There was a time, before the advent of commercial air travel, when the train was regarded as an incredibly efficient and pleasant means of getting from one place to another. You’d sleep in a well-appointed room for a few days, read a trashy novel, meet Cary Grant (or possibly, if you were less fortunate, Bing Crosby) in the dining car and have yourself a time. Now taking the train over any distance is seen as a quirky, non-viable option for most people, though if you are going from one obscure point (Alpine, Texas) to another (New Iberia, Louisiana) it it may still be your most convenient travel option.
What about for city slickers within driving distance of an airline hub? If you’ve got a little extra time, I put forth that the long-distance train might not be a bad choice. You can sightsee! It’s relaxing! You can get up and walk around at will! And I’m not going to pressure you, but it is way less taxing on the environment than taking a big old jet.*
As a veteran of many train trips, from interstate ones to those that go clear across the US of A, I can offer you some tips to make your journey more pleasant:
1. Remember that your train trip is not just a means to an end; it is part of your vacation itself. If you’re going to get all Type A about how long it’s taking and constantly clock how far behind schedule you are, you are just going to drive yourself batty. It’s like complaining your horse-drawn carriage around Central Park is ten minutes behind schedule. Feel that gentle rocking? Isn’t that nice? Now go get yourself a glass of wine and a deck of cards.
2. Bring lots of ones and fives. They’re good for tipping in the dining car, and always appreciated at the snack counter.
3. Bring a variety of entertainment options. You’ll find yourself daydreaming and staring out the window a lot, which is a perfect use of your train time. However, take it from someone who has gone from LA to Boston on the train multiple times: you’re going to need more entertainment than lollygagging will provide, and there’s nothing like finding yourself stuck with a collection of Busby Berkeley musicals and discovering you’re in the mood for a crime drama. I bring podcasts, TV series, books, writing projects…and I will generally only use a few of the many options available to me. I love knowing I have options, though.
4. Chat people up. The dining car is the best place to make the acquaintance of new compatriots, since group seating is compulsory, but time isn’t a particularly rare commodity on the long-distance train, and you may find an opportunity for conversation in the observation or lounge car. I can’t say as I’ve made any lifelong friends in this manner, but what other opportunity do I have to meet a stay-at-home Mom from rural Mississippi or a friendly Mennonite?
5. Relax. It’s rare that you are in a position where you can have absolutely nothing to do. Embrace the chance to let your mind wander. You might have a revelation that changes your life!
4. Give in to the will of the train. No one is less of a morning person than I am. However, breakfast starts at 5:30 or 6:00 and often ends shortly after 8:00 — and, friends, I am a fan of pancakes. Besides, once they’ve started those announcements over the loudspeaker there’s no sleeping, anyway.
I hope you’ll give long-distance train travel a shot, if only once, for the sheer novelty. You might have a nice trip for a change. And who ever says that about a plane ride?
*the only reason I can justify having this post on my environmental blog