A Brit does coast-to-coast America on the train (and back again)

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I first visited the United States in 2002 after splitting with my first serious boyfriend, convinced that going away somewhere fabulous (and distant) would take my mind off him. It worked, and has since become my preferred coping mechanism for break ups – end it, book a nice holiday, remind yourself there’s a whole world out there. San Francisco was the destination for that first visit more than a decade ago and it was exactly what I needed. An open-minded, free loving city with fantastic restaurants, bars, views; and a notorious former prison island as a main attraction.

Despite falling in love with America on that first trip, it was another nine years before I would visit again when I was invited to a friend’s wedding in New York State. Not only did I get to go to New York City and Niagara Falls for the first time, I was also able to see a British friend living in Boston who had moved there to teach. It was this holiday which made me realise how much I loved the States and wanted to visit as often as I could. New York City in particular became my second favourite city after my beloved London, and I ended up going there every year for the next four years. But I always felt I was missing out on the huge expanse of land in between the east and west coasts and knew I wanted to see more.

Not being a driver (yes, there are plenty of us around – especially in London), I have always been more of a train traveller and definitely prefer it over the classic ‘road trip.’ I have never enjoyed being confined in small spaces for any length of time, and a car journey is definitely what you’d call confined, especially if you’re with other people. As we all know, other people can routinely be terrible, and they are more likely to be terrible in a confined space for a long period of time. Other benefits of train travel are; being able to walk around whenever you feel like it, having lots of alcoholic drinks and attend calls of nature; all while continuing to hurtle towards your destination.

There are many famous long distance train journeys around the world and I considered several, the first one being the Orient Express which all seemed fantastic and vintage until I clicked on the page with the prices. £2,120 one way per person! My desire to travel on the famous train evaporated within seconds. There are things I’d be willing to pay thousands for, and a train journey is not one of them. I also looked at doing the coast to coast train across Australia (Sydney to Perth), but that also costs 4 figures plus and I’ve heard that the vast majority of scenery is just sun-baked nothingness. Not for me.

And then my brain reminded me that I had always wanted to see more of the USA and why didn’t I take the train and explore? So I did.

My trip ended up being just shy of six weeks, as I got off at several places to stay for a few days and explore different cities. Here’s the map of where I travelled – I flew in and out of New York, and red is the (slightly convoluted) journey from East to West, with blue being the route back to NYC. The green dots are the cities I stopped in.

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I travelled over 7,000 miles in total and there is far too much to put in one post, so I’ve split everything up by the individual train journeys and the order in which I took them. I purchased a USA rail pass, which is a time-limited ticket and buys you a set number of journeys or ‘legs’ – each leg being determined by where you get on or off. Amtrak has some beautiful route guide information here.

If you don’t have time to read all of the journeys, I’d recommend the California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief as the most ‘interesting’ routes.

The Crescent – New York to New Orleans

The Sunset Limited – New Orleans to San Antonio

The Texas Eagle – San Antonio to Chicago

The California Zephyr – Chicago to San Francisco (my favourite journey!)

The Coast Starlight – San Francisco to Los Angeles

The Southwest Chief – Los Angeles to Chicago

The Lake Shore Limited – Chicago to New York

I want to put this somewhere in the first post so that everyone sees it, but I cannot tell you how amazing the journey was. Like most people, I had images in my head of how it might be, but it ended up completely exceeding all my expectations. America is a vast country with diverse people and landscapes – I was very lucky to be able to explore it at a leisurely pace.

If you are thinking of doing an Amtrak journey yourself and would like some practical tips, I’ve put a post together here. I may add to this if I think of any other useful information.

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One thought on “A Brit does coast-to-coast America on the train (and back again)

  1. Excellent. Back in 1991 after demobilisation from the first Gulf War i booked flights to LA and return from New York, filling in the bit in between with train journeys.
    I hadn’t planned to use the trains but it turned out to be the easiest way to travel and get to see plenty.
    I did the Coastal Starlight and California Zephyr too, then on to visit my aunt in Cincinnati before continuing on to Washington and New York.
    The best part was the trip from Sacra mentor to Chicago, with views from the top deck of the viewing car, and a breakdown in the mountains overlooking Denier.

    The journey from Chicago was on a single deck train, less impressive, as was the scenery, but I don’t regret a single second of the trip.

    I’ve also done the Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs, and I’d like to continue the journey on to Darwin some day.

    Glad you had a great time.

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