Chris of shared her recent adventure cross country via Amtrak. Got a frugal story to share? Contact me. Chris’ two-week trip (not all on the train) intrigued me. How much did it cost? Was it a frugal vacation? What did she possibly do with all that time on her hands? Chris writes:
The train was the most expensive part of our trip! I think Amtrak makes their money with the “sleeper cars” – train cars that have different configurations of sleeping arrangements. Some little rooms that sleep 2 people, some with their own toilet, some that slept up to 4 with no toilet, etc etc. We got something called a “family bedroom” that slept 4, but we are a family of 3. Much smaller than any cruise ship room. We shared bathrooms (similar to an airplane bathroom) – with just the people who were in the bottom part of our car (about 12 people – like 6 groups of 2). And there was a shower, which really wasn’t bad. Towels and soap was provided. There are no showers if you travel in Coach.
Taking the train by just buying a Coach ticket is definitely cheaper (about $299-$300 a ticket) but I don’t want to deal with crying babies and weird smells and listening to other people snoring/talking all night. My son is sensitive to strange food smells so I wanted to be in the sleeper car for some privacy. Plus I wanted to be able to shower. Many people who travel in Coach pack coolers to save money on food/drink while on the train rather than buying it from their snack bar. And people who buy a Coach ticket aren’t allowed to visit people in the Sleeper cars. It’s all a little strange. I made some little videos and took a ton of pics so I plan on putting some up on Youtube and blogging about the whole experience.
Cool scenery – met some neat people (like a woman with a graduate degree who lives on 650 acre ranch in New Mexico and uses a wood stove to cook on. I told her I could never live out in the middle of nowhere since I love yardsales too much. Her reply was “I love yardsales too!” So I guess where there is a will, there is a way!
We paid $2061 for 3 people to travel from Fullerton, CA to Washington DC. We paid $600 ($200 each) for us to fly to CA. We flew to CA and took the train back. So we were definitely paying for the experience. BUT when you pay the Sleeper car rate, all your meals are included in the dining car (still had to tip). Cloth napkins, real flowers in the vase on the table. And actually the food was pretty good – the desserts especially. I secretly took a menu (but at the moment not sure where I put it). I know the steak my husband ordered for 2 of the nights was priced at $26. I had crab cakes one night and shrimp scampi another night.
We stayed at my MIL’s condo in San Pedro (near Rancho Palos Verdes) – gorgeous location with a view of Catalina. So that was free. Didn’t make it to Catalina – I heard there aren’t any good thrift stores there – haha. We rented a car and went to Las Vegas for 3 nights at Mandalay Bay (2 nights were free due to my husband’s previous gambling comps or something).
I know this is more info than you asked for, but it’s all fresh in my mind since we just got back on Saturday. We boarded the train in Fullerton on Wednesday night around 8pm – they still fed us dinner and we rode all night, all day/night Thursday, on Friday we changed trains in Chicago and got into Washington DC around 3pm on Saturday.
But I was just amazed when I was told we were allowed to check 3 bags per person. So for the 3 of us, that would have been 9 suitcases! Plus our carryons! Plus additional suitcases at $10 each if need be. I just thought it was crazy but I thought of you and how you moved cross country by airplane so that I had to give my $.02. Cuz I thought if a person is willing to travel cross country by Amtrak (I saw the Coach seats and they are very roomy and I think they have electrical outlets at each seat) a person could transport a lot of belongings in one trip pretty cheaply.
Chris followed up with more details in another email:
I think the cost of just the train ride varies – just like the airlines do – I guess certain days or times of the week cost more or less etc. Also maybe depends on which way you go (we could have chosen a different route home and changed trains in New Orleans). You can go to Amtrak.com and price out different trips on different days.
I found the train menu. I was wrong on the price of the steak dinner – it was $22.50. My seafood dinners were $17.50 and $16.75. Desserts were $5. Breakfast I usually got an omelette with biscuit, hash browns & bacon for $12. But the prices really didn’t matter to us on the train since it was included. The coach passengers can eat in the dining room and pay with cash (and maybe credit card – not sure). But mostly did not see many Coach passengers in the dining car. Another unusual thing – in the dining car they will seat you with other passengers (I think to conserve table space). For instance, my husband would get up early and eat and I would sleep in. So when my son and I ate breakfast, they would sit you with another 2 people. One day my husband had breakfast with a nice elderly lady and one time I ate with 2 men 🙂
People can really spend a lot of money on vacation – for instance at the [Vegas] hotel pool, you could rent your own cabana for the day ($400 and up), or sit in a reserved area for a fee (area nearest the wave pool), or even rent a padded lounge chair for a fee. And I saw lots of people doing that. We sat in the plain lounge chairs (for free), when we weren’t in the pool.
The scenery in Arizona and New Mexico was beautiful so most of the first day on the train I just watched the scenery go by. We brought our laptops so my son played some computer games (but he too liked watching the scenery), he had some small hand held games to play too. I had a book to read and my MP3 player to listen to. And we got a free newspaper daily. There is a scenic car (the train car with the big windows) where I saw families playing cards, etc.
There were lots of stops along the ride, most times they were quick stops with letting people on or off, not long enough to get off the train. A few were longer (like 10 minutes?) where smokers could get off for a quick smoke break (no smoking allowed on the train). There was only one stop that was longer (like maybe a half hour) in Albuquerque, NM. There were vendors selling stuff – typical souvenirs, Indian blankets, Southwest style jewelry etc. So I was able to get some Christmas shopping done. That was the only stop that had shopping.
And before the trip, I did some online research for deals etc. I saw that there was going to be a TV taping going on at Venice Beach for one of my son’s favorite shows so we went to that (only had to pay for parking – which you know – you have to pay to park practically everywhere in SoCal). And I saw that the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach had half-priced nights on Sunday nights so we did that on a Sunday night. There is a heated swimming pool at my MIL’s condo so that was free to enjoy. While in Las Vegas there was one show we definitely wanted to see – so we got the tickets at a location the day of the show
I probably would not do another cross country train trip – but we are thinking of taking a weekend trip to Philadelphia and using Amtrak. The first night on the train was bad – the air conditioning in our room was not working good (it was better the 2nd and 3rd nights), and the ride itself was very rocky the first night (they said it was because of the mountainous area) so hardly got any sleep. Whoever said the “clickety-clack” of the rails will lull you to sleep was lying!