A Roundtrip Amtrak Journey Across the United States
(September 2002)

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A lifelong dream of mine had always been to cross the great big continental USA, either by train or by car.  The latter being the better option, in that I would be able to do and see much more, but, being a little intimidated about driving on the other side of the road (Iím from South Africa) and for long stretches at a time, it would have to remain just a dream for the time being.  The thought of driving solo for thousands of miles for days on end, as well as doing all the sightseeing on my own, was a big deciding factor, so concluding to leave that route for another time was my only option.  In addition, travelling around on your own is a little scary at times (a woman on her own, you know?) so it was a great comfort to know that for long periods of time, you are surrounded by other people, to talk to or not, to have dinner with, or not, or to admire the scenery with, or not.  Itís a fun way to travel and rather stress-free, barring delays that is.  Never once did I feel scared or apprehensive about being on my own.  I felt completely safe and secure.  What a feeling!

In September 2002, I armed myself with a 30-day off-peak (June 1 Ė September 4) National Rail Pass (previously only available to non-USA residents) which allowed me as much travel as I wished within those 30 consecutive days, all across the country and in any direction and at any time I chose, for $385*.  In this time I either stopped in or passed through about thirty states which I thought quite an accomplishment.  I chose to travel in September which was great as it wasnít too hot and not crowded in the least.  I would think that travel in the months of September and October and possibly November (more out west) or between March and May would be ideal.  Then the weather should be neither too hot nor too cold and the crowds less than those in summer.  Of course if you choose to, or can only travel in the more expensive and hotter summer months, then go ahead.  After all, some people love the heat.

ROUTE
I travelled from Rhode Island on the east coast, to Chicago and then via Denver to San Diego on the west coast.  I saw how the scenery changed from flat cornfields to the mountainous Rockies and then desert athrough Nevada and back to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada in California.  The trip through northern California up to Eugene, Oregon, held some of the most beautiful scenery.  Majestic mountains shrouded in mist looking over carpeted farmlands.  This is a trip I would really like to take all the way up to Seattle in Washington.  Then it was back east through Nevada, the red rocks of Arizona and New Mexico to Chicago and south to New Orleans.  Then back north up the east coast.  A huge trip but one I would do again tomorrow.  You don't have to be as adventurous and perhaps choose one trip at a time - you're sure to want to take another.
See below for a list of the various Amtrak trains I took.   Map

Both the California coast and inland, between San Diego and San Francisco, afforded me some spectacular views.  If you don't get to see Broadway shows, LA mansions, the Wild West, or museums or art shows, then revel at least in the beauty and wonder of the countryside and it beats finding parking in cities, breathing in the pollution and generally, getting stressed out.  Sit back and relax and absorb all you see.  This is a particularly good way of taking a vacation on a limited budget and making the most of it.


         

         

       

       

       

       

       

   

A city that surprised me was New Orleans.  Although it was muggy and rainy, I thoroughly enjoyed the French Quarter and walking around.  I got drenched but it was welcome as the humidity was a little stifling and it felt good to get wet.  It's a little expensive but not too bad.  The guest house I found was a treasure and well worth seeking out if you go there.  Where you stay makes all the difference and it's just a streetcar ride from town.  It's a nice part of town to walk around in and the Mississippi river is a hop, skip and a jump from the French Quarter.  It seemed as though books and movies came to life when there.  Things seemed so familiar yet so new.  I had dinner at the buffet at Harrah's which was about double the price of the one in Reno and not as varied.  Nice though.

The other city I enjoyed was San Francisco.  I'd been before but it was a rushed trip and even though this time I had an extra day, that's all I needed to get oriented and see as much as I could.  Museums and shows would have to wait for another time and when I had more of a budget.  I caught buses, trollies and trams to get around and in a full day managed to see Fisherman's Wharf, Lombard Street, Haight Ashbury, Castro Street, Chinatown (delightful), Pacific Heights (a posh part of town and familiar because so many movies are filmed there) and the Victorian cottages on Alamo Square.  Rides on the Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California Trolley Lines give you a wonderful perspective of this fun city.  If you get a day ticket for the buses, trollies and trams, then there's no excuse.  You can end up spending a fortune but doing it this way saves you a lot and you get more than you bargained for.  This is a great city to walk around in if you make sure to avoid the steep hills and the nasty bits, which are to be found in most big cities.  I wasn't overly aware of any nastiness I have to admit.  There's is still Alcatraz Island, Japantown, The Presidio, Golden Gate Park and more to see on my next trip.

I did this entire trip around the country on my own and not once did I feel intimidated, scared or apprehensive.  Of course you have to be vigilant wherever you are in the world so armed with that, you should be fine.  I found this the perfect way for single people to travel and you never know who you'll meet along the way!

You have to show your Pass each time you need to buy train tickets.  Reservations and tickets are required and itís a great way to save as you travel.  There is a Pass for US citizens so check with Amtrak for details.  Last I heard there was a 30-day North America and Canada Pass for around US$475.00*, off-peak (anytime outside June 1 and October 15) and as much as $674.00* for peak (June 1 - October 15) travel.  There is a discount for Seniors, Children and Students so do enquire at the time of booking and, you must include a stop in Canada.  This is also a very hassle-free way to travel with only the minimum of trouble. (See my opening paragraph - the USA Rail Passes are available to everyone.)  The Amtrak crews were also helpful when it came to altering my itinerary (because of delays) and while still on board no less, which I found to be extremely accommodating and reassuring.

