America is big, and whilst it’s cheaper and generally quicker to fly, America was built on railways. Exploring the USA by rail allows you to see more scenery, it’s relaxing and less stressful than air travel, and Amtrak is more generous with their baggage allowances than even South West Airlines.
For anyone who has travelled South West Airlines or missed a flight because of the chaos that is most American airports these days, then rail is probably an option worth investigating.
In all my year’s of travel, I’d rarely missed a flight (maybe once or twice), until I spent six weeks in the USA and missed two in one trip! Whilst you still have to check-in, and pass through security, it’s far-less stressful and traumatic passing through a train station than an airport.
My first experience with Amtrak was traversing the East Coast from New York down to Washington, Philadelphia then across to Chicago, then down to Memphis and New Orleans.
Compared to Greyhound, Amtrak was quieter, the toilets were nicer, it was far more spacious and the air-conditioning was icy-cold; brilliant in summer.
Most railway stations are centrally located at both ends. so you’re already downtown, rather than waiting for your luggage, navigating the airport taxi queue, before having to spend 30-50 minutes travelling downtown in traffic.
Having travelled much of Europe by Rail, including the Trans Mongolian Railway, I always enjoy a long train trip and when on a budget, an overnight train trip saves a night’s accommodation. Plus I find it’s always easier to sleep on a train than a bus; the rocking, swaying motion is hypnotic, similar to ASMR.
So what’s the catch? The freight network, uses many of the same train lines as passenger trains and if there’s a short delay, you can get stuck behind one as I did from New York to Chicago.
Thankfully my accommodation was flexible, but having caught the early morning train from Washington to New York, with the plan to then change trains onto Chicago, everything came to a halt when the train faced mechanical issues and was stuck in New York Central Station.
What was supposed to be a 24 hour journey, became more like 36 hours which meant a day hanging around the train station as mixed messages were relayed as to when the train would depart.
To double the drama, we then got stuck behind a freight train, so we were travelling at around 30kph (approximately 18mph) and kept having to stop waiting for other trains ahead to move on.|||
As a backpacker with no set schedule it wasn’t a huge inconvenience, and as a ‘we’re sorry for the inconvenience’ the buffet cart served us a free KFC boxed meal, which was a wonderful treat for a poor starving backpacker who’d been surviving on $2 bean and cheese burritos from 7/11.
However the disruption didn’t sour my overall experience and without travelling by rail, I probably wouldn’t have visited Memphis, Tennessee which was a major highlight of my entire USA experience.
Everywhere you went in Memphis, there was music. There was old guys jamming in the street. Every bar, cafe and restaurant had a live band playing at any hour of the day.
However it was my first real encounter with Black America and is something that stuck with me.
As a traveller, I was taught by my mother, never to stand out, always try to blend in (which has resulted in me getting asked directions by locals, everywhere I go, including in China!) and standing on a sidewalk, with a map folded out, was a definitive way to draw attention from unscrupulous pickpockets.
So whilst walking down the Main Street of Memphis, I moved out of the path of people walking towards me, and stood in the doorway of a closed-up shop to check my map. A couple of old (60+) African-American guys walked past and in a thick southern accent, one of them said “you white folk’s are all the same, you see a black man and you go running!”
I was embarrassed and we laughed about it but whether it was conscious or not, it made me realise how simple actions can be portrayed by others.
Later that afternoon, I was sitting at a bus stop, trying to get to Memphis and an African-American guy started chatting to me, and was ranting about the affordability of renting. He said, “one of these days, I’m gonna save me some money, and buy me a car!” I bet he’d had the same dream since his early twenties and it was heartbreaking that he was probably never going to afford a car, but he still had hope, regardless.
I don’t know why but that conversation has stuck with me always. Partly it was his accent. After two hours he finally asked me where I was going, turned out I was at the wrong bus stop, and across the street, the bus to Graceland came past every ten minutes, but without waiting at the wrong bus stop, I wouldn’t have got to know a local, and heard his life story.
Not far from Memphis was Jackson, Tennessee. As far as tourism, there was literally nothing to see in Jackson. There was no hostel, so I had to splurge and stay in a motel (which inadvertently also had bedbugs) and even the motel staff were like, “what’s an Australian doing in Jackson?”
However, being a “Jackson”, I had to visit. There was no choice in the matter. The main thing I remember was it was hot, ridiculously hot and as there was little to do, I escaped into the air conditioned bar of the motel (back then I consumed alcohol).
I sat in a corner to write some postcards, and it was painfully obvious the locals at the bar were curious about me, but too shy to ask. So at one point, I went up to the bar to order a drink and caught eye contact with one of the guys and mumbled “G’day, how’s it going?” in my best Aussie accent.
It was in a small motel bar, in Jackson, TN that I first learnt about Steve Irwin. They all loved the Crocodile Hunter. At first I thought they were talking about Crocodile Dundee. Embarrassingly this was pre You Tube days but somehow they showed me a clip. I think they called one of their friends who brought a dvd down to the bar.
By the end of the night, I had the addresses and phone number’s of everyone in the bar, they all invited me to stay, including the town Sheriff, who said “if you run into any trouble in America, you call me first, I’ll look after you”.
One of the guys gave me a thick hard-cover Reader’s Digest book (the perfect present whilst backpacking!) that he thought was the most amazing book he’d read. In the front of it, he got everyone to sign it.
Twice I tried to get rid of it by leaving it in a hostel and then again at a secondhand bookshop in Anchorage, Alaska but then I’d see the messages in the front and I felt guilty trying to get rid of it, because it was such a great memory so I ended up keeping it.
In 2013 when my parents house burnt down and I lost everything that was in storage, (including all my books) I presumed it was gone. Until recently we were clearing out the shed at my grandmother’s house (who recently passed away) and amongst all the junk was a box, which contained the Hard Cover Reader’s Digest book I was given in Jackson, TN.
The point of all those stories? They all happened because I was catching train’s around America. Just like On The Road (I was also reading at the time) which may not have happened if Jack Kerouac didn’t jump a few trains in his lifetime.
So, are your travel stories going to feature ‘that time you got stopped by the TSA and missed your flight’, or the people you met, the life changing experiences and off-the beaten track destinations you discovered from travelling America by rail?
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If you plan on travelling America by rail, here’s some useful guidebooks to get you exploring the Amtrak network like a local.
- Bradt Travel Guide: USA by Rail
- Lonely Planet: USA
- Lonely Planet: Western USA
- Lonely Planet: Eastern USA
Good to know
The USA railway network is more extensive than you probably realise, covering east-west + north-south and both coastlines. You can view a detailed USA railway map here. To search train timetables, click here.
Amtrak has generous luggage allowances including two pieces of carry-on and 2 pieces of checked-in baggage free of charge. You can read the full allowances here.
Train facilities vary between trains and the length of the journey. However every train I travelled on had comfortable reclining seats. There was a buffet car along with a snack cart. On overnight journeys, they gave us a blanket and pillow, even in seats. Every seat had a reading light and collapsible tray table.
If you’re travelling first class, some of these have private booths similar to European trains, and long journeys have sleeper trains.
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This probably should have been a podcast episode, but we had some rain recently (huzzah!) and now I have frogs croaking outside my window 24/7 which is not conducive to recording audio, but I’m in the process of creating a quiet space so there’ll be no more excuses!