If you’ve never ridden the train partially (or all the way) across the country, you ought to. In my view, I see Amtrak as a transportation service that facilitates three distinct economic tiers, and this mixture, along with the days-long, overnight-type long-haul, creates an interesting population within any given train. And so, the three tiers exist as such: the only form of transportation available to you, the transportation method of your choice, transportation as bookends to a luxurious vacation. Amtrak identifies these tiers as Coach, Business, and Sleeper. As a guide for first-time train travelers, I will simply outline the various benefits/drawbacks of each tier, and then, I will divulge some of my personal packing tips.
Despite the tiered levels of personal space, the train, in its entirety, maintains a surprisingly equal level of service/product. On every train, the lounge/observatory remains accessible to all passengers. The dining car and cafe also serve everyone. Thus, the separation simply becomes about the nearness to whom you are seated.
Like discussed earlier, Coach passengers pay for only a ride, nothing else. If you want food or beverage, Amtrak will charge. This also means that Coach contains a mixed bag of passengers, from the truly transient wanderers and homeless to large families with small children, and young couples looking for adventure, which makes the bathroom situation a bit sticky. Everything in the Coach cars has a thin layer of … grime. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Coach feels simultaneously tense yet conversational. It’s almost as if you need to size each other up through small talk so that you may know how comfortable/un you ought to feel around your fellow passengers.
Move up a class to Business and now the passengers have paid to be left alone, separated, apart from the riffraff of strangers. Everyone leaves everyone else alone. No need for small talk, we’ve paid to have a more exclusive ride. Here, people have paid to be distinctly removed from anyone who might offend their sensibilities (be them esoteric or physical). Amtrak includes water and food vouchers to these passengers as well as a car that has been used very little, which makes the bathroom situation all the more less gross.
A quick note on the bathrooms. I’m not entirely sure where every bathroom is located, but there were five distinct bathrooms on the lower floor of each Coach and Business car. There seem to also be three types of bathrooms: single use (about the size of an airplane toilet), dressing room (a single-use type with a small empty space the size of the toilet area, with a built-in bench and hooks [if you’re lucky]), and family/special attention (a room large enough to comfortably fit a family of four or two wheelchairs and some extra room for any persons using a wheeled chair). If you belong to the female order, you are welcome to a powder room where there is a large mirror, counter space, sinks and stools.
Head to the front of the train and you will find the passengers who have paid not only for their own seclusion from others but also, a heaping hand of personal service. Sleeper includes meals, beverages, and a room of your own. Despite paying substantially more, all of the common areas are available to everyone. There are no private lounge areas for only Sleeper class passengers.
Therefore, my opinion rests as such. If riding a train that has Business class, pay the extra $100 for your own comfort, if you can afford the choice. The food in the dining car is not worth the exorbitant sums you pay for a Roomette or Sleeper. In Business alone, you will find that the car is cleaner than Coach simply because fewer people ride in the Business car (but don’t be surprised when you find out that the Business car is exactly the same as Coach, just newer/cleaner). Save the hundreds of dollars you pay for Sleeper, and spend $30/day (per person including tax and tip) in the dining car or cafe for meals and have access to the slightly less-gross bathrooms. Like I said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Coach, the cars are just highly trafficked and with traffic comes heavier use. Sleeper, on the other hand, seems like a waste of money.
Amtrak suits my needs quite well. Of course I am fortunate enough to have Amtrak be a choice, after all, but the choice is something that has become something of a need recently. The best thing about Amtrak is the luggage situation. These days, flying domestically in the United States has become something of a nightmare. With security and luggage fees and delays and seat sizing and cheap pricing, etc., etc., &c., I have come to the decision that I will not ever fly domestically ever again in the Contiguous United States. I used Amtrak a number of times for short-distance trips (between three and six hours) before making this final decision, but when I needed to transport myself across the country along with five pieces of luggage, two backpacks and my partner, the choice was obvious—ride the train. Not only did I not pay a single cent for all that luggage (except to store one of our carry-on pieces in Sacramento during a ten-hour layover), but also, I found that traveling by train actually relaxed me. I was sitting on a train for 30+ hours on day one; there was nothing for me to do; there was no sort of “work” I could do (the California Zephyr is off the grid), so I just sat back, enjoyed the view, read a book, crocheted, and all the stress of travel melted away. Plane flight is so stressful, and driving would have required the full attention of one of us at all times.
Obviously, I am no expert on train travel nor have I really done it all that much, and of course, the trade off is your time. Nevertheless, if you have some hobbies and enjoy the journey whenever you travel, then by locomotive might be just great. I am certainly now a train-riding enthusiast and so, will update this opinion of mine when/if at all necessary in the future. In the meantime, enjoy my Amtrak Packing List Re: travel by locomotive. And if you’re interested in the journey from my point of view, see the pics on my photography site, Find.Yummy.Love.