One of the best things about this Pass is that you can start your journey from just about anywhere in the country.  For example, you might want to begin in Miami, FL, or Seattle, WA, or Chicago, IL (perhaps one of the largest stations along with Penn Station in New York City, and you have a huge variety of destinations from this one station) or even from the middle of nowhere like, say, Moscow, ID (apologies to Moscow) and start from either Boise, ID or Spokane, WA.  Take a good, long and detailed look at the Amtrak map and plan your trip accordingly.
Further down I have listed the various sectors I took to give you an idea of where exactly I went.

There are also three California passes which I believe are open to anyone and not only Californians, of which you can take advantage, especially if you are into scenery and only in California.  They are 7 in 21 days Statewide for US$159* (you can travel for any 7 days in a period of 21 days); 5 in 7 days Northern California for $99* (travel on any 5 days in a period of 7 days); or 5 in 7 days Southern California for $99*.  I think the Statewide pass for $159* sounds like a winner as you can see everything between LA and San Francisco, and beyond.  Compare this to a quote I was given for a roundtrip ticket between Denver, CO and Glenwood Springs, CO in late January 2003, for $110*!  Thatís $110 for a six and a half hour trip there and another six and a half hours back the next day.  Then, two days later I was quoted $88, so it seems that fares fluctuate from day to day.  To me it makes sense to get a pass wherever possible so that you can see more, do more and save on fares.

There are other passes available (previously only available to to non-residents), and they are also great value and are just as flexible so do consider them if you donít have a full thirty days to spare and perhaps just fifteen days in which to take your train trip.

Amtrak Pass Rates (2008)
Please visit Amtrak.com for their latest rates.

National Rail Pass - 15 and 30 days at $389* and $469* respectively, off-peak (freedom to travel anywhere, anytime and a great bargain if you have lots of ground to cover.  Peak fares $499* and $599*;
(they were $295 and $385 off-peak and $440 and $550 peak)

Coastal Rail Pass - 30-day off-peak at $235* along the Pacific coast.  Peak fare $285*;
(I'm not sure that this is still available as I couldn't find new fares)

Northeast Rail Pass - 15-day pass at $299* for travel between the Virginia coast and Montreal and Niagara Falls off-peak and peak; 
(they were $185 (15 days) and $225 (30 days) off-peak and $205 and $240 peak)

West Rail Pass - 15 and 30-day off-peak passes at $329* and $359* respectively, for travel between Chicago and New Orleans and everything in between to the west coast.  Peak fares $369* and $459*;
(they were $200 and $270 off-peak and $325 and $405 peak)

Far West Rail Pass - 15 and 30-day passes at $190* and $250* respectively for travel from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast.  Peak fares $245* and $320*;
(I couldn't find that this pass still exists)

East Rail Pass - 15 and 30-day passes at $329* and $359* respectively for travel along the east coast as far west as Chicago and New Orleans.  Peak fares $369* and $459*;
(they were $210 and $265 off-peak and $260 and $320 peak)

Florida Rail Pass (for Florida residents only) - $249 unlimited train travel throughout the year - no reservations and no black-out dates.

Peak travel is from May 23, 2008 to September 1, 2008 and December 12, 2008 - January 4, 2009 (May 22, 2009 to September 7, 2009)

There is also the North America Rail Pass which includes travel in Canada and is a little more restrictive in that it requires 30 days consecutive travel and all reservations must be made when purchasing the pass.  $708* off-peak and $999* peak.

All of the above are great value especially if youíre traveling by train in the States for the first time - what a better way to get around and orientate yourself.  Always make full enquiries about restrictions and requirements when purchasing your pass.

And, if you want to travel for longer than 30 days, you can get another 30-day pass, or another 15-day pass, to be used in conjunction with the other one.  The 30 days (or 15 days) starts from the day your train travel commences.

Tallying my various stages of train travel, I would have spent about $940.00 - a huge amount compared to the $385* I paid for a 30-day off-peak National Pass.

* These prices were correct at the time of travel - please check carefully for currrent rates before booking any trips.
Please visit Amtrak.com for their latest rates.

TRAIN FACILITIES
Of course there are bathrooms but there are cafť cars, a lounge/viewing car, and the dining room.  The viewing lounge doubles as a scenic outlook with large glass panoramic windows for optimum viewing, and at night, you can watch a movie or two.  Of course the movies at night are on a TV screen but you can zone in and ignore the coming and going traffic to and from the dining car.  If you prefer to read at night, there are overhead reading lights which are convenient and not bothersome to the other passengers.

The plentiful toilets (sometimes not the best in the world but should be) were in constant use as there were lots of passengers on board.  Sometimes, like on Coast Starlight, between San Francisco and Eugene, the state of the bathrooms left a lot to be desired and was pretty disgusting, but after a complaint, they were promptly seen to and cleaned up.

