33 Hours on Amtrak - Cheap Travel or Cheap Torture?

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A 33 hour train ride? What were we thinking?

Cheap.

We were thinking cheap.

But why?

The MacGuffin

Have you ever heard of MacGuffins? If you have, I can probably name your college major.

In movie slang, McGuffins are:

...a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is a person, place, or thing (such as money or an object of value).WikiPedia.org

Our McGuffin was a Class B motorhome. It was in our price range. It looked to be in good shape. It had recent mechanical work and some upgrades. It had sleeping for 3.

But.

It was in San Diego.

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And we were in San Antonio.

The plot thickens.

Planes, Trains or Automobiles?

1300 miles between us and our goal.

MsBoyink investigated renting a car and buying airline tickets. Amtrak was an afterthought. We are from Michigan - Amtrak only ever made sense for the short hop down to Chicago.

In this case, Amtrak was the cheap alternative. Two of us could ride from San Antonio to San Diego for ~ $400. Half the cost of flying.

But 33 hours in a seat? Could we handle that? We’ve done some long pulls on the road in RV mode, but never that long.

Amtrak offers sleeping cars. But not at that price. A sleeper car would more than double that cost.

An adventure presented itself. A new challenge.

We booked the tickets.

And I went into research mode.

Amtrak Tips for Newbies

I found pages like this one and this one that offer tips to Amtrak newbies.

Many of those tips didn’t apply to us. We didn’t have the luxury of choosing when to book, etc.

Here’s what we did learn:

No TSA

For all of the gyrations you go through to prove you aren’t a terrorist at an airport, Amtrak remains a “show up and get on” service.

No questions. No scanners. No pat-downs.

I hate traveling without my Swiss Army knife. I brought it onboard the Amtrak with no issues. We brought forks and knives to eat food with.  We brought several packets of food that would never make it through airport security.

Bring All the Things

We traveled with 2 duffel bags and two laptop bags.

No one measured our bags. Or counted how many we had.

I’m sure we could have brought at least one more bag or cooler each. While our assigned car was relatively full of people, there was plenty of unused overhead luggage space.

Food

Our train offered two sources of food - a dining car and a lower-level cafe.

Our research showed that the dining car prices were expensive so we ruled out eating there. The cafe prices were better but still more than we wanted to pay over 33 hours.

So we prepped our own “Amtrak Survival Kit” and dedicated one of our duffel bags to it.

The photo of everything is below, but we packed food including:

  • Peanut butter
  • Jelly
  • Tortillas
  • Apples
  • Cheese
  • Crackers
  • Cereal
  • Beef jerky
  • Cliff bars
  • Trail mix
  • Canned meats - corned beef, dried beef, salmon, tuna, etc

Drinks

We brought instant coffee and tea (along with instant rice and Ramen noodles).

The cafe car will provide hot water for free - so that was our way to avoid buying $2 cups of coffee.

We brought water bottles and some flavor packs to put in them.

We never did eat the food that required hot water.

How Did We Do?

We bought a single candy bar. Otherwise we successfully fed ourselves for the entire 33 hours on the train.

Once we got to California a big ole’ burger or burrito sure sounded good!

Seating

The conductor assigned us seats. We didn’t get to choose.

Amtrak seats are big. They recline. There have adjustable footrests.  And there are supports that raise up behind your shins (we discovered these by accident, since the controls were unlabeled and no one else was using them).

Each seat has power plugs. I brought a 6’ cable for my phone which allowed me to route it out of the way of our legs.

The windows have curtains, with a single spot of velcro at the bottom to hold them shut if you wish.

Our Amtrak Survival Kit

Our Amtrak Survival Kit

MsBoyink packing our food into a borrowed duffel bag.

MsBoyink packing our food into a borrowed duffel bag.

Once we boarded we never needed our tickets again.

Once we boarded we never needed our tickets again.

My office for a couple of hours.

My office for a couple of hours.

One of the scenic views on the way.

One of the scenic views on the way.

Most of the trip looked like this.

Most of the trip looked like this.

The Skyview car made all the difference.

The Skyview car made all the difference.

Working in the Skyview car.

Working in the Skyview car.

Watching an Arizona sunset from the Amtrak.

Watching an Arizona sunset from the Amtrak.

We've missed sunsets out west.

We've missed sunsets out west.

We enjoy a feast fit for kings in our train seats.

We enjoy a feast fit for kings in our train seats.

Just a bit slap-happy for lack of sleep.

Just a bit slap-happy for lack of sleep.

Sleeping

Our assigned seats were at the rear of the car.

This was good and bad.

The advantage was the unused space behind them. There was just enough room that one of us could crawl in and sleep on the floor. MsBoyink did better there than I did.

Conductors walked by and never told us to move.

The disadvantage was that they were right by the sliding doors between cars. Those doors are loud. They would often wake us up. And they sometimes opened for no reason.

But, we got a blast of fresh air each time they opened. The train car air did get a bit stale, and there’s no air control like on an airplane.

With both seats reclined and the “shin-supports” raised up I could find a couple of positions to be comfortable in. But at 6’3” it was harder for me than shorter people. I wadded up my coat and shirt to stuff in various places to make it more comfortable.

So we slept. Not great. But better than on an airplane.

If we were to do it again I’d bring:

  • an inflatable pillow
  • something to put over my eyes
  • earplugs

The earplugs would be for napping during the day. Overall the train operated without many announcements. When mealtimes approached the dining car and cafe staff used the PA to communicate the menu and available times in excruciating detail.

Working

Some trains have wifi. Ours didn’t. I brought our Verizon mifi and had spotty internet coverage for most of the trip. Once into the populated areas in California it improved.

I got some offline writing done. I worked both at the tables in the cafe car and in a seat in the Skyview car.

