If you've flown recently you know what a nightmare it is: long lines, invasive scans and pat downs, airports with no free WiFi. If you haven't flown recently, add to those things some recent non-improvements since the last time you flew, including checked baggage fees and a pricing system when booking seats that you need an MIT degree to figure out.
You can escape all this by taking Amtrak. No TSA theater, comfy seats, big windows, and a bar car! However, all Amtrak experiences are not created equal.
Traveling by train is really relaxing. You have room to spread out, your ears don't pop, you can get up and walk around, and get out at each stop and stretch your legs.
Top 5 Amtrak Routes
We'll start with the best of the best. These routes will all have you seeing some great parts of the country in a way many people never will. Get out your favorite travel card and book these ASAP!
Hiawatha: Milwaukee to Chicago
If you're nervous about train travel, start here. It's Amtrak's second shortest route, great for beginners. You'll be in Chicago in 90 minutes. In fact, the travel time is short enough to make it a day trip.
Hop on the train, spend an afternoon at one of Chicago's terrific museums, eat some deep dish pizza, and be back in Milwaukee with time to spare.
Pennsylvanian: New York to Pittsburgh
Imagine it. One minute you're in the concrete jungle that is New York City, and the next you're gazing out the window at scenic Amish country. This train takes you through tiny towns where the Amish have settled over the years, and when you go from Manhattan to farm country it's hard to feel like you're not on a different planet rather than in a different state.
Adirondack: New York City to Montreal
This is another of the Amtrak routes that seems to deliver you to another world. You start in America (sort of, New York City likes to consider itself a separate country) and end up in Europe (or as close as you can get without getting on a plane or ship).
This is also one of the most scenic Amtrak routes as it takes you through the picturesque Hudson Valley and the Adirondack Mountains.
Sunset Limited: New Orleans to Los Angeles
Ah, two of my favorite cities connected by an Amtrack route! New Orleans has a sort of shabby glamour, and Los Angeles has a sort of manufactured glamour. Any kind of glamour is good in my book. You can pretend you're a southern socialite heading to Hollywood to become a star.
Empire Builder: Chicago to Portland or Seattle
If you like great food with a big helping of the wide open spaces America is known for, this is your dream route. The train ventures through the Lewis and Clark trail, Glacier National Park, and the Great Plains. Hop off in Portland or Seattle. Either way you're for some great dining out in two of America's currently hot culinary cities.
Bottom Five Amtrak Routes
These routes make the bottom five not because of their destinations which are lovely as is much of the scenery along the way but because they are riddled with delays.
Texas Eagle: Chicago to St Louis to Dallas to San Antonio to Los Angeles
If you're looking to travel by train, time is not your major concern, but even the most patient travelers are likely to blow a gasket on the route with the ignoble distinction of consistently being one of Amtrak's worst for on-time performance.
This is partially due to the sheer length of the route and partly due to the route being crowded with freight coming out of Chicago. The TSA pat-down might be worth it.
Missouri Routes: Chicago to St Louis to Kansas City, Missouri
This line also ranks low because of poor on-time performance, and, again, Chicago is to blame. Chicago is a major freight hub, and freight ranks higher than passengers when it comes to who gets to go to the front of the line.
Vermonter: St. Albans, VT to Burlington to Springfield, MA, to New York to Washington, DC
Rail travel doesn't get subsidized in America as it does in Europe, and it shows. This route has a lot of delays because the tracks aren't in the best shape, which means the trains can't get up to speed.
That said, it's a beautiful trip in the fall if you're a leaf peeper.
California Zephyr: Chicago to Denver to Emeryville, CA
On this route you have Chicago causing problems again. It's a long route, so expect delays. The good news is you'll have pretty things to look at as this route takes you through the Rocky Mountains. You can gaze at them from the observation car, which has a glass dome.
Michigan Services: Chicago to Grand Rapids/Port Huron/Detroit to Pontiac
Amtrak owns the rails on a big portion of this route, so they're better maintained than some of the tracks along other routes, meaning trains can go full speed. Chicago gums up the works again, so you can only hope the fast speeds make up for delays.
10/10 Would Recommend!
Traveling by train is really relaxing. You have room to spread out, your ears don't pop, you can get up and walk around, get out at each stop and stretch your legs. It's so nice to settle back in your seat and watch the world go by through those big picture windows!
If you have the choice between flying and taking Amtrak, seriously consider the train. If you're worried about the amount of time it will take, don't forget to factor in your trip to the airport and the fact that it's advisable to arrive two hours before your flight. Train stations are often centrally located while airports are often in the hinterlands, and you don't need to arrive for your train much earlier than about 15 minutes before departure.
If you're looking for your next travel adventure, book an Amtrak ticket!