It took me 96 hours to ride an Amtrak train from coast to coast. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
Graham Rapier / Business Insider
Graham Rapier / Business Insider
- Amtrak is easily the slowest way to travel from coast to coast, but I did it anyway.
- The journey was delayed by more than 24 hours thanks to a missed connection in Chicago.
- Still, the sights were so beautiful - and the conversations with fellow passengers so enjoyable - that I'd repeat the journey every time I travel, if I had the time.
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Over the course of 96 hours, I saw more of the US than I had ever seen before as I traveled through cities and towns of all sizes, across wind-swept plains, and through some of the most beautiful mountains imaginable.But stepping onto my first overnight Amtrak journey, I thought I was a seasoned veteran. Mere hours into the four-day journey though, I quickly learned that wasn't the case. Advertisement
I've taken the train between New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, more times than I can count, and even ventured out of the Northeast Corridor for a few longer journeys. But compared to many other passengers on this trip from coast to coast, I was still a novice in every sense of the term.
My companions on this 96-hour, 10-state journey from New York to Seattle, especially my fellow sleeping car passengers, were well-versed on how to survive a multiday trip by rail. Nearly every person I met had been on a sleeper before, and they were well-prepared to pass the time.Unfortunately, I was not as ready.
I departed Business Insider's headquarters on a Tuesday afternoon, loaded up with plenty of snacks, tons reading material, hours of podcasts, fully charged batteries, and high hopes.
My journey officially began at New York's Pennsylvania Station, one of the most hated buildings in the city, if not the world.Advertisement
There are lots of ways to cross the country by train. The journey I chose isn't the longest by route miles, but it is one of the most popular.
The first half of my journey was scheduled to depart Manhattan at 3:40 p.m. I had an assigned car and room number, so there was no mad-dash to get a seat like on some trains. Still, I found myself in a line.Advertisement
Each train car had an assigned attendant, who helped me find my room and later came through to explain everything about the room, how dining worked, and all the other rules of the train.
I was surprised my tiny room included both a toilet (which doubled as a table) and a fold down sink.Advertisement
The sink only drains as you fold it back into the wall, and splashed all over my stuff when I used the faucet.
As we headed up the Hudson River, I settled in to relax and watch the sunset.Advertisement
At Albany, where the train had to switch from modern, electrified power to a diesel locomotive, we had about a 20-minute break to stretch our legs, get a snack, smoke a cigarette, and pick up more passengers.
My dinner reservation wasn't until 8:30, so after stretching my legs in Albany I settled in for some more reading until my time slot was called.Advertisement
I had previously reported on some big changes on (some of) Amtrak's dining cars east of the Mississippi, so I was mentally prepared going into dinner — and that proved to be a good thing.
As I scanned the menu with my complementary glass of wine, Peggy — who was finished with her Chicken Fettuccine already — warned me in a polite-but-foreboding tone that the food "isn't what it used to be."Advertisement
The Creole Shrimp and Sausage left much to be desired. I'm no gourmand in my home kitchen -- but for these ticket prices, I could see why people were unhappy.
Luckily, the food got better on the next train — where the white tablecloths are likely to remain, for now at least. (More on that in a bit.)Advertisement
After the dining car emptied out, I headed back to my room to settle in for the night. James asked if I wanted to use the top of bottom bed (yes, people pack two-tight into these roommates) and showed me how to make it up.
I joked about this safety net as I crawled into bed, but one big bump in the night later and I was thankful it was there to keep me from falling six feet to the train floor below.Advertisement
I awoke the next morning around Benton Township, Ohio, according to the location tags that my phone automatically added to this photo.
I went to breakfast — an unreserved affair compared to dinner — around 10 a.m., after we should have already arrived in Chicago. Sadly, however, we were in Waterloo, Indiana — still hours from our destination.Advertisement
Worried I would miss my connection in Chicago, I went back in my room and contemplated life, the status of rail travel in the United States, and tried to get some work done. My train from Chicago to Seattle, meanwhile, left without me.
Finally, we arrived in Chicago a full five hours and 49 minutes behind schedule. Plenty of other people missed their connecting trains too, but no one seemed to be very disappointed. After all, we were (mostly) here for the journey — and knew it would be a slow one.Advertisement
I joined a line with many of my fellow delayed travelers and plotted how I could waste 24 hours in Chicago. Luckily, Amtrak had many of our trips already rebooked, and a customer service agent went down the line passing out updated itineraries as well as hotel and food vouchers.
On an unplanned hiatus from my journey, I decided to explore downtown Chicago, a city with great importance to America's railroad history.Advertisement
24 hours behind schedule, I headed back to Union Station for attempt number two to board the Empire Builder to Seattle.
Once the door opened, we headed to our train. There was no rush, like trains on the East Coast, but this many people with luggage heading down one narrow platform made for chaos, to say the least.Advertisement
Luckily, however, I soon discovered that I had lucked out: the accessible bedroom was mine.
Smitten with relief from not having to spend two nights sleeping upright, I unpacked my stuff and got comfortable in my new room.Advertisement
As on my first trip, a dining car attendant came to take my reservation. I chose the latest option again.
I also had a choice of two seats in this spacious bedroom, depending on which way I wanted to face.Advertisement
Rolling through Wisconsin, one of the few aforementioned states I had never visited before, the landscape was mostly what I was expecting: rolling hills and farms.
This train had an observation car, too, which I was eager to use as an escape from my room.Advertisement
Somewhere between Milwaukee and Minneapolis, my dinner reservation finally rolled around. I headed to the dining car, and followed the instructions to wait at the door to be seated.
Dining on Amtrak is an interesting affair, unlike any restaurant I've ever been to.Advertisement
I eventually settled on the "Land and Sea Combo" because let's face it, I'm never going to pass up a steak.
Dessert was so delicious that I forgot to take a photo, but take my word for it that the cheesecake was moist, flavorful, and topped with fresh whipped cream.Advertisement
I opted for the bottom bunk on this train, so that I could see out the window (despite the darkness). It was slightly more spacious than the first train, and I quickly drifted off to sleep.
At some point in the night we hit a nasty storm, despite being so early in the season. It bombarded much of the upper Midwest. My window was mostly caked with ice, and the landscape had changed drastically since Minnesota.Advertisement
There's nothing more warming than a hearty breakfast, and pancakes did the trick.
I've lived in New York for the better part of a decade, but snow is still extremely exciting, so I headed to the observation car to stare at the frozen landscape.Advertisement
By Minot, North Dakota, it was time for another crew change.
Somewhere near the Montana/North Dakota border, things started to look like I expected them to. That is to say, it was desolate.Advertisement
Some of the smaller stations don't see many passengers. That's probably because this one in particular still features a vintage Amtrak logo that was retired nearly two decades ago.
One thing I didn't expect to see along the route were so many railroad museums.Advertisement
Salmon was my dinner choice for the second night. It wasn't the best fish I've ever had, but still an excellent meal.
I cannot overstate the amount of farming. It was at this point I fully understood the line "amber waves of grain."Advertisement
At this point, I was getting pretty restless. Eager to get to Seattle (and off this train), I settled in for an early bedtime (and more reading).
I woke up the next morning in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Western Washington.Advertisement
There were no pancakes this morning because I slept in. I opted for an omelette and grits instead. Not bad!
Because service was over for the trip, I managed to get a small tour of the kitchen and service area.Advertisement
Finally, we turned a corner out of the mountains and there it was at long last: Puget Sound.
I stepped off the train at 1 p.m. — nearly three hours after our scheduled arrival.Advertisement
Seattle's King Street station, like Chicago, is beautiful.
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