I’ve only ridden trains twice.

The first time was about 15 years ago when I was on a trip with my friend Cathy and staying with another friend Barb in San Diego. Cathy’s aunt lived in Los Angeles, and we took a train to LA for the weekend to hang out with her.

I couldn’t tell you anything about the train experience, other than we had a good time.

The other time I was on a train was in England. When my friend Pamela and I were ready to head out of London to explore the nearby towns, we took a train from Paddington station to the airport where we picked up a rental car.

Neither experience qualifies in my book as taking a trip by train. So when I signed up to attend the BlogHer ’13 conference in Chicago, taking a train sounded like fun.

Tips for 1st Time Train Travelers | Future Expat

I initially thought about driving, but since I didn’t have anyone to ride with me and share the costs, gas and parking fees for 4 days in Chicago didn’t make sense since I didn’t need a car once I got there.

I next checked out airfare prices. And while it wasn’t unreasonable, it wasn’t cheap either.

Amtrak - St. Louis station

Traveling by Amtrak:

Amtrak prices from St. Louis to Chicago start as low as $27 each way. I ended up with a fare of $168 round trip since I wanted decent travel times and trains where I could check luggage.

While checking my bag on the way there was nice but not necessary, on the return trip, my suitcase was stuffed full of conference swap. It was heavy enough that Amtrak even put a tag on it marked “heavy.” You can believe I was thrilled to be able to check that bag. And even more thrilled that it was free to check up to 2 bags.

Traveling by Train:

I had no idea what to expect. I was thinking that the train trip would be a lot like being on a bus. Boy was I wrong.

Traveling by train is now my new favorite way to travel.

Yes, trains take longer than planes. For destinations far away, it’s not as practical. But the experience on the train is so much nicer than on a plane if you have the time.

In today’s world where you have to get to airports hours early, take off your shoes to go through security and walk miles to get to your gate, the downtown St. Louis Amtrak station was refreshing.

The station is shared with Greyhound Bus, and when I walked in, most of the people seemed to be traveling by bus. The line to get bus tickets was long. But there wasn’t a single person at the Amtrak ticket window. The Amtrak employee took one look at my ticket and then he asked for my heavy bag. No ID. No running it through a scanner.

I got to the station earlier than I needed to…6:30 AM for a 7:55 AM train departure (next time I’ll allow just 45 minutes). I took a seat in the waiting area which is about 10 feet from the Amtrak and Greyhound ticket windows. The total size of the waiting area was smaller than a typical gate at St. Louis’ International Airport.

The only negative was the lack of food options. There was only one place, and the line wasn’t moving at all. After 10 minutes of standing in place, I decided I would just wait and get coffee on the train.

Boarding the train in downtown St. Louis

Boarding only took a few minutes and didn’t require me pulling out my driver’s license. Everyone boarding was directed to the last car in the train. The car was really empty and anyone who was traveling alone was able to snag a row to themselves.

The Train Experience:

Amtrak - leg room in coach

If you dread crawling into the cramped coach seats on an airplane, you will really love riding on Amtrak.

Each recliner style seat has a footrest attached to the seat in front of you. I’m so short that the footrest was actually too far away for me to put my feet up…now that’s leg room!

With this much space, even if the person in front of you leans their seat way back, you still won’t feel cramped. And if you ever had to ask for a seat belt extender an airplane, you will love train travel. The seats are much larger than on airplanes…coach train seats are almost as big as first class seats on a plane. There are no seat belts…so you can move around comfortably at all times and don’t need to feel embarrassed if the standard seat belt isn’t your size.

I didn’t have anyone sitting next to me, so I pulled down both tray tables and used the one in front of me for my iPad and keyboard, and the one next to me for my coffee.

Another advantage of the train is that there is no requirement that your carry on items be placed under the seat in front of you or overhead. I sat next to the window on my way to Chicago and back home, and that gave me plenty of space to put my things against the wall without crowding my feed.

The overhead rack also doesn’t have the doors that shut like on an airplane, so it is easy enough to get something out of your bag that you placed up top.

Amtrak - outlets at every seat

For those of us like to use our laptops, tablets and phones while traveling, Amtrak has a huge advantage over flying.

Every single row of 2 seats had 2 outlets. Since I wasn’t sharing my row with anyone, I was able to plug in both my phone and my iPad at the same time. Some trains even have wifi. The trains I was on didn’t have wifi service, so I simply turned on my iPhone’s hotspot to power my tablet.

You also don’t have to turn off your electronic devices at any point, raise your tray tables and get rid of your have finished soda.

Amtrak - view from window of corn fields

Plus, you get a great view from your seat. Sitting in the aisle seat doesn’t mean you don’t have a view.

