In case anyone is interested in setting out on their own train adventure, I thought I'd share the details of what we did here.
Inspiration for the trip came from this blog post that floated around Facebook last fall. It's written by a guy named Derek Low about how he traveled across the country for just $213. I sent the link to Matt one day with a message of, "This could be fun..." We both agreed that it could be fun and left it at that. Until a few weeks later we were talking and thought, "We should totally do that!"
Derek's post has great pictures and gives an excellent description of the trip; you should definitely read it. I mean, really, I just reread it and there's almost no point in me writing this. His is much better and he has awesome pictures.
The difference between our trip and the inspiration one was that we did NOT do it for $213. I'm not sure that we even did one day for that low. But our goal was to go on an adventure that we'd always remember, not cross the country as cheaply as possible.
We left bright and early on a Wednesday morning, flying out of the Memphis airport, through Minneapolis, and finally landing in San Francisco. Our flight got in around 2:00 in the afternoon and we didn't board the train until the next morning, so we had the afternoon and evening to sight see. Read about that in our Day One post.
From there, we boarded the California Zephyr, a passenger train that runs Amtrak's second longest route. It travels between Emeryville, CA and Chicago, IL and we rode it that whole distance. Between those two stations, it made stops at 33 other stations along the way. Some stops are very short - ten minutes or less - and others are what they call "fresh air breaks" (but really they're more like "smoke breaks" ya know?) and last 25-30 minutes. We got off at several of those to stretch our legs and wander around the town we were in.
The trip from CA to IL takes two and a half days. Our train pulled out from Emeryville at 9:10am on Thursday morning and we got off in Chicago at 2:50pm on Saturday afternoon. If you make this trip, make sure you like who you're traveling with! We booked ourselves a bedroom on the Superliner Sleeping Car which could accommodate two people and gave us our own bathroom. The room had a couch, table, and chair during the day and converted to a full bed and twin bed top bunk for night. The sleeper car reservation came with three meals on the train per day. I was under the impression that we would have wifi on the train but we did not. We had to completely unplug and enjoy the scenery!
When we got off the train in Chicago, we spent 24 hours there sight-seeing before hoping on the next train - the Lake Shore Limited. This passenger train is smaller and runs from Chicago, IL to Albany, NY. In Albany, the train splits and part of it (including all the sleeper cars) goes to New York City while the rest of the train goes to Boston, MA. Since we weren't headed to NYC, we had to give up our bedroom and switch to coach seats in Albany. The Lake Shore Limited is a single level train and in our experience, was a much bumpier ride! In reality, it was probably more like what we expected going in to the trip. If we'd started with it, we might not have thought anything of it. Too bad we started with the California Zephyr and its smooth gliding!
We boarded the Lake Shore Limited in the evening for a 9:30pm departure. It was kinda hard to get on right before bedtime. The only stop we got off for during this trip was when we switched trains in Albany. That was around 2:00pm the following afternoon and we arrived in Boston (our final destination) around 8:00pm that evening. It was just under 24 hours for that ride.
We decided to hang around in Boston for an extra day before flying back to Memphis. In both Chicago and Boston, we had "sea legs" for a couple of hours after getting off the trains. And our hotel beds felt heavenly compared to our train beds!
Here is what our 7 day schedule looked like:
Wednesday: Fly out of Memphis early am, land in San Fran in afternoon, night in hotel
Thursday: Board train in early am, train all day and night
Friday: Train all day and night
Saturday: Train all morning and early afternoon, Chicago in afternoon, night in hotel
Sunday: Chicago all day, board train late evening, night on train
Monday: Train all day, off train in late evening, night in hotel
Tuesday: Boston all day, night in hotel
Wednesday: Fly out of Boston super duper early am, home by lunch time, night in our own bed
Overall, it was a really fun adventure for us and we are SO glad we did it! It definitely is not for everyone, though. There's lots of sitting still and entertaining yourself. Surprisingly, we did not read our books as much as we thought we would. It was just so fun to watch out the window. Going into the trip, I figured we would leave our room for breakfast, spend the bulk of the day in the sight-seeing car and then return to our room in the late afternoon or evening. In reality, the two times we went to the sight-seeing car, there were no available seats, but our room was much quieter and had cleaner windows anyway. We spent all of our time with the exception of some meals in our room.
The food was good. Not great, but definitely not bad. In total, we had two breakfasts, two lunches, and one dinner in the dining car. We bought one lunch from the cafe that was in the lounge car. We skipped a breakfast and a lunch and were able to eat one dinner out in Denver. The food is decent but the menu is VERY limited. Like, only four items for lunch: an entree salad, veggie burger, beef burger, or pork shanks. I had the beef cheeseburger twice and it wasn't bad, I just really didn't want to have to eat it another day in a row.
Even though we had a shower in our room, we used the larger shower stall in the downstairs of our car. It was actually a pretty decent shower - nice water pressure and really hot water! We had several outlets in our room so I was able to dry my hair (and we could charge our phones). The toilet and sink in our bedroom were very similar to those in an airplane.
I think that covers all the highlights of train travel and our cross-country adventure! If there's anything I've left out or if you have questions, leave a comment and I'll respond!