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Andy's Journeys Getting Ready



Getting Ready for that Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip
andy anderson amtrak california zephyr sacramento station image

The California Zephyr pulls into Sacramento station spot on time


Packing for a Long Distance Trip

Initial Planning

Okay, understand that to me an Amtrak trip is a holiday in and of itself; therefore this planning guide is not only for preparing for a long-distance trip... it's with the understanding that the journey is the reward. With that simple philosophy in mind, here are some obvious up-front points:

Plan the trip to have fun. I've said this before: If you're planning a long-distance trip for business, then take an airplane.

Plan breaks between train rides. For example, if you're taking the Texas Eagle from Chicago to LA (seventy hours), and then the Coast Starlight from LA to Seattle, don't even attempt to get off one train and onto the other. Besides the simple fact that long-distance trains are often delayed, you need a bit of time on solid ground. Spend a day in Los Angeles... see the sights... stalk your favorite movie star. Then, get on the train the next day. You'll be glad you did... I guarantee it.

Plan for delays. Hey, it's all part of the adventure. If you're a few hours late, who the heck cares... I certainly do not. If you're with a couple of people, make a pool to see what time you actually arrive at your destination. Loser buys the drinks.
I've been on trains that not only were they delayed, we had to get off the train, get on a bus, and then travel all night just to get to our destination. GET OVER IT!!!

I had the whole bus singing songs like: There she was just a walking down the street... We didn't stop singing until about 1:00AM. And you know what? I didn't hear one single complaint, from one single person on that bus. Why? It's all part of the adventure.

Bring things with you to help make the trip more enjoyable. We'll talk more about that later; however, I'll give you an example. I enjoy a glass of white wine in the evening before I retire... Okay, so I got a monkey on my back. Anyway, you can purchase single-serving bottles of wine from the snack-bar attendant (assuming they haven't sold out), for about six bucks a pop. Or, before boarding, you could stop by your local booze store and pick up you own. Single-serving wine comes in a six pack for about 1.50 per bottle... buy them and bring them along... see I'm corrupting your morals, and saving you money, all at the same time. Is this a great country, or what?

Andy's Note: The only people allowed to bring private stock on board the train are the sleeping-car passengers. In addition, alcohol must be consumed in your sleeping compartment. So, if you're walking around the train with a bottle of booze in your hand (saw that on the Coast Starlight), expect to be stopped and your booze confiscated.

Assumptions... There are always assumptions

Since this is a long-distance trip, I'm going to assume that you're booking a roomette (ten on the upper floor, four on the lower floor), or a deluxe sleeper (five: all on the upper floor). In addition, Superliner cars contain a family bedroom for four people, and a handicap/accessible bedroom for two people (both on the lower level of the car).

You can check on the Amtrak site for details of each of the bedrooms; however, since they seem to keep changing the links to the specific pages, here's a link to the Amtrak main site. Once there you can navigate to the correct pages.

This is not about planning short trips on Amtrak, or about taking a long-distance trip in coach.

In this writer's opinion, I would rather take fewer trips, and have the sanctuary of a bedroom to retreat to when the going gets tough; than take more trips and have to endure sitting in coach for days on end... Just an opinion... I'm not married to it or anything.

Amtrak's Baggage Requirements

Amtrak has baggage requirements, and they're usually pretty strict about how much you can bring aboard, so try to stick to the rules. All passengers are allowed two carry-on bags (28x22x14), each weighing 50 pounds or less. We're talking about two typical roller type pieces of luggage; the kind that you might bring on an airplane.

In addition, Amtrak will allow you to check three pieces of luggage (36x36x36), each weighing 50 pounds or less. Typically, your checked baggage must be in Amtrak's hot little hands thirty-minutes before the scheduled departure of your train.

Andy's Note: Not all Amtrak stations have a checked bag service (my station in Newton, Kansas is one of them), so you will be required to wheel your stuff out to the train when it arrives. At that time Amtrak personal will take it from there.

Once you get to your destination, checked baggage is generally available within thirty minutes of arrival, although I have never had to wait more than ten minutes for my stuff.
Remember that your luggage must be tagged with your name and address. Most Amtrak stations have baggage tags available, if you don't have your own. You will need a valid ID to check your baggage; which, I'm assuming you would have if you were boarding the train.

If you want more information, here's a link to the Amtrak Baggage Guidelines page. However, if you fly a lot (like me), the requirements for luggage on a plane are not much different than those on a train. With one big exception: Most airlines are now charging for the privilege of carrying your luggage... Amtrak does not.

Andy's Baggage Requirements

Based on Amtrak's weight and number requirements, here is what I like to bring on a long-distance trip:

Two carry-on luggage pieces: Plus a briefcase, or shoulder tote bag.

