I keep seeing it. Across the USA by Train for Just $213.

Every so often, the picture and title will roll through my Facebook feed as a friend shares it or a friend likes that another friend has liked it. Then come the tags as people rush to inform their friends that they simply have to do this.

“This is our plan! We should totally do this!”
“See — I told you we could do it for cheap!”
“You and me — this summer — let’s do it!”

Every time I see it, I want to scream.

I want to scream and warn them that that they are setting themselves and their friends up for one of the most epic failures of their traveling careers. Drawn in by the romance of the stock photography offered at the start of the post, and further enhanced by the the on-train photography offered once the journey begins, the reader succumbs to the fantasy offered by the article almost immediately.

But here’s the thing — this is an awful, awful idea. In fact, it downright sucks.

Here’s why.

First and foremost, most of this route just isn’t that pretty to look at. If you take one thing away from reading my words, take this:

75% of his post is dedicated to 25% of the trip. There is a very specific reason for this.

I’ve done the route from Denver to Philadelphia. Here, I’ll show you what it looks like.

 the view from flyover country

Is that something you want to look at, exclusively, for 3 days?

More than the lack of scenery, however, a trip like this comes down to people. And people are disgusting creatures. The cars will start to smell about a day into the journey. Some will try to clean themselves the best they can, given that they have no access to showers. Others will simply wallow in their own filth for the next few days and deal with it when they get home.

They will trash their seats and the areas around their seats. The things they will do to the bathrooms is something that I can’t really put into words; which says a lot, given that I’m a writer.

By day two you’re walking from car to car trying to find a bathroom that won’t leave you feeling worse coming out of it than you felt when you went in. Part of you is actually ok with this because at least you’re moving around for a few minutes.

Let’s talk about those seats and sleeping. Unless you have space in the sleeper car, you can say goodbye to any form of physical comfort for the duration of your journey. Yes, they are larger seats than business class on most airlines. But you’re not stuck in business class on an aircraft for days on end. This chair becomes your home for the duration of your journey. And it’s not very comfortable.

There is only one redeeming quality possessed by the seats on a train: the 110 volt AC plugs next to them. You can plug in your electronics.

You will have to fight, however, to resist the urge to stick a fork in one of them to escape the situation you’ve put yourself in for the next few days.

Remember the picture of the burger from the post? That burger was $14. It isn’t nearly as big as the picture made it look, and it doesn’t come with anything to drink. The ribs mentioned were even more expensive. Nothing is fresh.

My point is this: you will spend a considerable amount of money on food that just came out of a microwave.

I noted that one of the pictures in the post included a salad. That person was lucky. One day, completely unable to stomach another microwaved meal, I asked for a salad.

I was told that they had no vegetables on board.

Sightseer Lounge cars are used as sleeping cars by those that can’t take their coach chairs any longer. Trash gets left behind by slobs who, not content with trashing their own seat, feel the need to contaminate common areas of the train with their filth as well. Seating areas meant for up to three people are occupied by one person laying across them, shoes still on (of course), like couches in their own home. Staff walks by them and the collections of trash and does nothing about it.

Don’t forget, every single person you see in all of the pictures on that post smells like they haven’t had a shower in days. Do you know why? It’s because they haven’t had a shower in days. Just thought I’d remind you.

Writing on trains sucks. I thought, perhaps quite naively, that I’d have a great writing experience on my trip. After all, like the author says, “The many hours on the train makes for a fantastic time to write.”

Wrong.

Train travel is not smooth. There is constant motion back and forth as the train vibrates on its suspension. There are speed adjustments. And there’s the fact that you’re already uncomfortable and now you have to sit in that chair, write, and be productive. Good luck with that.

Here are some other fun facts about this trip:

You’re completely at the mercy of the weather. And, when traveling across the US, you will encounter weather. Know what’s more boring that staring out the window at the same scene for days on end? Doing it when the train is moving at 12 miles per hour for 3 hours because of a flash flood warning in your area.

