Your first cross country train trip — everything you need to know!

So you think you want to take the train on your next cross country trip? I would highly recommend it, it’s quite an adventure and I fell in love with train travel on my first trip. Fortunately, I took another trip a month later that was not all sunshine and roses so I’m able to provide a pretty realistic look at all sides. Just like anything else in life, you’ll have great experiences along with the so-so.

Note: This post addresses traveling in coach. Want me to write about roomettes and sleeper cars? (Send me an email at hello@mashonward.com and let me know you want to buy me a ticket. I’ll get to writing so fast!)

Anyway, let’s get to it. Here’s the down and dirty on the good, the bad and the … smelly!

Seating

In general coach seating you may have two seats to yourself (or not). It just depends on how crowded the train is. The coach attendant responsible for your car will write your destination and the number of passengers in your row on a little card and hang it above your seat.

For my trip from Chicago to Seattle, mine said SEA 1.

For my trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, mine said LAX 1.

This lets them know how many seats they have available for other passengers boarding and also helps them notify the correct passengers at their stops.

The seats in coach have plenty of legroom and two power outlets at the seat make it easy for you and your neighbor to stay connected throughout the trip. The seat backs recline and a footrest kicks up from the bottom making for a quite comfy trip in my opinion. If you’re lucky enough to have no one next to you the space is so adequate that I preferred hanging out in my row rather than squashing into the observation car.

Announcements

The announcements on various trains are different. On the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, they announced everything, almost to the point where it was annoying. On the Texas Eagle from Chicago to Los Angeles they announced virtually nothing*, which I found out was much more annoying.

There was no information about the dining car hours, café hours, nor when we were taking longer stops so the smokers could get their fix — and the non smokers could get off and stretch their legs.

Case in point: we stopped in Dallas for about 10 minutes — easily long enough for a smoke break but no announcement was made.

*They later told us that the PA in our car wasn’t working and that was why we weren’t receiving announcements. They announced this after thirty-six hours on the train! So be aware of randomness like that.

Quiet hours

Typically there will be quiet hours when no announcements are made, say from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. If you’re getting off at a stop during these quiet hours, this is where the ticket above your seat comes in handy. Your coach attendant is responsible for waking you up if you’re sleeping, and letting you know to gather your things and disembark.

Luggage

If you have large suitcases you’ll need to place them downstairs in the luggage racks before you continue to your seat. You can bring a ton of stuff on Amtrak with the price of your ticket! Two personal items and two suitcases. It’s pretty incredible.

I only travel with a backpack and a carry on, both of which can fit comfortably at my seat or in the overhead storage at my seat. I’m more concerned with securing my backpack than my suitcase as it contains my laptop. For the most part the train feels secure as there’s really no place to go while in between stops.

I bought small luggage locks and use them to lock the backpack compartment containing my laptop. Obviously this won’t deter someone bent on stealing it, but I stay with it most times, usually only venturing off in small jaunts to stretch my legs outside at a stop, use the restroom, or grab coffee.

I have left it a few times while eating in the dining car or sitting in the observation car in the evening. These are judgement calls. In both cases I was on the Empire Builder and both myself and the gentleman across the aisle next to me were continuing all the way to Seattle. This type of continuity brings a certain level of trust as we’d have noticed if someone new was screwing around with each other’s stuff. Plus, I was seated near the coach attendant who was a lot more attentive and observant than those I encountered on my next trip on the Texas Eagle. I also stashed it behind my suitcase and covered it with a sweater so it wasn’t obvious.

On my second train trip on the Texas Eagle, I only left my computer locked in my backpack at my seat to step outside for quick stretch breaks, use the restrooms and grab coffee. The train was really full so at all other times I stayed at my seat or took it with me, like when I got off in San Antonio for the several hour layover there.

Pack & dress strategically

Bring a sweater and blanket for temperature changes and sleeping at night. Sometimes the cars can get quite cold.

My go to outfit for most travel — train included, is leggings and a loose, draped 3/4 sleeve top. This is so much more comfortable than jeans and allows me to layer over with a sweater if need be. I also tend to get cold quicker than hot and would rather wear leggings than shorts anytime I’m going to be in AC for long periods of time.

Keep comfort first in mind as well as easy of changing. Something tight isn’t going to be easy to shimmy out of in a tiny bathroom.

