I am passionate about photographing influential people and people in love. Above all, I value instilling confidence in my clients and creating images that are as full of energy as the event itself.
My favorite things? Breakfast tacos, wine, planes, and trains!
I am very excited to share with you my coast to coast train experience! There are so many things to talk about so I’m breaking it up into sections:
Traveling on a train across the US has been on my list for a while. It seemed so out of the question because of time, cost, and honestly….a good incentive. It wasn’t until I got an invitation to attend a family friend’s wedding in Portland, OR that got me thinking about it.
I opted for the most direct route: Capitol Limited from DC to Chicago, and Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland. The first leg was 12 hours and the second leg was two days!
I hadn’t been to Chicago before so I stopped for 24 hours to visit my friend Jake. Breaking up the trip was extremely helpful! I was able to see a new city and spend some time walking around after sitting for a while!
The last leg of the train was two days, or two overnights if you want to think about it that way. I parted Chicago at 2 pm and arrived in Portland at 10 am two days later. Surprisingly, it didn’t feel that long!!! Between meal times, watching a movie, answering emails, and sitting in the viewing cart, the time went by much faster than I thought. Before I knew it we were in Spokane, WA, where the Empire Builder literally splits and one half goes to Portland, and the other to Seattle.
Train travel is unlike any other mode of transportation because there are rails in places that cars can’t go!! One of my favorite parts was going through Glacier National Park in Montana! At the east Glacier station, a park ranger comes on to speak about the park as you’re going through it!!! The Seattle side continues on with the Ranger tour while the Portland side gets a view of the Columbia River Gorge.
(For any of you Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, readers: the Portland side passes through the Bridge of the Gods, where she ends her PCT journey!)
How it works
At the train station, you’ll be assigned to a gate (similar to air travel). Once on the platform, be sure to tell the attendant your final destination: that determines your car.
The first floor is baggage, bathrooms, and in some cars there are a few seats. I travel light, allowing me to keep items in the overhead compartments. The second floor is typically all seating. Seats aren’t assigned which means it is first come, first serve, so if you’re traveling with someone you’d like to sit with, arrive early to ensure you’re sitting together!
Once in your seat, you stay put until an attendant comes by and checks your ticket, a second attendant confirms your destination, and a final attendant takes your dinner/lunch/breakfast reservations.
Why train travel
When I got on, I wondered, “Why are these people taking the train instead of taking a short flight!?” An elderly woman mentioned how her artificial knees made TSA agents go haywire and she hated getting a pat down. Other folks (especially in the middle of the country) were using it as transportation to go home. A man in his 40’s takes the train home after his five week shift in the oil field. And the semi-surprising one: families were on a mission to take every single Amtrak (long-distance) route!
People on the train were extremely nice! Everyone wanted to know about you, where you were going, where you’re from, etc!!! Meals times were my favorite (in addition to the fact that I like eating), because you got seated with a random person/family. I met a guy who worked at Boeing in Seattle, a Mennonite family, one of my good friend’s professor from grad school (SMALL WORLD!), and of course, a family who were excited to tell me all about their various Amtrak trips.
In the viewing car, I met a retired truck driver who was excited to finally see the country from a different point of view, a woman who lived in Montana and told me about how she found a bear in her kitchen once, and many others. It was great to have some time to connect with folks and also take some time alone to just relax and enjoy the view.
A huge plus was all the room you had! The seats had tons of leg room, there were tables where you can sit with four people and either work or play card games, lots of outlets almost everywhere you went (even in the bathroom). The viewing carts had individual seating as well as seating in pairs or threes and fours. They even had side tables to put down your drink while watching! Being able to move freely made train travel so exciting. For one entire day, I barely went back to my seat because I was enjoying the rest of the train so much more!
If you’re considering this adventure, here are my recommendations:
1.) Bring snacks
This was such an important tip I received from someone else while doing some research. Once on the train, you can’t really get off…so bring all your favorite snacks that will curve the hunger between meals. Also, you can bring booze! And there’s booze on the train too! :-)
2.) Bring a blanket
I’m typically cold, but the trains felt even chillier. When sleeping at night, bring something that can fully cover you so you stay warm. I also brought those neck pillows which helped at night.
3.) Download your movies early!
There are parts of the trip when you’re going over mountains and varying terrains. This means you may have little or no service at all. Download all your movies/videos/etc before departure. And when you don’t have service, enjoy the view!
Their credit card machines were acting up (especially in areas with no service) so they could only take cash during certain meal times. And if you know me, I’m not one to miss meals, so cash came in handy.
