What you need to know about riding a train

Here are a few things I've learned in my travels that I think would be of use to anyone planning on riding the Amtrak.

  1. THE MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL!!! Trains are not airplanes. They go slow, they sit around waiting for other rail traffic to clear before they get clearance to move. They will be late. If you're in a hurry, grumpy, or generally don't enjoy travel for travel's sake, TAKE AN AIRPLANE AND BE GRUMPY IN AN AIRPORT.

  2. Be sure to take a blanket if you're riding overnight. They sell them in the lounge, but sometimes they sell out.

  3. The second the conductor takes your ticket, get out of your seat and walk around. You're not on an airplane. I've gone for an entire trip from Chicago to LAX without sitting down in my seat except while waiting for the conductor to get my ticket as we left Chicago and when pulling into LAX - that's two days. Go watch the world go by from the lounge car.

  4. Eat in the dining car, even if your've got a limited budget. You never know who you're going to meet. Enjoy your conversation with the little old lady from England or the kid going home from college for the weekend. I'm a quiet guy who didn't think he'd like that sort of thing, and it's turned out to be one of the funnest parts of the train trip. If it turns out you don't like it, then don't go back - but give it a try at least twice.

  5. Take something to entertain yourself. Books, magazines, a DVD player or laptop, iPod, etc. You want to have something to do during all that down time. I take my PDA and write my tales.

  6. A GPS is a fun way to keep track of where you are.

  7. If you're a vagabond like I am, make sure you take a comfortable pair of shoes. This may sound obvious, but when going to Glasgow I just threw on my normal work shoes because that's the pair I always wear. Bad idea. If you're going to walk in a strange town, make sure your feet are happy.

  8. If you take electronic gizmos, take extra batteries and an extension cord. There's no guarantee you'll get an outlet seat. If you do get the outlet seat, be kind and share your outlet with those who didn't so they can charge whatever it is they're carrying. Remember, some day that may be you. If you take an extension cord you can plug in in the lounge and sit in a seat near the center console (no wires across the asile, please), plus you can share the extra outlets on the extension cord with others to charge things. Next time I may even take a power strip and make everyone happy.

  9. ALWAYS MAKE HOTEL RESERVATIONS! It doesn't matter if you're going to Seattle on a Wednesday or Paso Robles on a Thursday. You may think "How hard can it be to get a room in Seattle on a weekday", but remember, they could be holding the NCAA basketball playoffs or it could be Pioneer Days. Do you want to be stuck without a room because there's an obscure local holiday you didn't know about? Trust me, it's no fun staying at the place in Seattle where they press a button under the desk to unlock the door and the bathroom is down the hall and to the left.

  10. If you're vagobonding it like me, try to reserve hotels with laundry facilities. It's that much less stuff you'll need to carry with you.

  11. I don't smoke, but if you do take some Nicorette gum, a patch, or whatever you all can use to get you through to the next smoking stop. It may be a scheduled six hours away and the train might get stuck on a siding for an extra two hours. They won't open a window for you, and if you get caught smoking in the bathroom or something, as the conductor says "The next stop will be yours." The point is, unless you can go a day without a cigarette, take an alternative.


Website and photography © 1997 - 2007 by Darin Volpe except where noted.