The following items need to be on top of your suitcase/easily accessible:*

  • glasses/contact lenses
  • gum/mints/breath strips
  • toiletry bag
  • change of shirt/clothes for the next day
  • snacks and drinks
  • power cords
  • pillow/neck pillow
  • sleep mask
  • blanket

*These things really should be in a smaller bag by your feet. I had packed them on top of my suitcase but then when I unexpectedly had to share the next seat with a stranger right at bedtime I wasn’t able to get to some of them in my suitcase stashed overhead.

Sleeping on the train

If you don’t have anyone next to you it’s not really that bad in coach. You can recline both seats, pop both footrests and sprawl out in a decently comfortable fashion.

If you have someone you cannot cuddle up with (aka a stranger), let me see how I can put this … you’re fucked. It’s terrible and there’s no sugar coating it. Make sure to bring a pillow of some kind. A neck pillow will work just fine. You’ll also want to have a blanket. Ideally a small one that won’t take up too much space in your suitcase, yet will provide needed protection from the sometimes insane AC.

For the love of all that’s holy pack an eye mask! This was absolutely critical to my getting decent sleep on the train the majority of the time. The lights are quite bright even at night because people are getting on and off the train all night. In the morning the sunlight blazes in quite early depending on the season so it leads to a much better quality of sleep.

Hygiene

The bathrooms are used by so many people that it’s a personal decision how much time you want to spend in there. Even when the bathrooms are kept relatively clean, I prefer to spend as little time in there as possible, which leads to things like once a day brushing and supplementing it with gum or breath mints.

Some quick tips:

  • Make sure to bring gum/mints/Listerine breath strips
  • Pack scented wipes for quick washing up
  • I recommend spritzing your clothes with Febreeze rather than spraying perfume/cologne. Those are easy to get carried away with in an enclosed space. The former is lighter and fresher.
  • Make sure your toiletry pack is easily accessible — the last item packed on top in your suitcase or even stored in a separate backpack
  • Hand sanitizer and cleansing wipes — whatever you do, don’t leave home without them. After washing your hands you still have to touch the bathroom door. Also, getting around the train while it’s moving requires you to hold on to many chairs and handrails, as well as pushing buttons to open the doors and navigate between the train cars. You’ll want to sanitize and do so often. Lysol or Purell wipes are great for wiping down things like your tray table, chair arms and just generally tidying your area. Can’t hurt.

Other people on the train

Lots of articles I’ve read have bashed train travel longer than a day for a number of reasons — many of which have to do with your fellow passengers.

I agree, people can be really shitty on the train. But it’s more that people are really shitty in general these days. People who talk on their cellphone in a crowd are going to also talk on their cellphone on the train. People who ooze over into your seat on an airplane will also do the same on a train. There are basically trifling people everywhere and you either are one of them, or you’ll have to deal with them. Much like life in general.

For the most part you can block out your fellow passengers with a little planning (and internal humor and/or cursing). Here are some of the various behaviors you may encounter on the train and my thoughts on how to counteract each:

People bringing greasy fast food onto the train to start the trip, stinking up the entire car

This will also happen throughout the trip as more people get on. Many passengers will avail themselves of the food court and bring copious amounts of McDonalds or other fast food onto the train creating a greasy, artery clogging smell that will linger in the car for hours.
Plan ahead: Pack a small container of Vicks VapoRub and dab a little at the top of your upper lip to ensure you don’t smell anything for hours.

People talking loudly on cellphones

This isn’t confined to trains. People do this everywhere and either don’t realize they’re being an asshole or don’t care. I tend to think they know it so I stare at them, not breaking eye contact and willing them to read my mind. “You are being a gigantic asshole and I think you know it and are doing it anyway, so I just want you to know that I know and now you know I know. And by the way, nobody cares what you’re doing tonight and tomorrow and the next day … not even the person on the other end of the line who pretends to be your friend even though you are clearly an asshole.”
Plan ahead: Noise cancelling headphones

People taking calls on speakerphone

On a level slightly above the type of person above, so all my previous thoughts apply. These people are somehow deluded into thinking they are so important that people want to hear not only their end of the asinine conversation, but the other party’s conversation as well.
Plan ahead: Noise cancelling headphones

