In May of 1969 the Transcontinental railroad met in Utah, and until the 1950s (and the start of the interstate highway system) it was the way of traveling the long distances for many years. Novels were made about epic train trips in Pullman Cars, and railroad museums all over the United States show how integral rail was to our lives. But in the days of planes and cars, train travel has not been as popular in the United States as it has been in Europe. My stepfather always dreamed of seeing the country by train so when he found out about a discounted 10 ride rail pass for seniors from Amtrak, he and my mother jumped on the deal. See how they traveled across the country and back in a month’s time, and what lessons they learned along the way.
*Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links that allows me to earn a small commission at no cost to you. I only link to products I would or have used myself and all opinions expressed here are my own. You can read the full disclaimer here.
My mom and her husband bought discounted 10 pass ticket on Amtrak for $300. Once you start using the pass, you must use the 10 passes within 30 days. Here is how they used their 10 passes:
- Trip 1: Washington DC – Chicago IL
- Trip 2: Chicago, IL – Albuquerque, NM
- Trip 3: Albuquerque, NJ – Flagstaff, AZ
- Trip 4 & 5: Flagstaff, AZ – Los Angeles, CA – Emeryville, CA (Closest stop to San Francisco)
- Trip 6: Emeryville, CA – Salt Lake City, UT
- Trip 7: Salt Lake City, UT – Chicago, IL
- Trip 8, 9 & 10: Chicago, IL – New York City – Washington DC – Richmond, VA
They traveled a total of 27 days, and stopped a few days each in Chicago, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, San Francisco Bay Area (with me), Salt Lake City, and Chicago again before heading home.
I interviewed my mom and her husband about this trip and asked her to share her stories and some tips she had for the trip.
What made you guys decide to take this trip?
My Mom: We always talked about taking this trip. We always talked about seeing the country by rail, riding in the cars where you can see everything. My husband saw the deal and we bought it on the last day it was available. The discount they were offering seemed like the perfect opportunity. My husband had his heart set on it. I went along for the ride.
What was the train ride like?
My Mom and Husband: Long but full of good views! The observation car was the great because you could take a break from your seat and got a view from both sides. If you are deciding, where do you want to sit, talk to the conductor. They will tell you to get on the right or the left. They are ready to answer any question. I couldn’t say anything bad about Amtrak service. Everyone was amazing. The Red Cap Service is superb. They will get you anything you need to be on time. They make sure you get on the right train, on the right car. Red Cap is free to use, but we always tipped generously.
We rode coach so we couldn’t eat in the dining car because of COVID restrictions. We ate in the club car, which was fine. A lot of time we would stop at a city long enough to run out, buy some food at a local grocery store, and get back on the train. But the food on the train was not very expensive. The most we spent between the two of us was $18 for a meal. It was not expensive at all.
What leg of the train ride did you enjoy the most?
My Mom: There were quite a few, I can’t pick one. Each leg had their own beauty. From the ride along the Pacific Coast, seeing those big cliffs, and down to the ocean, almost directly below you. In the Sierra Nevadas, and Donner Lake as we left California, you could see the tops of mountains and the snow at the top in the far distance. The other one was of course, going through Colorado, and alongside the Colorado River. You can see these big stony mountains. I loved going through long tunnels, some 10 miles long, to come out to see the walls of stone. Then you see the river, that was a stunning view. Crossing Nevada was just pure desert, far away you see these mountain peaks in the distance. And you saw miles and miles and miles of nothing.
What was your favorite thing about each stop?
My Mom: In Chicago, as soon as I saw the water taxis, I wanted to ride one. Millennium Park was nice, I liked Crown Fountain, but there were a lot of photographers there, so it was hard to get a good shot. I also enjoyed your suggestion of the Nutella Café, and we liked eating Chicago style pizza. The Navy Pier was a great place to spend a day. There were people on the street with music and entertainment.
My Mom: The Tram! I love air trams. Over 1,000 feet in the air up to the top of the Sandia Mountains. It was built by a Swiss company. You get views for miles, both on the ride up and at the top. The people who work there are careful and efficient. Every time, there is a guide who can explain what is there and what you are able to see. At the top was the Ten3 restaurant where the food was really good. We got in on time, before the rush. I got to walk around and take pictures.
My Mom: We went to Flagstaff to see the Grand Canyon, but I actually enjoyed walking in the little town of Flagstaff itself. We spent the whole day walking around and checking out the little shops. Many of them specialize in gear for people who go camping, trekking, and backpacking. But there was also a great art market.
San Francisco Bay Area
My Mom: The soup!
Me: Ahem… Not seeing your grandkids?
My mom: That too. But you know how much I like the soup [at Boudin Bakery]. I did enjoy spending times with my grandkids. Surprising them with our arrival and picking them up from school. I enjoyed the day we spent in San Francisco, walking around after getting my soup, the Musée Mécanique, walking up to the Ghirardelli Square for ice cream. I also enjoyed when went to eat Korean BBQ before we left, that was a great spot!