Unfortunately I didnít get an opportunity to check out the sleeping facilities in the sleeper cars but I spoke to a few people who were in them and was told that they were adequate.  The nice thing about the sleeping car is that not only do you have your own private space (you can quietly nap when you want to and some have their own toilets and even showers too), but you also get all your meals (three a day) included in the price, which is not cheap, as well as an attendant on call.  I did hear though, of some fantastic deals (in some instances they were almost given away, so check online with care) for sleeper cars, so if you insist on your comfort at all times, be sure to investigate these.  They come in all shapes and sizes and can sleep up to four.  The only thing I felt would stop me from taking one myself, apart from the hefty price, would be that you are isolated, and unless you spend most of your time in the viewing lounge or the cafť car, youíll be in for a pretty lonely trip.  Unless of course youíre travelling with a partner, in which case, too much time in a confined space could also be a bother, or not.  Some of the rooms have reclining chairs to you are not deprived of comfort.  The other thing about staying in your room, is that you'll have windows on one side only of the train.

Heating and cooling was usually just right despite a couple of passengers complaining about it being too cold in the night (and I recommend bringing along a warm pair of socks, an extra pair of warm sweat pants or a light blanket) but that usually tended to be the passengers on the aisle seats.  Seated at the window on 99% of my trips, I felt very comfortable and because I was traveling off-peak and the trains were not that full, I usually had both seats to myself on my journeys, so I could stretch out at night and get a good sleep.  Another thing which perhaps would help, would be to bring along a lightweight sleeping bag, one which can be rolled up and easily carried.

If you are travelling with children, I noticed on a couple of trains, rooms that were specifically dedicated for childrenís playrooms which I thought a wonderful idea.  There were a few toys which kept the children occupied and out of the way of other passengers.  There was space enough for them to move about which is essential, even though I have to say, that on all the trains I traveled on, there were lots of children and not one, I mean not a single one, bothered me.  Of course there was a little tantrum here and there but the behavior on the whole, was exceptional and those parents can take credit.  I was pleasantly surprised as I thought any crying or screaming would go on forever but thankfully, not.  Thank you moms and dads.

The dining cars I found, on most trains, were pretty and accommodating but rather pricey, and unless you can afford to pay upwards of $14.00 per meal (breakfast is a little cheaper but still expensive for what you get), I strongly suggest you bring your own food along.  I did treat myself to a meal (mainly so that I could get some vegetables) here and there and although the food was reasonable, I couldnít see myself paying such high prices three times a day.  I did notice couples and groups enjoying themselves over dinner with wine so a meal here and there should be considered.  If you only have one or two trips, then Iíd say go for it.  It seemed that many couples chose to have one meal, either lunch or dinner.

The food on the San Joaquins was less expensive and they had a good choice, and good helpings, for their meals.  Sadly though, not many people ate there and thus their dining car is very small.  I thought they were very cozy and I enjoyed their meals.  There are drinking fountains on all trains so you can always get a drink of water anytime.  The trains are equipped to welcome passengers in wheelchairs but please make enquiries when making your booking.


COMFORT ON THE TRAINS
The reclining seats on the west-bound trains were exceptionally comfortable and the legroom fantastic.  You could really stretch out and relax and the chairs had little extensions (ask for help if you canít work out how they operate) for you to rest your legs on.  There is plenty of room for a little bag or backpack and ample room above the seats as well as at the ends of the coaches and downstairs for excess luggage.  There is also a tray that folds down and becomes your own private little table.  I found that I could create my own little space for long lengths of time.  At night it was more comfortable than I imagined, and although you do get woken when stopping at stations, or passengers coming and going, you are easily rocked back to sleep by the motion of the train. The trains on the north-east section, were much more cramped in comparison to the other long-distance ones.


FOOD ON TRAINS
I recommend you take along your own food and snacks and drinks and perhaps treat yourself to one big meal on the train, either lunch or dinner, so that you wonít have to spend too much money eating in the restaurant at meal times.  It is nice and makes a change, to eat in the restaurant, but it adds up rather quickly and if your budget wonít allow it, itís better to bring along your own food.  That way, you can eat whenever you like and not have to wait for your dining car reservation.  When there are stops along the way you can always rush out and stock up on food items or sometimes even a meal of sorts should you so choose.  There is a cafť car but that too is pricey and can be avoided if you bring your own food.  Of course, thereís nothing like a cup of coffee first thing in the morning so that was my indulgence and besides, you donít want the added struggle of taking along your own thermos flask for coffee - make that your little treat.  I took foodstuffs that didnít need refrigeration at least for a day or so as well as a little few little bottles filled with cranberry juice.  I chose baby carrots, hummus, apples and bananas and some Lifesaver Jellybeans, which lasted a whole week.  I also took some tortillas and a couple of ready-made salads from the deli which made great "sandwiches".
You can request special dietary needs but do so ahead of time so that they stand a good chance of being met.


CLOTHING
Make sure you have something else to change into if you like as getting to your suitcase can sometimes not be easy.  I saw many people tossing and turning uncomfortably in their seats because they chosen to wear jeans for about 20+ hours.  I had a couple of pairs of sweat pants.  Not the most glamorous items of clothing but they sure are comfortable to sit in for any length of time.  And boy, do you sit.  You can have your jeans to hand so that you can look refreshed when you arrive and are met by friends or family.  A comfortable pair of shoes is also a good thing as you are not allowed to walk around barefoot, thankfully.  A pair or two of socks is also a good idea especially if your feet tend to get cold at night.


