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Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

Manila, Philippines
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Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

We have relatives in Irvine, California and Bangor, Maine. I and my wife plan to stay with one family for a few days, then travel leisurely across the US by rail to the other family, and stay with them for a few more days, before flying home.

1. Is it better to go from east to west, or from west to east? I really don't know what factors need to be considered. I've been told that east to west is good because: (i) you retrace the steps of the pioneers moving west; (ii) the sun setting before you makes for picturesque views. Any other arguments? I note also that we'll probably be more tired or bedraggled towards the end of the trip, so I'd rather place the "easier" part of the journey, whichever that is, towards the end.

2. We would like to take the most scenic train route across the continent.

3. We have three "must see" cities on our list: San Francisco, New York and Washington, DC. Any other destinations, I would pick based on proximity to the train route. In other words, I would choose the train route first, then the stopovers after. We plan to stop over in 3 locations along the way, probably spending 1-3 days at each stopover.

For various reasons, we do not travel very often. This will be a journey of a lifetime.

Thank you very much for your help!

LV from Manila

Edited: 16 February 2014, 10:22
Bucks County...
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1. Re: Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

There are several routes to take. Considering your stopovers, I believe the best and most scenic route is:

Take any train from either Portland, Maine, or Brunswick, Maine to Boston. Brunswick is closer to Bangor, but there are more trains from Portland. The trains will end at Boston North Station. You must then make your way to Boston South Station to switch trains (Taxi needed for the transfer). From Boston SOuth Station, take any of the frequently scheduled trains to New York City. From New York City, take any of the frequently scheduled trains to Washington DC.

From Washington, DC, you have two choices- The Cardinal (train # 51), or The Capitol (train # 29). They take different routes. Both are mainly overnight trains, but The Cardinal gives you more daylight, and is more scenic, so I'd go with that one.You must change trains in Chicago. There is no single train that runs from the east cost to the west coast.

From Chicago, by far, the most scenic route is the California Zephyr (train #5) which will take you to the San Francisco area. There, you change trains at Emeryville and pick up the Coast Starlight (train # 11) to Los Angeles. From Los Angeles, you transfer to a Pacific Surfliner train, which runs several times daily to Irvine.

You could take the Southwest Chief from Chicago to LA, but the other route is much more scenic.

Some general notes: For all trains, the prices go up as you get closer to your departure date (like airlines). The trains from Boston to Washington generally do not provide checked baggage, and you can safely ignore AMTRAK's carry-on rules for these trains. The rules are not enforced between Boston and Washington (the same is probably true from Portland to Boston), as this is actually a glorified commuter route (though the seats recline and are roomy and comfortable, and there is cafe service). The long distance (overnight) trains sell out quickly, so make your reservations as soon as possible.

You will want some sort of sleeping accommodations for the overnight trains, especially on the Zephyr, as that is two nights. These also sell out early.

There are many posts about the Zephyr and the Coast Starlight on this forum, so you can search here for more information, or wait for Shallow_Shoals to post. He rides them both frequently.

Chicago, Illinois
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2. Re: Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

I don't have to post owlyn: You said it all. The routes you suggest are perfect.

I'd choose the California Zephyr over the Southwest Cheif but either are terrific scenery-wise. Very different scenery. If you start on the East Coast you have great, almost hourly train service betwen Boston and WashingtonDC on the Northeast Corridor serivce. From Washington (the southernmost city on your list, take the Capitol Limited to Chicago. Spend a couple of days in Chicago (check choosechicago.com/meeting-professionals/… to make sure that your dates don't conflict with a big convention which raises hotel rates) and then take the Zephyr from CHI to SFC (includes the coach connection from Emeryville to SF). From SF to LA take the Coast Starlight - Not an innervalley San Joaquin Train which Amtrak will push. If you take the Coast Starlight, a cross platform transfer to a San Diego train will be in the station to get you to Irvine or your family might make the short trip to meet you in LA.

Chicago, Illinois
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3. Re: Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

One other thing to note. The Northern route - Empire Builder - will be experiencing slow orders all summer because of the new Oil fields and constrution in North Dakota so many travelers will switch to a southern route. You want to make your reservations a.s.a.p.

Jackson, Ohio
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4. Re: Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

I concur with the posters above. You will enjoy WVA on the Cardinal, and the Rockies/ Sierra's on the CZ are bout as good as it gets. although I will be on the EB this summer, the CZ is much better (we are going to Glacier)

Sit back, relax, and watch it roll by.

Chicago, Illinois
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5. Re: Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

Yeah, Eric, but you know how to enjoy a train trip. The "speedy alka-seltzer" generation is going to be ticked off on the late orders on this summer's EB. Amtrak already has the trip advisories listed on their web site but nobody is going to pay attention until they get mad. We're traveling on the Cardinal in June. It's been a while.

