Tips for travelling on the American Railroad

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St. Louis

There are many ways that Amtrak is different from UK trains and I shall list the main ones here. Some are important, others less so. I purchased a 45-day, 18-segment rail pass which turned out to be hugely good value – the more long journeys you make, the bigger the savings.

Updated (17th August 2016)

A few people have asked how much it costs to do something like this trip but it really will depend how long you are in the States, where you choose to get on/off and which routes you take. The rail pass is available in 15 days (8 journeys), 30 days (12 journeys) or 45 days (18 journeys). Journeys are determined by where you get off. So for the California Zephyr, I went from Chicago to Denver (1 journey) and then Denver to San Francisco (1 journey), even though it is the same train and route. And if you cannot get between two points directly and have to change trains, that will be counted as 2 journeys.

One of the big advantages of being on the train overnight is that you don’t have to pay for accommodation, which is a large saving. So the more overnight journeys you can take, the more you’ll save. Continue reading

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The Lake Shore Limited – Chicago to New York

Distance travelled: 959 miles (Chicago to New York, via Rochester)

Journey Duration: 21 hours

States travelled through: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York

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My final train journey gave me mixed feelings, knowing that I would soon be going home but also seeing a little bit more of the US. I’d loved everything I’d seen so far, and the Lake Shore train promised more fantastic scenery.

This was a predominately night-time train, scheduled to leave to Chicago at 9.30pm. I used the time before departure to wander around the beautiful Union station building. Continue reading

The Coast Starlight – San Francisco to Los Angeles

Distance travelled: 469 miles

Journey duration: 9 hours

States travelled through: California

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The shortest journey of all – a mere whippersnapper at nine hours in length. Thankfully it was all in daylight too, so I was able to see the wondrous Californian coast. I’d done a small road trip along route 101 the last time I visited San Francisco, but our time had been limited and we only made it down as far as Santa Cruz.

I almost caught this train for its entire journey from Seattle to LA, but had decided against taking the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, taking the California Zephyr instead. The Zephyr was my favourite train of all, so I wasn’t too upset at not taking the Starlight the whole way. Continue reading

The California Zephyr – Chicago to San Francisco

Distance travelled: 1038 miles (Chicago to Denver), 1400 miles (Denver to San Francisco)

Journey duration: 18 hours (Chi to Denver), 33 hours (Denver to SF)

States travelled through: Ilinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California

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The California Zephyr is a famous American train, first entering service in 1949 when the attendants were called ‘Zephyrettes.’ It ended up being my favourite train journey of all, even though it was one of the longest. The scenery is SPECTACULAR (capital letters are justified here) and I was fairly open mouthed the whole way. This was one journey where I was determined not to miss a second of the view and I stared out of the window until darkness fell, somewhere in Utah. Continue reading

The Texas Eagle – San Antonio to Chicago

Distance travelled: 675 miles (San Antonio to Little Rock), 634 miles (Little Rock to Chicago)

Journey duration: 17 hours (SA to LR), 14 hours (LR to CHI)

States travelled through: Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois

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The Texas Eagle holds the delightful title with me for being the train with the longest delays. Apparently there were some engineering works on the line somewhere but whereas in the UK they will close the line to do this, it is not needed for a daily train. Cue long periods of just waiting on the tracks while the workmen up ahead got all of their equipment out of the way so the train could move. Continue reading

The Sunset Limited – New Orleans to San Antonio

Distance travelled: 573 miles

Journey Duration: 15 hours

States travelled through: Louisiana, Texas

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This journey is one of the longest in the US, taking 45 hours to travel between Los Angeles and New Orleans. It is also one of the least frequent long-distance trains, running just three times a week, compared to daily for most other routes. I travelled to San Antonio to visit friends and the journey time was half that of the Crescent, prompting a big ‘WOO-HOO ONLY 16 HOURS ON THE TRAIN’ reaction.

Continue reading

The Crescent – New York to New Orleans

The Big Apple to the Big Easy

Distance travelled: 1,377 miles

Journey duration: 30 hours

States passed through: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, DC, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.

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After spending a week in New York, I was ridiculously excited to go to Penn station and pick up my reservation tickets – this was a trip I’d wanted to do for years. I was hungry and wasn’t sure what the food on the train would be like, so I bought a KFC meal before boarding and remembered that in the US, they serve biscuits rather than fries with your chicken. This is a whole other post, but let me just say that these ‘biscuits’ upset British people more than you can imagine. (Don’t argue with me on this – just google scones.)

Thirty hours seemed like a long journey but I was ready for it. Yes, you read that correctly – the journey takes thirty hours from New York to New Orleans. If you tried that in the UK, you’d either end up in the North Sea somewhere or the middle of the Atlantic. How I love this small island nation (except when it votes to leave the EU.) Continue reading