Exploring the Train:

Amtrak observation car

After we got going, I did a bit of exploring on the train. I headed to the observation car, which meant walking through a few cars, including the sleeping cars.

Train - observation car

As you can see, these cars have a lot of space too. It was nice to be able to take a walk and sit in a sunny car for part of the trip. Families with kids definitely took advantage of this car when their kids got restless. And lots of folks were reading, working on computers or just enjoying the scenery.

Amtrak - dining car

Both trains I was on also had a dining car. Given the limited seating in this car, you have to make reservations for meals. Throughout the journey, the dining car would announce when the next seating was starting, and if someone didn’t show up, they would actually make an announcement to remind that party it was time for their reservation.

I didn’t eat in the dining car or cut through during meal service, but I did take a peak at the lunch menu. I didn’t look fabulous, but it also wasn’t bad. For a 6 hour train trip like I had, bringing your own snacks or buying something in the snack bar is more than enough. For a longer trip, or one that has you onboard during the dinner hour, I think it would be worth ordering a real meal in the dining car.

Amtrak - snack bar car

There is a limited selection of snacks and drinks in the snack bar, located on the first floor of the observation car. Most importantly, they do sell coffee!

Unlike traveling by air, you won’t be given a free soda, coffee or juice. Bring what you want onboard or buy it at the snack bar. There is water located in a few of the cars, but you might want to bring some bottled water.

Amtrak bathroom

One thing that didn’t impress me was the bathrooms. They are REALLY small. Maybe smaller than on an airplane.

Amtrak bathroom - small

It’s really hard to take a picture of a tiny room. I was leaning against the door when I took this picture.

Amtrak ladies lounge

Surprisingly, the train offered a ladies lounge. It reminded me of when I was a kid and went to the bathroom at Famous Barr and Dillards. Well, it wasn’t as luxurious, but I was impressed that there was a space just for fixing makeup and grooming separate from the bathrooms.

I don’t think I saw a male version of this room. I guess they figure the guys don’t need to primp after a long train ride.

Amtrak ladies lounge seating

Another view of the ladies lounge with 2 sinks, 2 stools, a big mirror and a bench seat

Arriving in Chicago offered a completely different train station experience.

Chicago Amtrak station

While St. Louis only had 2 tracks and you had to step outside to board, Chicago had a dozen or so tracks with trains lined up one after the other in a covered area.

When I left Chicago on the return trip, the trip had a bit more mass transit feel to it. I was asked to show my ID to someone and there was a lot more activity in the station. I arrived 45 minutes before my train was scheduled to depart, and right away got into a line to wait for boarding (imagine the line at the movie theater for the Saturday night new release). I’m glad I got in line early since this time there were almost no empty seats on the train. Being in line early meant I got to pick where I wanted to sit.

Travel Trips for Traveling on Amtrak:

Here are my takeaways from my first round trip train trip on Amtrak. Based on a conversation with my seat mate on the return trip, it sounds like different trains are equipped differently. I road on the Texas Eagle…if you are on a different train, your experience may be different.

  1. Bring snacks. You’ll want to nosh on something on the trip, and there are limited options in the snack car.
  2. Bring all your tech toys and your power cords. If you think you’ll need both outlets at the same time, you might want to bring something like the Belkin 3-Outlet Mini Travel Charger. I have one and find it comes in really handy when traveling and all of the outlets are already taken.
  3. Sit in the window seat. If you sit in the window seat, you can put your stuff on the floor next to the wall. If you are in the aisle seat, your stuff would be a trip hazard for your seat mate and you would end up having to most of it in the overhead bin above you. That’s fine for a big bag, but a pain for things like purses, laptop cases, jackets and snacks.
  4. Bring a sweater or jacket. And don’t wear shorts. It was cold on both trains. I wore my sweater the entire time.
  5. Check the really heavy bags. If you have a bag that is just a big pain to lug around, go ahead and check it. Many of the trains offer free checked luggage. It does take about 20 minutes after you arrive to get your bags, but I think it’s worth it. If your bag isn’t all that heavy, you could carry it on with you and stick it the racks right as you step onto the train.
  6. Be sure to explore. The observation car really is a great place to sit and breaks up the trip so you aren’t sitting in the same place for hours on end. Bathrooms are on the first floor of every car, seats are on the 2nd floor. If you can’t find something like the snack bar, walk down to the dining car and ask.
  7. Take time to enjoy the view. It’s worth it to walk back to the last car and take a look out the back door to watch the train tracks disappear.

Train tracks

Disclosure: This blog post contains advertising. If you click the link for the surge protector and end up buying something (the surge protector or something else), I will get paid a tiny amount of money which will help me get closer to my dreams.