When Your Vacation is About the Journey as Much as the Destination
Amtrak may be best-known as an easy way to make a quick trip between New York and Boston, Chicago and Milwaukee or Los Angeles and San Diego—without having to go through security in socks, put your phone in Airplane Mode or siphon off the contents of your bathroom cabinets into 3.4 oz. vials.
But here's the thing: Amtrak's 21,000+ miles of track connect not just major cities, but the likes of Helper, Utah, or Yazoo City, Mississippi—and all manner of fun stops in between. So the routes often read like roving adventures, with dreamy-sounding transport to whisk you from one stop to the next (see: Sunset Limited and Coast Starlight).
Duly intrigued—and inspired by the Transcontinental Railroad's 150th birthday this year—we asked the amazing travel influencer @TiffPenguin (aka Tiffany Nguyen) to hit the rails. And sure enough, she came back from her time traveling from Denver to San Francisco on the California Zephyr with a whole lot to show and tell.
"It's an awesome way to travel."
For all its efficiency and speed, air travel tends to come with a few stressors: To check a bag or not to check a bag? How many stanchions deep is that TSA line? Will overhead bin space be a distant memory by the time you board? Is there going to be a battle for middle seat armrest supremacy? And the list goes on.
By contrast, Amtrak lets you show up 20 minutes before your departure time, venti latte in hand—with no need to chug or dump the contents before boarding. Just scan your ticket and settle into your aisle or window seat (there's no middle). Then get up to stretch your legs whenever the mood strikes.
"The scenery is always changing."
We're not knocking amazing overhead views, but let's be honest: The most scenic route generally isn't at 30,000 feet. Especially when you're comparing 10-inch by 16-inch airplane windows to the Lounge Car—a feature of most long-distance Amtrak trains. Think: Windows that go from knee-height to ceiling, and seats that face the scenery. You'll end up with a new appreciation for America the Beautiful—what with all those purple mountains majesties on offer just outside the massive windows.
And when you choose a particularly scenic route, like the Coast Starlight up the Pacific Coast or California Zephyr through the Rockies, you'll likely spend hours watching the world go by. "You go from the skyscrapers in Denver to the snow-dusted Rockies in about 30 minutes," says Nguyen. "The scenery is always changing, so some passengers just stay in the lounge car, not wanting to miss a minute of the show. And with every twist and turn of the rails, the diehards will jump back and forth between sides to catch the new vista."
On the Zephyr, you'll see city, mountains, river valleys, red rocks and lakes on your way west. And that's before you even get off the train and start exploring.
"It's a unique way to see the U.S."
Traveling isn't just about getting from Point A to Point B. So while you could choose to do Amtrak's long-distance routes in one go, Nguyen chose to break the trip into segments to explore cool places she'd otherwise miss (the total ticket costs work out to be very similar either way). First stop? Glenwood Springs—a city on the Colorado River about six hours from Denver, and home to one of the largest hot springs in the U.S.
And that applies to all the long-distance routes—so on the Silver Meteor, for example, you could be stringing together James Beard-winning meals from New York to D.C. to Charleston and Savannah. On the City of New Orleans, you could be stopping for live music from Chicago to Memphis to NOLA. On the Coast Starlight, you could be camping under the stars in Big Sur or hitting the fabled cliffside Esalen hot springs for moonlit soak in the wee hours.
But even the quickest stops—that is, the 5-10 minutes you'll get at every station along your route—are worth taking advantage of. Many stations are downtown, notes Nguyen, so you can at least get a preliminary feel for a place while you stretch your legs for a couple of minutes.
On the other hand, long detours are great, too, as she found during her visit to Lake Tahoe. "Normally a trip to Tahoe would involve a long drive for me—so it was really nice to be able to just hop off the train and be there."
"I was surprised by the amenities."
"The overnight was actually my favorite part of the trip," says Nguyen. "The Bedroom cabin was spacious—with plenty of room for gear—and the bed (set up by a super-helpful attendant) was legitimately comfortable." And talk about a room with a view.
Also, with a private bathroom and quiet hours after 10 p.m., you can pretty much just shut the door and relax. "It was so easy to fall asleep with the gentle rocking motion of the train," says Nguyen.
"The dining car was such a cool experience."
This isn't a cup of soda and bag of peanuts kind of place. Your dining car table comes with all the good stuff: white cloth, proper place settings and a choice of freshly prepared meals. (Options ranged from mussels to vegetarian black-bean burgers when Nguyen was on board—"the variety really took me by surprise.")
"It's a really interactive way to travel."
If your air travel default mode = noise-cancelling headphones + as little conversation as possible, you may change your tune on a long-distance train ride. The laid-back vibe of an Amtrak journey means people are up and about, happily socializing with each other in the lounge car or the dining car. You'll hear different languages, meet people of every possible background—and make amazing connections. Nguyen actually met one of her Instagram followers on the train. "She couldn't wait to see what I posted from our trip!"