Would you believe that I, a travel enthusiast who has lived in various cities around the world and been to places like Morocco and Iceland, had until very recently never been to New York City? Me neither, and I can only ascribe this oversight to my younger self’s burning desire to always head for more remote and exotic places. Every time I would travel, back when I lived in my native USA, it was over the state of New York to farther destinations, very often France.
It wasn’t that I didn’t ever want to see it. I just figured NYC wasn’t going anywhere and I would get there eventually. But this glaring omission became more and more embarrassing after I moved to France and casually admitted to several French people that I hadn’t been to NYC yet. This city is – understandably enough – any French traveler’s first and main destination in the US, and for an American to not go there is incomprehensible. It would be like someone from Avignon in southern France never bothering to visit Paris.
And they have a point – never visiting a world capital like this one is something to lament. But the difference between these contexts lies in the distance separating one’s place of residence from the destination city. In Wisconsin, where I grew up, our country’s cultural capital is far enough away (880 miles/1,416 km) that planning a trip there entails a certain amount of planning and hassle. And you also have to fly there, emitting unmentionable quantities of greenhouse gas into the air.
Or do you?
Well, most people opt to fly such a distance (roughly equivalent to Paris-Warsaw), because the alternatives are 14 miserable hours in a car or 23 even more miserable hours in a bus. But wait, isn’t there another option? What did people do before cars and buses? Okay, yes they took stagecoaches, but they also took the TRAIN.
So this summer, wishing to rectify my offense and shrug off the growing shame of it all, I wondered if I could fit in a visit on my way back to France from Wisconsin, but without flying. First, I already felt bad about the carbon cost of my trip to the States and wanted to avoid another flight’s worth (trains have a carbon footprint too, but a much smaller one). Second, I hate flying anyway (too much space between me and the ground!). And third, as a fan of train travel and old movies, I wanted to try the sleeper-car experience. This was my chance!
Making this trip by train takes just as long as by bus, but the experience is so much nicer, even if you opt just for a seat and not a sleeper car. You can get up and walk around, move to the observation car and admire the landscapes, eat in the dining car or snack bar car and engage in conversation with different fellow travelers (and not just your one seatmate on the bus). And if you get motion-sick in buses like I do, the choice is especially clear.
But I was determined to have my own sleeping compartment, just like Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest but probably without the stowaway. With some luck, admittedly too close to my travel date for comfort, I found both a decent price and an itinerary (the Lake Shore Limited) that wouldn’t have me changing trains early in the morning. After an hour-and-a-half ride from Milwaukee to Chicago in a normal coach car, I transferred at Union Station to the train that would take me all the rest of the way, leaving at 9:30 pm and arriving at 6:30 pm the next day.
Amtrak’s smallest private room, the Viewliner roomette, is a compact space – measuring just 3’6″ x 6’6″ (110 x 201 cm), it’s no wider than what you see in the photo above. It makes up for this in height, however, with a very high ceiling to accommodate the adjustable upper bunk, so it didn’t feel too confining. It’s designed to sleep two, but I think with two people this tiny space would quickly feel MUCH smaller.
The compartment contains a small sink that folds down from the wall, and… wait for it… a toilet! Yes, and it’s out in the open with no wall separating it from the rest of the room. This is where things could get weird if you’re traveling with someone. It’s just as well that I never bumped into Cary Grant and had to hide him from the police! Rest assured, though, that if you book the roomette alone, the entire compartment is yours and nobody else will be traveling in it.
When I boarded, my room was in its default configuration with two facing seats, but in the hour after our departure the car attendant came through to convert everyone’s roomette for sleeping. You have the option of sleeping in the upper bunk or having the seats below converted to a bottom bunk (my choice).
Don’t miss this comprehensive video tour of the same roomette I had.
My fears of being unable to sleep in a rocking, creaking, groaning metal box proved groundless – the bed was very cozy and I actually got a great night’s rest. When I awoke, the morning sunlight was gently filtering in through the curtains and we were chugging along the eastern coast of Lake Erie somewhere in Pennsylvania or New York state.
Starting at an early hour (I think 6 am), complimentary coffee and orange juice are made available in the hallway of each sleeping car. For reasons I’ll get into later, I’d brought some food along and had these coconut-cashew bites for breakfast in my room.