Amtrak trains are non-smoking but that won’t stop your fellow passengers from lighting up. With hours upon hours between “smoke stops” (slightly extended stops along the route to pick up and drop off passengers that give smokers a chance for a quick nicotine fix) a fair number of them won’t be able to deal with it and will simply smoke in the bathrooms. Within minutes, the smell will permeate throughout the entire car.

Pepsi only, no Coke, and beers are expensive. You stop caring about this after the first 36 hours because alcohol is one of the only things that can make the self-loathing of having made the decision to do this go away.

The Bottom Line

If you want to experience the romanticism of train travel then, by all means, take the route from California to Denver. I have yet to take this first part of the full cross-country journey. And even though I hated myself for taking the trip from Denver to Philadelphia, I still want to do the California to Colorado leg.

But do yourself a favor and get off the train in Denver. Get on another train and go back to California from Denver. Grab a car and go to Denver International Airport and fly somewhere. Just don’t keep going past Denver believing that your trip through flyover country is going to be amazing.

There’s a reason they call it flyover country. A travel writer with work published across a variety of big-name internet properties couldn’t make 75% of the trip look as good as the first 25%. Think about that before you book your ticket.

By | 2017-05-18T19:08:25+00:00 September 24th, 2015|Personal, Travel|18 Comments

About the Author:

Eric Fadden is a copywriter and content developer. He lives in Philadelphia, PA and makes his living putting letters together to form words but he makes those words sound really, really good.

18 Comments

  1. Christina January 5, 2016 at 12:38 am - Reply

    What’s the sleeper car cost? I’d take books to read. I had a great roomette from Oakland CA up to Seattle Washington. I closed myself in and read Passage to India by E.M. Forster. It was April, the greenery lush, a contrast to the three months I’d spent travelling with a college group through the American South West by school bus painted green and white. From Seattle I flew to Vancouver and took the train across Canada. This time I had a berth; meals were in included in the ticket price. It was 1972.From Montreal, I took a train south to Newark, NJ. From Newark, I took NJ Transit to Rahway, NJ, my hometown.

  2. Barbara January 7, 2016 at 4:37 pm - Reply

    Thank you for posting this. I took the trip from NYC to Dallas a few years ago and it was the most uncomfortable trip I ever took. First you go from NYC to Chicago with a 9 hour layover and then to Dallas. My sister kept telling me and it was all in my head but it wasn’t. Your description was spot on but we also encountered a child who constantly ran up and down the aisles until about 11pm and his mother/father said nothing. My sister, after a few hours finally said something to his mother. Sitting in the front seats was fine…lots of leg room but the smell coming from the bathroom was the worst and don’t forget the cold air coming in. This particle time we got stuck in Kansas City or Little Rock, ARK and had to be taken off the train and take a 6 hour bus ride to go around a track derailment. My knees were in my throat for 6 hours. After that I never took Amtrak again. I think the shorter trips (one night at most) are the best because you don’t have to be on the train too long. We also got tired of eating in the dining car…no fresh food at all. When they ran out, you were out of luck.

  3. Mike January 7, 2016 at 4:58 pm - Reply

    Eric,

    I laughed out loud at your story. I really liked the part about sticking a fork in your outlet to kill the boredom. I’ve done the Durango to Silverton run in Colorado. Being retired Navy I crossed the USA a few times. The drive from Pennsylvania to Colorado is enough to make anyone go crazy. Especially the Kansas, Missouri, east Colorado area. My hats off to you and your journey. You are right though. You owe it to yourself to make the trip from Colorado to California.

  4. Will January 7, 2016 at 5:08 pm - Reply

    I thought I’d take a bus from Alabama to Mexico one time. I only lasted until Memphis and I got off. I thought the driver was going to kill us. He got lost and was speeding to make up for it on two lane roads.He didn’t know where the Memphis terminal was. He actually asked us. I got no story out of it, but escaped with my life. Never again.