People watching YouTube videos on their phone or computer with no headphones

So your mom was a “loud talker on a cellphone” and your dad was a “taker of calls on speakerphone” and then they had you. Ahhhh, well aren’t you just a treasure to humanity …
Plan ahead: Noise cancelling headphones

People listening to music too loud on crappy headphones so you get their bleed over music

It’s hard to blame them sometimes. After all they’re probably just trying to drown out the world much like you are.
Plan ahead: Noise cancelling headphones

People talking loudly to their seat mates

Some people seem to assume that because you are in the general vicinity and also traveling in the same direction that you are automatically interested in hearing their asinine conversation including but not limited to: the argument that went down last week at Aunt Jan’s, how much they love Harry Potter, what time they should get dinner, their musings about whether or not its going to rain, and on and on and interminably on. I travel alone precisely not to have to engage in babble like this.
Plan ahead: Noise cancelling headphones

People talking loudly to their seat mates in the middle of the night

These people deserve to be thrown from the moving train. I encountered this on the Texas Eagle en route from Chicago to LA. The two women behind me were exiting at 3 a.m. the first night in Little Rock, Arkansas. Because they were staying up they seemed to feel that this entitled them to continue their conversation at normal volume long into the night when the rest of us were trying to sleep.
Plan ahead: Noise cancelling headphones. This definitely sucks because I don’t fall asleep easily with loud music blasting but it was better than their inane chatter. To take the planning to the next level: Download some type of loud white noise that may distract you less than music.

People falling asleep and leaving their cellphone ringer on

Fuuuuuuuuuuccck! I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and hope this was an accident. Still, double check your ringers people!
Plan ahead: Noise cancelling headphones

People playing ridiculous games like candy crush or some other nonsense without headphones

No benefit of the doubt here. You’re a completely inconsiderate human being. No one, and I mean no one wants to hear that. It’s like Chinese water torture and yes, I do want to leap out of my seat, snatch your phone and gleefully destroy it in front of your shocked eyes.
Plan ahead: Noise cancelling headphones

People farting

This is subject to an entire host of factors. I never encountered any issues on my first trip. On the second trip, people packed on with loads of greasy fast food as noted above and several hours later the, as my friend Kirk titled it, “open-asshole farting” began. The man across the aisle even went so far as to call out a strangled, “Dear God!” while covering his mouth with his shirt. I had my eye on the old lady a row ahead. Old people are notorious for gas but at the rate we were going it had to be a host of people. It is not, “Better out than in” as Shrek would say, in a closed ventilation system like the train. These people should have clenched their cheeks, gotten up and walked downstairs to at least shart themselves next to the bathrooms versus killing us all upstairs.
Plan ahead: Bury your entire nose in the container of Vicks and inhale generously.

BO/People spritzing too much cologne or perfume in an effort to hide their BO.

The closed atmosphere of the train means that either one of these is likely to quickly become offensive. While I can appreciate people trying in the latter case they almost always go overboard.
Plan ahead: Vicks VapoRub.

People’s kids crying and acting out

These are the same type of people whose kids you almost run over with your cart in the grocery store. Oh? Is that just me? I operate from a standpoint of, if they were with you and ideally following behind you in an orderly fashion they wouldn’t be darting underneath the wheels of my cart attempting to commit suicide.
Plan ahead: Noise cancelling headphones. If the child is running up and down the aisles and you’re by the window with an empty seat, wedge luggage in the seat next to you as a barrier. If someone is next to you by the window and you’re unlucky enough to be on the aisle, well, perhaps its time to take a nap — complete with eye mask and noise cancelling headphones so you can pretend you’re anywhere else and not thinking of extending your foot in the aisle … just a little …

People who “harrumph” because you don’t close your window shades at sunset or sunrise

The reason I took the train was not for its lighting fast transportation from coast to coast. I took it to see the scenery roll by and that’s just exactly what I’m going to do — your harrumphs and murmurings notwithstanding. Why don’t you put on your eye mask? Oh, you don’t have one … ? Amateur.

Loud, abrupt belches

These people have no class nor sense of decorum.
Plan ahead: noise cancelling headphones. If (like me) you happen to overhear this during a lapse in headphone wearing, simply give a quick prayer of thanks that you’re not married to them and seated right next to them taking the brunt of the belch.

People oozing over into your seat

The seats on the train don’t have armrests between them so there’s little you can do here other than setting firm, elbows out boundaries. Alternatively, you can shrink further into your side with eye patch and headphones and pray they are getting off at the next station.

