Riding Amtrak for fun?

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Back in 2004, while riding east on the California Zephyr, one of our lunch companions was Lou, a train buff from South Carolina who was traveling on an Amtrak rail pass. (Was that you by any chance?) So far that year, he'd gone from his home in South Carolina to Los Angeles via New Orleans. From L.A., he’d gone north up to Vancouver and had then taken an eastbound Canadian passenger train across Canada. He then went west on the Empire Builder and was now heading east again on the Zephyr. Between trains, he would rest up for a few days, usually staying at the same places the Amtrak crew members stayed.

Although we, too, are railfans, we now just ride the train to go someplace we need to be. (As seniors in their late ‘70’s, we’re no longer up to driving long distances or dealing with the stresses and inconveniences associated with flying.) Most of our long-distance trips are made back to Ohio to visit family members. (It is difficult for them to come to California so we must go to them.)

Although we don’t ride the train “just for the fun of it,” we are now scheduling two trips back to Ohio every year, just so we can get in as many trips as possible while we’re still able to travel.

Our favorite long-distance trains are Southwest Chief Nos. 3 and 4.

In the 36 years we’ve been riding on Amtrak trains, we’ve had our share of adventures: a missed connection in Chicago due to a late arrival, the last-minute cancellation of the train we were expecting to take from Toledo to Chicago in order to make a same day connection, assorted delays caused by the weather or human or structural failure, etc. (Riding on Amtrak is not for the fainthearted!)

From our own experiences and by paying attention to the various comments posted on various AU threads, we’ve picked up enough useful hints and suggestions so that we feel confident that we can handle just about any situation we’re likely to encounter while traveling.

Eric & Pat
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I just remembered one trip my wife and I made just for fun, which was to ride the Pennsylvanian from Paoli to Altoona and back which you could do as a day trip. This was in the fall of 1980, I remember the time as the Phillies were in the playoffs against the Houston Astros which they were to go on and win putting them in the World Series against the KC Royals. We were discreetly listening to a playoff game on the way home on a portable radio 🙂. At Altoona we had time for a quick visit to the Railroaders Memorial museum which was interesting, before getting our trip home. It would have been nice to also see Horseshoe Curve from the train but that would have required an overnight stay due to the schedule.
I love to ride trains. I’d ride Amtrak just for the sake of riding a train and watching the world go by out a train window. I don’t do it anywhere near as much as I’ve always wanted to, and I’m scared I’m running out of time. I’ve told my family if they bury me I want my epitaph to be “All things considered, I’d rather be on a train”.

But from the tone of some messages here, on trainorders.com, and elsewhere, it seems sometimes that riding Amtrak just isn’t much fun anymore. Late trains, dirty windows, mediocre food, yada yada yada.

I’m well aware that most of us railfans who think things are all hunky dory aren’t as likely to post msgs saying that as folks who had an unpleasant experience are. So the messages themselves aren’t a valid indicator of real conditions, I suppose.

So I’ll ask for opinions. I’m not asking you to bash Amtrak! I’m not asking you to bash me for how I feel about riding trains or why. I just wonder: all things considered with what Amtrak is doing these days, is it sensible at all to maybe just buy a USA pass and use it up riding up and down the east coast from SC where I live and back again for as many day train rides as I can squeeze out of it? Or is it just not that much fun any longer to just hop on a train and see where it goes?
I have a reason aside from fun as my son is in Seattle and I am in western NY. However, I think I have had as much fun riding there and back than as anything else in my 65 years!! Having sons and dedicated ride on both ends, I didn't have worries about timing! I used the lounge and loved eating with strangers!! Just watching the country go by was just as fun! I loved looking for people watching the train! A school yard full of children waving was a highlight for me! I know how to have fun and the train is definitely fun
I recommend trying a few solo trips first. If you like it try including your significant other. I have tried numerous times to include my GF and she is just not interested in trains. This is okay, and she encourages me to take train rides on my own.

Our first overnight effort was on the Capitol Limited back in the summer of 1997. We had a roomette. Things got off to a decent start with an on-time departure. The waiter in the diner was rude. After dinner I thought playing Barry White would set an interesting soundtrack to sharing the wonders of riding in a roomette with the lights off at night. A thunderstorm flashed outside, and we rolled along. Then we stopped. We sat through two long Barry White songs. GF asked questions. I turned off Barry White. His smooth voice was replaced by the harsh chatter of railroaders trying to straighten out a mess. The signals were out, and the storm had blown trees over onto a stopped freight train. We sat for two hours looking at the same house. We were just west of Porter. I can identify that house 30 years later.

