Train Tactics – The Student’s Guide to Amtrak
Earning My Miles
I’ve done the 3,000 mile trip between home and college via just about every form of transport but hot air balloon, but when I have four days to sacrifice, I always opt for Amtrak. Most students don’t even think about traveling by locomotive. Well, it’s time to take off your train-ing wheels and kiss the air goodbye. The iron horse is where it’s at.
Ten Reasons You’ll Love the Tracks
- Ticket Convenience: You won’t find a booked train in the USA, that’s for sure. And with demand that low, ticket prices don’t climb until only about 1-2 weeks before a departure. Plus, you can change the date of your whole trip any time without paying a penalty. That gives your schedule more flexibility than a month-in-advance, non-negotiable plane ticket. In other words, I can embrace my favorite college habit: procrastination.
- Affordability: The train is almost always cheaper than flying or driving. If you have one of those International Student Identification Cards or Student Advantage Cards, you’re guaranteed a 15% discount – otherwise, students fend like ordinary citizens. Considering the other advantages, I’m willing to pay up for a train, but the college cheapskate will always find a an inexpensive ticket.
- Luggage: A ticket entitles you to three bags. The measurements and weights are a little more reasonable than with air travel. But the real luggage advantage comes in the bonus-bags. Each additional bag (up to three) is only $10. It used to be cheaper. It used to be more bags. But six bags will get you moved out in a jiff, and compare a $10 charge with $70 for an extra bag on a plane. It also beats the heck out of UPS.
- Breathing Space: In a train, there is no “fasten seatbelt sign,” in fact, there’s no seatbelt at all. So, you can stretch and wander to the café, the observation car or just stick around your own area. Sleepers seat two comfortably, and coach has more elbow room than first-class on an airplane.
- The View: Looking at the tops of clouds was fun when you were seven. Broad windows and an observation car on a train make the pleasant, ever-changing view better than an in-flight movie. Of course, whether you get 40 hours of desert scenery or brick facades covered in graffiti will depend on your route.
- Lax Security: Let’s face it: as terror-free as it might be on an airplane these days, there’s still the fact that you’re floating 40,000 feet in the air. Airport security is a big pain. For this trip, I got to the station about 45 minutes early. I strolled on the train without passing through a metal detector. And my guns, drugs and transformers sit safely in my carry-ons.
- Meeting People: Probably the best part about the train might at first seem like the worst. When you eat in the dining car, you will traditionally be forced to sit with total strangers – even when empty booths surround you. Last night, I met a guy who was stationed in Germany from 1977 to 1980 (I think something important happened during then….). Besides the sharing those experiences, he gave me the low-down for my trip abroad next semester. 20 minutes ago, I met a guy who was a retired mechanic for Kodak. Sound simple enough? Try working in the dark all day.
- No Jetlag: You pass over the time zones more gradually, which relieves the wear of jetlag. Then again, if the cheapest flight on Expedia involved eight transfers, you probably wouldn’t get jetlag anyway.
- Downtime: For the duration of a train trip, you are inaccessible (only a few trains have wi-fi). For some, this might seem scary. I assure you, it’s a godsend. Turn off your cell phone and turn on the email auto-response. It’s time to finish a book, catch up on your movie watching or devise some new pick-up lines.
- Pampering: Don’t you love staying in a hotel, just for fun? On the train, if you’re lucky enough to get a sleeper (see below), it’s a similar luxury. An attendant will make your bed, get you a coffee if you need it and handle your dinner reservations. In the dining car, they won’t ration you to a half-can of ginger ale; the meals are solid and included with the upgrade. There’s a shower (and clean towels), wall outlets, climate control, daily newspaper – all the regular amenities. There’s even an executive lounge if you have a layover at certain stations.
Getting a sleeper is clutch. I’ve done a few legs of trips in coach, but the sleeper is worth the extra cash. In reality, I’ve never paid very much for the first-class upgrade. Almost every time I book a ticket in coach, they call me two days before I leave and offer me an upgrade – just like clockwork. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m in the rewards program, or because the trip is so long or maybe they found out I’m always raving about Amtrak. Who knows? Try all three and maybe you’ll find yourself in first class.
If you’re stuck in coach – then don’t be. Like I said, you’re free to move around, so explore the train. The observation car can be nice. For instance, on my route they had live music during the day and a movie at night. And if you have to take a shower, just use the one at the bottom floor of a sleeper car (they don’t monitor who uses it). If you’re stuck in the seat, that’s no problem either. They recline about as much a car’s and there’s even a thigh support that flips out. Coach isn’t normally packed, so you can spread out over two seats if you need to. And, each pair of seats shares an outlet, enabling your laptop or toaster oven.
I confess, as much as I like the train, some people disagree. Some routes have older cars, stranger people and higher rates. Trains don’t always run right on schedule, and it’s definitely slower than flying. If you’re taking a car home, it might help to learn how to pack a dorm room into a car. Regardless of your modus transportandi, let’s face it: moving your body to a different location sucks. I don’t care if we’re talking about cross-country skiing or arguing about who’s going to DD for the night. But you have to try the train, just once. If it’s good enough for Sir Topham Hatt, then it’s good enough for me.