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Traveltracks: My 30-Day Cross-Country USA Rail Pass Adventure

Episode 5 - Five Tips for the Solo Rail Traveler

Sean Lynch

Sean is a 23-year-old Bostonian who loves to travel, read and write.

My final trip from Chicago to Boston found me both pondering the monumental trip I had undertaken and looking forward its completion. As I looked back over my journey, I calculated that I rode a total of 11 Amtrak trains, and spent 179 hours and 10 minutes in transit.

This figure comes from the predicted times on the Timetable, which I found to be quite accurate, but unforeseen delays occurred on a few trips. Like the avalanche in Utah that shut down the track from Sacramento to Salt Lake City. This would have been my twelfth train, but I chose to take a flight in order to stay within my 30-day limit.

At first I didn't believe the incredible amount of time I spent on the train. After checking, and re-checking my math, I realized I spent over one week of my trip chatting in the Café Car, looking at the wondrous scenery in the Observation Car, or sleeping in my assigned seat. That's a lot of time on the train and it's a lot of time to myself.

I was sad to see my adventure come to a close, but the experiences I had across America really changed my scope on this country. The spirited culture and people in every new city perpetuated a broad national character that became clearer to me. Traveling is a passion of mine but as anybody that has been away for an extended period of time knows, coming home is one of the best parts. Excited for my return home, I counted the hours as we charged through New York and Western Massachusetts onboard the Lake Shore Limited. I took time on my ride east to reflect on my trip, on train travel specifically and came up with five tips for traveling alone on the train.

1. Ask questions
I was relatively new to train travel before this trip, and didn't know the protocol of making reservations for the dining car, or even the concept of the "smoke stop." Ask a lot of questions — staff and fellow travelers are more than happy to answer them even if it may appear to be the most obvious solution. You won't be looked at with suspicion as you might in an airport, and there are no invasive searches, so ask away.

2. Explore
Don't stay nailed to your seat the whole time. Especially on long trips, the luxury of having almost an entire train to walk through really helps to pass the time. There are no seatbelt signs, so really see what the train has to offer. Get a snack in the Café Car. Read a good book in the Observation Car. And make a new friend over dinner in the "communal seating" Dining Car. Make sure you remember your car number and seat number though, they begin to all look alike.

3. Get to Know the Locals
Talking to Amtrak employees is also a great way to appreciate train travel, and learn a few things too. For the most part everyone from the Car Attendant to the Engineer is friendly. Ask them about the route or what state you happen to be looking at out the window, and I'm sure they will be happy to oblige with interesting answers.

4. Know the Territory
One good thing about getting into a new city late at night is that more often than not Amtrak stations are in, or near, a city center. Regardless, you should know the city you are getting into and, if it's late, either call for a taxi beforehand or book a hotel within a half-mile from the station. Airports have shuttles, and public transit, and flocks of taxis waiting at all hours. Train stations do not attract such luxuries, and therefore it is very important to plan ahead. Even asking a Car Attendant before you pull in — they seem to know every city on the route very well — can help you get a grasp on your next form of transportation. I was never ill prepared when arriving in a city, just sometimes things were not what I expected and I had to walk a little further than I had hoped.

5. Read Up
There is no better way to get ready for a train trip than to do a little of your own research. Research can be a four-letter word to some but reading up on train travel is really enjoyable. For my part I chose a variety of reference materials. The first was a travel guide for train travel that included history, routes, and "don't miss" stops along the way. Another greatly inspirational read for any train trip is a travelogue of one writer's daring adventures from his time on the rails with the "American hoboes" of the 1970s. He took train traveling to the extreme and makes a fantastic read. While I won't be hopping a freight car anytime soon, it was great to see his insight on the experience.