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across the US. A peek into Americas backyard.

cork city,ireland
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across the US. A peek into Americas backyard.

We took a trip across the US by train in October and I would like to share some of our experiences with other potential train passengers. The first leg of the journey took us from New York to Chicago on the Lakeshore limited, a journey that began from Penn Station at 3.45 pm on Monday and reached Chicago at 2pm the following day. We stayed two nights in Chicago and left on the California Zephyr on Thursday early afternoon. We reached Denver after eight the following morning and spent an overnight there, rejoining the train at eight the following morning, and reaching San Francisco at 4pm the following day.

The advantages of train travel is its relaxed pace. We had booked roomettes for each leg of the journey and although small, we found them very suited to our needs. At night, with the door closed and both of us tucked up in our bunks I slept like a baby. Mind you a certain ammount of agility is needed to 'roll' into the top bunk. By day we read, played cards and watched the world go by. As the train passes places not normally seen by air or road travellers I felt as if I was getting a peek into America's back yard. The car attendents on each leg were kind and helpful. We swapped stories with them and found that they did their best to answer our queries and were generally helpful. We did find that depending on the location of the roomette it could become cold at night. On our last journey our roomette was at the top of the stairs and was quite draughty so I would advise bringing a fleece as the blankets are thin.

A particularly enjoyable aspect of the journey were the mealtimes. Because of the policy of insisting that diners sit together it is inevitable that you meet a wide range of people, all ages, creeds, ethnicity and points of view. We met some of the most interesting people and got an insight into American life that is more difficult to achieve as a tourist in a hotel.The food on the train was not especially good but given the long distances travelled and the limitations of the space this is not surprising.Service was professional although often brusque and sometimes downright rude. However, again this can be excused by issues of space and time. The waiting staff certainly work very hard.

The views from the windows never became boring. Leaving New York and going up the Hudson valley we went through suburbia, then along by the river and into heavily wooded country. In October the colours of the leaves were so beautiful. Leaving Chicago and crossing the Missisippi we crossed the wheat belt of Iowa and Nebraska, a sea of wheat criss crossed by roads with the occasional farmhouse and barn. This is where we really got a sense of the vastness of America. The fields seem to go on for a thousand miles, a flat ocean as far as the eye could see.From Denver on the scenery became ever more spectacular as we chugged into the Rockies and then through the Colorado canyons.Then Utah, and high desert. This was probably the most beautiful part of the journey as evening was falling and the light on the rocks turned them honey coloured and we half expected to see Clint Eastwood or John Wayne riding the range. We crossed into Nevada in the morning sun, a different landscape again. Finally, California, high hills, conifers, pretty Western towns, red earth and lots of pine trees and then Sacramento and the massive fruit and vegetable agribusiness of the valley and then San Francisco, our first glimpse of the Pacific, Alcatraz and the bridge. A dream come true.

We had a wonderful trip, met friendly interesting people and saw places we couldn't possibly have seen if we travelled by road or air. Most importantly the journey was stress free. The trip of a lifetime.

Chicago, Illinois
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1. Re: across the US. A peek into Americas backyard.

I'm glad to read that you weren't deterred by your family in New York (mentioned in an original post) who thought that you were nuts for taking Amtrak across the States. It's the only way to see our huge country. And thanks for appreciating the hard working dining car staff. They work 18 hour days and have to feed everyone on the train who wants to dine. They do get harried at times. Iowa's rolling landscape is under appreciated. I'm glad you saw the beauty in it. Isn't it amazing that the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada have such distinct topographical personalities? Finally, I hope you had a good stop-over in Chicago. PS: I stuff a hand towel in the air vent to slow down the airflow. Another trick is to get a small sheet of tin-foil from the dining car to lessen the vent size. Remember that for the next time. And the next time try the Southwest Chief if you really want John Wayne country. Thanks for reporting back.

Edited: 22 November 2011, 02:42
cork city,ireland
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2. Re: across the US. A peek into Americas backyard.

Thanks S_S. We will definitely do another Amtrak trip. We've thought about the South West Chief as you recommend. We may also consider the Coast Starlight. We've heard great things about it from other travellers. Agree about the family in New York, they don't know what they're missing. Thanks for the tips by the way.

Brisbane, Australia
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3. Re: across the US. A peek into Americas backyard.

Many years ago, we also crossed US on AMTRAK - and thoroughly enjoyed it. This was when we were inexperienced travellers and did not really know about the concept of "tipping" in the US. I cannot remember tipping anybody on this trainride. Lately we have been doing some cruises on cruiseships - and have become well aware of the requirement to "tip" on these ships.

You mentioned that some of the staff appeared "rude" on the train - and this has led me to think about tipping on the trains. What is the deal these days regarding tipping staff on AMTRAK??

Chicago, Illinois
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4. Re: across the US. A peek into Americas backyard.

Tipping, it seems, is an American thing. Some cultures find it insulting. Here we get insulted if you don't tip. In the dining car you tip as you would in any restaurant. Even if you're traveling Sleeper Car and have your meals provided in the cost of your ticket, gratuities are NOT included. The prices are listed on the menu so you can figure out the cost of your meal. I usually give the Sleeping car attendent $5 per day/person for good service; extra for exceptional service. There have been times I haven't tipped for bad service. Tipping your Chair Car attendent depends on how long you're on the train and what they've done to make your trip enjoyable.... and if they keep the bathrooms clean! Gratuities are appreciated. If you use a Redcap in the stations be sure to tip according to the baggage he/she handles for you, the timeliness of service and point to point ease (from station to train door/ from train into station at baggage claim or cab stand...) Start with $5 for moving you around and $1-2 per bag handled. ($1 is for taking you to the platform and dropping you at your car. $2 is for taking your luggage onboard and to your accoommodation.) Personally my back can't take hefting large luggage and it's worth a couple of bucks to have someone else handle it. Tipping aside, people in the service industry are not supposed to be rude. They are supposed to be able to give decent service to the patrons without remunerations. Let's be honest, If you tip a waiter in the dining car on day one of a cross country trip word gets around and you do get better service. Conversley non-tippers are also noticed. They give you service but won't hold that last peice of cheesecake for you at dinner tonight or let you linger a few minutes longer at your table. (besides, lingering is rude of the passenger to other passengers waiting to dine) Amtrak has hired The Ritz Carlton hotel chain to do training with their on-board personel. Hopefully passengers will see the difference and want to give the attendents and dining car staff a gratuity.

MaineUSA
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5. Re: across the US. A peek into Americas backyard.

Bazza:

Shallow Shoal's comments regarding tipping reflect our May 2011 around the country experience on Amtrak. Prior to our trip I monitored the Amtrack Unlimited forum where I picked up some great hints on all aspects of Amtrak long distance travel. The site can be a bit irritating as the train buffs try to "one up" each other! I can't recall any major negative experiences with either the sleeper car attendents or those in the dining room on our trip. Garrett, our parlour car attendent on the Coast Starlight was outstanding and was rewarded accordingly.

6. Re: across the US. A peek into Americas backyard.

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