Coast-To-Coast Train Travel – A Perspective.

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Amtrak – Fragmented

Long distance travel by train may have seen its glory days back in the middle of the century. We are now in an era where travel by air is much preferred by the current generation. Travelling by train, coast-to-coast, was not on my list, until a friend forwarded a post about how financially affordable, and a rewarding experience, it could be. I started scouring the Internet for more information about it, reading blogs shared by people who have done it, and a plan was made to do a coast-to-coast train journey. Some people may find this ridiculous and a complete waste of time, compound it with being unnecessarily expensive.

Let me dissect each aspect, and start with the financial part.

Option 1. There is a cheap and affordable way to travel coast-to-coast by train. Amtrak has Rail Pass packages for multiple days and segments. A 15-day Rail Pass for under $500.00 would give you 8-segment trips within a 15-day period. A segment is a trip on and off the train, bus, or ferry, regardless of length of travel. Technically, this could cover a coast-to-coast coach-seating trip and back. Coast-to-coast is 3-4 segments, so a complete out-and-back is 6-8 segments. But this is pushing it to a non-stop, with so-so basic amenities, and sometimes uncomfortable, travel. I thought of this, and bought the rail pass by impulse. However, better options came about and I’ve changed the plan later on. I’ve cancelled my rail pass for a refund, minus the cancellation fee.

Option 2. This option does not involve the use of money at all. Amtrak has travel partners that allow you to use points to cover the trips you plan. In my case, I have accumulated a lot of Chase Ultimate Rewards points from my Chase credit cards (Chase and Amtrak have ended this partnership in December). This is the route I took. I used almost all my points to cover the complete loop from East to West, and back. A lot of points, yes, but this proved to be more economical, comfortable, and enjoyable journey. By using the points I have, I upgraded to a more comfortable sleeper-car accomodation, complete meals included, plus a companion pass for free. Final train travel cost – just the tips on meals and cabin attendants.

Let me jump to this note before proceeding. Option 1 shows that it is possible to travel America by cheap. You would see a lot of posts about this. Would I recommend this option for multiple-day travel by train? No. The train’s coach seats may be the equivalent of an airplane’s business class seats, but we’re talking about days of travel here, not hours. Another reason is food. Either you buy food on the train, which would add to your cost a lot, or bring a cooler with your own food. Both choices don’t appeal to me. Option 2, yes, I would recommend. Continue reading.

The other aspect, total waste of time. Yes, you would need 4 days to get from East to West non-stop by train. And another 4 days to get back. This is just the number of days on the travel itself, not including the days at destinations you wish to take. Most people would prefer a 5-hour air travel to get to the destination the fastest and spend whatever time they have at that location, then fly home again to complete the journey. But if you have time, train travel has its charm on its own. It’s not a waste of time, if part of the plan is to see places you’d never see when you travel by air, or even by car. You’d see canyons, ridges, valleys, and rivers, and the vast open space America has to offer – all amazing and wonderful. You’d spend peaceful and quiet moments while aboard the train. You’d meet people and experience sharing stories with them, telling them yours and listening to theirs.

In my case, I have time. I have unused vacation days for 2015. This would cover the travel from East to West. Then some carry-over vacation days to cover the West to East trip back home. Plus the weekends for destination stops.

The last aspect, ridiculous. Maybe not. Have a reason for everything you do, and you will find the experience rewarding. Long distance train travel is not for everyone. But If you want to get away from the chaos of the world, try it. It is relaxing, peaceful, and meditative. Not in my case, but even romantic, I imagine. You’d be surprised how rewarding this kind of trip is. I was.

So have a reason, plan, and take the plunge. And share the experience.

This one, you may find ridiculous. To do a 4-day train trip from New York to San Francisco, do a 12-hour run/jog/walk physically unprepared, do another overnight train trip from San Francisco to Seattle, then another 4-day train trip from Seattle to New York, finally coming home with a luggage full of dirty clothes.

This. Is. My. Experience.

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Day 16. Homeward Bound

Jan 8. Day 16. New York, New York.

Here it is, the final stretch of the whole journey – aboard the Lakeshore Limited to New York.

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Breakfast – Omelette, Grits, Bacon, and Biscuit

Woke up at around 7:30AM EST. Lost 1hr of sleep last night from CST to EST. Breakfast was uneventful – just a quiet solo meal at the table. It would be like this the whole trip – uneventful. The train does not have a lounge. I stayed in my cabin, staring at the window looking for interesting views to see. Before lunch, I took another shower to pass time.

Lunch was quiet, dining alone at the table. Not a lot of passengers dining that they allowed us to sit anywhere. I was joined by a couple when I was almost done with my food. Had a brief conversation with them. Took my dessert to go and went back to my cabin. Nothing special to do to pass time. It would be 4 more hours before New York City. A nap would be ok.

There’d be a long stop at Albany-Renssaeler, NY – the junction for trains bound to New York City and Boston. Our train, #48, is NYC-Bound. After this, just a few minor stops before the grand finale – New York Penn Station.

