Everything I’ve Learned About Train Travel, as a Travel Writer Who Doesn’t Fly

published Sep 29, 2022
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A young African American businesswoman cheerfully working on her laptop and having a phone call, while taking a train ride.
Credit: Maca and Naca/Getty Images

When I decided to stop flying, I really became a traveler. When I flew, it was sporadic — always short distances and always while nursing terror inside me. I was so afraid of flying that I pushed off trips I wanted to take and spent what little time I had on trips worrying about the flight home. But when I took an 18-hour Amtrak train ride from Denver to Chicago in 2018, I realized there was a better option than staying at home or subjecting myself to something I hated. 

Since then, I’ve traveled without flying, and made a career of it. I took Cunard’s Queen Mary II ship across the Atlantic Ocean to visit Europe. As a Black woman, that experience was one filled with racist experiences and I don’t necessarily recommend it to people who are comfortable flying. Mostly, though, I take Amtrak trains to various places in the continental U.S. And I’m not alone in loving train travel: One man I met at dinner on the Texas Eagle estimated he’s covered about 50,000 miles on Amtrak’s trains. 

The best and easiest train journeys are short, scenic, and part of a longer trip. Recently, I took Amtrak up the coast of California, from San Diego to San Francisco, making stops in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Sonoma County.

On the Pacific Surfliner, an Amtrak train that runs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, the train ran right along the ocean. You could smell the salt water permeating through the car. On the Coast Starlight, which spans the West Coast from Los Angeles to Seattle, I watched out my window as the train was swallowed whole by Northern California’s golden hills. The entire trip was more of a transformative travel experience than my Grand Tour of Europe (where I used a Eurail Pass and traveled to London, Cologne, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Brussels) and when you buy the California Rail Pass, you’ll feel like you’re on a European train, but better. 

Sometimes, I’m not able to hop on and off the train to visit various cities. Often, I have to ride for long stretches, crossing an entire continent in a matter of days. Those trips, I won’t lie, can be physically and mentally demanding. I’m sitting in cramped spaces with little access to quality food and no WiFi. Even when I have my own private roomette on 60-hour trips, with access to steak dinners — the food is about the same quality you’d expect from Applebee’s, which on a train is heavenly — food and space can still be issues. 

Credit: Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock.com

But I’ve learned, through trial and error, how to create my own experience. I bring books, download movies, walk around the train, talk to people in the observation car. The biggest tips I have? Bring headphones comfortable enough to sleep in or lean your head against the window, like Bose Quiet Comfort Headphones. Spend most of your time in the observation car if you can. Snag a day pass for the lounge in large stations, like the one in Chicago. Join the Rewards Program — your Apple purchases go toward free train tickets. Buy a Yeti backpack cooler and fill it to the brim with fruit and deli meats, and bring along Yuni shower wipes so you don’t feel gross after two or three days. 

When you learn a mode of travel and become an expert on it, it’s thrilling. There’s a joy in seeing yourself gain increasing competence in something you love doing. I know to order DoorDash when we’re fifteen minutes away from the Albuquerque station because the grocery store there has the worst fried chicken in my life — but you can get Five Guys fries fresh. I learned how to balance my body weight so I can walk through the train quickly without falling. And I can wake up in pitch blackness on the Southwest Chief during my frequent trips to Flagstaff, Arizona, and still know where we are, some weird calculation my body does using variables of time and something else I don’t understand.

It sounds cheesy to say, but traveling without flying has helped me grow as a person. It’s made me more patient and inquisitive, adventurous and compassionate. And if you pay attention to what’s out your window and in your train car, you learn about this country and its people. From a Greyhound bus that was going through Central California where most of this country’s produce is grown, I saw signs protesting the water crisis that is choking the state. During a journey from Chicago to Denver, I spoke to someone recently released from prison and learned about how difficult transition is for formerly incarcerated people. On Amtrak’s Texas Eagle, I found myself mere feet away from the U.S-Mexico border separating El Paso from Ciudad Juárez. 

I originally made the decision not to fly out of fear. But now, train travel is something I do joyfully, that I look forward to. There are many miles of track I haven’t traveled yet, and I intend to try.