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How To: Travel the Country By Rail

I admit it.  I’ve read the Harry Potter books.  I’ve watched Polar Express about 50+ times.  I’m a train fan-girl.  There is something about travelling the countryside by rail that is so… well…  quaint.

This past June, I enjoyed a lovely 36-hour train ride from Colorado to California.  It was an amazing experience, spending a day and a half travelling across mountains, plains and the desert until we reached the ocean.

Many of my friends questioned why I wouldn’t just fly out to California.  Why would I want to spend so long in a confined space?  Well, I say, “why not?”

Here’s a quick how-to if you feel brave enough to join me in the train traveler’s club.


Know Your Route


Amtrak doesn’t go everywhere, but it certainly covers a great majority of the country.  If a trains stop nearby, this is your opportunity to hop on and start exploring.  The California Zephyr train, for example, travels from Chicago to San Francisco, with a stop in Denver.  That route was perfect for us to make it out to the Pacific Ocean.

Pick Your Seats

Amtrak has several seating options – unreserved coach being the least expensive and full family suites being at the top end.  We chose the coach seats and they were very roomy.  If you think you are crammed in like sardines, like the airlines do, think again!

The seats folded back and had foot rests that flipped up.  Stretched out, I still couldn’t touch the seat in front of me with my toes.  We slept on the train overnight and it wasn’t too bad.  We brought travel pillows and blankets and that made it more comfortable.

Let’s not forget the ample power outlets to keep all the electronics powered up!

Move About the Cabin

Mini Me spent the majority of her day in the observation car (one car over from ours).  It had larger windows, including ones that carried onto the ceiling.  It was a great spot to look out at the scenery, read a book, and get some sunshine.

At most of the stops, we were able to actually exit the train for 15-30 minutes and stretch our legs.  We arrived at 2am in Salt Lake City, but you know we were outside looking around.  Then we had 100 degree weather in Sacramento – what a shock!

I recommend not staying in your seat the whole time, and move around.  Your seat is yours (no one will take it), so you can just move around, get food, and walk through the different cars.

Dining “In”

Sure, you will get hungry during a 36-hour trip.  There are two options on-board:  snack bar and full-service restaurant.  We chose to eat in the restaurant three times during our trip, and the other times, we ate at the snack bar.  I was surprised that everything was reasonably priced and the food was decent.

At one point in our journey, the staff came around and handed out snack packs and water bottles.  A nice bit of a surprise in the middle of the afternoon.

But if you would like to save money, you can always bring food on board in a cooler.  Alcoholic beverages can be consumed in the sleeping cars, or available for purchase for the coach cars.

Last thoughts

What a way to see the country in a behind-the-scenes trip.  Many of the places we saw were not visible from a highway.  They were tucked away outside the view of regular population.  The ride was smooth, and quite enjoyable to see the changes in climate and environments.

Lastly, I will say the customer service on board was impeccable.  We had such attentive crew members who made our experience fun and memorable.

My next trip will likely go the other way. I’ve never been to Chicago, and I think traveling by rail is the way to go!


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