06 May

Anyone who has never travelled on a train in the USA before should note that some destinations are just a couple of hours, others a couple of days journey apart. 

For journeys which include one or several nights, it is a good idea to get as comfortable as possible – budget permitting – and this inevitably requires the purchase of your own roomette, bedroom or family bedroom ticket. For those travelling on a budget or used to “roughing it”, a standard seat in coach is always an option. 

Since I am only travelling by myself, a family bedroom would be nonsensical. Also, since I need to keep the costs down, the price of a bedroom was too high as well. Therefore, I chose to book a roomette for the long journeys and seats in coach for the shorter ones. 

So how does the experience of the two compare?

1 – Coach

If you want an affordable, no-frills experience and you don’t mind sitting and sleeping in a reclining seat for hours on end, then a coach ticket is worth considering.

A coach seat has a surprising amount of leg room – more than in business class on an airplane would you believe – and often you can comfortably place an oversized bag into the footwell between your seat the one in front of you. Fully reclined, even a tall person will struggle to touch the base of seat in front with their feet. So, comfort is seldom the issue in coach. 

What is, is the lack of privacy, that is assuming that, like me, you are travelling alone. Going solo means that you will likely have a perfect stranger sitting next to you. Now, on the plus side this can be seen as an opportunity to strike up a conversation and get to meet new people. This can be hit and miss, not everyone wants to talk to someone sitting next to them during their journey. So, those who would rather stay unencumbered would do best to consider the following advice. 

On many journeys, the destination of the passengers is marked on a card stuck to the luggage rack above their heads. If you want to travel on your own, look for an empty seat near someone who only has a few more stops to travel. If you are stuck with someone going to the same destination as you or perhaps even further, you will have them next to you the entire trip! 

Another privacy downside is the fact that the electric outlets are only situated on the side of the train car hull, not the individual seat rests. Now this is fine if you are the one seated by the window, but if you are aisle side, you have to reach across your neighbour to connect your phone, laptop or iPad to the power socket. This can lead to added complications if the person by the window wants to get up to head off and explore the train by first having to extricate themselves from the virtual wire-mesh you have set up by connecting your equipment. So, what do you do to avoid an involuntary game of “cat’s cradle”? 

Well, you can either opt to power your device with a portable power bank or work smart and get your neighbour to hook up a power extension to the socket by their seat, taking care to lay the long cable under their seat and yours. This now leaves them free to get up and go whenever they want, while you can easily connect your devices to the power strip itself which you have placed under your seat! Simples 😊 

Because travelling by coach is very basic, there is not much to see and do, so whenever it is convenient, get up and explore the train. Almost every service has an observation car, a car with glass panels left and right as well as over your head giving you a perfect view of the stunning landscape around you. Some services only allow a limited time in the observation car while on others you can arrive there when the journey begins and remain there until near to when you reach your destination. 

Coach passengers do not have access to the restaurant, that is reserved for guests with room bookings only. However, most services have a coffee and snack food shop which coach passengers can buy things from to sustain them on the journey. Naturally the prices are higher than in a regular supermarket, so if you can, try stocking up at a 7-11 or other market or convenience store of your choice to watch your budget. 

So, if you are reading this and thinking, coach, sounds ok, but you would rather be on your own, free to do what you want, then maybe a roomette is more your thing.

2 – Roomette 

Depending on the journey, roomettes can be affordable or expensive. The price can differ between around $150 or nearly twice as much. In comparison, coach tickets are almost always under $100 no matter which train you are on and how far you have to travel. There is generally fresh juice and coffee on the upper deck and free water in the roomette. 2 small bottles, one for each potential passenger. 

If comfort and privacy is important to you and if there is one of more night in your journey, a roomette is probably the better choice. Roomettes are not very big, especially if you are travelling with someone else, but if you are going stag, then they are just fine. Hey, you even get to decide if you sleep on the lower or upper bunk. More on that later. 

