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Seeing America by Train

All aboard!

For many people Florida is the new Spain and weekend trips to New York are scarcely unusual, but the USA has much more to offer than guaranteed sunshine and bargain shopping. Most people travel by car or plane but if you have a couple of weeks or more to travel you should certainly investigate America's trains - the last means of luxury transport available to everyone. Reduced rates are available for students and seniors (people over 62) and visitors from overseas benefit from a range of passes that must be among the world's great travel bargains.

Hotels on wheels

Amtrak's network takes in most states, giving a choice of 500 destinations and access to such essentials as the Rocky Mountains and Grand Canyon. The trains themselves are like mobile hotels, with gleaming twin-decked coaches, air-conditioning and uniformed attendants who make you feel you have stepped back in time into a 1930s Hollywood movie. The reclining seats are thick and soft, with comfortable leg-rests so you can snooze after a meal or sleep through the night (a good way to save on hotel bills).

There are also traditional sleeping cars with cozy bedrooms that range from single 'roomettes' to family size affairs for those traveling with children. Accommodation here includes breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car, as well as complimentary tea or coffee and a newspaper delivered each morning. It's a wonderful feeling to be so pampered on your journey.

© spuiphoto
Owned by the US Government, Amtrak operates passenger train service to 500 destinations in 46 states across the United States.

Time to unwind

The atmosphere on board most trains tends to be relaxed so it's a great way to "meet the natives" and make new friends. Americans like to talk and will sometimes tell you their life story in hair-raising detail. Train speeds are perfect for sightseeing, making this is an ideal way to explore the landscape. Between the many small towns and big cities you can come to understand America's sheer size and variety, getting a feel for what this land must have been like before the days of McDonalds and Coca Cola.

There's room to stretch out or walk around and instead of racing above the clouds you watch an entire continent unroll outside the wraparound windows. There are high-speed Acela trains in the Northeast (Boston-New York-Washington) and frequent services out of big cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles but some long-distance routes only have one train per day. It's a good idea to book your ticket well in advance during summer and at other holiday periods. There's a toll-free number to make reservations and you can collect your tickets at any station or have them sent to you by mail.

Things to take

Pack as lightly as possible, especially the bags you carry on board. You may find it useful to take a pair of binoculars, a good book, a deck of cards, maps (preferably showing rail lines), a light blanket, a pillow or large pillow case, earplugs or an eyeshade if you are a light sleeper, bathing and grooming items, a pocket torch, sunglasses, a cheap digital watch with an alarm, a small first-aid kit, bottled mineral or spring water (which will probably taste better than that provided at the drinking fountain), fresh fruit, nuts and other snacks. Wear comfortable clothes, especially shoes. There are no places on board to get cash, except by cashing a traveler's cheque, and so take enough money to last the journey.

Low prices

The National rail pass gives you freedom to roam Amtrak's entire network for around $285. Other passes give you 15 or 30 days in regions such as the East or the Far west from as little as $175. You could even travel free (see USA by Rail, below). You are allowed to stop off en route as often and for as long as you wish, so it's easy to work out an itinerary which lets you see more of this country in a short time than would be possible any other way. As the bell clangs and the conductor calls out 'All aboard!' you soon discover why the railroad experience becomes so delightfully addictive.

Find out more

Further information and travel tips can be found on the website at www.usa-by-rail.com, where you also have the chance to win free two Amtrak National rail passes. The latest edition of John Pitt's indispensable guidebook USA by Rail includes complete route guides, trains in Canada and masses of other useful travel information. USA by Rail (Bradt, ISBN 1 84162 255 2) is available in bookshops or from www.bradtguides.com.

Written by: John Pitt (www.USA-by-Rail.com)
Top Photo Credit: © J.C. Leacock
Photo Description: A sightseeing train rolls through a deep and rocky river valley.