Cross-Country Train Trip travel tips

Advice for traveling across the country by train.

Winter, what a beautiful time of year. The holiday decorations, festivities, and not to mention the snow! All I wanted was to experience it all.

A couple of months ago I was invited on a "once in a life time experience" to take a train trip across the country. Ten days of seeing more places than I could count. So last week we set out on our journey to visit Chicago, Illinois for a few days and then New Orleans for New Years Eve.

Moral of my story: Train travel has increased my excitement for time travel. Keep reading for my pros & cons of this adventure.

Our journey started by taking Amtrak's California Zephyr train from Martinez, California all the way to Chicago, Illinois. This three-day journey felt like forever.

Travel Sidenote: There are no baggage fees. You can check your bag all the way to your final destination if you have a bag over 50lbs. You are allowed two carry-on items under 50lbs and a personal item. I chose to carry on all my bags, so I did not have to wait for them when I got to my destination.

Taking the train is not cheaper ($459 for a 15-day Amtrak Rail Pass), nor faster than other ways of transportation, however, it did have some positives...

  • We saw landscapes on landscapes of beautiful scenery from the lounge car's floor-to-ceiling windows.
  • The stretch of railroad from about Sacramento, California to Denver, Colorado was the prettiest leg of the journey. Snaking through the Sierra Nevada Mountains then, Moab, Utah and finally the Rocky Mountain Range.
  • There is lots of time to reflect, read, write, and sleep. Or if you are traveling with friends you can make tons of memories and play card games till you are silly in the head. Our favorites were Farkle, Codenames, and Golf.
  • The train is also great if you do not want to drive, pay for an overnight sleeping arrangement, or if you want to let loose and drink while you zoom across the country.

Now, the negatives...

  • There is no wireless internet, so you are stuck with using your data or your phone's hotspot. Do not plan to get work done if you need to be 'connected'.
  • The food is not the healthiest, it is overpriced, and there are limited choices. There is a cafe and a diner car, but I recommend stopping at the store before you depart to stock up on your favorite foods or even bring a cooler with some veggies.

Healthy Travel Tip: Pack nonperishable snacks: almond butter packets, trail mix, nuts, crackers, energy/protein bars, oatmeal packets, just-add-water soup cups, bananas, oranges, tangerines, apples, water jugs, tea bags/hot chocolate packets, chocolate bar, and any other tasty treats.

Get a soft cooler and pack it with: Kombucha, avocados, celery, carrots, snap peas, yogurt, and meal-prepped baked chicken, quinoa, and sweet potatoes.

  • The train is not the cleanest establishment, so bring baby wipes, hand sanitizer, and things you do not mind getting dirty. Also, bring plenty of vitamins to stay healthy. Vitamin C and melatonin were my best friends.
  • If you get grumpy on an airplane, train travel is not for you. Traveling on a train is an exacerbated version of airplane travel. If you are traveling with friends or a significant other make sure you are all ready for this experience. There are many things to easily complain about, so try your best to stay calm and positive.
  • Although there is more leg room than an airplane or car and you have the ability to walk about the cabin, to sleep in a train seat is still not the most comfortable. There are sleeper cars available for purchase, but for the route we took it was about $600 more (meals included). Pro-Tip: Bring soft comfy jackets to double as pillows and blankets.
  • Lastly, the most cringe-worthy part of the whole trip was zooming past Moab, Utah seeing the beautiful rock formations and not being able to stop and explore. Throughout the ride we would see the most beautiful landscapes, but five seconds later they were gone.

Must-Brings for Long Train Rides:

  • Small bag with only the necessity toiletries
  • Change of clothes and layers (sometimes it hot and other times it is cold)
  • Big comfy jackets to sleep on
  • Vitamin C and melatonin
  • Water bottle and jugs to fill it up (I would not trust the tap water on trains)
  • Games and lots of them: cards, dice, boards...
  • Book
  • Food & snacks
  • Headphones & earplugs
  • Eye-cover for sleeping
So, if you want my honest opinion...If I had the time to do a trip like this again, I would switch it up a bit. I would take a 10-day road trip in a car to Colorado and back, stopping to explore Utah and Arizona along the way.

This cross country train trip was an incredible and humbling experience. Traveling via train has its ups and downs, but for how far we travelled (CA-->Chicago-->NOLA) it would have been cheaper and faster to travel by air.

Like I stated above, there is not much difference in the landscape via train past Colorado, so I would definitely recommend taking a train trip HALFWAY across the country (CA-->CO); or just taking the train for shorter distance travel.