How I started with my Amtrak adventures

by Kev
Amtrak California Zephyr
A view of Amtrak’s California Zephyr from my roomette

I started riding Amtrak in 2012, and it has changed my life. My Amtrak travels took me to places that otherwise were off my travel radar. One example, New Orleans; I believed people only went there for beads, drinking, and flashing, and the only redeeming value was the music; geez, I was wrong. My first visit proved that is not the case if you get Beyond Bourbon Street. Like many large cities, New Orleans consists of neighborhood communities, history, great food, and a big heart. My wanting to ride the City of New Orleans at that time outweighed my reluctance to visit the city. That said, thanks to Amtrak, I love New Orleans now.

My travel life breaks down into four phases, each a building block. In phase one, birth to eighteen, my parents taught me, travel can be simple as visiting family or a trip.

At age eighteen, I bought a 1990 Oldsmobile Silhouette and used it on many road trips and as a bike carrier for cycling tours. During this next phase, from eighteen to about twenty-four, I learned to enjoy solo travel.

I did not travel much in phase three (twenty-five- thirty-five), but I learned public transportation basics. Then comes phase four, and that is what this article covers; it started with one train trip and ended with me traveling across the country.

Now in phase four, I have been on all but one (the Auto Train) of Amtrak’s long-distance routes, most of the Midwest regional routes, and coast to coast both by rail and air. And phase four starts with this story.

Don’t drive down here.

Buildings in Chicago
Sites of Chicago

In 2012, Pete, a friend of mine, invited me to an event in Chicago. He had recently moved there and thought it would be fun for us to hang out and attend this event. He did invite me to stay with him, and not only did this save me money, but as you will find out, it helped me get around.

Pete had a caveat for my visit, don’t drive down. His logic was solid, parking downtown is expensive, and parking by his place was at a premium. I owned a 1989 Chevy Celebrity at that time, not a small car. He suggested taking the train down, either Amtrak or Metra. Looking at everything, Amtrak became my choice, and Pete could share his train experience with me.

Driving to Chicago is not appealing to me, although I have for jobs and fun in the past. Since I didn’t want to deal with that stress plus the parking situation, it did not take much to twist my arm. But on the other hand, I never did anything like this before, let alone by myself. Pete said it was easy and comfortable, so I trusted him

Doing the research and booking the trip.

This new adventure started with a trip to Amtrak.com. I found Sturtevant Station a great choice, not too far from work, cheap parking, and closer to home when I return. I soon had the Amtrak app on my phone, all signed up for Amtrak Guest Rewards, and booked a round trip aboard Amtrak’s Hiawatha.

With Pete as a guide, I would not get lost. At least that was my hope. I had experience with mass travel in Milwaukee, but the CTA is a little different. Busses are one thing; the “L” is another.

I know where the station is; well, apparently, I didn’t

Front of SVT
A street view of the Sturtevant Station

My day of travel came, I was ready; my bag packed and in the car, my shift at work ended, punching out for the weekend, and excited to head to Sturtevant. I knew how to get to Sturtevant from home, but I needed Google Maps because I left work. I used the app until I reached an area I recognized, and then turned off the GPS and went by memory. Great idea, right?

That was a mistake because I drove past the depot on a parallel road on the other side of the tracks headed for the original Milwaukee Road station’s former location. By that, I mean the old station had moved, and in its former place sits a Canadian Pacific building. I don’t know why I had such confidence in myself because I never took the train from there before, but I thought I knew the area better than I did.

So, I swallowed my pride, re-entered the station’s address in the app, and found the depot. After paying for parking and gathering my belongings, and headed to the platform, ready for my first Amtrak adventure.

Not too long after that, the announcement came over the PA, and those of us at the station gathered and waited on the platform for the train to pull in and pick up for our 63-mile journey to the Windy City.

All Aboard!

Old Amtrak Hiawatha
Amtrak Hiawatha cab/baggage car at the Sturtevant (WI) Depot

Before boarding the Hiawatha, I had discovered another Amtrak newbie. So between the two of us, we figured out what we were doing, and when the train came, she and I climbed aboard and searched for our seats. We found we sat in a section reserved for those needing assistance, so we moved and sat back and enjoyed the trip.

The train has six coaches, and it was full but not packed. The train takes about an hour to get to Chicago, and I loved the train’s motion; the steel wheels’ rolling on the steel rails does something to my soul. It was fun to watch the world go by, and before I knew it, the Chicago skyline came into view. When we reached Chicago, my travel buddy and I bid adieu and went on our ways.

Chicago, Chicago, that toddling town.

Chicago Union Station
Chicago Union Station

Looking back, I find it funny that I got confused and a little overwhelmed my first time in Chicago Union Station. Today I know that station very well now and no longer find it confusing. After leaving the train, up the escalator, out the door I went, and on my way to meet up with Pete (remember him from earlier). I left the station, and once again, I turned to Google Maps to guide me to Pete’s place of employment.

I liked the trip

After a fun weekend, I headed home; I had mastered Amtrak’s Hiawatha. In 2012, I visited Pete four times via Amtrak. Little did I know that something happened to me on that first trip; the little wanderlust bug deep in my soul woke up again. Not only did he wake up, but he liked the train.

You might like San Francisco

Later on, in 2013, my friend Ben traveled to San Francisco, and after his return, he told me I might enjoy a trip there. Sometimes people say something, and you ponder it in your heart for some unknown reason; well, this was one of those tidbits.

Planning my first long-distance trip

My taxes were kind

In February 2013, I worked on my 2012 taxes, and because student loan interest is tax-deductible (at that time), I found out I was getting a nice chunk of change back. As Jean-Ralphio Saperstein from Pawnee, IN, would say, I was flush with cash (Parks & Recreation reference). Well, maybe not flush with cash but enough for an adventure.

