I mentioned briefly a few weeks ago that I’d be taking an overnight train with the family down to Baltimore, and we made it! Honestly, I was a little apprehensive at first. I really hit the rails running, making my first Amtrak journey a nine hour overnight ride. I’m sure many of you are much more familiar with trains than I am. So as a first time rider, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the overnight train experience.
Here’s what I learned:
Choose your seat wisely.
Especially on a long, full train, it’s important to get the seats that will work best for you. For us, that meant finding seats facing each other, so we could all be close together and still stretch out for some rest later in the night.
If I had known better, I might have opted for the “quiet car.” I don’t sleep well on trains/planes/buses/etc. For all the travel I do, I still haven’t figured out the ‘sleep anywhere’ mentality. Usually some combination of adrenaline and Lonely Planet guides get me through the night though, so I manage. Our train had two quiet cars, on the far ends of the train (I assume this was to minimize people walking through them). The quiet cars just have dimmer lights, sleepier passengers, and a rule against cell phone use while on board. On the normal cars, the lights dimmed around 11PM, and then came back on for a few minutes at all of the major stops.
When stopping at a station, the folks boarding and leaving can be quite loud. This goes for their baggage, figuring out their seats, and the physical doors opening and closing too. If you’re sitting near the ends of a car, the doors opening and closing can get old fast. Bring some headphones or earplugs if the noise will bother you.
One more thing, make sure your elbows and feet aren’t in the aisle. If you’re used to flights, you know what I’m talking about. Somebody comes hurtling down the aisle with a drink cart or a rollaboard, and the next thing you know, you’re rubbing the feeling back into a bruised elbow, or wiggling your toes to make sure they’re still attached. A little dramatic, but you get the point. And on the train, this happens at every stop, not just boarding and drink service.
I’d argue that this is the cardinal rule of any budget-conscious traveller: “Don’t forget the snacks.” Or, perhaps more generally, “Always be prepared.” The adage definitely holds true on Amtrak, where a shriveled hot dog will set you back more than $5. Although my son and I did enjoy a midnight bag of Doritos as we looked through the other Amtrak routes throughout the United States. That was more for the experience, truth be told.
Watch out for turbulence.
For a mode of transportation that is entirely dependent on a predetermined set of tracks, I was surprised at the number of bumps. There were plenty of little bumps here and there that were quickly forgotten, but there were quite a few that really shook you up. The sort that would turn your can of soda into a geyser, or give you a nice bruise right when you tried to stand up. I just hadn’t been expecting it, and the bigger bumps took me by surprise.
The opposite was also true. For some reason, I thought trains only ever stopped for a few minutes at each station. After all, “This isn’t my stop, is it?” Naive of me to think that, and of course the train did make a few longer stops. We settled into New York Penn Staion for about 45 minutes around 1AM, and then rested the engine for half an hour at Philadelphia as well. I actually welcomed these opportunities to step off the train for a bit, get some marginally fresh air, and stretch my legs.
And now we’re in Baltimore!
We’ll be here until Monday night, when we’ll be hopping on a Companion Pass-fueled flight home from Baltimore/Washington International Airport with Southwest. Today we had the chance to explore the Baltimore Museum of Art, sample some great food, and walk all over this city, which I’ll explain in more detail in a future post.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pass out. I don’t think I slept at all last night, and I’m running dangerously low on both adrenaline and Lonely Planet guides.