For some reason, I’ve found that holiday travel brings out the worst in people. It’s supposed to be a time for cheer, but instead, the airport becomes a place of scrooges, overrun with lines and crowds. People are pushy and curt, with holiday stress manifesting itself in the ugliest way possible.

But the airport is a necessary evil to get to the dazzling lights, sparkling tree, savory smells, and loving family waiting with open arms, right? Wrong! Have you considered alternate forms of transportation? This holiday season; let’s say fa-la-la-la-la-BYE to the stress of flying. Who’s with me?

I’ll be the first to admit I never considered the train as a viable transportation option. Trains in Europe and other parts of the world are super popular, but somehow we seem to forget they also exist in America.

I have always been intrigued by the glamour of the train. Its heyday harkens back to a time where travel was a grand affair and the anticipation of the journey was as exciting as the destination. When Amtrak and Samsonite offered me the opportunity to take the train home for the holidays, I was ecstatic.

 Photo Credit: Nick Gerber

Here’s a Bit about the Amtrak Experience:

The California Zephyr line runs across the country from San Francisco to Chicago. I boarded at Denver’s Union Station at approximately 7 p.m. and rode to Chicago’s Union Station, which arrived around 3 p.m. the next day. As soon as I tossed my bags aboard, I was rushed right up to the dining car.

The Food

Meals are included with first-class sleeper cars so you can pick anything off the dinner, lunch and breakfast menu depending on the time of day. You’re seated with other riders like a cruise ship, which is an interesting way to meet some serious characters. The food is comparable to airplane food, but with more choices and sides. It’s actually made to order from a kitchen down below. Dinner was three courses with a salad and dessert. Opting for the special, I got a top chef inspired spicy shrimp biryani and chocolate cake. There is also a cafe car so you definitely won’t go hungry. Both the dining car and the cafe have alcohol available for purchase.

Meals were also a good opportunity to ask other guests why they chose to ride the train. Some said they were scared of flying. One lady had surgery so she always got hassled by TSA for the metal in her leg. Two guys my age said they just prefer it, “It’s relaxing, you can walk around, and make new friends.” I totally get it: flying in this day and age is a hassle. On Amtrak, you go to sleep, wake up, eat, and you’re in a new place. No jet lag, no stress.

Sleeper Cars

Different configurations of sleeper cars are priced at different tiers, some with bathrooms and showers en-suite. Each has a personal attendant who turns down the beds for you. It’s basically a convertible pod with a bunch of buttons that control the temperature, lights, and even music. I actually slept really well as the rocking of the rails lulled me to sleep.

There’s a sightseeing car where people play games (I made some new friends over cards), play guitar, read, and hang out. Periodically, the conductor gives little tidbits of trivia about the sights you’re passing over the speaker. In Iowa, he pointed out where the Bridges of Madison County was filmed. It kinda felt like a grand tour of America. I was shocked by how fast the time passed, especially without Internet most of the time.

Things That Surprised Me About the Train:

-You can bring an incredible amount of luggage on board, which includes pets and bikes. Each person is allowed two carry-ons and two checked bags up to 50 pounds each for FREE. If you’re moving cross-country, Amtrak is a great option to get your stuff to a new city.

-There’s a luggage carousel at the terminal (just like an airport) with Red Cap porters to help you. If you’re picturing the Greyhound bus crowd, you’re dead wrong. Personal white glove service is a big thing and they make sure you’re taken care of. That said, tickets are not cheap and comparable or sometimes even more than flights.

-At the station, sleeper car passengers have access to a VIP lounge with snacks, drinks, showers, and even free wine tastings. It’s all about the experience of making travel great again.

-You can get off at some of the bigger stops like Omaha to stretch your legs for 15-minutes or so.

-It’s not a 24/7 party. Quiet time begins at 10 p.m. and the café closes at 11 so people do actually sleep.

-Security is refreshingly lax. There’s no pat down, x-ray machine, or long lines. You can bring any size liquids on-board. Simply show the conductor your ID and ticket and you’ll be directed to your cabin.

-Arrival times are largely depend on the traffic from the passing freights, which can be frustratingly unpredictable. It only takes a few people to delay the train (like a couple who lost their luggage).

 Photo Credit: Nick Gerber

Was it a perfect travel experience?

No, but what is? The toilets weren’t working in our car and there was no Wi-Fi (dependent on the route), which seemed crazy for that long of a ride. People were asking for healthier food options that seemed like a no-brainer to offer a fruit plate for breakfast. But it was a heck of a lot less stressful than flying during the holidays and a unique experience if you have the time. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I pay more than I would for a flight to get there slower? No, but they often have deals and special offers.

 Photo Credit: Nick Gerber

Things To Do in Chicago:

Shoreline Sightseeing’s architectural boat tour is a great way to get the lay of the land (spring through fall) and instill a sense of pride about America’s favorite inland port city. You’ll learn where the name Chicago originated and that we actually had the first skyscraper in the world. You’ll see where the great Chicago fire started, learn where the nickname Second City came from, and get a lesson on the symbolism in the Chicago flag. Landmarks you’ll pass include the old headquarters of catalog king Montgomery Ward, the original Marshall Fields department store, a building so big it has its own zip code, and architectural examples from just about every decade. As an interesting tie back to the train, most of the riverfront property is actually owned by the railroad, the downtown buildings just lease the land.

Other things to do in Chicago: Indulge in deep dish pizza, Italian beef, Chicago-style hot dogs, or one of the many Michelin-star restaurants, walk or bike the lakefront path, Riverwalk or the new 606 trail, explore the free Lincoln Park Zoo or one of the many world-class museums like the new American Writers Museum, which is the first of its kind in the U.S. Here are some additional winter suggestions.

Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay in Chicago

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8 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I’ve always wanted to take a sleeper train! I can picture myself arriving at my destination rested and refreshed. So different from a typical flight.

  2. Andi
    Andi says:

    I really love this honest assessment of the train ride, it would be silly to purport that any form of mass transportation is perfect, but the “flaws” seem totally manageable, I think nothing can beat watching the landscape pass you by on a train. I used to do a short Amtrak trip from Berkeley CA to Sacramento and really enjoyed it. I would LOVE to do a longer trip. I’m inspired to look into to it now!

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    It has always been a dream of mine to travel long distance on a train. Growing up in a railroad town you fall in love with the trains and rails. thanks for sharing your experience

    • Rick
      Rick says:

      I’ve had the same dream as Anonymous 1. I grew up and lived very close to train tracks. The train tracks California stopped in the next town over. It appears as airfares rose, train fares have dropped. I’m head to visit a friend in Vegas. Now, I’m going to look into the pricing and timing of the trains. It has that “romantic” feel to it like the Orient Express.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I love to travel by Amtrak! I did it as a kid when we lived on the East Coast, and it’s now my preferred way to travel here in California. Add a stop in Chicago to that, and it sounds like the perfect trip!

  5. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    I’ve always wanted to do that cross-country trek on Amtrak! I’m a huge proponent of train travel and wish it were more commonplace here in the US.

  6. Richard
    Richard says:

    As Kristin said, I wish Train travel was more commonplace in the US. On my bucket list is the Golden Zephyr as are trips through Europe. Being in a Chicago suburb I’ll walk to the local train station to get into the city. The stress of driving in horrendous traffic and paying $25 to park, I’ll pay $5 and walk more. I loved old movies with baseball teams traveling by train or Some Like it Hot. Something romantic about a long train ride. No turbulence. No TSA, no lines. I’m more excited now.


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