We went to bed. GF asked how long the delay would be. I speculated we would be eating breakfast in Toledo. GF asked what time we were due into Toledo. I told her 12:00 a.m. She did the math. My god, we will be 6 hours late.

It was early in are relationship and she was always encouraging me to find the blessing in any situation. I pointed out that this was a blessing because we would see the section of track from Toledo to Pittsburg in daylight since we were so late. She did not see this as a blessing. LOL.

Our most successful trips were short ones to St. Louis and a trip on the Acela in first class. She has learned enough from me to book her own trips. If she is traveling back from St. Louis she deliberately avoids booking on the Texas Eagle because "It is always late and that is disharmonious to her". She even knows that it is identified as train number 22.

Once you have experienced Amtrak enough you will learn how to navigate around the minor pitfalls and some of the major ones. Then you can include your significant other to see if they like train travel. If the person asks many questions about why you take the slow train, and just in general does not sound positive, this is a good indicator to leave them at home and go solo.
Barry White lol first time Wow
I did two "just for fun" rides during the Pandemic. Both were loop trips from Baltimore. One trip involved riding the Acela to Boston, a ride across Massachusetts on the Lakeshore Limited to Albany, and then Empire Service/Crescent back to Baltimore. This involved overnight layovers in Boston and Albany. The other was Northeast Regional to Philadelphia, Pennsylvanian to Pittsburgh, and Capitol Limited to Washington and Northeast Regional back to Baltimore. The Pennsylvania segment got messed up because of a NS derailment on the Horseshoe Curve, so we were bustituted from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. This trip involved an overnight stay in Pittsburgh. It's also a trip I need to do again, as I missed riding over the Horseshoe Curve.

Another good one was Northeast Regional to New London - Cross -sound Ferry New London to Orient Point, Uber from Orient Point to Greenport, LIRR from Greenport to NYP, then Acela back home. Needed an overnight in New York. Also, Northeast Regional to NYP, LIRR to Port Jefferson, ferry to Bridgeport, Metro-North to Grand Central Terminal, subway to Penn Station and an Acela home. That one I did in a day.
I think what really soured my hubbie on trains was his last time riding. We were going from Hammond,La to Memphis. Convinced him not to drive and take the train. He slept listened to music as I went to the site seeking car and just enjoyed the ride- well just as we were approaching Memphis- on time I might add- accident at the crossing (lol) we could see the station but couldn’t get off-y’all know the story- we had to wait hours for whoever to come to assess the situation. We were all making jokes with other passengers, hubbie was not a happy camper. The end. Lol Maybe I should have played Barry White!!!
Well, this thread might allow me to say something I've bottled up for a while.
On several Amtrak or rail/transit communities, I often wonder why so many people complain about the minor inconveniences, or even the major inconveniences, of train travel. I understand why those things bother people--- short or long delays, overpriced cafe car food, uncomfortable or noisy coach cars...
But for me, the question is: 10 or 20 years from now, will I remember paying $6 for a soggy bagel, or will I remember what the snow-covered Cascades look like from the observation car of the Coast Starlight? Will I remember someone snoring in the seat in front of me, or will I remember crossing Lake Pontchartrain on the Crescent? Will I remember waiting in the Springfield station for a van, or will I remember Glenwood Canyon on the California Zephyr?
Obviously, adventure train travel isn't for everyone (there are financial and time and health constraints)---but in 30 days, I visited 34 states, probably more than many people see in their lifetime.
You caught my feelings on it perfectly Matthew.

Last year I got the $300 sale pass and spent 30 days riding the Crescent southbound, Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief, Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Lakeshore Limited to Boston, a NER, and then the Carolinian. I spent many days watching the country roll past the window, with books in my bag mostly unread - too much to see.

There were plenty of inconveniences, delays (one with stew), the coach seats weren't great, some fellow passengers were annoying, and the bathrooms were sometimes filthy. But when I got home I was ready to do it again. A year later the memories are all good ones.

