En español | My challenge: To get from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles to visit my four grandchildren during a pandemic. Normally, I would just fly there, of course. But having to pack together in an airplane cabin with a bunch of strangers? No thanks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made it clear that while no form of travel is completely safe, your chances of getting COVID-19 depend in large part (along with mask wearing and handwashing) on your ability to stay 6 feet away from people outside your household.
But a coast-to-coast drive all by myself felt too daunting. So I settled on Amtrak's sleeper train, an old-school form of travel with individual compartments for social distancing, as the perfect choice for me for these coronavirus times. A big (OK, huge) downside? The price. At around $1,000 one-way, it's at least double — maybe triple — what I'd pay to fly round trip cross-country.
Deciding to splurge just this once, I booked a three-night trip — starting on the Capitol Limited from D.C. to Chicago, where I changed trains, and continuing aboard the Southwest Chief to L.A.
Turns out I was not the only one seeking the safety of train travel. I met Phoenix retirees Eva and David Rudoy, who were on their way back from visiting their grandchildren near Baltimore. David is an avid model train collector, so he already had the bug for riding the rails. “The virus gave us the extra incentive,” the 65-year-old said (from a distance and wearing a mask), “and you don't have to stress about staying in a hotel.”
My journey took three days. Then, after a long stay, I did it all again but in reverse, to come home. Here's what I learned.
Sleeping: My two-person bedroom with a private bathroom provided a comfortable cocoon — especially for just one person. Unlike on a plane, I wasn't jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other people. I had my own sofa and a facing chair, with a pull-down table in between. When I was ready for bed, a room attendant would convert the room, sliding out the sofa and placing a mattress on top. (For people traveling with companions, a bunk bed can be folded out, too.) Once tucked in for the night, I was soothed to sleep by the rhythmic chugging of the train and repeated tooting of the horn, like a distant refrain.
Bathing: Having my own bathroom was paramount, which is why I chose the bedroom option over the “roomette” (a Lilliputian sitting/sleeping compartment with a shared hallway bathroom). No middle-of-the-night trekking into the corridor to use a communal toilet or sharing a public sink for daily washups for me! But the over-the-toilet shower in my teensy bath required the nimbleness of a ninja.
Dining: My room attendant delivered all meals to my room to make self-quarantining easy. (The dining car was closed on the Capitol Limited due to the coronavirus.) The food was prepackaged, not chef-made on-site as in pre-pandemic days. Breakfast was limited to oatmeal, cold cereal, yogurt, packaged muffins and heated breakfast sandwiches. But lunch and dinner featured such entrées as red wine-braised beef, shrimp in lobster sauce, Asian noodle bowls and enchiladas.
Health and safety: Trains were sanitized and filtered fresh air was circulated every four to five minutes. Foot-operated door openers allowed for hands-free movement between cars. Masks were always required in public. And physical distancing was effortless, with only 13 passengers in sleeper rooms that held 70. That allowed me to walk along the corridors for a bit of exercise without encountering another soul. What's more, I was relieved to find all three train stations nearly empty.
Entertainment: With no Wi-Fi or TV and spotty cell service, old-style diversions ruled the hours on this throwback journey. I read books and took in the rolling scenery, either through my room's picture windows or in the light-filled observation lounge (socially distanced, of course). On the Southwest Chief's 2,265-mile itinerary, watching the landscape change from the endless cornfields and prairies of Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas to the high plains of Colorado and the scruffy deserts, buttes and mountains of New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California (that for many miles follow the famed Santa Fe Trail of yore) was fascinating. Each night brought the reward of a surprisingly spectacular sunset. Along with scattered towns and whistle-stops, the terrain made me appreciate how rural the country remains.
Still, because I kept to myself, I missed the social interaction that can often set a trip apart. It was a small price to pay for a reliably safe way to cross America.
Cost: A one-way trip for a bedroom, including all meals: $1,100 at Amtrak.com. Tip your room attendant $5 per day and your meal server $3 to $5 per meal for delivery to your room. Double that for two people.
Tips for Multiday Amtrak Travel
• Get a redcap to carry your luggage up the narrow, winding staircase to the upper level, where the sleeping rooms are.
• Take advantage of the Chicago train station. It has a modern, spacious lounge that's free to sleeper- and business-class passengers — ideal for a six-hour layover. It was filled with comfy lounge chairs and sofas and wall-mounted TVs broadcasting the news. It also includes two spa-like showers, allowing long-distance travelers to skip one of their ninja showers on board.
• Do your nightly washup before the attendant comes. The sink is difficult to access after the bed is extended.
• Download any movies or TV series you'd like to watch to a tablet or laptop prior to departure. Streaming is impossible without Wi-Fi or reliable cell service.