Are you ready to travel after a year of staying at home? Are you hoping to turn your next trip into an adventure? That’s what Skip and I did in early June when we traveled from Washington, DC to San Diego to see our son and his family. A non-stop flight would have taken us a little over five hours. But we wanted to enjoy the journey and see America, so we decided to ride Amtrak instead.
Note: Later in this post, I include both practical and photography tips for your trip on Amtrak, as well as some helpful links for planning.
First of all, Skip is a real train nut, so I didn’t have to talk him into this trip. 😉 He’s always looking for excuses to ride Amtrak. Our choice of routes would take us west from Washington, DC to San Diego, with two quick stops to change trains. To make our trip more comfortable, we booked a bedroom in a Sleeping Car for our three nights on the train and business class for the last three-hour leg of the trip.
Capitol Limited from Washington, DC to Chicago
We arrived early for our first train, the Capitol Limited, so we could spend time enjoying Union Station. The Beaux-Arts Main Hall of this station, which was built in 1907, is stunning. At the time of our trip, many of the shops and restaurants in the station were still closed and the building was strangely quiet. A week later, Covid restrictions were lifted in Washington, DC, so I suspect that this is changing!
You can see a 360-degree photo of the Main Hall on my Facebook page and a 360-degree video on my Instagram page.
We boarded the train in the late afternoon, so we only had about four and a half hours of daylight left. Glimpses of the old C&O Canal flew past our window. Some of our early stops were in towns that had been along the western migration route in the 1800s. We saw a covered wagon in Harpers Ferry, WV, and then in Martinsburg, WV, we stopped next to the old roundhouse where they used to repair trains.
If you ride Amtrak, I recommend taking this trip in the summer since you have more daylight hours to enjoy the scenery.
As we made our way west, we were greeted with waves from people we passed. There were plenty of photographers, too, catching a shot of the train as it moved along.
After dinner in the Dining Car, it was time for our beds to be made up by our room attendant. I was surprised at how easy it was to fall asleep!
The next morning, we were back in the Dining Car for breakfast in anticipation of our morning arrival in Chicago.
Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles
The next train on our cross-country ride on Amtrak was the Southwest Chief, which winds its way through eight states on the route to southern California. We would spend two nights on this train.
Our accommodations were similar to the last train, and we settled in quickly.
We crossed the Mississippi River at Fort Madison a few hours later. I shot lots of iPhone photos to track where we were.
The terrain had changed dramatically since we had begun our trip on the east coast. While I’d brought some things to read, it was hard to stop watching the scenery go by!
Many of the train stations along the way had old railroad cars and engines parked along the siding. There was plenty to see!
Soon, we were back in the Dining Car for dinner and then off to sleep.
The next morning found us crossing Colorado as we ate breakfast. We were on our way to New Mexico, where we would wave goodbye to the Scouts who were traveling on the train. They disembarked in Raton, NM, for a trip to Philmont Scout Ranch.
Having two nights on this train gave me time to explore. I discovered the snack bar on the first floor of the Sightseer Lounge Car and bought some nuts and wine for a late afternoon snack. I also wandered through the train with my GoPro, shooting video of our route from our bedroom, through the Dining Car, and into the Sightseer Lounge. It’s up on YouTube. I’ll include a link to it below.
I even had some fun shooting 360-degree photos. You can see them on my Facebook page. Oddly enough, I captured one of the passengers in my 360-degree photo of Union Station and also in one of the Sightseer Lounge. See if you can spot him!
On the second morning of our ride on Amtrak, I woke up to see the sun rising above the Petrified Forest National Park, in Concho, AZ. We had to hustle to eat and be ready for an early arrival in Los Angeles.
Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles to San Diego
The final leg of our trip was a short one of about three and a half hours. We had booked Pacific Business Class on the Surfliner. Unlike the previous two trains that only run once a day in each direction, the Surfliner makes frequent trips each day.
The train attendant gave us some great advice about where to sit. We chose a seat upstairs on the western side of the train. The views of the beaches and the Pacific Ocean were amazing, and the ride passed by almost too quickly.
Tips for an Overnight Ride on Amtrak:
- You can check your luggage! Instead of hauling your suitcase onto the train, let Amtrak load it into the Baggage Car. Pack enough clothes for the days and nights you’ll be on the train in a small duffle. Skip used a small LL Bean duffle and I used my Kipling duffle that is almost weightless. I also saw lots of Vera Bradley bags come onboard.