People complaining about the prices

The prices are what they are. You can plan ahead, or you can suck it up and deal with it. Amtrak menus are available online and considering their captive audience, I think they could be price gauging much worse! I find the snack and drink prices very similar to that of an airline. But the old ladies who say, and I quote, “$5 for a hot dog? That’s crazy as fuck!” are just the type of people who will complain about anything. I smiled and tipped the attendant extra for that one. How she kept a pleasant smile on her face in spite of that woman was a marvel to me.

Food/Snacks/Drinks

Each train has a café car where you can get things like soda, water, gatorade and coffee, as well as various snacks like chips and candy. The café will also typically provide easily microwaveable meals like pizza (I don’t want to know how they manage that in the microwave) and breakfast sandwiches. Eat at your own risk. They also supply alcoholic beverages: beer, wine and mini liquor bottles just like on an airplane.

You’re allowed to bring your own food and drinks in your luggage. I’m not sure of the official stance on bringing alcoholic beverages but I’m sure that if you’re not openly advertising that you’re drinking and don’t bring attention to yourself, there shouldn’t be a problem with supplying your own beverages. Just make sure to bring something inconspicuous to drink them in. I would just save my coffee cup from the morning and reuse it in the evening. (Ok afternoon. Ok, late morning. Hey, my body stayed on Eastern time.)

I try to eat as little gluten as possible so I’m somewhat hampered when it comes to snacks but I find the following to be easy to pack and plenty sufficient.

  • Tuna packets
  • Beef jerky
  • Homemade trail mix
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Mini bottles/boxes of wine
  • Mini bottles of liquor

The dining car operates based on reservations. Before each meal an attendant will come through the cars asking if you’re interested in a reservation. You just flag them down and they’ll give a you a few options (if there are any remaining), and then you’ll go eat at that time.

The sleeper cars get first choice but there are still typically slots remaining for coach passengers. Tables are filled up with sets of strangers, kind of like on a cruise. The banquets hold four so they’ll put two and two couples together, or several singles and a couple and so forth. It’s a great way to meet other people and I definitely encourage you to eat at least one meal in the dining car. The meals can be hit or miss and are pricey for the quality, however, it’s worth experiencing.

Sometimes there will also be a meal option offered at your seat. For a price of say, $12 instead of the dining car price, you can have a meal at your seat. The meal is set in advance and is just one option. Chicken and a side for example. The coach attendant usually comes around taking orders well in advance, then will deliver the meal to you around dinner time. I haven’t tried this option yet but plan to next time.

Wi-Fi

Some of the trains advertise Wi-Fi. If you’re going across the country I hate to burst your bubble but they don’t have Wi-Fi. There is too much passing in and out of areas where you don’t even have service let alone internet connectivity. Download everything you’re going to need ahead of time. Movies, music, everything. If you absolutely need internet, you’ll need to use your phone as a hotspot while realizing that there are just areas of the country where you’ll be knocked into No Service no matter what service you use. I have a Verizon unlimited plan and have had pretty good coverage but there were places in North Dakota, Montana, Arkansas, and Texas (so far) where I just had to deal. For that reason, on my trips I’ll usually write in Evernote offline and sync whenever I have service.

Boredom

First, note: If you ever get bored, you might be a boring person.

The people around you will certainly get bored because the train is full of many people who are often incapable of filling their time with worthwhile pursuits. Instead they carry on inane phone conversations, converse loudly with their seat mates and harrumph at your decision to leave your shades open. God forbid you end up near a boring person during an episode of No Service available on devices. Your headphones are your best friend.

Bring things to do. Forced entrapment can lead to quite impressive bouts of productivity. Alternatively you can use the time to rest and recharge.

I typically write, read, think and sleep. Honestly, on each trip I leave the train wishing I had longer to get more done, so I’m not the best to advise you on boredom. Become more interesting. Interesting people are never bored.

Audiobooks are great so you can “read” while also staring out at the beautiful scenery. Movies, podcasts and TV shows are easily downloadable in advance if that’s what you prefer. Make sure to pack extra sets of headphones in case something happens to your first pair. I truly couldn’t imagine being without them.

Did I miss anything? Have more questions about train travel? Let me know at hello@mashonward.com!