An accumulation of business trips have recently soured me on air travel, so for our recent, weeklong vacation to Chicago, my girlfriend Maya and I decided to take the train. Though scheduled for 18 hours, the 21-hour train ride from Penn Station in New York to Union Station in Chicago was overall a good experience. Amtrak customer service was mostly very good; the autumn landscapes outside our windows were colorful and serene; and aside from some snoring and obnoxious cellphone usage, our fellow passengers were good companions.
Maya and I spent our trip in a long-distance car where the seats have more leg room, pull-out foot rests, and generous recliners. Amtrak also offers sleeper cars, but at over $700, we figured they must be reserved only for the wealthy who don't like to fly. (Our round-trip tickets were $130 each, discounted from the normal $150 with an AAA membership.)
One nice thing we discovered about the train is that it makes a decent makeshift home, so passengers are freed from the restless, cramped feeling of air travel. On one end of the train car were the bathrooms, and on the other, the dining room; in between sat rows of spacious seats that served as a study/entertainment area by day and sleeping quarters by night. The windows were large, the tray tables durable, and three-prong outlets were available at every pair of seats. We were able to eat snacks, use laptops, and rest for long stretches with relative comfort and ease, and the few DVDs we brought along definitely helped pass the time.
One mistake we made was not rushing to the dining car during its limited 2-hour dinner service. Arriving about a half-hour after opening, we were awkwardly paired with another couple in the only available booth, but our delightful waitress made up for most deficiencies in the accommodations. Maya and I chose to share the blackened catfish, and she generously brought us each separate salads and side dishes at no extra charge. The meal was $16.50 including whipped mashed potatoes, a roasted vegetable mix, salad, rolls, and coffee/tea. Other options on the menu included cheese ravioli and meat dishes like New York strip steak, lamb shank, and roast chicken.
As might be expected, the return trip by train was a little harder to endure, as we were both tired from the vacation and simply wanted to return home as quickly as possible. The trip got off to a rocky start because of a decision to stuff all NYC-bound passengers in a single car that also happened to be the oldest, most cramped, least technologically equipped of the bunch. With some patience and persistent negotiation, though, we switched to a car that was satisfactory except for a heating malfunction and a fairly persistent smell of vomit. That however, sounds worse than it was, and if you have the time (and patience), I would definitely recommend Amtrak for at least one leg of a trip.