In 2015, engineer and fellow travel writer, Derek Low breathed new life into the American railway system by taking his cross-country trip viral.
Headlines like “Across the USA by Train for Just $213” enticed millions of travelers to hit the rails and experience 3,400 miles of, arguably, the most scenic and historic of all train routes available in the U.S.
The trip that Mr. Lowe laid out takes you through 11 states and 4 time zones to cross the entire North American continent from coast to coast.
I’ll be honest, the clickbait title and budget-friendly trek from New York to San Francisco seemed like a traveler’s dream.
10 minutes clicking through his breathtaking shots and snappy one-liners, I was hooked.
I booked my trip two days later.
From the very moment I hit the “Purchase” button on Amtrak’s website, I knew the reality of my trip wouldn’t match up to the fantasy that Mr. Lowe had built up in my mind.
That’s why, today, I want to share with you my version of this long-haul voyage across the United States.
Starting with the (not so) budget-friendly truth…
Just be prepared to sit (and sleep) in coach seats for 4 Days straight and spend easily another $150 on food (which we’ll get to in a minute.)
Even Lowe himself didn’t take this abridged version of the trip.
Like myself, he opted to pay $430 for a 15-day rail pass that allowed 8 layovers in cities along the way.
This gave me the freedom explore areas like New York City, Chicago, Denver, Reno, SanFrancisco and SaltLakeCity.
It was also a way for me to collect my sanity, breathe in some fresh air, stretch my legs and get a quality shower every few days.
If you’re thinking of taking this trip for yourself, I highly recommend looking at the rail pass options available.
Even spread out over the 2 weeks I allotted myself for this journey, the nights spent onboard were the hardest part of the trip.
Which leads me to my second point…
Splurge on Comfort
Ignore everything that Mr. Lowe said about the “spacious seats” that recline “a good 40 degrees” for “comfortable lounging.”
In all honesty, what he said is utter bullshit.
The one regret I have about this entire trip leads back to my decision not to fork over the money for an (albeit expensive) sleeper car.
The nights I was lucky enough to not have another passenger sitting next to me, it was almost impossible for me to curl my 5’5” petite frame across two seats.
Then there was the noise.
Between the overhead announcements, rowdy passengers, and the constant, metallic noise created by train travel in general, there were several nights that I only logged about 2-3 hours of sleep.
The other detail that Mr. Lowe failed to mention is that without paying the premium for a sleeper car, you don’t have access to any onboard showers. (Another reason why I made sure to have a pass that allowed for extra stops along the way.)
Be Prepared to Blow Your Budget on Food
One of the selling points in Mr. Lowe’s original post was “luck of the draw” dining options where strangers are seated together in the lavish looking dining car.
Now, before I go on, I must admit that Amtrak’s “social roulette” seating plan was by far one of the most redeeming parts of the journey.
I met dozens of new people, each willing to swap stories and a good laugh – all with a sprawling landscape whizzing past.
I just wish I could have taken advantage of this perk more often.
The dining car is a limited commodity.
Like clockwork, every morning an attendant would trek up and down the aisles scheduling hour-long blocks of time for each meal.
Make a note of that time; if you miss it (trying to catch up on some sleep, let’s say) you’re S.O.L. and will be forced to hit up the (overpriced) concession carts. Be warned, these carts are only open during limited times and assuming the attendant isn’t taking a smoke break.
Even if you remember your time-slot in the dining car, there is the matter of price vs quality.
What Mr. Lowe failed to mention is that the “juicy cheeseburger” that he raved about costs almost $14 (plus an extra $5 for the Pepsi). Tastes dryer than licking sand. Is half the size of the image he portrayed. And that he was one of the lucky few who received a salad before the car “ran out of vegetables.”
That “meal” is the cheapest you will find.
I wish I could say that the quality increased with the price.
But after my first two days of microwaved beef patties and non-existent side dishes, I bucked up and paid the $25 for “The Amtrak Signature Steak – A well-marbled, USDA Choice Black Angus flat iron steak, grilled to order.”
What arrived was a lifeless, shriveled slab of meat that was “marbled” with enough fat that it cut the (already limited) amount of protein in half.
Ultimately, I spent almost $200 in the dining car before I had to cut myself off to save the fragile budget I had remaining.
It had only been 4 days.
To counteract the dining car costs, I reserved what was left of my food budget to eat in each city I visited. Which was the greatest decision I made the entire trip.
To help carry me through my overnight trips, I hit the local markets for snacks like trail mix, fruits, several bags of jerky, and a few bottles of juice or soda.
Bottom Line: For anyone looking to slash prices, I recommend packing snacks/meals in advance. (Depending on the length of your trip, this could end up saving you hundreds of dollars along the way.)
Prepare to Be Underwhelmed and Overwhelmed By the View
Looking back, this is what I go back and forth on the most.
Cutting through the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas exposed me to some of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen.
Having grown up at sea-level, there were days that I was awestruck by the expansive mountain ranges seen from my window.
But the truth is, those views only stick around for about 25% of your trip.
The remaining 75% is split between nondescript farm land and limited visibility at night.
Bringing my own “entertainment” is something I severely underestimated on this trip.
For the love of god, make sure to either pack a stack of books or enough DVD’s to pass the time – especially if you are taking this trip solo.
I’ve always been a voracious reader, but even I didn’t think I’d go through 5 books on this trip.
I was mistaken.
With 25% of my time onboard devoted to window-gazing, and about 15% of my trip being in an area with Wi-Fi or cell service, I was left with 60% of my time unaccounted for.
By Day 6, I had run out of reading material.
Thankfully, I was able to pick up more at a local bookstore when we rolled through Denver
And the Grand Total Is…
All told, (if you don’t factor in the money spent on off-train lodging, food, and excursions) it cost me roughly $832 to recreate Mr. Lowe’s “budget-friendly” $213 trip.
While a lot of that can be attributed to stretching the trip out over the span of 2 weeks, had I taken the $213 route, I would still be looking at a final cost of nearly $500 once you factored in food, tips and taxes.
I’m not trying to destroy the romanticism surrounding train travel.
My “train-cation” misgivings aside, I encourage you to embark on an extended train trip at some point in your life.
But know what you’re getting into…
Traveling via train for days (or weeks) at a time is exhausting and will test your personal limits.
Just remember to…
- Splurge on comfort…
- Budget for (unexpected) food costs…
- Over pack entertainment…
- Factor in layovers along the way…
- Bring earplugs, your own blanket and pillow (especially if you plan on cutting costs by foregoing on a sleeper car) …
- Expect the unexpected.
Everyone experiences travel their own way. It’s one of the most fascinating things about talking to other travelers. No two experiences are ever the same.
That’s why, if you’ve taken this trip or any other extended “train-cations,” I’d love to hear about it.
Feel free to leave a comment below or reach out to me on social media and share your story.