This concludes the whole journey of East-to-West, Southwest-to-Northwest, and West-to-East long distance train travel. I’ll try to compile and post pictures of this journey, and hopefully another post on my perspective on this kind of endeavor.

Goodbye, and Thank You.

Day 15. Final Day To/At Chicago

Jan 7. Empire Builder. Minneapolis to Chicago.

Good morning. Woke up at St. Paul-Minneapolis, MN. I was not able to get some good sleep last night. I stayed in bed until we started moving again, so I missed whatever view from a glass window the city of Minneapolis had to offer. By 8AM, forced myself to get up for breakfast.

I enjoyed my breakfast with an elderly couple coming home to Chicago from a visit to family in Seattle. It was, again, a very engaging conversation. Headed to the lounge car after breakfast to have a view of the frozen Mississippi River, and continued writing. Went back to the cabin after sometime, took a quick shower, and waited for lunch.

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That, my friend, is the Mississippi River

Lunch would be the last meal aboard the Empire Builder. From the on-board announcement, the train would be in Chicago earlier than it’s scheduled arrival time. Before 1PM, I made my way to lunch, just in time for the lunch-service-is-closed announcement. Just ordered the side salad and a grilled cheese, plus ginger ale. Didn’t even finish the grilled cheese this time. Took the remaining half back to the cabin, plus the chocolate mousse and coffee for snack later when we get to Chicago area.

The Empire Builder has such a wonderful staff. I’ve met Erica, our cabin attendant, and the dining crew – Mary, Michelle, and Liz. It’s a pleasure having known these people even if it’s just for a few days. I may not see them again, but like the phrase goes – it’s a small world, who knows.

Stayed in the cabin for the rest of the trip. Big, beautiful houses past Columbus, WI, coming into Milwaukee, WI.  Glenview, IL, would be the last stop before the final destination, Chicago.

There’s about 5hr layover in Chicago before the next train to New York – the Shoreline Limited.  This is the same train my daughter and I took when we started the journey.

I spent all the time inside the waiting lounge, taking advantage of the internet connection available to finish some important matters.  WiFi was slow, but manageable.  Dinner was a quick bite of energy bar.  The train would not be providing dinner tonight.

At 9:30PM CST, once again, all aboard Shoreline Limited.

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No dinner? No problem. And yes, that is the toilet.

Day 14. Scenes from Empire Builder

Jan 6. Empire Builder. Montana to Minnesota.

Good morning. Woke up this morning at Whitefish, MT, with the announcement from the dining crew that breakfast is now being served at the dining car. It’s 7AM and still dark outside. But once awake, there’s no reason to go back to sleep especially when hungry. Heading to the dining car, I saw Erica, our cabin attendant, and asked to undo the bed. Another very attentive-to-your-needs cabin attendant we have on this trip. Sat down with a father-and-daughter duo coming back to Minnesota from a skiing trip in Whitefish. Had a pleasant conversation with them as well.

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A clear shot of Izaak Walton Inn from the lounge car

Went to the lounge car after breakfast and stayed there a bit. By now, we were passing the Glacier National Park, the most scenic part of this trip. And yes, it was as scenic as the Rockies on the Denver side. A very quiet trip so far, with very few people in the lounge car.

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Do you see the small cottage?

After the scenic views, I went back to the cabin for some more tidbit writings, and waited for the lunch announcement.

Lunch would be in the area of Havre, MT. This time, it would be with a lovely elderly couple, and again, Shenmay. It was short but a pleasant lunch conversation like the others. Had my dessert to go and went back to the cabin. Short nap to pass the idle time.

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Yes, UPS delivers here…

It was almost dark by the time we got to Wolf Point, the last stop in the Montana region. Next stop would be in Williston, ND, jumping 1hr ahead at CST. This would also be the time for dinner.

I had to try the steak again before the whole adventure ends. And as far as I can remember, this is one of those rare moments where I finished the whole steak. It was soft at medium, and marvelously delicious! Perhaps I could go back to eating more meat again 🙂 I shared the table with a family of 3, coming back to Minnesota from a vacation in San Francisco. I opted to have my dessert to go – decaf coffee and chocolate mousse.

The train arrived early at Minot, ND, allowing the passengers more time to step outside and stretch their legs. I stepped outside and took some pictures of the station.  Brrrr, it was cold.  Back at the cabin, I finished this post and prepared for bed. Tomorrow, I’ll wake up in St. Paul-Minneapolis, MN, and finish the trip in Chicago, IL in the afternoon, Empire Builder’s final destination.  Goodnight, once again.

 

Day 13. Start of the Journey Back Home

Jan 5. Day 13. Empire Builder – Seattle to Chicago. 3 Days.

Today is the start of the journey back home, via the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago on the Northwestern route, followed by the Shoreline Limited from Chicago to New York 2 days after.