For now, let us explore the amenities of a roomette. Here is matters if you are travelling on a service east of west of Chicago. West bound cars, so-called Superliners are dual level with bedrooms on the bottom and top level. Transition from one car to the next is only possible via the upper level. Services on the East Coast on the other hand use so-called Viewliner cars which tend to be single level only but as a compensation, several of these cars have a toilet built into the design of the roomette. The seat doubles as one of the steps you would use to get to or from the upper bunk. There may also be a tiny sink in the corner of the room as well. 

Other than that, roomettes feature a pull-out table by the window with extendable side, many with a chess board layout – sorry, the men you need to bring yourself if you want to play. Otherwise, it is perfect for setting up a laptop or tablet to work on or watch a movie while the countryside passes by. In my case, I wanted to see as much of the land as possible, so I used he table to hook up my camcorder rig to record out of the window as we passed through towns and cities, national parks, over trestle bridges and through open country. 

In the evening, unless you prefer to sleep in the top bunk or if there are two of you and your partner has already called “dibs” on that pleasure push the call button to summon the attendant to turn down your bed. The attendant will make the lower bed by pulling together the bases of the two seats facing each other and your bed is ready and waiting for you. In the morning after you have had a good night’s rest, the attendant will undo the bed, returning the seats to their previous state. Do remember that the card attendant needs his or her rest as well so always aim to call the attendant early enough in the evenings and late in the mornings to make and unmake your bed. Make sure you bring plenty of 5 - or 10-Dollar bills for tipping the attendant. Tips for the restaurant may vary according to the type of service offered. 

Meals are included in the cost of the roomette, and you have the choice of going to the restaurant or having the attendant bring your food to you. Restaurants either offer flexible or traditional dining. Basically, flexible dining means that the food is heated in the microwave, while traditional dining means that the food is cooked fresh from the menu. Flexible dining will cost you around 2-3 Dollars, while traditional service will cost a few dollars more. Again, your choice may depend on if you want to socialise with other travellers or if like me you are not much of a morning person and prefer to take it slow and eat your meal in the comfort of your own room. If you want to go to the restaurant and dine alone, avoid the peak times, either eat early or late – ask the attendant for when the best times are. I am happy to say that while I did once have a meal in my room, the other times I went to the restaurant, sharing a table with other travellers who were all fascinated by my travel itinerary. That is, once they got over the fact that a German could speak to them in perfect English. That somehow never gets old 😊 

Freshening up means you need to head to the ground level to the bathroom where toilet and shower area are inside a cubicle the size of which resembles a broom closet! For fluffy folk like me – I am not fat, I’m fluffy – this can be quite a challenge so prepare to engage in frantic contortions as you first infiltrate, then extricate yourself from the vestibule in a semi-orderly manner! Remember that there is usually a bathroom in the café area of the dining car, so if all of the bathrooms in your car are taken or unusable, you can go there if necessary. 

Storage space can be an issue if you are staying in a roomette. Try planning ahead and taking only a small backpack and a 10L bag for snacks, drinks, a wash bag and a change of clothes, then store the rest in the checked luggage hold to pick up at the end of the journey. These bags go in first so the bags of passengers leaving the train sooner will be easily accessible. Also, there are large storage racks at the base of the stairs you use to get to your room if this is situated on the upper level. There is little danger in someone taking the bags, though it is advisable to lock the bags if they contain any valuables. 

The same goes for the roomette itself which can only be locked from the inside. This means that if you decide to explore the train as a single traveller, you will have to leave the room unlocked. You can get the attendant to keep an eye out in exchange for a couple of dollars if you wish, but incidents of theft are very rare as there is little opportunity for potential thieves to get away with any loot. Keep any cash on you or hide it well when you leave the roomette – just don’t forget where you hid it, or the attendant will end up with a tip and a bonus once you have disembarked the train! 

Be aware that the temperature in the sleeper cars is regulated by the car attendant and when he changes it up or down it affects everyone else. So, if you are cold, bring a blanket, if you are hot, wear loose clothing. In the summer, excess heat will slow down the speed of the train. Also, thunderstorms will halt the service as a train travelling through such weather quickly becomes a lightning rod on wheels!

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