Traveling Slow on Rails

At 35,000ft, everything looks so small and every place feels much closer than before. Seeing the world from above is a privilege awarded to us only recently. It’s hard to imagine a time before planes, when explorers would spend months at sea. When people would pack up a wagon and cross mighty rivers in search of a better life. Nowadays, we live in a world where nothing is more than a day or two away and return trips are somehow cheaper than one-ways. I feel like we’ve lost the pleasure of the journey.

As we grow older, time seems to pass faster. Part of this of course, has to do with having spent more time on earth and the ratio of an hour and time spent alive ever changing. However, another reason time seems to pass so quickly is because the process of things is speeding up. Even boiling water is faster with the help of an electric kettle. Then there’s the lack of new experiences as we grow older. Might I suggest a new (err, OLD) way of travel?

Ladies and Gents, meet the railroads.

There’s something romantically enchanting about traveling slow, particularly by rail. Jaw-dropping views of various terrain, sparkling cities, and quaint small towns…there’s just nothing like traveling through as opposed to over. In 1883, the legendary Orient Express departed on its maiden voyage from Paris to make its way through Europe. For a (not so budget-friendly) price, you can actually board the luxurious replica and travel around Europe just as the posh ladies and gentlemen did in the golden age of railroads. However, you can still be a traveler of by gone years right here in the Northern Americas, exploring places in the romantic tales of the 1930s and 1940s.

My Spring Across the States

At 8:15am, sometime in May, I boarded the VIA Rail train from Toronto to Niagara, beginning my journey to Seattle, Washington. The way I booked my train journey was odd to the ticket inspector as most of the other passengers crossing into the U.S. were staying on the train as it was to cross over the Niagara border and transfer everyone over to Amtrak once on the New York side. The VIA rail train was to stop for 2 hours for customs before rolling on through to the states side. I, however, built my ticket in a way that allowed me to get off the train on our 2 hour stop right there on the Canada side. This meant, I had to walk over the border myself to transfer on the other side.

I knew seeing Niagara Falls from the train would probably not be an option, so I spent my 2 hours meandering around the falls and crossing the United States border on foot! This foot crossing cost me a whole fifty cents. You read that right. Two quarters. And no one was around to collect it. I found this not only completely unexpected, but absolutely hilarious. Of course, on the other side of the crossing, you had to show your passport and go through customs (I’d feel bad if I gave you the impression this coin machine was the only point of entry…even if the thought does make me chuckle!)

I’m glad I decided to walk despite the rain. Despite the distance. Despite the inconvenience. Often times in life we go for what’s practical. Practical is the fastest route with the least amount of effort or consequence. Practical makes sense. I don’t usually makes sense, so I’m not usually practical. And that’s ok.

Being practical means that sometimes you miss something beautiful that can only come out of the impractical.

Like this absolutely breathtaking and inimitable view of Niagara Falls from the Rainbow Bridge.

From this point we had an 18 hour stop in Buffalo, which allowed me to see a lot of what makes that little city so great! From there, the train took off at midnight. As most wild journeys begin, my first night on the train consisted of ruminating on some sprinkles of silly regrets and anxiety, as well as “oh dear, what did I book? I’m going to go insane!”

And that I did. The first night anyway.

You may have heard of Derek Low’s Post on riding Amtrak across America for only $213. Indeed, my trip did cost under $213US. However, as many travel blogger’s pointed out from his post, he fails to mention how uncomfortable a coach ticket can be for multiple days. I want to be real with you. To some extent, I agree with those bloggers; it IS uncomfortable to try to sleep on a crowded train car. I somehow didn’t realize my trip was to take place on Memorial day weekend. That first night was a bit brutal. Luggage and bags everywhere. Movement was limited. Stretching was not an option. Babies crying. It all made me seriously question how I thought this was doable and if the savings were really worth it. However, having this be the worst of it, I want to assure you it got better. A lot better.

I met a retired, British couple that’s been on the rails for a month now and heard their interesting tale of how they went from friends, to lovers, to enemies, to friends again, and ultimately life partners who took the trans-Siberian ride (longest train ride in the world!) and now found themselves rolling along the railways of North America. I met an amish family that started the journey with what seemed to me like some serious faces. Wrong. Very warm hearted and loquacious folk. I had never encountered the Amish until this point in my life. I hate that I saw it as an amusing novelty at first, but I was determined to get to know their way of life through their eyes and not just what I’ve seen on TV. If for no other reason to book this train ticket, do it for the people you’ll meet.