LUGGAGE
My saving grace was a little set of wheels on which to drag my bags, and even though at times they felt a little cumbersome and I wanted to ditch them, they turned out to be invaluable and something I would highly recommend if you do not already have wheels on your bags.  You will have to carry your things so make sure you only have the bare essentials and that you can carry them.  Also, remember that you might be picking up bits and pieces along the way so leave some space in your suitcase or bag for souvenirs and other purchases.  There is a luggage weight limit so be sure to get the latest information.  There is plenty of storage space downstairs on the trains as well as overhead space, and if you are taking all your worldly belongings, they can be checked but please make sure you donít check them in at the last minute - give yourself ample time to do all this and be able to catch your train.


OPTIONAL EXTRAS
A pillow was an optional extra many people chose to bring along and I found out why.  The pillows Amtrak issue are tiny and not very comfy but if they are all you have, then theyíre fine.  Many people brought along their own pillow and as much as I envied them, the thought of trudging around carrying a pillow with me was not appealing.  Unless it can fit into your bag then I wouldnít really worry about it as you can always bring along an inflatable headrest which doubles as a pillow.

A lightweight blanket could also come in handy as there are no courtesy blankets on board although they do sell them for about $15* a piece.  Again, remember that any extra thing will just mean extra weight to carry.  You could always bring along an extra sweater or warm sweat pants to sleep in so that you keep warm.  Or perhaps that lightweight sleeping bag.

Amtrak did have magazines to read but I suggest a good book. I could have kicked myself for not bringing along War and Peace, something I have wanted to read for twenty years.  I did have a couple of magazines (easy to dispose of once read) but found that I tended to nod off to sleep when reading while being rocked on the train.  Perhaps, in retrospect, a handheld electronic board game (ie Scrabble, Chess or Checkers, etc.) would have been ideal.  I did have my laptop but found that not all of the seats had an electrical outlet so that put paid to my using my computer.  I could have used it but the battery wouldnít have lasted any respectable length of time so I chose not to unless I sat at an outlet.  Also, I had to carry it with me and after a couple of stops, it became really heavy and a slight inconvenience at times.  I did notice a few techno-freaks with their laptops and all the gadgets like movie DVDs (they used headphones), which looked like a lot of fun as they sat there with their own private movie or little computer game or other fun things to keep them amused.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the views so much that there would have been little time to play games, sleep or read although at night it would have been nice.  If you do bring along your cell phone, please oh please, have it turned to quiet mode or on vibrate as there is nothing more irritating for passengers than to have to listen to constant ringing and stupefying one-sided conversations.  It becomes almost murderous to have to listen to giggles and idle chatter.  Iím a cell phone user myself but I didnít have mine on as I was on vacation and also out of my range, so I relied on friends and family contacting me via e-mail, which I picked up at whichever local library was to hand.  You could take along a couple of phone cards should you have to call, which you can do at most of the longer station stops en route.  Bring your cell phone if you have to but please be considerate of your fellow passengers.  I nearly tore my hair out I got so angry listening to inconsiderate passengers.  Amtrak does have a notice printed on their ticket holders, that you have to turn them off and occasionally the crew made a similar announcement.

A notebook (or writing pad) and a couple of pens and pencils are also a good thing to have so that you can take notes, write observations, write letters or work on that novel.  Itís also handy for taking down names and addresses and contact details of people you meet on the train.

Something else I noticed women doing was crocheting, knitting or tapestry or needlepoint which looked like a great idea. Bear in mind that the crocheting or knitting can become heavier as you go so donít bring along that double blanket you are working on unless you have someone to help you carry it.


REGRETS
I donít have many regrets other than perhaps not having a more extensive itinerary, more time and perhaps more money.  I had such a good time sightseeing, meeting new people and spending time on my own, that I didnít really have time to notice any regrets.  There were many more places I would have liked to have visited but time and money being an issue, I had to accept that and just make the most of what I could afford, both time and money-wise.  I highly recommend at least a couple of combined (not just a once-off, one-way trip if you can help it) trip so that you really get a feel for train travel.  If you suffer from claustrophobia and canít stand the thought of being on a train (at least itís not as confined as an airplane even though you usually have a much shorter air trip) where you canít open the windows, think twice before embarking on a trip like this.  You do have plenty of opportunity to walk around and stretch your legs, and if you take careful note of any extended stops at stations along the way, take advantage of them as youíll not only get to see a teeny bit of a new city, youíll also be able to get some exercise and stock up on some extra nosh.

I do regret not having a decent pillow and not having a more balanced diet on board.  Perhaps also not having more recreational material with me - I had the weight of my luggage forefront in my mind at all times.

I hope to inspire you to travel, even if it is on your own.  I had a ball travelling around on my own and so can you.  Below I have jotted down some hints and tips to help you make decisions. I chose train travel throughout the USA because it is a great way to get around without the hassle of driving, and the stress!) and you get to meet so many people.  I had the sum total of sixteen trips east to west, north to south, and west to east and south to north.  These trips were broken up to suit my wants and needs and also so that I could take a break from all the sitting, see family and do some sightseeing, and more importantly, take a shower.

SECTORS / TRAINS     Map
Below Iíve listed the sectors I travelled, as well as the trains I caught, to give you some idea of how I arranged my itinerary.