  5. James January 7, 2016 at 6:10 pm - Reply

    Your essay is wonderful … and I am very glad that I live in Europe (Germany). Your descriptions make most long-range European trains — except perhaps those in England — feel like Shangri-La. Typically smooth, comfortable, and quiet even in 2nd Class, albeit the trains are electric powered. Oh yes, occasionally the restrooms are somewhat unkept (or thankfully locked shut because they’ve got a problem). But overall I thoroughly enjoy traveling on them here. The last time I took Amtrak in the U.S. was an all-nighter from Kansas City to Chicago and it was terrible. I was in high school (I’m a U.S. citizen) and my father said “Never again. Next time we’ll fly or rent a car.”

    • Guest January 8, 2016 at 6:02 am - Reply

      You’re generally correct in your assessment of European trains. I lived in Britain for over a year and relied heavily on its train service. I experienced delays and cancellations, but overall, I found Britain’s network superior to what I experienced in the U.S. It also helped that I wasn’t a daily commuter during rush hour, who tended to go through an ordeal on the trains.

      I haven’t taken Amtrak since 2000 and only on the New York-Washington, DC route. I’ve been interested in going from coast to coast (like Los Angeles-New York), but have long been wary of being relegated to a seat for four days. A sleeping berth with a private bathroom would be preferable, but unless I’m traveling with companions, I wouldn’t be able to afford one and I prefer not to share it with strangers.

  6. Cathleen January 7, 2016 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    Very funny story. I’ve read similar accounts of train travel. But…. for $213…get off the train after day two of “Grass in Denver” and fly the rest of the way. Flying has become a horrible experience, and I can imagine that a train would be more horrific.

  7. Nathanael January 7, 2016 at 10:41 pm - Reply

    Take the sleeper next time. It’s very comfy.

    The seats are really intended for people travelling shorter distances, like San Diego to LA or Chicago to Minneapolis. Sleeping in the seats is no fun, but sleeping on the redeye flight is worse.

  8. Julia January 7, 2016 at 11:08 pm - Reply

    So sad that American train travel can’t be better! I traveled with a two month “Eur-Rail Pass” in the 70’s through Europe and Scandinavia. It was wonderful! We saved money on hotels and hostels by sleeping on the trains, sometimes in sleeper cars. It was so smooth sometimes we almost slept through our destinations. There is an expected sense of respect; european conductors come by and tell people to keep their feet off the seat across from them. I also enjoyed the beautiful scenery from Aspen CO to Seattle in the early ’80’s, although I remember that microwaved food! Living in the Northeast US I love trains for commuting and travel between New York and Boston. And I’ve heard the ride from Alton IL (near St. Louis) to Chicago is good. Too bad the longer runs through the heartland are so bad. I’m all for the government subsidizing trains – Europe is way ahead of us in so many ways.

  9. Yvonne January 8, 2016 at 12:39 am - Reply

    I appreciate your post! Thanks for saving me from a miserable trip. My boyfriend and I were think of taking the train across country after reading the Taking a Train Across the USA for $213. It sounds like a good idea until I read your article. The part about the bathroom got me to ditch the trip.

  10. Lynn Chalepah January 8, 2016 at 12:39 am - Reply

    Your Experience is polar opposite of mine on the train. It is a community, a pleasant one for me. I can’t fly or drive and I hate the bus so the train is a good alternative for me to travel to go visit my 8 grandkids. It is slow but for disabled and older folks it is just fine, yes people can not bathe but most figure out a way to do daily hygiene with just the sink in the bathroom. I bring my own food and a few winters ago, I brought my own tea pot to make tea. Yes you cannot rely on the amenities of the train but if you are living on limited means, this is normal and you know how to become self sufficient to compensate and take your necessities with you. Sleep is very comfortable given the size of the seats. Some people are annoying of course but there are many more that are very pleasant and know how to engage in the lost art of “visiting”

  11. Daniel January 8, 2016 at 2:23 am - Reply

    Obviously, as our family has been doing since the beginning, you buy a room. All Amtrak that is overnight has at least two sleeper cars, and even the smallest sleeper cars have various size rooms. The exception is the North East. The trains from Washington and New York headed up to Boston, and also up to Toronto and Montreal, do not have sleepers. But the rest of the country, if you save up your money, you have the trip of a lifetime.

