AARP Smart Guide to Train Travel
Find out how to prepare for a long trip and explore a bucket list
Travelers may have numerous ways to get from points A to B, but few modes of transit blend relaxation, efficiency and scenery like hopping aboard a train.
“A four-hour train journey from city center to city center is just as fast as a one-hour flight once you add travel to and from the airports and check-in,” says Mark Smith, founder of train-travel blog The Man in Seat 61. “An overnight journey from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. takes less time out of your day than a four-hour relay race of train, airport, flight, airport, train — and is much more fun.”
The perks of train travel abound, yet rail travel remains a tourism-industry underdog. That could soon change. With new scenic train routes, high-speed-rail innovations and President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan to bolster Amtrak’s U.S. train routes, the wheels are in motion for a global train-travel boom — and we have everything you need to hop aboard.
We talked with leading rail-travel experts for their tips and tricks. The result? Our jam-packed Smart Guide to Train Travel, which will have you riding those rails like a pro.
Note to readers: Logistics from baggage allowance to seating options vary by train line, route and country. This guide highlights top-level rail travel tips, but it’s best to confirm details with your specific rail line or travel agent.
American Train Travel Guide. Make sure the agent understands train travel with a simple test: “I tell people to ask, “What’s the difference between a roomette in a Superliner train compared to a Viewliner train?’ ” he says. “The difference is that there is no window in the upper berth on the Superliner roomette. On the Viewliner, there is a window. A good travel agent [for train travel] will have the answer right off the top of their head.” One option Johnston suggests for U.S. train travel is Amtrak Vacations, an Amtrak-specific travel agency.
Bring your kids (or grandkids)
Want a particularly memorable trip? Bring your little ones, says Johnston, who took his son on countless trips throughout his childhood. “If you’re traveling with kids, it’s such a confidence-building and knowledge-building exercise,” he says, noting the adventure can double as a multiday geography lesson. “Bring a map and follow your trip. Or with a smartphone, [use] the map app, and it will show you where you are.”
Book a sleeping car
Sleeping-car options on overnight trains may cost more than a coach seat, but Johnston says these cozy, private train bedrooms are a worthy splurge if your budget allows. “If you’re sleeping in your own bed at home, how many times do you have a chance to wake up to the sunrise? How many times do you actually look at the moon?” he says. “You don’t have this opportunity in a hotel room.” Like most things, sleeping-car options vary by line. Some include private bathrooms and an attendant, while others offer a simple bedroom with a bathroom down the hall.
numerous interesting passengers, including the time he dined with one of seven people in the world qualified to service and restore ancient pipe organs. “I absolutely look forward to the three meals a day when I’m on the train. That’s one of the most interesting parts of the whole experience.”
stopovers in each place. “This makes it more organized when you are changing hotels and repacking each day.”
Amtrak Empire Builder: Chicago to Portland or Seattle
Jim Loomis, author of All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide, describes this three-day, two-night trip — from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest — as a “glorious ride.” In addition to the scenery on both ends of the trip, travelers get to admire the sprawling North Dakota landscapes and Montana’s soaring mountains, including Glacier National Park, along the way.
Amtrak California Zephyr: Chicago to San Francisco
Loomis also raves about the three-day, two-night California Zephyr. “It’s probably one of Amtrak’s most scenic trains,” he says, noting the views of the Colorado River, Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada range are among the trip’s top attractions.
Amtrak Coast Starlight: Seattle to Los Angeles
Bob Johnston, a correspondent for Trains.com, recommends this two-day, one-night route to enjoy some of the West Coast’s best scenery. “It’s daytime between Seattle and Portland, then it’s overnight from the Cascade
range around Eugene, Oregon, down to the Bay area, then from San Francisco through Oakland, down to L.A.,” he says.
Caledonian Sleeper: London to Scotland
Mark Smith, founder of train-travel blog The Man in Seat 61, suggests the Caledonian Sleeper from England to Scotland, one of the most scenic two-day, one-night journeys across the pond. This route runs through iconic destinations like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and the Scottish Highlands, with stunning views best enjoyed from the train’s cozy sleeping cars.
Bernina Express: Switzerland to Italy
The Bernina Express is another one of Smith’s favorite routes. This four-hour train ride, the highest railway in the Alps, crosses the mountains from Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy. Much of this rail line has UNESCO World Heritage status, awarded for the civil-engineering mastery required to build the railway along the Alps’ rugged terrain. Views transition from glaciers to palm trees on this journey, with sweeping windows that make this jaw-dropping scenery the star of the show.
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