In the year of canceled vacations, cross-country trains offer an exciting alternative

Brenda Nguyen had a 3,095 mile problem.

The 29-year-old learned she’d be making a major move for work — from her native city Boston all the way to San Francisco.

That was in August. Nguyen, like the millions of Americans still avoiding air travel, felt a cross-country flight just wasn’t worth the risk.

A road trip felt similarly hazardous. Nguyen knew she’d have to stop frequently for food and sleep, potentially exposing herself each time she left the car.

Her solution was something she said she “never” would’ve done before the pandemic: She took the train.

Nguyen said her cross-country journey, which she took in an Amtrak sleeper car, went above and beyond her expectations. When she reached California, she expected she’d to be more than ready to get off the train. Instead, she couldn’t stop thinking of her trip — particularly, a breath-taking ride through the Rocky Mountains.

“I found myself just in a trance staring out the window the entire day almost,” she said of the experience. “And I had the opportunity to just sit back, relax, not worry about driving, not worry about anything.”

The 29-year-old told In The Know she’d “absolutely” recommend the trip, and, with the current state of travel, it’s possible some people may start taking her suggestion. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, air travel was down by 73 percent in July of this year, compared with the same month in 2019.

2020 is, in many ways, a year of canceled plans. This writer, for one, has called off five vacations in the past six months — all of which would have involved an airplane.

So, are trains the more responsible way to travel? Nguyen thinks so. In her journey, which included two legs, she had a room to herself the entire time. She told In The Know it felt like its own version of quarantine.

“It’s kind of this extension of the quarantine life that we’re living, where we all had to have some self-reflection and just learn how to be comfortable in the space we’re in,” she said.

Nguyen kept her social distancing intact, and, as a result, many of her activities on her journey mirrored her life at home.

She spent the first leg of her trip in one of Amtrak’s Viewliner Roomettes, which comes with two beds, a fold-down table and all meals included. For her second journey, from Chicago to Sacramento, she rode in a Superliner Bedroom. Those rooms, which are slightly more luxe, come with two beds, a sofa, an armchair, a full bathroom and, again, all meals included.

Both times, Nguyen spent hours reading, staring at the views and unplugging from the world around her. She found herself excited about the opportunity to slow down — all while touring the entire country through her window.

“My life is so ‘go, go go,’ and I’m all about maximizing the short amount of time that I have [for vacations],” she told In The Know. “There’s only so much time off that we get, so it’s all about ‘how do you maximize it?’”

Nguyen documented her entire trip on Instagram and TikTok, as well as her food and travel blog, Wandering Boston Eater. Her photos and videos provide a step-by-step tour of her journey — and for those considering the trip themselves, a chance to see what it’s like.

How to travel the country by train

If a cross-country rail sounds like exactly the trip to replace your shattered 2020 vacation dreams, here’s everything you need to know.

Routes: There are more than a few ways to get across the U.S. via train. It all depends on is where you’re leaving from and what you want to see along the way.

Amtrak offers plenty of routes, although almost always in two legs. For example, you could take the Crescent line from New York to New Orleans, then ride the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles.

Or, you could go a northern route, on one of the several journeys traveling between the East Coast and Chicago (there’s the Lake Shore Limited out of Boston or New York and Capitol Limited from Washington D.C., to name a few). From there, trains like the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles or the Empire Builder to Seattle will carry you the rest of the way.

Nguyen took the Lake Shore Limited, then rode the California Zephyr west. The line is hands-down one of the country’s most famous travel routes, and its a trip through the heartland, desserts and mountains that Nguyen highly recommends.

What’s Included: Let’s assume that, like Nguyen, you’re going for the full, socially distanced experience. That means that, instead of riding in the main cabin, you (and another person, if you want!) are riding in a private room.

Even Amtrak’s Superliner Roommate, usually the cheapest option, features two beds (one of which folds into an upright seat), a fold-down table, a large window and electrical outlets. Meals and shower supplies are all included.

A more luxe option, like the Viewliner Bedroom, adds an armchair, a full bathroom and another window. Again, meals are included (Nguyen said that even during quarantine, they were surprisingly good).

Price: The price is going to vary widely based on when you book, which route you take and how luxurious you want your room to be.

Still, it’s safe to expect prices to get into the $1,000 range pretty quickly. As a test, we created a fake trip from Los Angeles to New York, starting on January 2 (happy 2021!), which cost $1,160 for both legs.

Keep in mind though, that includes three nights of lodging, meals and cabin service. As Nguyen pointed out, that pricetag compares pretty well to a three-day trip including a round-trip flight and several nights at a hotel.

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s article on London’s float-in movie theater.

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