My first trip was from Boston, MA, to Chicago, IL, on the Lake Shore Limited which was an overnight trip and most delightful.  Seats on either side of the train are good for viewing.
Lake Shore Limited - Boston to Chicago (daily in both directions) via Springfield, Rochester, Buffalo (Niagara Falls) and Cleveland among others.

The second trip was from Chicago to Denver, CO, another overnight trip, on the California Zephyr.  Here you pass through seven states.  Seats on either side of the train are good.  I went up to Cheyenne, Wyoming for a couple of nights and stayed in a Motel 6.
California Zephyr - Chicago to San Francisco daily in both directions) via Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno among others.

The third trip was from Denver to Reno, NV which was in my opinion, the most beautiful trip of all.  This was also on the California Zephyr.  I strongly suggest you try and get a seat on the left side of the train.  I stayed the night in Reno and treated myself to a superb buffet at Harrah's for about $11.00*.

The fourth trip was from Reno to Sacramento, CA on the Amtrak bus service.  Had I been going to San Francisco, CA, it would have again been on the California Zephyr.  Beautiful scenery from both sides of the bus.

The fifth trip was from Sacramento to Bakersfield, CA and then a bus ride to San Diego via Los Angeles, CA which was in the middle of the night so there wasnít too much to see so I slept.  I was tired.  Arrival in San Diego was around 5.35am (it was just getting light so not that intimidating or daunting) and the day was just dawning.  This trip was on the San Joaquins (a very nice service indeed) train and Amtrak bus service.  Either side of the train for viewing is okay.
San Joaquins - San Francisco to San Diego (multiple trains daily in both directions) via Sacramento, Stockton and Bakersfield (then by bus to Los Angeles and San Diego) among others.

The sixth trip was from San Diego to Los Angeles, a quick two hour and forty minute trip on the Pacific Surfliner, a kind of commuter-type train service between San Diego and Paso Robles.  I sat on the left side which was very good.
Pacific Surfliner* - San Diego to Paso Robles (multiple trains daily in both directions) via San Juan Capistrano, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo among others.  I went as far as Los Angeles and stayed at the Motel 6 in Hollywood.  This really was a long stint on the train so it was good to freshen up a bit and to sleep in a bed.

The seventh trip was from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the Coast Starlight.  Because of the delays, arrival in San Francisco wouldnít be until after midnight so I chose to stay on the train (crew agreed and arranged the change to my ticket) and travelled overnight to Eugene, Oregon.  This train runs between Los Angeles and Seattle, Washington and on to Vancouver, Canada and has the second best scenic views.  A seat on the left, next to the ocean, is the best.  On the trip the other way around, of course, choose a seat on the right side.

My eighth trip was from Eugene to San Francisco so that I could actually get to see this wonderful city.  It was once again on the Coast Starlight and this time, I sat on the right side of the train so that I could see the views on the opposite side en route south.  Just breath-taking.  There were delays on this train in both directions and not always in the most hygienic conditions.  Not horrific though.  Stayed at the Redwood Inn.
Coast Starlight - Los Angeles to Seattle (daily in both directions) via San Jose, Klamath Falls, Eugene and Portland among others.

My ninth trip was from San Francisco to Los Angeles to spend a night in the City of Angels and do some sightseeing.  I was scheduled to hop back on the Coast Starlight on her south-bound journey but upon arrival at the Oakland station (one of the stations that service San Francisco), I learned that the train was delayed by three hours so I decided to sit it out and take a later San Joaquins train to Bakersfield and the bus once again to Los Angeles, which as it turned out, beat the Coast Starlight train and I arrived in Los Angeles around 9.30pm, more-or-less the same time the Coast Starlight should have arrived, with plenty of time to take the subway to the Motel 6 and not be scared about travelling late at night with all my luggage, and an obvious target.  Again, on the San Joaquins trains, either side is good for viewing the scenery.  Lots of farmland.

The tenth trip was from Los Angeles to Chicago on the Southwest Chief and two nights on the train through eight states.  This trip was truly spectacular as we travelled through the red-rock countryside of Arizona and New Mexico.  I sat on the left side once again and had what I considered, the best side.  An extended stop in Albuquerque was a welcome break and this trip tied for second best scenery.
Southwest Chief - Chicago to Los Angeles (daily in both directions) via Needles (for Las Vegas), Flagstaff (for Grand Canyon), Albuquerque, La Junta and Kansas City among others.

The eleventh trip was from Chicago to New Orleans, LA, on the City of New Orleans train.  Having arrived in Chicago at about 4.30 pm and having to be on the platform for the 8.00 pm departure, was just fine as I had time to run around a few city blocks to stretch my legs before the next overnighter down south.  I was feeling a little grubby but I had no option and realized that once I arrived in Louisiana, I would be able to freshen up.  Because it was dark and essentially nighttime, it was relatively easy to fall asleep despite the pile of not-too-noisy college kids who also boarded.  I sat on the right side of the train but because it only left at 8.00 pm and was dark outside, I wasnít worried.  Weíd be in Memphis by daybreak and another 8+ hours in New Orleans so the viewing was okay from where I was sitting.  Stayed at the St. Vincent's Guest House in New Orleans.
City of New Orleans - Chicago to New Orleans (daily in both directions) via Carbondale, Memphis and Jackson among others.