Salt Lake City
My Mom: Seeing the Egyptian Exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah. I am fascinated about Egyptian culture, and this exhibit was about Ramses and his dynasty. There was information about the gods of the Egyptians, what each one represents, about how they governed their state. We must have spent two hours in that museum. They also had the dinosaur exhibit in the museum as well. Small one but nice. You can see the whole city through one of the floors. After that, I enjoyed our tour of the actual Salt Lake. We had a tour that took us to the lake.
What city did you enjoy the most?
My Mom: While each stop was special, Flagstaff was probably my favorite. I had already seen the Grand Canyon, but I enjoyed it more this time because I had someone to see it with. Also, the first time I visited I did it myself without a guide. This time we went on a tour that showed us the canyon from different vantage points and gave us a whole lot more information. Also, Flagstaff itself is a charming, pretty town.
Stepfather: I really liked Chicago. Because of the waterfront there, it’s a big city so there was plenty of things to do and see. I loved Millennium Park. There was easy access, either by Lyft, bus, or rail. Chicago 360 is a must see. The observation deck is 360 around the whole building with amazing views.
What city surprised you the most?
My Mom: Chicago surprised me the most. There is so many things to do, and so little time. We didn’t have enough time there to see all the things I wanted to see. And the food. I couldn’t try it all, but I wanted to.
Stepfather: I had bigger expectations for Albuquerque. It’s pretty spread out, and from a sightseeing perspective, you have to do some driving, because it’s not all contained in the city. But a must see is the tram. It’s one of the biggest in the world. It was quick and easy to get the tickets. From up top, you get a better perspective of how big and spread out the city is.
Once you reached a place, how did you get around?
My stepfather: We used Lyft the entire trip and never had a problem. Even when we had to take a train late at night. We would just schedule a Lyft ahead of and it would be there. It was easy and much more affordable than renting a car at each location.
How did you find the tours?
My stepfather: The day before we would arrive at a destination, I would check on the city’s website, and see what there was to do. Because we were using Lyft rather than a rental, we’d look at the distances between something we wanted to see and our hotel. If it was going to too far, it was better to take a tour because you covered more ground and got more background. Most of the time the tours were very reasonable, ½ day tours, like $40 – $50 a person. Full day was $100 on average. The city’s tourism website had tours that were listed and that’s how we found them.
What was the best meal you had?
My Mom: For me it was the one at the Ten3 restaurant top of the tram in Albuquerque.
My Stepfather: I liked the Chicago style pizza.
What would you differently next time?
My Mom: Next time, I would schedule the trip ahead of time. We booked our stops on the fly. Once we hit a place, we decided where we wanted to go next. But it turns out that they only had a limited number of tickets on each leg for those using a rail pass, and that caused some issues.
I’d also do smaller trips next time. Overnights in the coach class were hard, and after a long day of train travel, I was tired and unsteady on my feet because of the constant movement of the train. With shorter trips, we can see more along the way.
Stepfather: If you could, on the west coast, I would have liked to spend more time at the different cities along the coast of California. There were so many nice cities we passed that I would have liked to stop and explore more. Also, I’d plan at least three stops ahead because it gets hard because of rail pass limitations. If you are a family traveling, I’d plan and lock in the passes the whole trip ahead of time. But the website and the app make it really easy to lock in your rail pass for the next destination.
What is your #1 tip for someone who is considering doing this trip?
My Mom: Have your mind and body ready. That is very important. Some places you will do a lot of walking. Be prepared for a lot of activity and have your mind ready for how much work the trip will be. Always bring a change of clothing (especially underwear), toothbrush and toothpaste in your bag that isn’t checked. And bring plenty of snacks. Some wet wipes or baby wipes to give you a quick “bath” when doing a long day on the train are helpful. And look for the handicapped bathrooms, those are the spacious. The others are very small.
My Stepfather: Pack light and check your bags, if possible, at the rail stations. It’s a very quick pick up at any of the train stations. This way you aren’t’ worried about your bag overhead, or at another compartment that you can’t monitor, and you can just enjoy the view and the ride. Also, pack a blanket on the train. At night, the cars cool down and you can get cold without that blanket.
I am impressed at how my mother and stepfather are embracing the freedom of retirement and using their time to explore our country and try out new adventures. I loved following along as they sent us pictures along the way, hearing about their adventures, and learning more about how the system worked. I love when they decided last minute, to come west and spend some time with us. The look of surprise on my kid’s face is a memory I’ll hold forever. But I love that my mom is using this newfound lease in life to jump up and explore and try new things. They are already talking about doing this again next year. And I can’t wait to see what new cities they explore!
Photos provided by my mother and shared with her permission