Why I Took an Overnight Amtrak Instead of Flying or Driving
© Courtesy Amtrak/Marc Glucksman
It was hard for me to stay awake as Amtrak’s Empire Builder—a superliner that runs between Chicago and Portland, Oregon—chugged along through the wilderness of northwest Montana. I had planned to watch the full moon rise over a passing still, black lake, but thanks to the gentle rocking of the train, I was lulled into a deep sleep in my Amtrak roomette just after sunset.
Taking a train across the country is a dream trip for many, myself included, though I never expected to check it off my bucket list during a pandemic. Of course, it’s the ever-present threat of COVID-19 that caused me to research safe travel solutions, which led to my embarking upon the two-night, two-train trip from my home in Whitefish, Montana, to see my family in California’s Bay Area.
I chose to take a train over flying or driving because a private room would allow for more security and reduced interaction with other travelers, plus the pleasure of staring out the window at America passing by. But like many Americans looking to explore the country while international travel remains largely impossible, it’s important to understand exactly what the experience includes, and how we as travelers can do our part to make moving around as safe as possible for those sharing the journey with us.© Courtesy Ali Wunderman A snapshot of the view, captured as the train went rolling by
From safety protocols and eating to passing the time without Wi-Fi, here’s what you can expect when booking a private room on Amtrak.
What it’s like riding with Amtrak right now
As instructed, I arrived half an hour before my departure, waiting only a short while after the train pulled in for my car’s attendant, the constantly masked Terrence, to thoroughly sanitize my Amtrak roomette on the train’s second story.
The smell of disinfectant greeted me at the entrance to my roomette as a voice came over the loudspeaker: “Passengers must wear a mask while aboard this train. The mask must cover your nose and mouth.” However, this doesn’t apply to roomette inhabitants once the doors are closed, says Roger Harris, Amtrak’s executive vice president, chief marketing and commercial officer.
The roomette felt almost like an international business class airline seat, but with sliding, lockable glass doors covered by a heavy curtain to ensure privacy. During the day, two seats face each other, separated by a fold-out table flanked by cupholders. It’s a small space, but not cramped, with a large window that offers all the joy of road tripping with none of the responsibility.
That night, Terrence returned to make my bed, kicking a lever under each chair and pushing down the seatbacks until they resembled a bed. The second bunk hidden against the wall above the chairs is where the blankets and pre-sheeted mattress were stored. He also let me know what time the included breakfast would be served the following day, and offered to deliver it to me if that would make me feel more comfortable, a service any private room passenger can opt into.
Between snoozing and chowing down, my day was spent predominantly by relaxing and watching America roll by. My view nearly matched that of the viewing car, so it was satisfying enough to settle into my chair, listen to classic road trip tunes through my headphones, and occasionally read through a novel I’d brought along. The only reason I needed to leave my roomette was to use the restroom, a regularly cleaned compartment about the size of an airplane bathroom at the end of the hall. Though it was a shared space, it was well-stocked for hand washing. Though I used the hand sanitizer available inside, I also re-sanitized upon returning to my room, just in case.
What you need to know before booking
Booking a private roomette is the way to go amid the pandemic. Even with a shared bathroom, I felt distanced from other train passengers and staff, and secure in Amtrak’s enhanced safety protocols. However, I walked through coach on the first leg of my journey, where booking capacity is being limited, and despite the mask enforcement, many passengers had, understandably, pulled theirs off while sleeping. I encountered the same situation in the viewing car, so I decided to continue my journey without leaving my roomette, bathroom trips excepted.
Downloading the Amtrak app kept my ticketing touchless, though adding the tickets to Apple Wallet screwed up the timezone: I was getting alerts to board as if I was on Eastern Time, not Mountain Time. It’s unclear whether the issue was due to Amtrak, Apple, or user error. Technological issues aside, be certain of your departure times, because the train waits for no one, even though your car attendant will know you’re missing.
Storage space is extremely limited in the roomette, but not so much that I couldn’t comfortably keep my toiletries, sleepwear, and entertainment with me. I recommend also holding on to medicine, valuables, snacks, cleaning products, and anything else you might typically bring on a long flight. Checked bags are included with this ticket, but are not accessible mid-journey.
The decision to visit my family wasn’t easy, but having Amtrak as an option made me feel as secure as possible in traveling across five states during a pandemic. Though it cost more than double what a flight would have, the level of service, quality of food, and joy of winding through hidden parts of America were worth the price alone, confidence in safety aside. Plus, you truly can’t beat the view.