I spent 57 hours on Amtrak trains from Montana to New York. Here are 10 things that surprised me about my first long-distance train ride.
In January, I set out on my first cross-country Amtrak trip from Montana to New York, a 57-hour journey.
I'd never traveled this long by train, so I based my expectations on flying and driving long distances.
I was blown away by how much I enjoyed traveling by rail and decided I liked it even more than flying.
I recently took my first cross-country train trip, a 57-hour journey that started in Whitefish, Montana, and ended in New York City.
For the trip, I booked an $800 roomette, Amtrak's midlevel accommodation. Insider paid for the room, per our reporting standards.
My 57-hour journey was broken into three parts: a 32-hour train ride from Whitefish, Montana, to Chicago on Amtrak's Empire Builder train; a five-hour layover in Chicago's Union Station; and a 21-hour train ride from Chicago to New York City on Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited train.
I was excited about the adventure I was about to embark on, but fully prepared for it to turn into the dreadful, longer-than-expected nightmare that other Amtrak passengers have described this year.
I was blown away by how much I enjoyed traveling by rail — and that I ultimately liked it better than flying.
Since I've only traveled by train in the US once, all I had to inform my expectations were long-distance plane travel and road trips.
From start to finish, my cross-country Amtrak journey was nothing like I had imagined — in some of the best ways possible.
My journey began at the train depot in Whitefish, Montana. Unlike the East Coast train stations I'm used to, I was surprised by how charming the tiny station was.
The only train stations I've visited in the US are on the East Coast and are large, modern buildings with high-tech infrastructure.
Having grown up in Montana, I shouldn't have been surprised that the train station in Whitefish was entirely different, but I was. The depot looked like a little Swiss chalet, dropped right in the middle of town.
In the small waiting room, a few passengers rested on wooden benches, and in true Montana fashion, a taxidermied mountain goat was on display in the middle of the room.
From the outside, the building looked more to me like a Swiss chalet, the interior felt quintessentially Montana, and the boarding process was refreshingly unfussy.
Unlike bustling East Coast stations, there was no electronic signage bearing trains' status updates — instead, there was just a small, handwritten note on a whiteboard that said my train would be delayed by 15 minutes.
The boarding process took just a few minutes since I didn't have to go through security like at an airport.
When it was time to go, I walked out a door that opened on the platform. There was no guessing which platform I needed to be on since there was only one.
Unlike flying, I could board with more luggage than I had imagined I could. My large suitcase was no problem.
I had read on Amtrak's website that because I booked a roomette, I would get two carry-on bags, as well as two personal items.
I only brought one large suitcase — the kind you have to check if you're flying — and a backpack. Since I'm used to airplanes' carry-on sizing, I was prepared to be told I couldn't bring my suitcase to my room with me.
When I arrived, however, the ticketing agent told me it just had to weigh less than 50 pounds and fit in the baggage gauge. It did, and I was able to board the train with my large suitcase.
The roomette was far more spacious than I expected, especially since 20 square feet doesn't seem like a lot.
Even at just 20 square feet, the roomette gave me a taste of luxury travel. The room was designed to fit two people, but since I was traveling alone I had the entire room to myself and was blown away by all the space I had.
The roomette has two seats, which folded down into a bed when it was time to sleep. There's also an upper bunk that folded down for a second passenger to sleep in.
By keeping the upper bunk stowed away, I had enough space to stand up fully without hitting my head.
At 5'7" tall, I was amazed that I could spread out without my toes or head touching either end of the bed when I lay down.
And the additional storage and amenities like outlets and mirrors made my experience far more convenient than any flight I've ever been on.
Placed thoughtfully throughout the room, little touches made the journey more convenient: handy outlets, hooks, coat hangers, steps that doubled as shelves, plenty of lights, and a mirror.
The roomette had enough storage space to accommodate two people easily, but I was happy not to share.
The food was also better than any meal I'd had on a plane and included surprisingly delicious vegetarian options.
As a lifelong vegetarian, I've grown accustomed to veggie options that are generally bland and sometimes downright inedible.
And, in my experience, both domestic and international flights typically offer meager and barely palatable options for non-meat eaters.
I expected the same from my Amtrak journey but was proven dead wrong.
Throughout my trip, I was stunned to find an array of top-notch vegetarian dishes. I enjoyed vegan Bolognese, a baked potato with vegan chili, and a grilled cheese sandwich with brioche bread and Swiss cheese.
My meals included decadent desserts, including cheesecake, lemon layer cake, and butter cake.
Over three days, I never went hungry.
As someone who gets car sick often, I was surprised I didn't experience motion sickness.
Even when I'm prepared for the worst, I get car sick easily, so I was expecting to feel nauseous throughout my 57-hour trip. But I was pleasantly surprised when I didn't feel sick at all.
To help keep any potential nausea at bay, I took motion-sickness medication twice a day and sat facing forward.
I also closed the curtains while I was working or reading, which I think helped keep me from getting sick.
My solo journey passed quicker than I imagined, and I appreciated the alone time I got more than I'd imagined.
I cherish my alone time, and don't get bored easily.
Even so, before I set off on my cross-country trip, I worried I'd get a few hours into the journey and realize I'd made a mistake. I wouldn't be the first train traveler with regret.
As time ticked by, I kept waiting for that moment to come — the moment when I stopped romanticizing the journey and realized that I was stuck on a train for three days. That moment never came.
For three days straight, I napped, read, worked, listened to podcasts, and watched Netflix shows. I brought a coloring book to doodle in, spent time with my thoughts, and never got bored.
For me, an introvert, nearly 60 hours of alone time on my solo journey was paradise.
I was in awe of some of the scenery I saw along the way.
I'd driven through eastern Montana and the Midwest a few times before the trip, and I found the endless, flat landscape tremendously boring each time. I expected the same from my train ride but was left in awe of some of the things I saw.
As I watched the countryside unfold before me, I found myself glued to the window. I watched mountains and crystal-clear rivers outside Montana's Glacier National Park zip by and was entranced as the sun set over the Hudson River in my final few hours.
To be sure, there were several long stretches of nothing but plains, and maybe it was just the excitement of a new experience, but even in the mundane moments, I still found striking beauty.
Though my experience was overwhelmingly positive, I was disappointed that there wasn't great Wi-Fi on the first leg of the journey between Montana and Chicago.
I didn't find the Wi-Fi on Amtrak's Empire Builder train, which runs from Seattle and Portland to Chicago, to be reliable. And I didn't have reliable cell service during much of my journey through eastern Montana, either.
But since I spent a lot of time napping or watching downloaded Netflix shows, I didn't mind.
In the places that at least had cell service, I could use my phone's hotspot to use the internet.
And I was impressed by how well the Wi-Fi worked on The Lake Shore Limited train, which runs between Chicago and New York City.
But overall, I was shocked that I liked train travel better than flying, and I'll definitely be booking another journey soon.
Everything about my recent trip was better than a long-haul flight.
The extra space of a roomette was more comfortable and convenient than being crammed into a coach seat. The food was on a completely different level than airplane meals, and I got to bring more luggage than I would have on a plane.
All told, I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the long cross-country trip, and I plan to take more trains in the future.
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