Luggage Piece One:
This bag holds all of my clothes for the trip, and anything else that I might need instant access. The best type of bag that I've found for this purpose is a duffel type, with straps to carry it on your back.
Luggage Piece Two:
This bag holds a day's worth of cloths, my toiletries (toothbrush, etc), and all my valuable stuff (cameras, electronic equipment, bottle of wine???). This bag should also have all your medications in it. The best type of bag for this purpose is the smaller roller bags, like the type that you can bring onto an airplane, and store in the upper compartments.
Briefcase, or shoulder tote bag:
This holds my computer, and any paperwork I'll need for the coming days (as a photojournalist, I carry a lot of paperwork).

When I'm walking with my luggage, the duffel is on my back (like a backpack), and my roller has my briefcase hanging off it. That allows me freedom of movement, for those long trips down the tracks to the train.

Andy's Note: Most of Amtrak's larger stations have Red Cap service for those who are unable to shift their own luggage. If you won't be able to move your luggage, make a call to the station and see what types of services they have available.

When you board the train, place the luggage piece that holds the clothes, and other non-valuable stuff (the duffel) in the luggage rack on the lower level of your sleeper car; then carry the second piece and briefcase to your bedroom, or roomette. You'll have everything needed to make the journey enjoyable.

When you get up in the morning and take a shower, go down to the lower level and put your dirty clothes in the bag stored in the community luggage rack, and take out the things that you'll need for that particular day.

Andy's Note: Bring along some plastic bags so that you can store your dirty, or damp clothing separate from your clean cloths.

Andy's Advice: Although there's not much of value in that clothes bag, I still would rather people didn't open it up and snoop around, so I do a small combo lock... just to play it safe. In addition, I prefer combo locks to key locks. You can always write the combo down somewhere safe (just in case you forget); however, what happens if you lose the key... I HATE it when that happens.


Things to Bring

A Good Book: For those really boring times, when you need something to do, and you can't think of anything else.

Andy's Advice: During the day, roam the train, meet new people, and look outside at the fantastic scenery. In the evening, when your window looks like a sheet of black glass, then you have my permission to crank out the book, and read a few chapters.

Camera: Check out my section on taking photographs on the train. Click here...

Chargers/Batteries: Whatever devices you carry with you like: computers, cell phones, iPods, etc., make sure that you bring the chargers. If your devices require batteries, then bring spares.

Ear plugs: Good to have for that noisy passenger in the room next to you that likes to talk on her cell phone all night long (been there, got the t-shirt).

Toiletries: Different for each person. Bring the things to keep you clean, and make you smell Irish Spring fresh. Amtrak supplies soap and towels to all first-class passengers; however, they do not supply shampoo, conditioner, etc.

Andy's Advice: I carry my own soap in a small, snack size, ziplock baggie. I take it out at the beginning of the trip, and place it on the sink, then it goes back into the baggie at the end of the journey.

Disinfecting wipes: Okay, it's a scary world of germs out there, just waiting to get you. Bring a couple of small packets of wipes, and a few small bottles of the sanitizing liquid.

A small voice recorder (digital?) can help you to take a few notes and, if you're a writer like me, they're useful to help keep you organized.

Small flashlight. The small led flashlights that you can find at camping stores work on 2 or 3 AAA batteries, and last over a hundred hours... pretty cool.

Extension cord with a multi-plug. For plugging in all those electronic devices.

Packing tape: You just won't believe how many little annoying squeaks occur in a bedroom or roomette, and a bit of packing tape is just the ticket for helping you sleep at night.

A Global Positioning Unit (GPS)
One of the most useful electronic devices that I've found for train travel is a GPS. I take it and place it in the window of my sleeper. As we're traveling, it gives me precise information on distance traveled, distance to next stop, current speed of the train, and exactly where we are... no more asking the conductor, or attendant your current location. There are a lot of different types of GPS units, and you can decide which one is best for you. The one that I use is the same one I use in my car. It's a Garmin nuvi. I use the suction-cup holder to stick it to the window, and that's it.

Andy's Advice: If you're using a vehicle GPS (like I do), then you have a small problem… How do you charge it? Most GPS units have a USB cable, which allows you to plug the unit into your computer, and charge it. Unfortunately, when the unit is plugged into your computer it won't function as a GPS. The best thing to do is have it charging continually while it's being used; just like in your car. To accomplish this you will need a cigarette car charger unit. I found a unit on the Internet, which allows you to do just that . If the site is still valid, you can find the unit here: 110vac to 12vdc charger.

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Keep the faith... And keep traveling

Andy Anderson