It’s cloudy, wet, with drizzle in the downtown Seattle area. Had my morning coffee in my room, prepared the bags for today’s trip, showered, and went for a walk and brunch – noodles at the nearby mall food court. Late lunch would be at the same place – again, noodles. The hot noodles make up for the gloomy weather outside. The sky cleared up a little in the afternoon, before checking out of the hotel.

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Last pic before checking out

I left the hotel around 3:30PM (with 4PM late check-out), and headed to the Amtrak station at King’s St. Didn’t wait that long at the station when the boarding announcement was made.

The train departed on time. Like with the other trains, I have a sleeper accomodation for this trip. It was almost dark and there was nothing to see outside, so I just started writing notes here and there to complete the entries on this blog.

Dinner reservation was at 6PM. I was seated with 3 solo passengers, Shenmay, Peggie, and Dorothy. This was a very lively interaction at the dinner table. The dining attendant, Mary, was also very engaging and lively. Finished the dessert on the table, and headed back to the cabin. There was no lounge car – the attendant said it would be connected to the train when we get to Spokane, WA, at the wee hours next morning.

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Crab cakes for dinner

Breakfast will be somewhere in Montana tomorrow, MST. I’d lose 1hr of sleep tonight, so it’s better to get to bed early. Ho-hummm, getting hungry already. Goodnight.

Day 12. Seattle Downtown

Jan 4. Day 12. Seattle Downtown.

The last 2 days, I spent with Ronald and family in Bremerton and Silverdale, catching up on stories of our lives. We talked about anything and everything that just pops up from our minds, from past memories to current events. Some funny, some had seriousness in them. This is how Day 11 went by.

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Aboard the ferry to Seattle – sunny and warm 🙂

Jan 4. Today, Ronald and I left Bremerton for Seattle downtown before lunch. I would be staying in the downtown area for a night before the final trip back home tomorrow. Checked in at the Westin Seattle, with a special upgrade on the 44th floor, and then headed out for a late lunch. We took an easy walk back to the ferry station for Ronald’s trip back to Bremerton. The ferry was just unloading/loading when we arrived at the station. We said ‘Ingats and Goodbyes.

Salamat again, ‘nald for the warm hospitality in the cold and cloudy weather of Bremerton and Silverdale.

I walked back to the downtown area, passing by the Market Place, a local attraction in it’s own way. I wanted to stay a little longer but by feet were tired and achy. Just bought a 6-pack on the way back to the hotel. With no dinner plans in mind, I settled for the special burger at the hotel bistro and made it to go. A really special burger this is!

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Burger and beer – just perfect!

Settled in for the night, after finishing some beers and the burger. I’ll be heading back home tomorrow. Goodnight.

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Night-time view from Westin’s 44th floor

Day 7. Lombard Crooked Street

Dec 30. Day 7. Lombard Crooked Street.  And a Walk to Crissy Field.

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One block of 8 steep hairpin turns

I only have 2 places to see today – Crissy Field and the Lombard Crooked Street. The Lombard Crooked Street is a popular local attraction in the area, and is on the way to Crissy Field by foot. It’s about a 4mi trek rom the hotel.  I wanted to see Crissy Field and scout the area for tomorrow’s event.

It’s cold, cloudy, and wet today. Didn’t realize I would be traversing the hilly streets of San Francisco to get to Lombard Street. Just getting there was already a workout, and I was just walking at a leisure pace. Whew. The bottom of this popular tourist attraction is at Lombard and Jones St, the top at Lombard and Hyde St. Cars would drive by from the top to the bottom at a snail pace, slower than a walking pace. People were taking pictures from the bottom, and also from the top. I wonder who had the idea to build this street, and the rationale behind.

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Street-level view on Hyde St

Continued my trek to the bay area, following the San Francisco Bay Trail path, passing by Fort Mason Center, the Marina Yacht Harbor, and finally, Crissy Field. What a long walk this has been. There’s a light mist and fog hiding the full view of the Golden Gate Bridge from this distance. Walked around the lagoon where the event would take place tomorrow. There’s a Sports Basement right in the far end corner of the lagoon, by the street side. It has all kinds of stuff, gears and clothing for running, biking, swimming, skiing, camping, and team sports. Nice big store right in the corner of the park.

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Fog masks the beauty of the Golden  Gate Bridge

Couldn’t take the trek back to the hotel so I requested for Uber from my phone app. Just in time for dinner when I got back to the hotel. Bought a meal to-go from a Thai restaurant at the corner street at the back of the hotel, and settled in the room. Prepared my gear, keeping only the essentials for tomorrow’s event and kept the rest in the luggage. Upon check-out tomorrow, I’d leave the luggage at the hotel for overnight storage. Thanks to Victor (Front Desk staff), Joanne (Front Desk supervisor), and Joe (Bell Desk supervisor), for allowing the overnight storage.

After a bottle of beer after dinner, this is it for today. Goodnight.