Trapped in the Middle With You: 36 hours on the Southwest Chief

Ok, ok, so we were anything but trapped on the train. In fact, we absolutely loved our trip! I mean, how could we not with views like this?

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But thankfully we like each other ūüėČ Choose your train traveling companions wisely!

One of the downsides of using points to travel is that at any time, for any reason, companies can decide to devalue their points. Either by increasing the number of points needed for a hotel stay, or by making them harder to earn, or by completely revamping their rewards program.

In June 2014, we took Amtrak from LA to Santa Barbara for a day of sun and ever since we have talked about taking a longer cross-country trip by train.

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Santa Barbara!

When it came out that Amtrak was going to be increasing the number of points needed to book a trip, we figured now or never and booked a labor day trip on the Southwest Chief!

The Southwest Chief runs back and forth between Chicago and LA. Winding through 8 states and some stunning scenery, it’s a great way to travel without flying, road trip while drinking, visit the Grand Canyon, or just enjoy a few days away from it all!

sw chief map

We’ve taken a couple long(er) distance train trips in Germany and Thailand, but still nothing longer than 10 hours or so. This was a new adventure and from talking to other people, there is no middle ground: You either love the train or you hate it.

Since we don’t have much vacation time to play around with, we cheated and flew to LA on Saturday morning, killed time by eating the best french dip sandwich of my life at Philippe The Original,¬†and then boarded the 6:15 pm train headed straight back to¬†where we came from.

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Los Angeles’ Union Station is a beautiful building. Opening in 1939, it is one of the last great railways stations that was built in the U.S.

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Our train! Right on time ūüôā

 

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Amtrak offers several different options to choose from when booking the train.

  • Coach guarantees you a seat and is certainly the cheapest way to travel, but it isn’t much more than a glorified airplane seat. ¬†Definitely¬†not ideal for sleeping. No food or drinks are provided for you in Coach, but you can still make reservations in the dining car and there is a cafe to buy things at. You are not supposed to drink your own alcohol in coach, though it did not seem to be too strictly enforced.
  • A Roomette¬†has¬†two seats facing each other, which turn into bunk beds at night. There is a door closing off your roomette, so you have some privacy and while you don’t have a private bathroom, sheets and towels are provided. WHEN we do this again, this would likely be just fine for the two of us.
  • A Bedroom. This is what we chose, might as well “splurge,” right? It had a long bench¬†which turns into a double bed, a bunk above, a fold up seat to face each other (terribly uncomfortable, however!), as well as a private shower/bathroom and sink. The extra space was nice, but really unnecessary for just two people. The private shower¬†was nice, but it would have likely been easier to use the public one, since it was a very small space and water tended to get all over. Nowhere near as nice as showering on a plane!!!

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Leaving LA

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If you book either the roomette or the¬†bedroom, your fare include meals in the dining car (alcohol extra). If you are sitting in coach, you can still make reservations at the dining car, but the food is expensive (dinner: $16/burger; $25/steak). It certainly isn’t gourmet, but it definitely puts airline food to shame.

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Blurry, but so good I ate it for dinner both nights!

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Breakfast!

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Lunch!

Seating is also communal and by reservation only. They take reservations almost immediately after the previous meal and when you show up, you are seated with whoever shows up when you do ūüôā We had our own booth just once in the 4 meals we ate on the train, but the people we met on the train was part of the unique and often bizarre train experience.

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So what the heck do you do on the train for 36 hours? That’s the beauty of it! ANYTHING and NOTHING. There is no wifi and most of the time we didn’t get cell reception either. I think this is the most relaxing trip I’ve ever taken. No guilt knowing I had some work to get done, no nagging thought that I should be working out… I got to enjoy myself however I wanted! We spent most of the time in our room: reading, playing card games, taking photos from the window.

Besides hanging out in your seat/room, there is also the observation car:

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The cafe was located on the first floor of the observation car and sold tons of snacks, microwavable meals, beer, wine, canned margaritas, and other non-alcoholic beverages.

There are also 5 smoke-break length stops where you can hop off the train, but you only have about 15 minutes. There are 2 extended stops in Albuquerque and Kansas City where you can get up to an hour and a half or so (depending on how on-time your train is).

We were able to jump off the train in Albuquerque and walk around a little bit.

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The Yards was a neat find in Albuquerque. The abandoned train yards have been re-purposed into an weekend flea market, just about a half mile from the new train station.

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We bought some tamales to enjoy on the train and some hot peppers to bring home and then spent some time strolling downtown Albuquerque before hopping back on the train. It wasn’t a long stop, but it was nice to get off the train, stretch our legs, and explore somewhere new.

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Downtown ABQ

More sights along the way:

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We saw a lot of wildlife along the way! Plenty of horses, cows, and even antelope!

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Stretching our legs on the Raton, New Mexico stop:

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Sleeping on the train is my¬†absolute¬†favorite part. I’m infamous for falling asleep on any car rides over 30 minutes, but the rocking of train puts me to sleep instantly. The curtain over the window worked to keep almost all light out, and while the top bunk is a tight fit (certainly no sitting up), the bottom bed was larger and comfortable. Sheets and pillows are provided, so no need to pack anything!

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So, the final verdict? I LOVE train travel. We’ve gotten some weird looks when we mention that we simply road the train from LA to Kansas City. Sure, we didn’t really DO anything, but that’s the best part. Relaxing, reading, seeing a part of the country you can only see by rail.. that’s the entire experience! Without wifi, you get the chance to disconnect and enjoy some time unplugged.

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We chose the Southwest Chief as it was the most convenient to us (dropping us right at home in Kansas City!), but other extremely popular routes in the US are the California Zephyr, which goes right through the Rocky Mountains, and the Empire Builder, which has views of the Colombia River Gorge in Portland and Glacier National Park!