Here’s What That Post About Taking a Train Across the USA for $213 Doesn’t Tell You
Eric Fadden

You want to go coast-to-coast but only have $213 in your pocket? Take the week the trip would take, work somewhere for minimum wage ($10/hr) — while sleeping in your cozy bed, and eating your nourishing food — and use the ~$300–400 you save to buy a plane ticket.

Like Eric, my girlfriend and I read the original article, and fell in love with the idea. “Let’s do that!” we told each other gleefully. Thank God my girlfriend suggested we test the feasibility of train ride as a vacation idea, by starting with a “short” round trip ride from Emeryville, Ca. to Reno, NV. 
We usually do it in 4-4.5 hours by car. The train ride was supposed to take close to 8 hours in each direction. We reasoned these are going to be fun and relaxed hours, so probably worth it.

After checking the Amtrak website, and verifying that the train is equipped with wifi, we both lugged our work laptops with us, reasoning we could put in some work during the 8-hours trip. When we got on the train though, the conductor was quick to advise us that “this train” doesn’t have wifi. We tried using our phones’ tethering function, but reception became an issue quickly, especially north of Sacramento and in the mountains. So that idea went out the window.

On the way to Reno, we had a 10 minute stop in Davis, that suddenly turned into an hour-and-a-half long, boring halt. After long inquiries, we found out that someone threw himself in front of the train near Sacramento, causing the train in front of us to halt, and putting us in a slow queue.

The rest of the ride was extremely slow. There’s nothing more frustrating than sitting in your (admittedly comfortable) seat, and seeing every POS car on the highway overtaking you in seconds. Even before reaching the mountains, the train was so slow, that you could probably get off, walk beside it, and climb aboard later (not allowed).

The menu on the train, as Eric mentioned, is not enticing, or cheap. The drink options were very limited. We learned our lesson and packed a couple of meals on the way back. I will not comment on the smells and behaviors in the cars. I think Eric hit it on the nose. And bear in mind, we were on the train for only 8 hours at a time, and could already discern which of our car-buddies haven’t changed socks in days. I was extremely glad to part ways with them in Reno.

The views? Between the bay area and Sacramento, you do enjoy some nice coastal views.

Coastal view from train, near Vallejo, CA — sit on the left side of the train

But mostly, you see urban decay from an angle you’ve never been exposed to from the highways. With transient colonies under every bridge, and graffiti everywhere.

My favorite graffiti — I wonder who won that?

Once you reach the mountains, you start seeing some more interesting views, with Donner Lake and the Sierras landscapes filling the large windows.

Donner Lake

But to reiterate, most of the time, the views are very urban, showing you the back sides of towns — places people don’t care to keep pretty. You’ll see tons of junk, people behaving badly (I’ll save you the description), mounds of trash — and always, those sad little encampments of people who have nowhere else to go. If there’s one thing I took away from the trip, it’s the sheer number of people who just sleep out there, by the tracks, all over California.

The way back did not go faster. Still no internet. Still no reception. And while this time, thankfully, no one committed suicide, we were held back for 40 minutes when a bridge was brought up to let a ship through. The only thing that made that incident bearable for us was the ship’s name :)

Look! It’s a big red, do..

We arrived at Emeryville late (of course), just in time for the commute traffic home. All in all, we’d have done it faster, and cheaper by car.

Taking the train is like taking that horse-and-buggy ride around Manhattan. Yes, it’s the way people did it 100 years ago, and sure, it looks romantic. But it’s slow, not cost-effective, and you end up smelling like a horse’s @$$.

Bottom line: never again. You want the amazing views of the Sierras? Get in your car and travel there. You want to travel across the US? Get on one of those sites that will hook you up with multi-stop cheap plane tickets. 
You want to go coast-to-coast but only have $213 in your pocket? Take the week the trip would take, work somewhere for minimum wage ($10/hr) — while sleeping in your cozy bed, and eating your nourishing food — and use the ~$300–400 you save to buy a plane ticket.