I met your typical tech founder who took a dose of “fukitol” and was now on a train to Seattle because…well, BECAUSE. (And isn’t “because” the best of reasons?! ) 

I met a 20yr old engineering student who is “so tired of fulfilling mom and dad’s wishes” that he booked a summer work-travel in Glacier Park. He said if it’s as beautiful as the pictures, he might just stay there forever. But then we talked astronomy. He asked me why the hell I would wanna go back to school for a science degree when that’s the very thing he’s trying to escape. 2hrs later, he might be ever so slightly changing his major. (You’re welcome mom and dad.) I also met an awesome (huge) Filipino family who basically adopted me for the remainder of the train ride.

The train staff called me “little wanderer” because the second we’d have a 15+ minute stop, I’d dart off the train to explore our surroundings. They always made sure I was back on, which was super cute. Absolutely stellar staff.

The famous Amtrak observation car gave larger views with its expansive floor-to-ceiling windows that wrapped above. One night we saw a gorgeous sunset on the Mississippi River…and then we saw stars.

We traveled through space and time as a family and I don’t regret booking coach at all.

Traveling Coach on Amtrak for Long Distances

Traveling coach can be uncomfortable, but please, don’t let that stop you. Discomfort can be greatly diminished if you know what to expect ahead of time. Here are some tips for making your pauper ticket feel a bit more royal:

Pack lots of body wipes. I bought a few 20-pack body cleansing wipes from Forever 21 (cosmetic section) for a dollar. These are moistened wipes that leave behind a hint of powder that freshens up your skin and makes it feel clean and soft. You can find a number of these types of wipes at any store that carries Japanese or Korean cosmetics. Ban’s Total Refresh Body Cloths are great too. These feel like a mini shower….which is great, considering a coach ticket doesn’t give you access to showers! Be prepared for that. I fortunately didn’t encounter any smells. I have a feeling my car mates also packed accordingly.

Take advantage of the bathroom lounges. I always explore my surroundings and figure most people do the same when boarding a train. That’s why I was really surprised no one was really taking advantage of the spacious bathroom lounges! These were toilet rooms that had an attached dressing room and vanity. I used these every night to wipe myself down with my body cloths, wash my face, brush my teeth in peace, and change into my pyjamas with plenty of room and no bruises. In the morning, I’d use it to wash up, do my makeup, and get dressed for another day of wandering the train and stops. Seriously, take advantage of these.

Pack a blanket and pillow. I noticed many coach passengers were surprised that these were not provided. You can find lots of comfy travel gear at Typo store. I bought a travel pillow that converts into a normal mini pillow, a blanket that wraps up into a bag, cute fold up travel slippers (for those night time trips to the bathroom or snack car), and a comfy sleep mask. Most of these things are foldable and still allow you to travel light. Also, feel free to change into cozy pyjamas. No one minds and you’ll be more comfortable.

Expect to pay for your meals. Meals are not included on a coach ticket, so you should expect to spend your 4 days as if you were going to eat out at the Cheesecake Factory every night. You can save money by packing some lunches and snack of your own, as well as opting for sandwich dinners from the snack car. However, you should still treat yourself from time to time, as the dining car is communal seating (depending on how many are in your party). That means you get to make friends over dinner. That experience is invaluable.

Enjoy the Observation Car. As described earlier, one of the cars on the train has windows that wrap around the ceiling. Seats here are open for everyone. I was afraid it’d be packed at all times, but that wasn’t my experience. Everyone was very courteous and rotated often, leaving plenty of open seating. The seats face the windows and when the train hits any national parks or landmarks (in my case, Glacier National Park), Amtrak has park rangers aboard as tour guides! It was pretty unexpected and it turned the ride into an educational experience. I was told this is part of all Amtrak long distance journeys. Love it!

All in all, a long distance train ride is an experience you must have at least once in your life. Don’t let having to travel coach stop you. It is more than doable if you plan accordingly and you’ll meet some very fascinating people. If you have any tips for train travel on a budget, please let us know in the comments. And feel free to share your experiences on long distance train travel!

Happy Exploring!