    The sleepers are the ride. if you have a dining car, you get a real meal! Served on plates with silverware! And if you are unable to make it to the dining car, your porter will order for you and bring the meal back to your room.

    There are rooms for people who have difficulty walking – the room is right next to the entrance, and a wheelchair is just wheeled right into the room.

    This is unrelated. This site is terrible! I am unable to read the display. Please take care of this so people can read what they are writing. Did you people have this problem?

  12. Roz Alexander-Kasparik January 8, 2016 at 7:04 am - Reply

    My husband taught me to love train travel. I can’t say I’ve ever had a bad train ride anywhere in the world. European train rides were better than those the U.S. in lots of ways. But, there’s an authenticity to seeing the clothes lines in flyover states from the perspective of a low-flying bird. Beauty isn’t pretty most of the time; it’s simply essential and ultimately screams “MORE!” That’s why there are still passenger trains in our text-selfie-me-there world.
    And if you don’t focus on the funk, it may not bother you as much. That’s how I feel on the front seating row of planes designed with the lavatory in my face. At the end of a cross country flight, I’m gagging and/or freezing under the air vents.

  13. Claudia January 8, 2016 at 9:58 am - Reply

    I agree! While the portion from Denver to San Francisco is has a lot of beautiful scenery; keep in mind that you will be traveling though steep mountains, long tunnels and land famous for unpredictable weather! And if you lose any time, your conductor will feel pressured to speed up. My FIL was knocked to the floor during one of these “speed ups” and cracked 2 ribs. Spent the rest of the trip miserable. While you are able to take your own food and drink, It gets old fast.

  14. Steve January 8, 2016 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Your essay didn’t mention the cost of a sleeper berth. February,1999 I took a train from Seattle to St. Paul, Mn. By the time the train got to Montana we had a two hour plus layover. I was told it was because of electrical problems. (Also, had to wait for another train with Dome Car connected to arrive from Portland via Eastern Washington. Knowing I couldn’t stand 28 plus more hours without a bed I looked at and purchased a sleeper. If memory serves me, this was as much or more than the ticket. This trip lasted forty hours plus. And about 40 stops, twelve alone were in Montana. Last day of trip I awoke at 3 a.m., to use shower. But no luck as shower was already in use. Tried again at 5 a.m. Same story. And forget about the view. February through the Rocky Mountains is at night, both going and coming. Going through North Dakota was terrible. A very thin mattress and a very rough ride. Conductor said we were about two hours behind schedule into Minnesota as they had to slow down the previous night because of a rough road. Forget about and dome car to view trip in Washington State. Dome Car connects in Montana going East and disconnects in Montana going West. Apparently too tall to fit through tunnel under Cascade Mountain Range.

  15. Walter Crockett January 8, 2016 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    If you have to travel from Colorado to the East Coast, U.S. 50 is the way to go. It bypasses most big cities and you can drive close to the ground and actually enjoy the wheat fields, corn fields and little towns of America. Drove it from Eastern Kansas to Washington, D.C. and it took a day more than if we had taken the incredibly boring superhighways.

  16. Heather January 8, 2016 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    I’m in absolute agreement! Years ago I took the train from Massachusetts to Florida with my mom (she was afraid to fly), and it was miserable. The stench, the noise of a crying baby in front of us, the trash, the filthy bathrooms and the over-priced food were all just awful. Of course, I never told mom this, but I’m sure she may have agreed. It was an exhausting trip. I’m saving now for a trip on the Orient Express from Venice to Vienna. Now THAT is the way to travel by train!

  17. Kperry8266 January 8, 2016 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    Last year I took a train trip from Providence R.I to Oakland California.
    And yes I had to give up all the comfort of have a shower everyday.But I was able to wash up.Now my trip was an eighty hour train ride. What I did was make it a one way trip,if I didn’t like the trip I would fly back home.But I enjoyed the ride so on my return trip I took the train back home.
    So all I got to say life is short so try something new in life, if you don’t like it.you Nevr have to do it again.

Leave A Comment