I suspect if there has been a bustitution or outright cancellation I might have at least one dark memory though!
All I can say is that fun or not I'd rather take the train than fly ( I do both). While I've had train trips with long delays ( but always under 8 or so hours), I've had flight delays and cancellations equally if not more annoying and stressful than train travel ( once had a flight from Phoenix to St. John's, NFL that left PHX at 6am, Friday and arrived in St. John's at 2am Sunday). My most recent trip was on the Ocean from Quebec City to Halifax. It was about 6 hours late: I loved it but my BF companion not so much. My next planned trip is Baltimore to Myrtle Beach -- looking forward to it as I've never taken that route. So in conclusion: Fly if you must get there; take the train if you want to enjoy the trip.
Absolutely agree! My motto is: "Getting there is half the fun! Coming back from there is the other half!" (With apologies to the Cunard Line)...😁
Or to paraphrase author David Baldacci, it’s not the beginning or the destination that counts so much as the ride in between.
Part of my vacation is part of my train trips. I only travel for fun. The experience of traveling by train is part of the journey for me. Most of my friends think I am crazy when i spend 2000 dollars RT to CHI-SEA. I just started riding Amtrak and I have enjoyed each trip. The only bad trip i had was coming back from WAS to CHI and i had no AC in my car. Probably should have called and get my money back but i forgot about it and went on my merry way lol.
In 2022 I went from Portland, OR to Orlando FL and back, mostly in sleepers and mostly by myself, stopping in Chicago, South Bend (for a Studebaker event), NYC, DC, my wife joined me for some of it and we had the best time, both on the train and at our various destinations. I'd do it again and hope to do some shorter trips soon - Van BC, Oakland, LA or Bakersfield, St Paul, etc. Very much looking forward to being able to take some new routes on new equipment. I've missed connections, but Amtrak took care of me. And I've never had service from staff that was less than professional, often much more than that. But I'm not demanding. If I could afford it, I'd do little else.
I have been doing circle trips for 35 years and as I write this I am on yet another adventure using The Capitol Limited,Empire Builder, Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief. I normally go solo and get roomettes. This first leg from Harrisburg to Chicago is in Coach, because I couldn’t justify the high price of a roomette for this short a trip.

The feeling of being in a roomette traveling through the Country never gets old. I usually spend night or two at motels between segments. Only complaints I have is that godawful flex food. Some people like it. I have had enough of that crap to be thoroughly sick of it. Other complaint is the high prices for roomettes. I will only travel at low bucket. Being retired I am very flexible. It’s just getting harder to align dates with low buckets but they are out there. Example: I m paying around $600 for the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland and The Southwest Chief from LA to Chicago. No way I would pay more or I don’t go.

That being said, there is nothing like riding in a sleeper with good cooked to order food. It is one of life’s great pleasures.
Lucky for my wife and I, our favorite train trip is the one we take a few times a year to visit our daughter's family near Boston. The Philadelphia to NYC section is OK, but the best part is leaving NYC and seeing the famous NYC skyline, then the "sunny side yards", then the neighborhoods of Queens where I grew up, then the Bronx, and its over the Hell Gate Bridge to New England. For the rest of the trip you travel with Long Island Sound on the one side and CT, RI, and MA towns and cities on the other. At times you can see boats on both sides. Forget the Acela...what's the rush? Six states in 6 hours!


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stopping in Chicago, South Bend (for a Studebaker event),
I wonder if there is a tie between interest in defunct car models like Studebaker, and interest in trains. I am thinking of my roommate in college who was a big train fan and also owned a Golden Hawk '56 or '57 with 4 on the floor. Great fun to ride in. He and I also went on some train trips such as Lancaster/Paoli to New York returning on the National Limited so we could eat in the diner. He went on to acquire a couple more cars including an Avanti.
I will always look for an excuse to take the train! For me it is almost always just for fun, rather than convenience. My husband and adult children do not share my enthusiasm, so my trips are usually solo. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as I have absolutely grown to appreciate the peace and solitude and the chance to just slooooow life down!
I live in RI and am also a big Disney fan, so taking the SS or SM to Kissimmee or Orlando is one of my favorite trips. You can imagine the looks I get when people hear the travel time compared to a flight! 😆
My son started school at Clemson this year, so I’m riding the Crescent for the first time in a couple of weeks to visit him. I also am planning a cross country solo trip and back once I collect enough points to do it in sleepers.
We are definitely a rare bunch, but those of us who get it know how fun it truly is!
While most of our rides are transportation they are always enjoyable and fun. Our trip to the gathering this year was just for the train rides and recommended for those that just want to ride for fun. On that trip to PHL for the 2023 Gathering we met one man who is not a member here who just rides SEPTA and PATCO every Sunday for fun. The long discontinued National Train Day also attracted many that rode for fun.
I wonder if there is a tie between interest in defunct car models like Studebaker, and interest in trains. I am thinking of my roommate in college who was a big train fan and also owned a Golden Hawk '56 or '57 with 4 on the floor. Great fun to ride in. He and I also went on some train trips such as Lancaster/Paoli to New York returning on the National Limited so we could eat in the diner. He went on to acquire a couple more cars including an Avanti.
There's definitely some overlap, last year our local chapter of the Studebaker Drivers Club went on a local excursion train ride and that event was quite well attended.