on traveling by amtrak
As an American, sometimes I forget that there are ways to travel long distances that don't involve an airplane. I tried one of those last week for the first time, Amtrak, and my experience pleasantly surprised me.
I took the Coast Starlight to get from Los Angeles to Oakland. It actually runs all the way North to Seattle and is considered the most beautiful train ride in the US.
The perks of traveling by train start before you board. Packing for the trip was easy, since you can bring 2 personal items and 2 carry-ons, in addition to free checked bags. There's also no liquid limit or security check like there is on planes, so you can bring pretty much whatever you like.
The lack of a security check means you also save plenty of time the morning of. You can arrive at the station as late as 30 minutes or so before your departure time without issue.
Onboard, the sheer amount of legroom surprised me. Even the cheapest coach seats dwarf what you get in First Class on a flight. The atmosphere is also much better than on flights: the cabin is a pleasant temperature (not like the meat lockers they make flight cabins), not crammed with people, and much quieter than one on a plane.
Once we got going, I learned that Amtrak goes much slower than I thought it would. We stopped very frequently (I lost count of just how many cities along the way) and hardly surpassed what must have been 50 mph, never once breaking 80 mph. That explains why it took 12 hours to make what is not even a two hour flight. The ride is also a little bit bumpy, which prevented me from reading or getting any work done and made walking around the cabin slightly dangerous and disorienting. (I'm quite prone to motion sickness, though I can read on flights during cruising altitude when there isn't turbulence.)
The views did not disappoint. The vegetation changed as we traveled north, and we could feel the weather gradually getting colder as we approached the bay. We passed by mountains, cropland, coastline, and many cows. I do wish we continued traveling onto Seattle though, because I suspect that many of the best views occur on the northern half of the journey, from Oakland to Seattle.
But by far the most magical thing about traveling via Amtrak is the camaraderie inside the cabins. The open design, low noise levels, and shared spaces like the lounge all encourage conversation with your fellow passengers. I did not make much of an effort to reach out since I wasn't traveling alone but still got to know my fellow passengers far better than I would on a flight of similar length. We saw families with young children on summer vacation, old retirees traveling the country, and college students going back home. People were chatting, dining, and playing board games with strangers they just met—a rare sight.
I can't ignore the obvious downsides of traveling by Amtrak's passenger rail, which constitute the reasons most people (including me) don't use it regularly. Traveling by Amtrak is slow, painfully so when compared to flying. And it's awfully expensive too, often costing more than the corresponding flight. And I learned on my last trip that the ride isn't smooth enough to work or read for long stretches, at least for those who get motion sickness. But traveling by Amtrak still has plenty of charm, so much so that I'd recommend it for anyone who has the time.