by Julia Carpenter
You know your destination. You bought your tickets. You eschewed the train routes with the more glamorous-sounding names — the Silver Meteor Line, the St. Alban’s Line, the Acela Express — for the staid (but reliable!) Northeast Regional. What now?
1. Apply for a writer’s residency. Ignore the part where you definitely aren’t going to get the residency. Instead, focus on the part where they offer you a coupon within the rejection email. That’s right: they give you money for being a bad writer. We’ll drink to that. (See #3.)
2. Level up. The most critical step. Enroll in every discount program Amtrak offers. Amtrak Rewards is no joke: their email newsletter is chock-full of bargains, and they’ll email you a few days in advance to offer weekend sales on trains that haven’t sold to full capacity. In one instance, that means I got a round trip from DC to NYC (normally hovering around the $150 range) for a mere $50.
If you’re a student, pick up your phone right now, download the Amtrak app and enroll in Amtrak Student Advantage for an automatic 10 percent deduction off all ticket prices. Amtrak also offers discounted fares for veterans, large groups and members of the National Association of Rail Passengers (which may actually be worth investigating further, as ridiculous as it sounds).
3. Booze up.
Take back what we said about #2, this is the most critical step. Did you know you can drink on a train? You can! It’s true! I’m not making this up! Like, OK, sure, you can drink on a plane, too, but that’s packet bloody Mary mix available only on some domestic flights and worth $14.75 of your hard-earned cash.
On the train, there’s a full bar. A gin and tonic will cost you a mere five dollars. But let’s think beyond that: you can also bring your own booze on the train for free. I myself have brought an entire bottle of wine aboard. And popped it open. And drank three-quarters of it alone. And no one said a motherfucking word.
4. Claim your territory.
To get the most from your ticket, you need to claim two seats. This is something that would never fly on a plane, where there’s $200 an airline could max from that empty seat, or on a road trip, where you’re already squished between seatlbelts as is.
You need to stake a claim to two seats toward the exact middle of the train car. The “middle” part is crucial. You may think you’re scoring more space in moving to the front, where there’s just copious luggage rack space, but be forewarned: the foot traffic to and from different cars is deafening, especially when the sliding door wrenches open with a creeeeeak straight out of a Hitchcock movie. The back of the car is deceptively quiet, but it’s also right by the bathrooms. Yeah. Think about that. Telling you, the middle is where it’s at.
5. Blanket up.
Ah, the blanket special. A magical bundle that you receive for free on all long-distance train trips*. If you’re taking the Northeast Regional from Washington to NYC or back, that technically counts. If you’re just hitting it from Philly on you may have to pay the $8 fee.
The blanket bundle also includes an eye mask and ear plugs. No, seriously. Can you imagine Jet Blue passing out eye masks? They don’t. And Jet Blue is the fun airline.
6. Book up.
Did you hear the part about how there’s no luggage limit, weight limit or security check? That means feast on magazines and books. FEAST. Feast, I tell you!
7. Buddy up.
My first-ever long-distance train journey was the Silver Meteor line from Savannah, GA, to New York City’s Penn Station. I played three hands of cards — with varying rules, whatever, we were a little drunk (see #3) — with a passel of old lady train sages, from whom I originally cribbed the majority of these tips.
It’s better than just chatting on a plane and feeling confined to the two potential conversationalists trapped on either side of you. On the train, you can bring a friend and move to the spacious luxury of the dining car (preferred) or make a friend aboard and congregate along one side of the aisle with bags of granola and a stack of sweaty cards. These are your train friends. Nice to meet you.
* EDITOR’S NOTE: This could not be independently verified as of press time, so YMMV.
Julia Carpenter counts Union Station in Washington, D.C. among her close, personal friends.