Last updated on September 9th, 2016
A few years ago, I needed to travel from the West Coast to the East Coast in a fairly timely fashion, yet not spend a fortune to do so. Most people would fly, by a round trip ticket for just me would cost nearly $1,000. It’s always fairly cheap to take the bus, but the bus isn’t very timely and there’s always a good chance that you’ll hit a delay. That’s when I made the decision to travel by train… and it was one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made. It took 2 days to go across the country instead of a few hours, but I got to meet new people, do a little sightseeing in communities I’d normally never see, and did so for half the price of the plane ticket.
In order to experience savings, you’re going to need to travel by coach. The coach section on a train is a first-come, first-served experience, so these long distance train travel tips will help you make the most out of a long distance trip that you’re taking by train.
6 Useful Tips for Long Distance Train Travel:
Tip #1: Take the Seat Next to the Outlet If You Can
If you’re bringing your laptop, tablet, or smartphone with you, then there’s a good chance you’ll need to charge it while you’re on the train. When you book your coach ticket, you’ll be told that there are outlets in the dining car, the observation car, and in the lounge that will allow you to charge your electronics. They’ll also tell you that coach outlets are limited… but what they don’t tell you is that there are only 2 to 4 outlets per car and they’re right next to a specific seat!
The electrical outlets are near the middle of the car and the ability to access that outlet is priceless, so do your best to make your first priority that seat. If you can’t get it, don’t worry – if that person gets off the train, just ask the conductor to move – and be sure to take your destination tag with you to the new seat!
Tip #2: Bring Food With You To Eat
Train food isn’t that bad. I invested in an omelet, had a pleasant conversation with a newlywed couple who were enjoying the second day of their honeymoon, and it was nice to be out of my seat for awhile. The problem was that my omelet was $11 and on the train, there are no credit cards. In your carry-on bags, make sure to bring lots of packable snacks and meals that you can eat right there in your seat to save money.
Tuna fish and crackers was a staple of my diet on this trip, though Lunchables, sandwiches, chips, sodas, and other items can all be brought on board. You’ll save plenty of money by bringing your own food and you won’t have to worry about carrying a lot of cash with you – a double win!
Tip #3: Stretch Your Legs Often
Walking on a train is an interesting experience. You pretty much need to re-learn how to walk because of the way the train cars sway back and forth. The first couple times I journeyed forth to explore the train or just meander to the wash room, one good sway was all it took to buckle my knees and place my head firmly in the lap of one very surprised man!
The more you walk, however, the more you’ll be able to anticipate which way the train is going to go and adjust your gait. You’ll also get the feel of when you should hold onto the backs of a couple seats and brace yourself! Don’t worry – everyone goes through this and if you’re on the train for more than a day, you’ll find that jealous eyes will look at you as you quickly traverse a car while others are stuck finding their heads in the laps of other surprised people.
Tip #4: Bring a Neck Pillow
I’m the type of person who can’t sleep well the first couple nights I’m away from home, so my sleep expectations were not high for the train – especially in coach. When I got there, I realized that a few hours of sleep was actually too high of an expectation! I’d brought my regular pillows with me, which made it difficult to get comfortable in the seat. Coach train seats are even harder to sleep in than airline seats!
Bringing a neck pillow will help brace your neck and prevent the worst of the discomfort that can cause you to toss and turn. Make sure to bring a blanket with you as well – it gets surprisingly chilly on the train at night. Because you’re in a car with several other people, there are going to be constant sounds going on that you’ll want to drone out as well, so headphones with some music is a wise thing to have along. That’s also why you’ll want to try to get that seat next to an electrical outlet too!
Tip #5: Take Advantage of Layover Stops
Trains are notorious for not being exactly on time. You’ll have an idea of how much time you’ll have at any given location based on your ticket, so I knew that I was going to have some extended time in both Chicago and Buffalo. Rather than sit in the train station for what could be most of a day, spend a few bucks and get a rental car if you know you’ll have an extended layover.
In Chicago, I just grabbed a taxi and went down to the lakefront to spend the day. With plenty of museums, shops, and parks down there, I could easily fill the 6 hours I needed to wait for my next train. In Buffalo, it meant getting to explore upper New York for a day, having some New York style pizza, and seeing Niagara Falls. It was only $11 + gas for the rental car for the day – and in some places, rental cars can be had for as little as $6 per day + fuel with the right deal.
Tip #6: Bring Movies With You
Even if you have mobile internet or even portable satellite service, there are going to be places where you aren’t going to receive a signal. If you’re relying on cell or mobile service, don’t even bother – you won’t have service more than you will. Looking at the passing countryside can be fun at times, especially when going through canyons or the mountains, but many times you’ll be traveling in a ditch where all you see is a grassy embankment.
To pass the time, bring some movies along with you. A laptop or iPhone works well, but any portable movie device that can store several movies will be your best friend during these long lull times. Some train services offer a portable movie playing system that you can take with you, then ship back to them once you arrive for a small fee too, but these are only available at major hubs. If you get on mid-route, you won’t get a chance to get one.
Bonus Tip: Be Ready For Border Crossings
Many people travel by train into a different country on a daily basis, which means needing to pass through customs while on the train. You’ll need a passport or Enhanced identification to cross either border from the United States for everyone in the family, including any children traveling with you. Without these, you’ll be taken off the train. You can also be taken off the train for a variety of other reasons, so be prepared for an extra day at the border if a customs official finds your trip suspicious in some way.
The gentleman who sat next to me on the way back from Canada was visiting his family in the states for the first time in 4 years. Because it had been 4 years since he’d been to the States, he was taken off the train.
Keep in mind the cash requirement for the train as well. If you stay on the same train, from Canada to the US, for example, the train will likely stop accepting Canadian money once the border is crossed and vice-versa. If you believe you’ll need a snack or beverage while on the train, make sure to have a few dollars of both currencies.
A long distance train travel trip can be quite fun and very memorable, but can be miserable if you aren’t fully prepared for the journey. Use these long distance train travel tips to plan your next trip by train and you’ll not only be able to save money and time, but you’ll also get to explore new places and relax during your journey while keeping most of the modern amenities that make life comfortable.
And, if all else fails, you can always buy a beer or three during the day to make the time pass by more quickly.