5.) Motion Sickness
I’m usually ok with this but I didn’t realize how much movement there was until I got off the train in Chicago! While talking to my friend Jake, I leaned against a wall and felt like I was still moving. Between eating, starring at a screen, writing, etc., it started to get to me. Luckily, I always bring Dramamine when travelling (I’d rather be safe than sorry)! Hanging out in the viewing cart totally helped with motion.
Thoughts on traveling with kids
Kids loved going from car to car and hanging out the viewing car!
The train is such a great opportunity for kids and families to do something different. Card games, banana grams/scrabble, reading, are great options. Another cool thing I saw was kids with maps, mapping out their entire trip! It made for great dinner conversation!
If you’re traveling with infants, the great part is that there’s a lounge area for changing and breastfeeding. All of the bathrooms also had a changing table. If you’re carrying milk, I recommend bringing a cooler. Amtrak does not store anything but their own products in their refrigerators.
Q: How much did your ticket cost?
A: My one way ticket for coach was $260.
Q: How was the food on board? What were prices like?
A: It was O.K. The dining cars are like regular restaurants. You make reservations, you sit down, a staff member takes your order, you finish/pay/tip. I was full after each meal and there was at least one vegan/vegetarian option. I will say that I messaged Amtrak suggesting more options for vegan/vegetarians. I’m lactose intolerant and tend to not eat meat on planes/trains so I will say there were limited options (especially in the snack car!!). One thing I did do was bring my own dinner in DC and in Chicago from a local restaurant. I would eat either at my seat, or in the viewing car! You can see the Capitol Limited menu and the Empire Builder’s menu and prices.
Q: How was the wi-fi?
A: To be honest, I didn’t even try it. I have a hotspot and used that the whole time when I needed it. Service goes in and out depending on where you are. I will say you have much more service on the Capitol Limited than Empire Builder simply because of the terrain. All in all, it’s spotty. Also, I found it hard to be on my computer on the train. It does move quite a lot and it ended up making me dizzy at times.
Q: What went into putting a route together?
A: My first goal was making it to the other side of the country without being on the train for what seemed like forever (which again, three days weren’t bad at all!). I contemplated taking the California Zephyr which has even better views of the country, but that would have added so much more time (it ends up in Emeryville, CA). I did learn that almost all trains connect in Chicago! It’s a huge hub for Amtrak, which made it a perfect location to take a 24 hour break from the train! Cost was another factor.
Q: What’s the sleeping arrangement and what is the shower situation like?
A: Alright, honesty minute: Train seats are like first class seats on plane! It felt like I was sitting and sleeping on a couch opposed to a regular seat. There is a panel at the bottom of each seat that comes up completely parallel to your chair so you can prop your feet up, in addition the seat reclines pretty far back! I’m 5’7 and had absolutely no problems with space! It also helps the train tends to not be packed, so I actually had two seats to myself for the two nights on the Empire Builder!
There are sleeper cars. I recommend those for folks who are light sleepers, have back problems, or want to purchase an entire section for their family! These were coming out around $400-500 per person for a coast to coast trip. The price does include all meals and a shower (not sure if all, but I know some folks had it).
If you’re still questioning the lack of shower situation on coach, remember that all you’re doing is sitting and eating for hours and the trains are kept really cold. Also, clearly there are bathrooms and are kept up pretty well. As long as you’re keeping your usual nighttime routine, you’ll be fine!
Q: Do you get a chance to stop at different locations? (I had this one too!)
A: The train is similar to taking a bus: if you get off, your trip ends there, unless you buy a new ticket to continue on. This concerned me because I wanted to make sure I got fresh air at least ONCE in two days! Luckily, you are able to get off at certain locations for about 3-5 minutes. They request you stay close because they will leave you if you don’t get back on.
Train travel is for you if you want the journey to be just as exciting as the destination. It is very relaxing and forces you to slow down. The scenery made me even more grateful of the opportunities we have in the U.S. There are so many people that are not like us and encounter different issues than us east coast/DC residents do (like finding a bear in your kitchen!). And it’s neat to be able to genuinely talk to some of those people who are just as interested in your home culture as you are.
Would I do it again? Absolutely! I am interested in trying another line like the California Zephyr. And that question was answered when I flew back, and sat in the middle seat, crammed my stuff underneath my seat, and tried not to touch anyone beside me for 4 straight hours.
Train culture is so much more relaxed and welcoming than any other forms of transportation. I highly recommend it! Plus, you can also say you’ve traveled through every single time zone in the U.S. :-)
I hope this has helped you and please feel free to ask me more questions via FB, comments below, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy the rest of your summer friends!
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Ana Isabel is a portrait and event photographer in Washington, D.C. and San Antonio, TX.