Jackson, Ohio
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6. Re: Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

I would take the Cardinal to my old home grounds in Oak Park if it didn't have such a god awful schedule. It leaves SPM at 10:51 PM and rolls into CHI at 10:50 AM. That's twelve hours for a five and a half hour drive. In the old days when it stopped in Hamilton I would catch it there because on the way back I could get home by the time it got to SPM. Enjoy the scenery on the Card, it's marvelous.

I have also been known to drive to GBB to catch the CZ because I can be back home in six hours - almost beating the Zeph just to Chi. However, once boarded, I immediately go into the pleasure mode and hope we are six hours late just for the extra meals.

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7. Re: Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

Agreed that Owlyn has sketched the best route, with others adding perspective. Your “must-sees” of NYC, DC, and San Francisco are good ones. A few more thoughts:

1. You could start early and push to get between Bangor/Portland and New York in one day. But one potentially fine stopover might be Boston. Public transport is good (and full of local character), there are great museums, historic sights, musical and sports events, shopping, food, and other things to do/see.

2. Try to sit on the left (southeast) side of the train between Boston and New York. Occasional coastal and harbor views are on that side of the train. This is one rail stretch with lots of scheduling options. You should do this by day. You are unlikely to get an assigned seat, so might want to be purposeful in queuing up and boarding the train, to get such a seat.

3. Chicago may also be a good place for a stopover. Like for Boston, this would let you expect an overnight or more stay in town, rather than having to “hurry up and wait” on a connection. Like Boston, public transport is good (and full of local character), there are great museums, musical and sports events, shopping, food, and other things to do/see.

4. Depending on how **grand** you want this tour to be – do you want to stop in Salt Lake City, and rent a car to see Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons to the north; Bryce Canyon, Zion and/or the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the south, or both? If you push such a trip you could make your preferred highlights in a week of car rental time. Weekend and weekly rates are often the best values. But, if you haven't driven such long distances, build in some slack as some folks find it a challenge to handle such long drives the first time they attempt them. Make sure your drivers license (including international permit) is in order – and plan in advance to maximize insurance coverage at optimal rates – if possible with affordable but effective alternatives to car rental company collision damage waivers, and related expensive up-sells. Book the car with a credit card to avoid bureaucratic heartache. (Domestic US car rentals tend not to ask for specific credit card details unless one books and prepays, which I suggest is probably worth the slight savings in return for lost flexibility.)

5. If you wanted to stop at a smaller place along the way, an overnight in Glenwood Springs might be the place. The town is full of character. No need for a car, as it is walkable if you get a hotel near the train station (there are several moderately inexpensive, to higher end and/or historic hotel options). An afternoon or evening visit to the large hot springs spa pool might add to the stopover. Public buses go as far as Aspen from Glenwood if you wanted to do that – but a second day is suggested if you wanted to try the Aspen option.

You might want to compare a simple purchase of tickets (and sleepers for segments where you might want sleepers) with a rail pass. The pass might get you a better price, or not, depending on the details of your trip. Also, before booking online or via a travel agent – talking with an Amtrak agent by phone, after you pencil in your schedule, might give you some suggestions on availability, pricing, and possible alternatives to save money or get a better trip.

MaineUSA
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8. Re: Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

On your Maine - Boston portion you have some options. The simplest is to take the Concord Coach Bus from Bangor directly to South Station. If you do want to take the train part of the way then get off the bus in Portland and take the train to North Station. As others have noted there are more frequent trains from there. I wound skip the Brunswick - Portland train. If you have your tickets onward from Boston and don't have tons of luggage, then you can take the Orange Subway Line to Back Bay Station and pick up the train there. Again, if you have a lot of luggage and want better seat selection then definately take a cab to South Station. Another note, you can't check any luggage on the Boston - New York - Washington portion of your travels.

Washington State
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9. Re: Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

You can check baggage in the Northeast Corridor (BOS-NYC-WAS). It just won't travel on the same train as you likely will. The overnight Regionals 66 and 67 carry a baggage car and handle checked baggage on the corridor. South of New York, they'll put checked baggage on the long distance trains as well.

If you check it the day before, it will be waiting at your destination station. If you don't, it won't catch up to you until the next day. It is a pain, but you can check bags if you really need to.

Of course, both the origin and destination station must have checked baggage service, too.

Edited: 18 February 2014, 22:49
Chicago, Illinois
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10. Re: Help Me Plan a Grand US Transcontinental Rail Journey.

You carry your baggage on the train with you.