Thursday, April 26, 2007

Amtrak Trains - a cruise on land beats flying

Over Christmas, we went from Dallas, Texas (Union Station) to Austin, Texas, via train. We have grown tired of the hassle of flight security, and since we were just going overnight, we felt that if we drove, most of our time would be spent driving in stop and go traffic, which is annoying for at least one person in the car. So, I went to the Amtrak website and looked at the schedule. Unfortunately, because the run from Chicago to San Antonio is not well-travelled, there is only one train going each direction per day, so you don't get a lot of choice on schedule. I hear that other parts of the country are better.

The price of the trip was only $90 for the four of us each way, which seemed like a great value. In fact, it was so good that I looked for other options that I could now afford to make it a more pleasant trip. Each train consists of about six cars. There is a dining car with full service, a snack car with booth tables, an engine, a crew car, a couple of coach-seating cars, and a sleeper car, along with a lounge car.

Dining car
Dining is easy on a train; there are no seat-belt lights so you can just make an appointment for the dining car or go into the snack bar anytime. In the dining car, you are seated by a hostess and your order is taken and brought to your table. It is a fairly limited menu, but the food is decent. If you're staying in a sleeper room, the meals are included, so that makes it a no-brainer to do the sleeper if you're going to be on the train for any length of time.

Lounge car
Most cars on the train are two stories. The Lounge car is one big room with individual seats and huge picture windows. The seats face diagonally toward the windows, so you can sight-see with your friends and still chat with them. The route taken by the train from Dallas to Austin is not the same old route you've seen from I-35. Travelling by train takes you out into the boondocks for some interesting terrain.

Sleeper cars
The sleeper cars have a variety of rooms, depending on what train you are on. We had two two-person roomettes, which consist of two seats that can be folded into two beds, one bed above the other. There was a slightly bigger room available too, but it wouldn't accomodate two adults and two teens, only smaller children would have worked out. Each sleeper was a $40 upgrade, but well worth it since meals are included. Coach seating isn't bad, though; it's like a first-class seat on an airplane.

Cell Service
Since I write about cell phones a bit, I feel I should report on the usability on the train. Amtrak claims that you can get service along most lines, which makes sense because they kind of parallel major highways, at least close enough to get service. I never had trouble getting service anywhere along the line, and unlike planes you are not made to turn off your phone ever. Secondly, if you get games for your phone, you can play those on your phone too, as you will probably have some time on your hands.

A lot of people don't take the train because they are concerned how long it takes to get there. This is definitely one of those journey-not-the-destination situations. Even though it was 6-7 hours each direction, we all felt that it wasn't long enough and want to do it again. It's not just 6 hours chained to a seat, you can walk around the cabin, eat, play board games, and so on, and no one has to drive. They'll even rent you a media device if you want. If you've never done it before, I highly recommend it.

Overall, a train is fairly secure just by itself. It is rare anymore that someone will ride down a train on horseback and loot the vault. It would be hard to hijack a train to make it go somewhere else, too. We purchased tickets online, then showed our ID at the train station and got tickets. The conductor showed us to our rooms without eve looking at our tickets; he already knew which rooms were booked. We stowed our luggage downstairs from the room on a luggage rack, and had the run of the place after that. We could still get to our luggage during the trip. I think it will be obvious to frequent fliers how much less of a hassle all this was.