worrying that I might have missed something. But no, that was the ticket and it worked fine.

Train is time travel. You have time to remember what it’s like to just journey, time to gaze out a window to watch a world go by and time to wonder.

The Facts

If purchased months ahead as suggested, the train fare one way coast to coast is about $800 to $1000 for two people with a sleeper. Three nights aboard are required to complete the journey. The cost includes all meals. Prices vary depending on whether you qualify for a senior’s discount, the selected date of travel, the route chosen and the level of sleeper comfort you desire. You pay more for greater space.

The following links will help you plan your travel.

www.seatsixtyone.com

www.amtrak.com

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