Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Amtraking America

Welcome to Amtrak

~ During my 2010 American trip, I travelled via Greyhound Bus from New York City to New Orleans (with stopovers in Philadelphia, PA and Raleigh, NC). I have written an extensive six part road trip report of that journey beginning here…

That trip went so well, that I was keen to repeat the experience―albeit along a different route―during my 2012 visit to America. To that end, following my three week stay in New York City, I caught the first of what I thought would be many Greyhound Buses, to Lancaster, PA.

During my stay in Lancaster, someone suggested I use Amtrak to get to my next destination―Harrisburg, PA., a short leg by any standards. Since Greyhound Buses shared facilities with Amtrak, it was easy enough to do―so I did. That was it. I was immediately smitten. Seduced by the comfort; the leg room; the ability to get up and walk the length of the train; the large windows; the smooth, traffic free flow of the carriages; and more. The run from Lancaster to Harrisburg was over in under an hour, but I was hooked. I decided that if the opportunity arose to travel by train again, I would seize it.

Washington, DC to Savannah, GA
When I left Harrisburg, it was by bus for Washington, DC. But when I left America’s national capital, for Savannah, Georgia, it was on the Amtrak Atlantic Coast Service that takes in New York - Washington, DC - Charleston - Savannah - Jacksonville - Orlando - Tampa/Miami. There was no turning back after that. Given a choice between spending nearly eleven hours on a train or a bus, there is only one choice, and that of course is the train.

Atlantic Coast Service route guide
In researching current prices for this entry, I was able to confirm what I already knew, that depending on how and when you choose to travel, it can be cheaper to take a train than it is to take a bus. For example, current prices (as of Sunday, 14 April 2013), for the Washington-Savannah run are US$101.00 for the morning and afternoon trains, and US$173.00 for the evening train. The same route by Greyhound Bus ranges from $85.00 (advance purchase) to $159.00 (refundable ticket). The Standard Fare is $142.00.

Using the example above, the bus is cheaper than the train service. However, even though I was initially looking for the cheapest tickets available, I did not hesitate to spend the extra $16.00 for the space and luxury of the train. Oh, and it helps that some of the Amtrak services include WiFi as well. And did I mention the restaurant car? And the observation carriage with its comfortable seating that allows you to sit back, stretch your legs, and enjoy panoramic views of the passing countryside? All in all, the experience is better; the ride much smoother; and the journey certainly seems to pass much quicker.

After the Richmond stop I walked up to the restaurant car for a coffee and Panini. It occurred to me that a coach paying passenger could spend most of their trip here in relative comfort. In fact, it was a whole lot easier to use my iPad there where I could rest the device on a table and type, than to balance it in my lap, or hold it for extended periods.

Also in the restaurant car one has an opportunity to take part in conversations with a number of other passengers, rather than sit alone or converse with the person in the seat next to you in your designated carriage―assuming they want to talk in the first place.

New Orleans, LA to Tucson, AZ
Alpine, Texas
From Savannah, I rode a Greyhound to New Orleans, and after a five night stay there, I boarded Amtrak’s Sunset Limited service for Tucson, Arizona.

For the record, current prices on the New Orleans-Tucson run are $143 (Amtrak), and $188 (web only) to $232 (refundable) for the Greyhound Bus. That’s a difference of $45 assuming you buy the cheapest tickets, or a difference of $89 (if you purchase a refundable Greyhound ticket) in favour of Amtrak. As the saying has it: It’s a no brainer.

I have taken to referring to Amtrak as one of America’s best kept secrets. Almost everyone I spoke to about my train travel was amazed at the prices I paid, and my glowing recommendations. Most assumed that travelling by train would be far more expensive than by bus, and had therefore never considered the Amtrak service.

If there is a downside to using the rail network, it is that compared to the Greyhound Bus network, passengers have many more choices available to them when travelling by bus. The American rail network is a pale shadow of what it used to be, which is a great pity. Never the less, what remains covers all the main urban centres and for my money, it just can’t be beaten. At the very least, take time to compare prices between the Greyhound Bus and Amtrak services. Like me you may become a convert to the joys of rail travel.

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