It's been on my list of things to do for a while. I've ridden subways, European trains, a Greyhound bus and commuter rails yet never made it to riding the Amtrak. When I was invited to join a group at Big Bend this year I knew it would be difficult to take an entire week off from work. After learning that the Amtrak travels from Houston to Alpine, TX overnight I jumped at the opportunity. Although it was a fairly easy way to travel across Texas, there were definitely a few things I wished I had known prior to traveling.
You can only check luggage to certain destinations
Thinking it would be just like a plane flight, I brought with me a backpack, duffel bag and small suitcase (carry-on size). I read through all of the terms and conditions and thought I was in the clear. It said two carry-ons and two checked bags. When I arrived at the station I was notified that Alpine, TX was an unmanned station and I couldn't check bags. I quickly scurried to shift items down to two pieces of luggage. After boarding the train I discovered I could take two carry-ons and two personal items. Therefore, no need to rearrange. My duffle bag and backpack would have been fine to bring on board and store in the overhead and I could store my carry-on suitcase near the exit of the train like you would on a bus. Oh well, I ended up traveling lighter.
They also do not weigh your luggage when getting on board. There are no metal detectors or TSA so boarding was quick and easy. Soon, I was on the train and ready for the overnight trip beginning at 8pm and arriving at 10am the next day. I would recommend bringing a book or something that doesn't require internet. When you are traveling across country there are many areas without cell service.
Trains Have Layovers
Or you could say a trainover. We stopped in San Antonio at midnight right smack dab in the middle of the city for a three hour layover. It was actually a nice break and allowed a few hours to grab something to eat or drink. The train uses that time to service the cabins so getting out to stretch my legs before the bulk of the ride was perfect. You just have to make it back to the station about thirty minutes to departure.
Dining Options are Limited
The Amtrak has three meal times and a VERY limited menu. I tried their salad and salmon for dinner and they do serve beer and wine. Honestly, the experience was fun, but the salmon was dry. Also, expect to pay $20 a plate for dinner. Not the greatest pricing for the quality of the food, but it was fun to get to have dinner shortly after boarding. The next morning I arose very hungry and tried their continental breakfast. For about $10 I had yogurt, oatmeal, fresh fruit and coffee. Oh yes, and a croissant. Breakfast was really tasty and I'd recommend it on a future train ride.
Although the options are limited, you can bring your own meals on the train. Given you can also bring two personal items, and two carry-ons it would be easy to pack to go meals and snacks. The Amtrak actually recommends that anyone who has blood sugar issues or medical conditions bring enough food for the trip in the event something happened. The kitchen is only open during certain window throughout the day, so if you snooze, you lose.
Have an Overnight Outfit
I wore this suede jacket, jeans and boot combination until after we departed San Antonio. It was great to have a casual but stylish outfit during the trainover where I toured a few spots downtown in San Antonio. Once I arrived back at the train, I grabbed my backpack and headed to one of the dressing rooms. They have bathrooms and larger dressing rooms for you to change in. By the way, even the regular bathrooms are MUCH larger than being on a plane. I slept in my athleisure outfit in a reclining seat with a footrest. You have more room on the train than a plane and it's pretty quiet at night. Perfect for you to get a decent amount of sleep. Many of the passengers brought pillows on board and next time I'd do the same.
There are Multiple Cars
On the cross country trains there are many places to sit besides your seat. First of all, they have the dining and bar cars where you can eat or order a glass of wine. They also have a social car where you have a place with tables to play cards, games, use your laptop or what not. There is also a viewing car where you can sit in comfortable seats to see the sunrise or landscape as you ride. All of the passengers I came into contact with were so kind and friendly. It was fun to share a few stories and find out where they were coming from and going.
All in all, the trip was well worth the money. It cost about $100 for a one way ticket to go from one side of Texas to the other. If I had driven that distance I would have spent about the same on gas and it's only a couple hours shorter to drive. The train allowed me to sit back and relax. I'm definitely planning on doing more trips utilizing the Amtrak. I've thought about flying into a city and taking the train across a few states to another city to see more of the U.S.
If you've experienced trains I'd like to know more about tips, tricks or recommendations?