This year, for the first time in my life, I used a train on a long journey. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I didn’t just do a short day hop. Instead, I took Amtrak from Pittsburgh, PA to Oxnard, CA—a three-day trip that involved staying in a sleeper car, dining with a whole lot of strangers even though I am not a social butterfly, and making good friends who I might, or might not, see again.
There are a few things you should know when traveling by rail, none of which I thought to research before getting on the train. Yes, I looked at the amount of baggage I could take, and whether or not I could get a shower while traveling. What I did not realize was that there are all sorts of train etiquette issues that you don’t know…but that could make your life a little easier.
Appreciate (and tip) your steward
A lovely man named Jesus informed me that he would be the steward in our car. I didn’t know what this meant, but long story short…this person is indispensable if you’re on a several-day trip. Not only does he (or she) fold up your seats in some kind of origami-like fashion so that it turns into a bed, but he is also Johnny-on-the-spot when you need information, water, directions on how to close a door that won’t cooperate, and advice on when you have enough time to duck out at a stop for fresh air or a break from all of the socialization.
I did not know that meals were seated "group style," which came as quite a surprise to a non-morning person like me. I thought that I would go in for breakfast and read a book while waiting, but it turns out that the dining car director will seat you with others, and you’re supposed to talk to them. Nicely. While I was completely taken aback at first, I ended up meeting a wonderful storyteller from Chicago, a charming tattooed contractor from Illinois, and a couple of WWII veterans returning from a military reunion—and all I had to do was sit down to eat.
Take some snacks with you
Most trains have a dining car, as well as a café car where you can get snacks and drinks. But sometimes you just want to have a little time to yourself, and you don’t want to put on clothes and make-up to get something to eat so as not to scare the other passengers. Some fresh fruit and munchies can go a long way toward making a better trip.
Spend some time in the lounge car
The view is definitely better from this vantage point, and again, you get to meet a lot of people whom you might not meet otherwise. There’s a little more room to spread out, and you get a much better look at the country as you wind through rolling hills, serene deserts or city lights. That said, plan your trip so that you are spending daylight hours in the places that you want to see; unfortunately, much of the western portion of my trip was done at night, meaning that I didn’t get to see much of Arizona or New Mexico. I’ll plan better for the next ride.
Take the time to relax
We had a couple of unseen issues that caused the train to get delayed, and while we made up a lot of the time, you can’t stress out if your arrival time gets shifted by an hour or two. Enjoy the ride…and don’t panic if things don’t go quite as planned. It’s all about the journey after all.
Have you ever taken a train ride? What did you like most about riding the rails?
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