The twelfth trip was from New Orleans to Jacksonville, FL where I would have a couple of hours before boarding my almost homeward-bound train.  This train was called the Sunset Limited (between Los Angeles and Orlando and takes three days) and I joined it in New Orleans.  However, because of Hurricane Isidore at the time, we were ferried by buses (easier to get to in case of emergency rather than having to scout the countryside for a missing train) which was initially daunting (I wasnít looking forward to being on the roads in the midst of a hurricane) but it turned out to be well-organized, with two drivers taking turns to ensure freshness and alertness and we made it safely.  In retrospect, having done that overnight and all-day trip on a cramped bus (every mode of transport now feels cramped and a tight squeeze after the trains) was hard to believe.  I would never in my life have chosen to do this trip but when forced, for your own safety, it was just fine.  I sat on the right side of the coach which was fine.
Sunset Limited - Los Angeles to Orlando (daily in both directions) via Tucson, Houston, New Orleans*, Biloxi, Jacksonville among others (* I got on in New Orleans and off at Jacksonville).

The thirteenth trip was an overnighter from Jacksonville to Rocky Mount, NC (a quick two-hour stop I indulged in just so that I could say I had been to North Carolina and found it to be a quaint little place with a fantastic library a decent walk from the station) but because the train, the Silver Star, had crawled along to the tune of a three hour delay, I only arrived in Rocky Mount just before 10.00 am which only gave me about two hours to do what I wanted to do (check my e-mail and stretch my legs) before racing back to catch the 11.57 am Palmetto train.  There are six trains on this route between Jacksonville and New York so if you can, try and stop somewhere along the line, even if only for a couple of hours.  The break is good and you just never know what you might encounter.  I sat on the left side but because it was so stormy outside and the visibility almost zero, it didnít make much difference.
Silver Meteor/Silver Star/Palmetto/Carolinian* - Jacksonville to New York (one each daily in both directions) via Savannah, Raleigh, Rocky Mount**, Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia among others.  *(to and from Raleigh, NC), ** I got off the Silver Star here for a few hours and then caught the Palmetto)

The fourteenth trip (hey, Iím counting each on-and-off as a Ďtripí) was from Rocky Mount to New York City on the Palmetto which got me into the "city that never sleeps" around 10.30pm, an hour and a half later than the scheduled arrival time, but they managed to catch up some time thankfully, as they rattled along northwards.  They were running about two and a half hours late even though it picked me up in Rocky Mount on time.  It never ceased to amaze me just how this happens and I even put this question to one of the Amtrak crew members, whose excuse I cannot recall.  Couldnít have been that convincing I have to say.  Here I sat on the left side but again, because of the appalling weather conditions, it didnít matter.  I spent a few nights with friends in New York - really felt wonderful after so many nights on the train.

My fifteenth trip was from New York to Providence and I took the 10.15 am Northeast Corridor train for the nearly four-hour journey.  These trains are probably the most reliable and efficient of all Amtrakís trains as this is also the busiest route.  Here I sat on the right side as the coast is visible as well as all the gorgeous resorts and towns.  Either side is good for viewing however.
Washington DC (and Newport News) to Boston- Northeast Corridor (multiple trains daily in both directions) via Providence, Mystic, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC, among others.  Request a NorthEast Timetable for more information.  Providence was home at this time.

The sixteenth trip was from Providence to Boston and on to Portland, ME, which is a daytrip I have wanted to do for the longest time.  I took the commuter train (not usable with the Amtrak Pass) between Providence and Boston and then the subway from South Station to North Station where I boarded the Downeaster (you can use your RailPass), a relatively new service which has proved extremely popular and requires pre-reservations especially in the summer months.  This journey was on the first of October and I thought I would be in for the scenery-of-my-life but I was sadly disappointed as the fall foliage for which this part of the world is reknown, was not anywhere near its magical and legendary best.  Both sides are good for viewing and you can always change sides on the return trip, which you can easily do in one day.  Do I count the return journey as journey number seventeen?
The Downeaster - Boston to Portland, Maine (multiple trains daily in both directions) via Durham and Wells (for Kennebunkport) among others.

There are at least another eleven routes to choose from.  Most routes have bus links to get to those out-of-the-way places.  It's advisable to get a timetable with the Amtrak map so plot your route and where you want to stop and stay.


FUTURE TRIPS
I spent so much time studying the timetables and salivating at the trips I would have to forego because of time and money constraints, that I developed new dreams to see other aspects of this great country by train.  The trip I want to do most is the Colorado section on the California Zephyr between Denver and Grand Junction, in the wintertime, when everything is covered with snow.  This section had such an impact on me that I vowed I would return in winter, someday.

Another trip I am dying to take is the one from Chicago to Seattle on board the Empire Builder (see my 2005 trip).  This train takes you through seven states (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Oregon and Washington) and you spend two nights on the train but I bet, feels like four.  This trip is like a trip through history and I would imagine, would require at least about four stops along the way, just to get a really feel of exactly where you are.  If you want to do this trip I suggest you ensure you have plenty of time to stop and stay over.

Another trip I would dearly like to undertake is the one from Chicago to Washington DC on the Cardinal as you go through the state of Kentucky during daylight hours.  Even if itís only about an hour and a half, and you have to be up at around 7.00 am, I think it would be worth it as I donít think thereíd be any other reason for me to be in Kentucky other than to see the countryside.