Now I could have invested that money, but I decided to take a trip; looking back, I invested in myself—the first destination that came to mind, San Fransico, CA. I started planning and researching again. At this point, I discovered I enjoy trip planning and research.

I talked to Ben again, asking him a few more questions about the City by the Bay. Because I enjoyed my short train trips, I thought why not see if Amtrak could take me there, and yes, it could.

What my research told me

SF Ferry Building
The Ferry Building in San Francisco, CA

My research showed I would return to the Sturtevant Depot for this adventure. Once again, take the Hiawatha to Chicago and then catch the California Zephyr. The Zephyr would take me to Emeryville, CA, from there, I would catch a bus to San Fransico.

I don’t want to say I am cheap, but I am happy not to pay retail. Looking for a way to save money, I found NARP, the National Association of Rail Passengers. NARP is now the Rail Passengers Association. I receive 10% off the base rate tickets with a membership, and my membership fee covered close to the same amount of money I saved. If I took any more trips, I would start saving. (Yeah, that may resemble a commercial for them, but they do not sponsor the post, but I believe in their cause and can save money at the same time.)

New adventures; new luggage

Because I mostly took road trips in the past, I didn’t need the best luggage. The secondhand luggage I did have was falling apart and not practical for this journey. Clueless as to what was out there, I turned to the big box and discount stores.

I was on the hunt for a 24-25″ rollaboard, and that hunt concluded with a walk to the clearance section of my store (I worked at a big box store at that time). Someone returned their online order of a set of four suitcases that retailed for $119. After I checked out and used my discounts, I purchased the four-piece luggage set for about $40; I kept the 25″ and the small hand carry-on bag and sold the rest to my mom, so $20 for what I wanted wasn’t too bad.

Looking back, I can tell you this; you get what you pay for when it comes to suitcases. I also learned that designer suitcases cost more but often are not that much better than the cheaper ones and usually made by the same company. I am sure that is not always the case. Since then, I discovered I traveled too heavily back then, a full suitcase plus a backpack!

On this trip, I also tried plastic bags you put your clothing in and then push out the air; they work well if you aren’t in your luggage a lot. Since then, I discovered packing cubes, so handy.

Back to the Hiawatha and Chicago Union Station

beer and popcorn
My travel comfort food.

The day came for me to leave, and I was excited. I had my coach seats booked, my bags overpacked, made it to Chicago, and found one of the bars at Chicago Union Station. Because of the excitement, I left early. I am one of those people who would rather wait at the train station or airport than wait at home.

By now, I knew Chicago Union Station pretty well, the places I like to eat and wait. One of those places I enjoyed was a bar off of the Great Hall. (The bar is closed now.) I often went there because they had good food, offered free popcorn, and sometimes more snacks. Plus, they had a decent selection of tappers.

After a few drafts and bowls of popcorn, the time came for me to get ready to climb aboard the California Zephyr.

California, here I come

This video is of the first Amtrak long-distance train I was on!

My seat was behind the center stairwell on the train. I had a female seat partner who was from one of the Scandinavian countries. If I remember right, she was on her way to meet up with her boyfriend, who I think was meeting her in LA. After a while, I walked to the Sightseer Lounge car. Not too long after I found a seat in that car, I started chatting with a gentleman from Canada. A little later on. I treated myself by making a reservation for dinner in the dining car.

When the dining car steward called my dinner reservation, I walked to the next car and was seated with ladies, two were a couple from San Fransico, and the other was another solo traveler. After we sat down, I asked, are you all from the United States, and they looked at me and said yes, but why? I let them know that they were the first US citizens I chatted with on the train besides the staff. We had a nice chuckle, and it broke the ice. The ladies from the City by the Bay gave me some excellent tips and hints.

That first trip

What sealed the deal with me is the views, the pace, and the people that made my trip fun and fall in love with train travel.

Later that year

Amtrak's Capital Limited
Capitol Limited at a station stop in Cumberland, Maryland

Not long after that first long-distance trip, I was having train travel withdrawals, and I wanted more. I turned to Amtrak again and discovered the midwest corridor. Looking at the schedule, and found I could take day trips across the midwest by train. The furthest I could go was St Lois, MO, and the closest being the Milwaukee area.

To do this, I needed to learn a new skill: how to ride Metra. By the way, it is not hard. Metra can take me to Chicago earlier than the Hiawatha, plus it gives me time to get some coffee or breakfast before the next train. Tuesday became my train day, and for years I rode a train every Tuesday (or at least every week.

One big trip for the year was not enough for me, so I booked another long journey, but this time to Washington, D.C. The trip was another coach trip. I took the Capitol Limited out to DC, stayed in the night, and took the Cardinal home.

Why am I telling you all this?

I want to let you know, I by tell you my story, I am not trying to brag, my intent it to inspire.

When I was a kid, I loved watching cooking shows, and I remember watching Yan Can Cook. His philosophy was simple, if I can cook, you can too, which is what I believe with you but with travel. I am a regular person, and if I can travel this, so can you.

When I started traveling, I had fear, like I am sure you may have. My nervousness almost got the best of me on a few trips, but I fought through the anxiety. Fear and worry can lead to regrets, and you can miss out on a lot. ( I am sympathetic to those with crippling fear.)

There is more to this story, and I plan on sharing that with you in another post. But this is how it started for me, and maybe it is time to begin your travel story. If you are interested in starting your Amtrak journey, click here to start your research on riding Amtrak.

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Safe Travels!

Kev

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