Flying is by far the most common form of long-distance travel in the US. The FAA handles 15.8 million flights every year. I can understand the appeal of air travel – it’s quick + someone else does all the driving so you can sleep, work, or catch up on your latest read. You can even find relatively inexpensive flights to amazing destinations. While that is all well + good, airplanes aren’t the only form of cross country travel. You might also want to consider taking the train.
Before planes were invented, train travel was THE way to get across the country. It is still one of the most popular ways to get around in Europe + in parts of the Northeastern United States. However, because it is not as accessible as air travel, taking the train is often overlooked. Last year, I took the train from Memphis to Chicago. Memphis is situated in the middle of the Chicago-New Orleans train route, which means taking the train is a great option if you want to get to either of those places without flying through the air.
Taking the Train: What You Need to Know
Taking the train was a truly unique experience and definitely something to check off my bucket list. I had taken the train in Europe when I was in college, but never domestically. As someone who typically travels by car and on rare occasions flies, there were several things about taking the train that caught me off guard.
Getting on the Train
While every train station varies, don’t expect the same level of security and organization you find at an airport. When my friend and I first arrived at the station in Memphis, there wasn’t a staff member to be found. No one checked our bags to see if we had too many or even to scan what was in them. We pulled our luggage up with us to the door + our larger bags were placed in a holding area while our “carry-ons” came with us. And don’t get there as early as you would an airport or you’ll find yourself sitting around for a while.
Because we were being economical, my friend + I choose the cheapest option for seats. This means that we weren’t assigned a seat until we went to board, but we did choose the option that sat us on the top deck of the train. As we lined up to board, an Amtrak employee handed us a card which when then exchanged with an employee who then gave us our assigned seats. We (unfortunately) were by the stairs which gave us easy access to the bathroom but meant there was a good amount of traffic coming our way.
Taking the train was a true experience. The Memphis to Chicago leg of the train has you leaving later in the evening and arriving early in the morning. This meant we would hopefully sleep most of the trip. The upside to this arrangement is you don’t have to take off an extra day of work. The downside is that you don’t get a nice view of anything until sunrise. So any scenic places you pass are lost to the blackness.
Sleeping on the train – especially in normal seats – is very difficult. I found myself waking up at not just every station we stopped at, but also every time the train stopped. Because people are sleeping, the conductor doesn’t tell you why you’re stopping, which can be quite unnerving. We were once stopped for roughly 20 minutes. There are several reasons trains stop. The issue we ran into was a train ahead of us was behind schedule and allowing other trains to use a crossing without our interference.
While taking the train wasn’t as smooth as air travel, I would certainly do it again + not just because I’m afraid of flying. With experience under my belt, I feel I am better prepared to take the train again. While I doubt I will take it out of Memphis, I would certainly take it around the Northeast + on more scenic routes. My parents recently road the train to the Grand Canyon + sang its praises.
Have you taken the train? Let me know your thoughts over on Instagram.