Written by Michael Boyink in Lessons Learned
33 Hours on Amtrak — Cheap Travel or Cheap Torture?
A 33 hour train ride? What were we thinking?
We were thinking cheap.
Have you ever heard of MacGuffins? If you have, I can probably name your college major.
In movie slang, McGuffins are:
…a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is a person, place, or thing (such as money or an object of value).WikiPedia.org
Our McGuffin was a Class B motorhome. It was in our price range. It looked to be in good shape. It had recent mechanical work and some upgrades. It had sleeping for 3.
It was in San Diego.
And we were in San Antonio.
The plot thickens.
Planes, Trains or Automobiles?
1300 miles between us and our goal.
MsBoyink investigated renting a car and buying airline tickets. Amtrak was an afterthought. We are from Michigan — Amtrak only ever made sense for the short hop down to Chicago.
In this case, Amtrak was the cheap alternative. Two of us could ride from San Antonio to San Diego for ~ $400. Half the cost of flying.
But 33 hours in a seat? Could we handle that? We’ve done some long pulls on the road in RV mode, but never that long.
Amtrak offers sleeping cars. But not at that price. A sleeper car would more than double that cost.
An adventure presented itself. A new challenge.
We booked the tickets.
And I went into research mode.
Amtrak Tips for Newbies
Many of those tips didn’t apply to us. We didn’t have the luxury of choosing when to book, etc.
Here’s what we did learn:
For all of the gyrations you go through to prove you aren’t a terrorist at an airport, Amtrak remains a “show up and get on” service.
No questions. No scanners. No pat-downs.
I hate traveling without my Swiss Army knife. I brought it onboard the Amtrak with no issues. We brought forks and knives to eat food with. We brought several packets of food that would never make it through airport security.
Bring All the Things
We traveled with 2 duffel bags and two laptop bags.
No one measured our bags. Or counted how many we had.
I’m sure we could have brought at least one more bag or cooler each. While our assigned car was relatively full of people, there was plenty of unused overhead luggage space.
Our train offered two sources of food — a dining car and a lower-level cafe.
Our research showed that the dining car prices were expensive so we ruled out eating there. The cafe prices were better but still more than we wanted to pay over 33 hours.
So we prepped our own “Amtrak Survival Kit” and dedicated one of our duffel bags to it.
The photo of everything is below, but we packed food including:
- Peanut butter
- Beef jerky
- Cliff bars
- Trail mix
- Canned meats — corned beef, dried beef, salmon, tuna, etc
We brought instant coffee and tea (along with instant rice and Ramen noodles).
The cafe car will provide hot water for free — so that was our way to avoid buying $2 cups of coffee.
We brought water bottles and some flavor packs to put in them.
We never did eat the food that required hot water.
How Did We Do?
We bought a single candy bar. Otherwise we successfully fed ourselves for the entire 33 hours on the train.
Once we got to California a big ole’ burger or burrito sure sounded good!
The conductor assigned us seats. We didn’t get to choose.
Amtrak seats are big. They recline. There have adjustable footrests. And there are supports that raise up behind your shins (we discovered these by accident, since the controls were unlabeled and no one else was using them).
Each seat has power plugs. I brought a 6’ cable for my phone which allowed me to route it out of the way of our legs.
The windows have curtains, with a single spot of velcro at the bottom to hold them shut if you wish.
Our assigned seats were at the rear of the car.
This was good and bad.
The advantage was the unused space behind them. There was just enough room that one of us could crawl in and sleep on the floor. MsBoyink did better there than I did.
Conductors walked by and never told us to move.
The disadvantage was that they were right by the sliding doors between cars. Those doors are loud. They would often wake us up. And they sometimes opened for no reason.
But, we got a blast of fresh air each time they opened. The train car air did get a bit stale, and there’s no air control like on an airplane.
With both seats reclined and the “shin-supports” raised up I could find a couple of positions to be comfortable in. But at 6’3” it was harder for me than shorter people.
So we slept. Not great. But better than on an airplane.
If we were to do it again I’d bring an inflatable pillow and something to put over my eyes.
Some trains have wifi. Ours didn’t. I brought our Verizon mifi and had spotty internet coverage for most of the trip. Once into the populated areas in California it improved.
I got some offline writing done. I worked both at the tables in the cafe car and in a seat in the Skyview car.
I’ve never been productive on an airplane.
The regular train cars were dark. Most people were dozing in their seats. It felt like traveling in a subway.
In the Skyview car sun poured in the windows. People were awake, alert, playing games or having conversations.
We met other people in the Skyview car:
- Bob from Illinois who was moving to Arizona even though he had never been there
- A family from Houston playing War while on their way to the coast
- Another family from Houston using Amtrak to cover the “boring part” on the way to the Grand Canyon
In our Amtrak research we read about people sleeping in the Skyview car. They would spread themselves across several seats and be more comfortable. We saw one man who was doing this. He claimed a spot in the Skyview car for the entire ride, both riding and sleeping there.
We didn’t feel comfortable leaving our luggage back by our assigned seat to sleep in the Skyview car. I also didn’t feel comfortable going up there to sleep while leaving MsBoyink back in our assigned seats.
We heard bad things about Amtrak’s reliability. We did get started late, which seemed worse because our departure time was in the wee hours of the morning.
However, with 33 hours onboard, including one connection in Los Angeles we arrived at our destination only ~15 minutes later than scheduled.
The Class B Motorhome made a better MacGuffin for our Amtrak adventure than it did as a new home for our road-tripping adventures.
We decided to not buy it.
Which meant we didn’t have a way to get home.
Sitting in a pile of our luggage at a campground cafe table in San Diego, MsBoyink dove into another round of “planes, trains, and automobile” research.
The Amtrak was an adventure, but it was booked out for the return trip. Same-day airline tickets were too expensive.
We rented a car and drove ourselves home.
With a few stops on the way. Which I will talk about soon.
33 Hours on Amtrak — Cheap Travel or Cheap Torture? has 12 more photos viewable on DitchingSuburbia.com.
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