The trip between New York and Rutland, VT, and New York and St. Albans, VT on the Ethan Allan Express and Vermonter respectively, sound like gorgeous-scenery-trips.  The former, travels mostly up through the state of New York and the latter, more through the New England states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, a stop in New Hampshire and then extensively in Vermont.

I have also recently discovered the Alaskan Railroad which I would very much like to do.  Although not Amtrak and a very short route, here youíll get to see probably some of the best scenery on earth.

Donít be afraid to make as many stops as you want, even if you only end up travelling on one route because that way, youíll get to enjoy what you want to see as well as have an accomplished vacation.  Mine was a little rushed and being strapped for cash I missed out on so much but at least I now know where I would like to return for a more extensive break.

Another important trip would be from Eugene up to Seattle to see what I think, would be some of the most gorgeous scenery in the country.  I sampled a smattering and canít wait to see more.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the train and I hope that your trip/s are as eventful and as beautiful.


HINTS AND TIPS
I strongly recommend that you plan your journey well in advance, checking out potential destinations carefully, by doing a little research.  Donít for a second think I mean for you to pore over atlases and guide books and reference books.  I mean just check out local sights to see and whatever else interests you.  You have to know why you are going to any particular place otherwise you might just as well take a tour of your back garden, or, simply dangle a pen over a map of the US and bring the point down randomly to choose which city is next on your agenda.  Hey, that doesnít sound that bad.  Then what you have to do is link the dots, as it were, to make your train route and this is easily done with the help of a national timetable (and a North East timetable) available from most Amtrak stations or by calling them to mail you one.  Try and go in one flowing direction rather than criss-cross the country and youíll find it a lot easier.  Train travel in America is a time-consuming exercise because of the vast distances, so the less time you spend back-tracking, the better, and the more you will get to see.

Once you know where you are going, the ball can begin to roll and before you know it, youíll be wishing you had the time to stop at many more stops than you originally thought of.  I would advise you work with a calendar so that you can compare your dates (and importantly, your days) with the timetableís and happily come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement.  Not always easy so be warned.  One of the best bits of advice I can offer, especially if you are catching a connecting train, is to always plan your arrivals with at least four hours to spare - just in case of unexpected delays - and believe me, they were plentiful.  I know that this sounds excessive but you need that kind of cushion to avoid unnecessary stay-overs at unscheduled hotels/motels and thus, the shortening of your trip.

Most of the delays were accommodated by Amtrak in that theyíd rush you by bus to a convenient station to catch that train, or at least try to get you to your next destination speedily.  This is not always possible so rather be safe than sorry.  If you do miss your connecting train, be prepared to alter the rest of your journey and be flexible where possible.  Not always easy but recommended. Most stations have some form of "entertainment" and it is better to have some time to spare than run the risk of missing your train, especially a connecting train, because of a late arrival.  Be sure to pack a book or magazine or any other light-weight thing to occupy your time.  Donít forget to bring along things for the kids too but bear in mind that you have to carry your luggage so try and minimize everything you bring along, for your own convenience.

Another bit of advice I have to impart, is that you try your very best to stay awake during the day so that you can see the stunning scenery outside which can so easily whiz by without you seeing it.  After all, you have the whole night to sleep and when itís dark and thereís nothing to see other than a few lights here and there, thatís the best time to nod off.  During the day, I found myself looking out of the window most of the time and it may have seemed unproductive or boring, but it was not.  Itís the only way to actually see whatís going out there and not to miss a thing.  It saddened me no end to see so many people sleeping during the day and not catching even a glimpse of what was on offer outside.  I guess they had their reasons for sleeping (could be the umpteenth time theyíd been on the train, had a horribly late night, or just plain disinterested) but it seemed an appalling waste of time and money.  Why pay to spend time on a relatively slow-moving mode of transport and then not take advantage of the wonderful views?  The only other way to get to see what the country has to offer is to go by car.  Still, car travellers (the passengers I am referring to here!) tend to nod off so they too donít get to take full advantage of the beauty out there.

I recommend you check out stations like Oakland and Emeryville, both serving San Francisco, as they are a bus ride away from the city and need a little extra time to get to and from the stations on time.  If there is a connecting station to your final destination, just ask.  Of course itís not all plain-sailing and there were a few times I could have, and did become angry and annoyed, at peopleís behavior but Iím keeping those observations for the book I am writing.  As am I the sights and experiences I enjoyed.

Make sure you have all your medications (and enough if you are going for 30 days or more) with you as you could encounter problems finding a pharmacy or drug store along the way.  In larger cities you might be okay but rather be safe than sorry.


RESERVATIONS
Even though you might hold a Pass (always keep it with you and in a safe place) it is not good for random travel.  A reservation must be made ahead of time and you have to be in possession of a train ticket before boarding.  It is a good idea to make your reservations ahead of time so that you do not have to stand in line at the station prior to your departure, which can be rather bothersome and should be avoided if just prior to your departure.  Iíve seen it so many times where passengers have left their ticket purchasing/issuing to the last minute, only to be faced with a long line at the ticket counter, ensuring that there was a huge chance theyíd miss their intended train, thus messing up their trip.  It is however, necessary to check (upon arrival I strongly suggest, and then itís over and done with) whether or not you have to check in prior to departure at any particular station.  There are some instances where you will have to check in beforehand, especially the larger stations, and other times you can just hang around until your train arrives, hop on and find a seat.

