The Christmas Train

December 30, 2006

We (my wife and I) have tried a new experience this Christmas season – taking the train. The official Amtrak distance was 1563 miles, beginning in Chicago. We decided early this fall that rather than fight the airports and arrive all exhausted we would extend our trip by a factor of 8 and take the train (that’s 5 hours air time versus 40 hours train time).
Observation  Lounge
It was a pleasant trip from Indianapolis, IN to Provo, UT with one train change in Chicago. See the companion entry on Denver after the storm. We took the California Zephyr and splurged getting a sleeping compartment. That’s first class on the railroad! The compartment was small, but comfortable and quiet, especially with the ability to close a cabin door. The price of the sleeper covered our meals and while I wouldn’t have eaten in the meal car very often had I not been in the sleeper, I figured we saved $240 in food costs. Given that the sleeper cost $300 more than 2 airplane tickets and that airplane food just plain sucks, it was quite a deal.

Beyond that we had a great time on the train. Every meal you meet someone new and visit with them and learn a little about them. The California Zephyr is a great experience. You need your sea legs and plan to be patient. The railroads are not the smoothest ride in the world. If I was on an airplane I would be white knuckling the arm rests, but here, it is part of the charm. There are times you feel that you could run or walk faster then the train is going, but I wasn’t going to try it. Western Nebraska has a washboard track system that needs serious work, but I think I slept through most of it.

There is no wifi on the train and frequently there is limited cell access, especially through the mountains. I found neither of these to be a challenge. There is a learning curve on the train, but the stewards in each of the sleeping cars are very helpful. They put the beds together and make them up in the morning. There are two kinds of sleeper cars and we went with the sleeperett which gives an upper and lower bunk. It takes a bit of being a contortionist to get into that upper bunk, but the difference in cost was significant to us.

We are on our way home now and will post this when we arrive. I do strongly recommend the train if you have the time. We will do it again. It harkens back to a more sedate pace. We have arrived at both locations – away and home – very relaxed and ready to pursue some fun and work. It is a wholly different feeling from spending 24 hour flying home from Cyprus. I’m exhausted after that trip.

Postscript after returning home: We arrived in Chicago 5 hours late with most of the trains gone. They gave us a hotel for the night (Hyatt which was quite nice) and then gave us the opportunity to ride the Greyhound to Indianapolis. I was feeling a little under the weather, so we got a car and drove home. For those who were waiting for the next train (the next day or two) they had to rebook the next day. The idea there were no booking agents was just a little crazy and disconcerting for those who had to wait. Still, it was a good trip.

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