Civilized Travel with Amtrak

There is something so comfortable and classy about train travel these days, or maybe that’s just in comparison to the dire state of the battered airline industry.  This past weekend I had the fortune of round-trip Amtrak travel along the Northeast Corridor from NYC to DC. This is a journey my frugal wallet usually takes via bus, but thanks to a friend’s generous Amtrak guest rewards points we enjoyed all the luxuries Amtrak had to offer.

In comparison to Europe and Asia, where train travel has evolved as a speedy work of art, rail travel in the U.S. does not seem as romantic as it once was, but it still offers more than flights or bus. First, and most valued, is its promptness. Though I have experienced delays on Amtrak in the past, the trains typically depart and arrive as scheduled, or far closer to their estimated time than air or bus travel.  Need I say much about delays at LaGuardia, Newark, JFK, Reagan or Dulles? Chances are you are probably cringing already. As for the bus, coming back through the Manhattan-bound tunnels is nothing short of a nightmare on Sunday nights. I’ve received many a suicidal phone call from a bus-traveling friend that was stuck for more than 8 hours trying to get back to the city.

Another bonus of Amtrak travel is the lack of security line. Sure, you might be hoarded cattle-style onto the platform, but at least you weren’t forced into a near strip-search of unpacking your coat, shoes, laptop, liquid items in less than 3 oz. containers, etc.  Once on board, the seating itself is even more civilized than air travel.  I could actually extend my legs and fit luggage into the overhead storage unit (the small regional flights I usually take don’t fit roller-boards in the overhead bins, thus requiring gate check).

There is something about the train that encourages socialization. Maybe it’s the ability to get up and walk to a clean-ish bathroom or café car for a snack. Maybe it’s the railway rocking instead of jarring turbulence. Maybe it’s just the view.  I was fortunate enough to be traveling with a tech-gadget friend who woke me up to admire the sunset and look at his Blackberry GPS application that informed us we were traveling at 125 MPH!

The biggest deterrent of Amtrak travel is understandably the price.  Sometimes it’s hard to shell out the money for a train ticket when Bolt/ DC2NY/ Megabus can get you there for $30-40 round trip. There are a few tricks, though. If you book early you can take advantage of cheaper rates, for example right now there is a $49 DC-NYC one-way special, and you can always cancel or change these reservations free of charge. Also use a AAA card when booking to get a 10% discount.  My general strategy is to take the bus going and the train coming back to avoid the aforementioned Sunday-travel-back-into-Manhattan traffic jam. I just signed up for Amtrak Guest Rewards and will be traveling on May 8th, National Train Day (of course!), which will earn triple points towards future train travel. Chooo chooo!


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