Reservations are supposed to be simple as Amtrak has an automated telephone answering system, which becomes boring and irritating after a while, if you are not fortunate enough to get hold of a human representative.  So doing it in person means that you can ask questions, get your ticket issued there and then and get all relevant information in a much shorter period of time and youíre done with it.  A quick detour to the ticket counter will save you your sanity and patience.

If you are wanting to make use of the Sleeper cars on Amtrak, these need to be booked in advance (sometimes fantastic bargains can be had - and I heard from more than one passenger of some amazingly contrasting rates, thus resulting in enormous savings) and these are particularly good if you have trouble sleeping in a seat, albeit a reclining one.  However, when I checked on the Internet for a sleeper between Denver and San Francisco (two full days and one night on the train) for the end of January 2003, for one adult, I was quoted $594* for the sleeper only!   On top of that I would have to pay the train fare of $208*.  I checked a fare from Denver to San Francisco around the same time and was quoted $158* so I donít know where they got the $208 Ė really worth checking and rechecking so that you make sure you get the very best and lowest fare.  Do check out the weekly specials online as youíll be amazed at the savings to be taken advantage of.

In order to maximize your rail pass or ticket, youíll need to first check out where the trains actually go, so carefully read through the timetable and check on the map in the timetable and compare with your checklist of places you want to visit.  This shouldnít present too many problems, as you will see from the color map, the routes are pretty easy to follow and the further west you go, the fewer the trains and routes.  I chose to go around the country so I chose the most direct routes and tried to schedule my stops after say two nights, so that I could appreciate a shower after no showers on the train and sleeping in the seats, which are very comfortable but not like a real bed.  You really appreciate the comforts of a hot shower and a bed with sheets or duvet and pillows.

TAKE NOTE:.  If you are allocated a coach number but not a specific seat, then make sure you are at the door of the coach promptly before boarding so that you can get a good seat.  I chose to sit on the left side of the train going west, which in my opinion, was the best side.  I tried checking things from the right side and on a few occasions there were things of interest to see but all-in-all, I felt that the left side was the best side despite the crew sometimes saying which side was the best viewing.
*Fares/prices quoted may have since changed - please check carefully before embarking on your trip.

Discounts are available for group travel and seniors and children.  Also for people with disabilities, so have the necessary documentation available when making your booking.

Map

ACCOMMODATIONS

Although I didn't stay at many hotels or motels, the ones I did stay in are covered here.  Not once was I hit with a single supplement so that's something to remember.

My first stop was in Cheyenne, Wyoming at the Motel 6.  This chain offers reasonable rates with clean and tidy rooms, usually easily accessible to the center of town or the station and usually, on a bus route.  This one was somewhat conveniently located near a once-an-hour bus into town.  A little far out of the way perhaps but not totally cut off from the rest of the city.  $37.79 (including taxes) per night.
Overall rating - 4
Motel 6 - Cheyenne, Wyoming  - Tel (307) 635-6806  Fax (307) 638-3017
1735 Westland Road, Cheyenne, WY 82001
Toll-free telephone number 1-800-4-MOTEL6 (1-800-466 8356)
www.motel6.com

The second motel I stayed in was the Cabana Motel in Reno which was dire.  Rickety old furniture in a seedy setting with only one light bulb and that was in the bathroom.  There were none in the other four light fittings.  The loo blocked up and backed up all over the place and the bath looked as though it needed a good scrub.  It was the only room I could find that I could afford and wasn't booked to the hilt because of an airshow that weekend.  $50.00 (including taxes) per night.
Overall rating - 1

The third motel I stayed in was another Motel 6 in Los Angeles right on Hollywood Boulevard and really convenient.  A few blocks along the famed Hollywood Walk of Fame from the subway station (Red Line and left at the Grauman's Chinese Theater).  The motel has an elevator which is great especially if you have cumbersome luggage and you're tired.  $56.99 (including taxes) per night.
Overall rating - 4
Motel 6 - Los Angeles - Tel (323) 464-6006  Fax (323) 464-4645
1738 N. Whitley Ave, Hollywood, CA 90028
Toll-free telephone number 1-800-4-MOTEL6 (1-800-466 8356)
www.motel6.com

The fourth place I stayed in was the Redwood Inn in San Francisco.  Friendly and helpful staff and neat and clean.  $67.26 (including taxes) per night.
Overall rating - 4
Redwood Inn - San Francisco - Tel (415) 776-3800   Fax (415) 928-1934
1530 Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA 94123

The next was a guest house in New Orleans called St. Vincent's Guest House which was simply delightful.  Very helpful and courteous staff and exceptionally pretty and well-maintained house and a great breakfast too.  $38.76 (including taxes - A Bargain!) per night.
Overall rating - 5
St. Vincent's Guest House - New Orleans - Tel (504) 523-3411
1507 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA 70130

Try and plan your arrival in the city in which you are spending the night, at a reasonable hour.  You don't want to be trudging around in the middle of the night, tired and laden with luggage, trying to find your way around.  Choose either a chain of hotels or motels, for convenience and where possible, ask if there are any discounts for staying in more than one hotel/motel in more than one city/destination.  Worth a try.
Prices may have changed since writing this so please check beforehand.

Prices quoted were correct at the time, October 2013.

E-mail:  pettprojects@yahoo.com

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