- While it’s tempting to bring everything you own after a year of wearing sweatpants, you won’t need much during the ride. Be sure to include a sweater if it’s summer and something even warmer in the winter. Because we were in a bedroom, I brought my favorite Polaris PJs for sleeping. I figure if they are discrete enough for wearing on United Airlines, they would be fine on Amtrak. The train bounces around quite a bit, so be sure your shoes are ones with some traction. Leave the heels at home.
- We booked a bedroom, but you can also get beds in a Roomette, which is much smaller. You do pay less for the Roomettes!
- If you need a lot of space or don’t want to sleep on the top bunk, you can book adjoining bedrooms. If money is no object, that’s what I would do. 😎 There are private bathrooms in each bedroom.
- Skip preferred to shower in one of the shower rooms in our car, since it was larger.
- If noise bothers you when you sleep, bring ear plugs. Every time the train crosses a road, it sounds a whistle-two long blasts, followed by a short blast, followed by one more long blast. You’ll be surprised by how many roads the train will cross!
- If you are prone to motion sickness or acid reflux, bring your medicine or whatever you use to combat those problems. For acid reflux, eat dinner earlier rather than later.
- It’s a good idea to bring along some Lysol wipes. They come in handy when you want to clean up if you eat snacks in your room.
- There’s a snack bar so you don’t need to bring snacks if you want to save weight in your luggage. The nut selection was delicious, and the wine was great! 😎
- Meals in the Dining Car are included in the ticket for people who are riding in the Sleeper Cars. During our ride on Amtrak, they were still following COVID protocols, so there were no tablecloths, and the meals were premade and heated for us. A few weeks later, they reintroduced the tablecloths and meals made-to-order. Oh, how I missed that steak!
- There is no Wi-Fi on any of the trains that we rode, and cell phone service is very spotty. But there is so much to see that it’s hard to get bored! And your GPS on your phone still will work!
Camera Tips for a Ride on Amtrak:
- Your best camera may be your iPhone. I was amazed at how well it handled the motion of the train and the speed of the passing landscape. It even stabilized hand-held video! I have an iPhone 12 Pro and really enjoyed playing around with it.
- Photos taken with my Canon 5D Mark IV (a pro camera!) were not as good, even when I used a very fast shutter speed. I did have my DJI Osmo Mobile to hold my iPhone steady but never used it.
- It can be hard to block out the reflections on the windows. Try turning off the lights in your bedroom and wearing dark clothes.
- Try shooting video with your iPhone. My video looked like I’d used expensive equipment to shoot it.
- This is your chance to play with the other “novelty” cameras you own! I had fun shooting 360-degree photos with my Ricoh Theta SC. If you own one, be sure to bring a small tripod for it. That way, your hand isn’t in the photo! 😉
- If you own a GoPro, this is the trip for it. Bring a handle or selfie stick to hold it. I carried mine on a walk from our bedroom, through the Dining Car, to the Sightseer Lounge, shooting video. My GoPro Hero7 Black shot video that was amazingly smooth, despite the rocking motion of the train. It has great stabilization.
- If you want to know where you are during your ride on Amtrak, check your Google Maps app! You can track your progress on the map, as well as being able to pinpoint your location.
You can also take a quick photo with your iPhone. The location will show up at the top of the photo! That’s how I know that we were crossed the Petrified Forest National Park during sunrise! (Coming back by plane and wondering where you are? Do the same thing. iPhones are incredibly helpful when you are traveling!)
Some helpful and fun links
Looking for a train ride in Canada? Here’s my post about Riding the Rocky Mountaineer
Be sure to check out my YouTube video from my walk through the train. I had so much fun editing it and I love the music. I used a song called Vagabond Train by Dez Moran. I found it on Epidemic Sound. (That’s an affiliate link…)
Information on sleeping accommodations on Amtrak
More information about sleeping accommodations on Amtrak
Information about roomettes
Information about the Martinsburg Roundhouse
You can also take your bike on Amtrak and then ride between Cumberland, MD and Pittsburgh, PA
Or take your bike and ride between Washington, DC and Cumberland, MD
Information about Union Station in Washington, DC
Great tips in this blog, especially about packing. I really hadn’t given it much thought.
I’m looking forward to taking lots of photos from the train. Besides my iPhone, I plan on taking a small camera instead of my big DSL
A friend and I are taking the Empire Builder from Vancouver, WA to Chicago. We booked a Roomette since the bedroom wasn’t available. We plan on spending several days in Chicago, then take the Lakeshore Limited to New York City. And them flying back home, which I’m a little apprehensive about because of unruly passengers.