This summer, I traveled with my dad by train from Salt Lake City, Utah to Memphis, Tennessee. We took Amtrak's California Zephyr from Salt Lake to Chicago and then boarded the City of New Orleans, which took us to Memphis. While I will be writing about the trip itself later, this is about the train ride.
Pricewise, train travel costs about the same as a flight to Memphis. Before planning this trip, I checked the prices of various flights and they were only about $20 less. However, due to budget, we purchased Coach seats which were a lot cheaper than the sleeper car. (More about this in a bit.)
Having said that, the main reason we chose train travel over any other transportation means was the fact that we could actually see America like we've never seen before.
As much as I am all about being in a car on the open road, and everything a "road trip" offers, there are a lot of things you miss when you are cruising at 75 MPH on the freeway.
I loved the fact that I sat in the comfort of my reclining seat on the train and took hundreds of pictures of some of the most beautiful areas on earth that just can't be seen from the road.
It is also nice to get up and walk around on the train any time you want. (Except when they are trying to load other passengers.) That is not something you can do while flying or driving.
Another added bonus: I could take a nap or read whenever I wanted. (I read Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash on the train.)
There is a cafe on the train that has a great selection of food items on the menu. Most of the hot items are microwaved, which is fine if you're not a picky eater. (And I'm not.) I also give them 3,000 extra credit points for serving ginger ale. You don't find that often and to say I was giddy is an understatement. (I'm easy to please.)
There is also a dining car that serves bigger and better meals - like fancy burgers or pasta. Once again, due to budget, we did not take the opportunity to eat there. (The meals are included with the sleeper service, though.)
You are also allowed to bring on your own food, as long as it is contained in the acceptable luggage requirements. It's a great way to save some cash while traveling.
The lounge car is nice because it offers a chance to get out of your assigned seat. Plus, it gives you the opportunity to chat with other passengers. We met a nice little old lady from Pasadena (really!) that was traveling all over the country with her husband.
The windows in the lounge car are bigger, which offers a better view of the beautiful scenery going by. They also clean the lounge car windows at nearly every stop to make it better to see the scenery. If you're any sort of photographer, it's the perfect way to shoot the gorgeous landscape.
It took about 36 hours to travel the 1,500 miles between Salt Lake City and Chicago. It took another ten hours - all at night - to travel from Chicago to Memphis. (About 500 miles.) Total time on train, round-trip: 92 hours.
Now, let's compare that with other transporation. You can fly from Salt Lake to Chicago in about three hours and then fly from there to Memphis in less than two. According to Google Maps, we could drive to Chicago and then to Memphis in 28 hours.
As a side note, the only reason Chicago was part of the plan was because that was where we switched trains. Otherwise, we could fly from SLC to Memphis in about five hours. Of course, I wouldn't have been able to take a selfie in front of the stairs at Chicago's Union Station, which were made famous in the movie The Untouchables.
As I mentioned, we purchased a reserved Coach seat. They are not that different from a plane seat, except they recline a bit more and have leg rests. And to be completely honest, the seats are not all that uncomfortable for the first day or so. However, after you've been sitting and sleeping in your seat for nearly 50 hours, it gets old.
Also, showers are not available for Coach riders. (The bigger bedrooms do include a shower and their own restroom, though.) For Coach passengers, the public restroom is about as big as a small closet in your home. I found this very uncomfortable in the times that I went in there to take a "wet wipe bath". (Hey, it was a 30+ hour ride from Salt Lake to Chicago. Would you want to sit next to me?) As I was "bathing", I could barely move in there. And changing my clothes was an adventure as well, especially as I was trying to avoid having my clothes touch anything in the restroom.
For reasons that I still haven't been able to figure out, the California Zephyr went what felt to be about 10 MPH through most of the state of Colorado. In fact, it took less time for us to go through Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska then it did to go through Colorado. Granted, the slow speeds offered a great opportunity to snap photos, but when you are on a time budget, it was just stressful. Due to the lack of speed, we arrived nearly three hours late in Chicago, which put a damper on some of the plans we had for the five-hour layover.
I will say, though, that the City of New Orleans ran ahead of time both times we were aboard.
Am I glad I did it? Absolutely! Sure, it was frustrating at times, but we did eventually make it to Memphis. And really, that was the whole point of the trip to begin with.
Would I do it again? Yes, but with some adjustments.
- I would pay the extra money and get a sleeper. That way you get a bed, shower and food.
- I would rent a hotel and spend the night in a couple of the major cities, like Denver and Chicago. We had so much planned for Chicago and only saw about a fourth of it, due to the tardiness of the train.
- I would buy only one-way tickets there and then fly home, because you really don't see anything different on the return trip.
All in all, travel by train is a great and nearly stress-free way to see America. I suggest everyone do it at least once in your life.