En español | There was once a time when a cross-country journey promised comfort and scenery — rather than a few hours buckled into a flying metal tube.
On a train, passengers are free to get out of their seats to stretch their legs. They can strike up conversations with fellow passengers over dinner, and take in the ever-shifting scenery from out the large windows in special domed cars. During popular travel seasons, some trips feature National Park Service volunteers presenting programs about the history and significance of the passing landscape.
On most trains, sleeping arrangements range from reclining chairs similar to a first-class plane seat to a variety of sleeping cabins; Amtrak has “roomettes,” which are private compartments that convert to beds in the evening. A more budget option: spending the night in a chair. (You'll want to bring a blanket, pillow and perhaps an eye mask and earplugs.) Some vacation trains stop in the evening for hotel stays.
Amtrak, which runs 15 long-distance routes, recently announced changes to its dining cars, once known for white-tablecloth service and communal seating. It has begun to phase out the service on overnight trains east of the Mississippi, instead offering food prepared off-site and delivered to the train. For now, the table service continues on overnight trains in the West.
Keep in mind that taking an overnight train is unlikely to save time or money. While sleeper cars include meals, they generally run several hundred dollars a night. But if you have the money and are not in a hurry — not to mention if you can't abide flying — they can be an ideal way to travel.
Here are six popular trips. Except when noted, they can be booked directly through Amtrak.com. A separate company, Vacations By Rail, arranges independent and escorted train tours in North America and around the world (AARP members can save 5 percent).