Another very cool thing about traveling in a sleeping car is you can take a shower! And even though I could have just waited until I got to my destination to take one, I wasn’t about to pass up this rare (not available to coach travelers) and kind of amusing opportunity. Plus it’s always nicer to be clean. Each sleeper car has one shower room at the end of the hall with a little cubicle and a tiny space outside it to stand in and get dressed. Towels, soap and these strange put-them-together-yourself shower slippers are provided. The water flow was minimal (or maybe not much was left?), so it took me a long time, punching the button every few minutes to get more water to come out, like with a campground or locker-room shower. And it’s a rather precarious business, what with the train rocking and jolting and you being all soapy and slippery. There’s a large metal bar you can grab onto, but I could also see how with the wrong timing you could end up lurching into it headfirst and getting knocked out cold. That must not happen too often I suppose, or there would be no more showers on trains. I, at least, escaped injury.
Next it was time for lunch, and this is where my story takes a kind of Twilight Zone turn. Before my trip I’d checked the avid Amtrak travelers’ forums to see if any vegan options were to be had, and everything seemed to indicate I needed to call and reserve a vegan meal at least three days ahead of time. So I did that, only to have the Amtrak lady on the other end of the line tell me that actually my train was not going to have a dining car and that no vegan options were possible. Other people would have a standard meal delivered to their rooms, but no special meals like vegan or kosher could be had. Disappointed but not surprised, I thanked the lady anyway and grumbled about this for a while to my family members. And I duly brought a bunch of food with me on the train, although it wasn’t quite enough and I wasn’t able to find anything decent at Union Station in Chicago.
So I was not only shocked but also relieved to learn that actually there was a dining car on my train and that a completely vegan meal was part of their permanent menu (!?), no need to reserve anything. Who knows how such contrary information was provided… my phone call may have gotten routed through a wormhole to the 1990s. But now you know: if you’re traveling on the Lake Shore Limited, you can have this very nice Asian noodle bowl. It seems there’s also at least fruit as a vegan option for breakfast. Still, it’s always a good idea to have some extra food on you, since life is unpredictable.
I spent the rest of my time relaxing in my little room, reading Orlando and watching the various stations of upstate New York file by. Finally, as the sun dropped lower over the horizon, New York City loomed into view.
All in all, I was quite satisfied with this train adventure. Of course, it was a somewhat expensive option ($375 for the roomette, all included vs. about $175 for just a coach seat) and definitely more than air travel (maybe $120 one way). You also need the luxury of time to be able to travel this way. But with our environment in the state it’s in, I’m in favor of a shift back to slower transport and a more relaxed attitude to work schedules, for example, to make such travel more realistic. Efforts should also be made to lower train fares and make trains more efficient. If this had been a high-speed train such as the TGV in Europe or the Shinkansen in Japan, the trip would have taken much less time. In the meantime, if I were to make this trip often, for cost reasons I would probably sacrifice my comfort some of the time and go for the coach seat.
I would also like to see Amtrak make a bigger effort to reduce single-use plastic. Two plastic water bottles were provided in my roomette, but there also seemed to be a drinking water tap in the sink. And although the lunch came in a balsa-wood box (along with a card explaining that it was to help save the environment), everything inside the box was wrapped in or composed of single-use plastic. Perhaps some of it was biodegradable, but it still seemed like a lot of unnecessary packaging. BUT, three cheers for Amtrak for (after all) having a vegan choice on their normal menu.
Have you ever traveled long-distance with Amtrak? How was your experience?
If this post has intrigued you and you want to prolong the train-riding mood, make yourself some popcorn and check out one of the many films set on or around trains. In addition to North by Northwest (1959), I especially recommend The Ghost Train (1941), Mystery Train (1989) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017 or earlier versions). An honorable mention goes to The Darjeeling Limited (2007; not my favorite Anderson film, but you can’t beat his aesthetic). If you have others to recommend, leave them in the comments!
Be sure to also take a look at the English royal family’s own private train.
And stay tuned for another post soon about my adventures in the Big Apple (I was a tourist, so can say that) to find out if I thought it was worth all the fuss. 😉