I’ve never been productive on an airplane.

Skyview Car

The regular train cars were dark. Most people were dozing in their seats. It felt like traveling in a subway.

In the Skyview car sun poured in the windows. People were awake, alert, playing games or having conversations.

We met other people in the Skyview car:

  • Bob from Illinois who was moving to Arizona even though he had never been there
  • A family from Houston playing War while on their way to the coast
  • Another family from Houston using Amtrak to cover the “boring part” on the way to the Grand Canyon

In our Amtrak research we read about people sleeping in the Skyview car. They would spread themselves across several seats and be more comfortable. We saw one man who was doing this. He claimed a spot in the Skyview car for the entire ride, both riding and sleeping there.

We didn’t feel comfortable leaving our luggage back by our assigned seat to sleep in the Skyview car. I also didn’t feel comfortable going up there to sleep while leaving MsBoyink back in our assigned seats.

On Time?

We heard bad things about Amtrak’s reliability. We did get started late, which seemed worse because our departure time was in the wee hours of the morning.

However, with 33 hours onboard, including one connection in Los Angeles we arrived at our destination only ~15 minutes later than scheduled.

Not bad!

Coming Home

The Class B Motorhome made a better MacGuffin for our Amtrak adventure than it did as a new home for our road-tripping adventures.

We decided to not buy it.

Which meant we didn’t have a way to get home.

Sitting in a pile of our luggage at a campground cafe table in San Diego, MsBoyink dove into another round of “planes, trains, and automobile” research.

The Amtrak was an adventure, but it was booked out for the return trip. Same-day airline tickets were too expensive.

We rented a car and drove ourselves home.

With a few stops on the way. Which I will talk about soon.

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8 Comments 33 Hours on Amtrak - Cheap Travel or Cheap Torture?

  1. Picture of TeresaTeresaMarch 28, 2017

    I was quite surprised to read in one of your previous posts that you were able to get Amtrak tickets more cheaply than flying. Every destination I’ve checked (albeit only out of either LA or Atlanta), Amtrak has been significantly more expensive. Except for having to spend so much time in a seat it sounds preferable to flying – especially the Skyview car.

    We very recently almost bought an RV located in Florida, and I was extremely anxious about traveling to get it because flying seemed to be the only realistic alternative. My aversion to being “handled” by TSA is as likely to get me arrested as it is to get me where I’m supposed to go. Hopefully we have dodged that bullet.

    Your almost-RV wasn’t a true MacGuffin, if you ask me. You clearly had/have a purpose in pusuing it, and this particular candidate was just an unfortunate part of the process. Somehow it will all come together for you guys – hopefully without much more angst.

  2. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkMarch 28, 2017

    Thanks Teresa! We were a bit surprised by the prices too. We’ve spot-checked Amtrak over the years and between the cost and time-table it never made sense.

    We’ve got a lead an another RV, so we’ll see where that goes. We are also considering taking a speculative road-trip back to Florida where there are more of what we are looking for.

  3. Picture of DonDonMarch 30, 2017

    Thanks for sharing the trip! As kids, trains always seemed magical, and I still enjoy the occasional ride when the timetable and pricing work out. But they’re usually way less than 33 hours, so I appreciated your perspective on a longer trip.

    P.S. I love the picture of you working in the Skyview car.

  4. Picture of Beth WickerBeth WickerMarch 31, 2017

    I love Amtrak!  Love the trains in the UK and Europe even more ;). I prefer to spend the relatively small amount more to get a guaranteed first class seat - more room, quieter, some perks like free soft drinks and water.  Lots of room and plugs.  The big downside to Amtrak travel for me is the climb up into the train - I’m partially disabled, and it can be tricky - especially with luggage.  I love the not having to do security searches!  Parking at the stations I use is free too ;). Another nice perk.

  5. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkMarch 31, 2017

    There is definitely lots to like about train travel - thanks for the comment!

  6. Picture of Eric TalbotEric TalbotApril 27, 2017

    Hi, Michael - I’m glad that you gave Amtrak a try, and that it passed muster with you.

    If President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget passes as currently written, Amtrak will be de-funded and shut down - no longer will it be possible to take long cross-country train journeys in these United States.  I’m hoping that the U.S. Congress (House and Senate) has the good sense to retain Amtrak’s funding. It will be a huge loss to no longer have the option to travel by train. Imagine doing your trip on a Greyhound Bus?  What’s really sad about this budget cut is that Amtrak’s annual federal subsidy is MINUSCULE compared to the enormous waste of dollars routinely spent on other far more questionable government ventures.

    I wish you had had enough money to afford one dinner in the Dining Car - it’s an experience to have decent food served the way it’s done there. The Café Car’s offerings don’t begin to compare to the quality of the food served in the dining car. 

    If Amtrak isn’t eliminated, and in the future you and yours have enough “moolah” to spring for a long-distance Amtrak trip in the sleeping car instead of coach, ALL your dining car meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) are included in the extra fare you pay for sleeping-car accommodations.

    As for your cliffhanger, may your fifth wheel sale conclude successfully, so that it is finally out of your life and you can focus on your future plans!

    I love reading your account of life on the road, unchained from suburbia. You and your family have really hung in there through thick and thin, earning kudos from me! More power to you and your beautiful family and, above all, safe travels!

    Eric

  7. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkApril 27, 2017

    Thanks Eric - appreciate the comments.

    MsBoyink and I might consider traveling sleeping car mode in the future. Some decent sleep and a hot meal would have been nice! Maybe after some time in the Class B the sleeping cars will seem palatial..;)

    For this trip it more than doubled the price and flying would have been cheaper.

    But yea - if Amtrak persists we’ll look at it again down the road.

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