Most of us don’t get much vacation time. When we travel, we want to get to our destinations quickly, so we usually hop on a plane. But just as slow food and slow living movements are becoming the trend, it may be time to decelerate travel, too. This year, as The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, celebrates 45 years in business, give slow travel a try by taking a train. Depending on the route, you might pass green forests or yellow deserts, mighty rivers or tall mountains, charming country homes or grand city skylines. Here are a few reasons to board a train this summer—whether for a few hours or for a couple of days.
1. YOU WILL RELAX.
With planes, your journey starts when you land. With trains, your voyage begins once you board. Yes, trains are slow, but that’s the point, says Slow Travel Europe: “Speed destroys the connection with the landscape. Slow travel restores it.” Slow Movement also says that slow travel reconnects you with people and culture. Curt Fettinger, a Seattle-based IT professional and a train aficionado who rode Amtrak the first day it started operating on May 1, 1971, and says he has ridden nearly every route since then, finds rail travel more pleasant and more interesting. “You’re not stuck in a tiny seat and you can get up and move around,” he tells mental_floss. “People tend to let down a little bit on trains and talk to each other.”
2. YOU WILL SEE THE COUNTRY.
The Central California Coast. Photo by iStock.
Whether you travel along the coast for a few hours or board a cross-country train, you’re sure to see some incredible scenery. On the West Coast, the Pacific Surfliner, which connects San Luis Obispo and San Diego, will take you along the famously beautiful California seascapes (any closer and you’d be swimming), while the Coast Starlight, which runs from Los Angeles to Seattle, will show you the snowy peaks of Mount Shasta and the Cascade Range. On the East Coast, if you take the Lake Shore Limited, which runs from New York or Boston to Albany and then to Chicago, you can watch the Hudson River splashing right next to the tracks, and then travel along Lake Michigan.
Depending on what landscape you want to see, there are multiple cross-country routes. The Southwestern Chief will take you from Chicago to Los Angeles, passing eight states on the way, including the surprisingly desert-like stretches of Southern Colorado and golden-red canyons of New Mexico. You will also travel through the Grand Canyon, but you won’t see much of its grandeur because you'll pass it at night. For more mountainous glory, opt for the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco through the Rocky Mountains, passing Nebraska, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno on the way. Fettinger’s top three favorite sightseeing rides are the Coast Starlight, the California Zephyr, and the Cardinal, which passes through West Virginia and Shenandoah Valley.
3. YOU WILL HAVE A BED TO SLEEP IN—AND SOMETIMES A PERSONAL TOILET, TOO.
If you’re traveling overnight, you can buy a sleeper ticket, which gets you a roomette or a bedroom. Roomettes are small private compartment that features folding beds, a table, and sometimes even a personal toilet. Most compartments accommodate two people, but some can fit a family of three or four. For a cross-country ride, be prepared to stay on the train for two nights. The prices fluctuate: A one-way sleeper cross-country roomette for two adults can average $800 or more (a little cheaper for seniors and students), but Fettinger says he has found deals for half that price. Sleeper tickets include all meals during your journey. It also includes night and morning service: Your Amtrak car attendants lift your upper berth, and fold your lower one into two comfy chairs in the morning, then transform them back into bunks in the evening.
Bedrooms are slightly different compartments—they're larger, but also more expensive. Some trains feature overhead luggage spaces inside roomettes, while others feature luggage racks in shared areas. Some roomettes are built to fit a small flushing potty next to your bed, which comes in handy if you don’t feel like shuffling to the restroom in the middle of the night. And no, it doesn’t smell like an outhouse!
4. YOU WILL EAT REAL FOOD WITH REAL UTENSILS.
An Amtrak dining car. Photo by Lina Zeldovich
Every Amtrak train has a café car, and every overnight train features a dining car, which employs a real kitchen. You will get served real food on real plates with real linens, and the metal cutlery will actually cut your steak. From baked chicken to crab cakes to sizzling stakes grilled to perfection, your food is cooked right before you eat it. The bacon is crispy, burgers are juicy, and dinner rolls are warm and fresh. Desserts, however, are pre-made (and usually taste like it).
You can order a bottle of wine with dinner, or drinks at the bar. If you’re traveling on a sleeper ticket, all meals are included in the price.
5. YOU CAN HAVE YOUR BREAKFAST IN BED.
One of the best things about waking up on the train is that you have nowhere to go—you can lounge in bed all morning or even all day. Whether you’re too comfy or too lazy, your attendant can bring your meals to your compartment, so you can prop yourself on the bed and munch on your food slowly, watching trees or cactuses float by.
6. THERE’S NO JET LAG.
In this set up, jet lag is easier to beat. When you pass through multiple time zones slowly, you adjust to the hours on your own inner schedule. You can hit the sack as soon as the sun sets, or past midnight. You can sleep in late, take a nap in the afternoon or stay up all night reading. Whether you’re a lark or a night owl, you make your own schedule as the miles go by.
7. YOU CAN BE SOCIAL.
Unless you’re traveling as a group of three or four, you will likely be seated together with complete strangers for your meals. It’s like the dinner seating on cruises—except you get paired up with different folks all the time. It may sound intimidating or awkward, but most train travelers say that they often enjoy the social aspect of their journey the most. Everyone takes a breather from their frenzied lifestyle, and gets talkative and friendly.
The cross-country trains also feature viewing cars with huge window and glass ceilings, where you can mingle or choose a single seat, hug your camera, and stare out the window. If you prefer to chill in private, you can draw privacy curtains in your roomette and choose room service, but meeting people is part of the fun. “It almost develops into a little temporary community traveling together,” Fettinger says.” It’s an experience in and of itself.”
An Amtrak privacy curtain. Photo by Lina Zeldovich.
8. YOU’LL BE MORE COMFORTABLE.
Amtrak coach seats generally recline further than plane coach seats, and they also offer more leg room. So while many train rides are longer than an average plane ride, you won’t be forced to sit there twisted into a pretzel. You can walk around, stroll to a café car, have a cup of real coffee and drink it at a real table. If you’re traveling in a sleeper car, the folding beds are spacious enough and comfortable, although falling asleep to the clickety-clack of the wheels may take some getting used to.
Being on the road is no excuse for skipping your morning routine, and not only are there showers on the train, but they’re comfortable, the water pressure is decent, and, surprisingly, the train movement seems to have little effect on how the water flows.