Amtrak: It's no Orient Express -- but it's not a bad way to travel
Train travel: A century ago and a continent away, it was synonymous with luxury. Today, along the Eastern Seaboard, that's not necessarily the case. What's it like to take a 1,100-mile rail journey in the here and now? Determined to find out, I embarked on a 24-hour trip in April on Amtrak's Silver Star Train 91 from New York to Kissimmee, Fla.
My daughter Justine opted for a week of Walt Disney World magic instead of a party to celebrate her 16th birthday. So, in addition to my family -- my husband, John, daughter Julia, 10, Justine and me -- we had two of Justine's lifelong friends, Carley Lerch and Lauryn Cartagine, both 15, in tow.
AND THEY'RE OFF
We arrived at Penn Station via the Long Island Rail Road an hour before our scheduled 11 a.m. departure. Thanks to self-service kiosks located in the waiting area, check-in and ticketing were a breeze. Waiting for our train to arrive, however, was not.
Although Penn Station is Amtrak's busiest station, with 8 million passengers passing through in 2007, the carrier doesn't have a waiting area with seats for its regional service, so we had to stand the whole time. Kids who are lugging tote bags, wearing backpacks and wheeling luggage can get cranky when they're uncomfortable. So can adults.
Lack of creature comforts aside, the wait ended before it became intolerable. Amtrak does not assign coach seats until passengers are on the platform, which makes the boarding process a bit disorganized.
PERKS AND QUIRKS
The seats: Our reserved coach seats were much roomier than any we've had on airplanes. Chairs reclined comfortably, with leg rests emerging from beneath at the touch of a button. Adjustable-height footrests were attached to the seats in front of us, as were multiposition pullout trays. The piece de resistance? About 36 inches of legroom, which, on such a long trip, is more a necessity than extravagance. The kids were thrilled to have electrical outlets at their seats, a perk that's not available in every coach-class car. They played video games and charged iPods and cell phones to their hearts' content. Had I known, I would have brought my laptop. But, alas, I scribbled this account the old-fashioned way, on a legal pad.
The baggage: Amtrak has a generous baggage allowance, permitting two carry-on bags per passenger, not including such personal items as purses, strollers, laptops and small coolers. An additional three bags can be checked. We packed meals, fruit, snacks and beverages for everyone in our group.
The food: Food was available for purchase at the snack bar in the lounge car and in the dining car by reservation. The snack bar served standard convenience-store food (think microwaved hot dogs for $3.75 and pizza for $3.50); the dining car menu included flatiron steak served with a baked potato and vegetable ($21) and roast game hen with rice and a vegetable ($13). Judy Loving, the lead service attendant who staffed the snack bar where I purchased several cups of coffee, offered old-fashioned service with a smile all day long, despite the throngs of hungry customers and long hours spent on her feet. She closed up shop at 11:30 p.m. and re-emerged, bright-eyed at 6:30 a.m. Asked about her 12 years working with Amtrak, she smiled and said, "I love my job." In fact, we found all the attendants were friendly, helpful and pleasant.
Rest rooms: Larger than those found on airplanes, but similar in design and quality, with stainless-steel fixtures and sliding doors. They were relatively clean and usually available, with two in each car.
While John and I read books and magazines and listened to our iPods (he, country and classical music; I, the audio version of my book club's latest assignment, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," by Junot Díaz), the kids hung out in the lounge car for hours at a time, playing cards and getting to know some teenagers headed home to northern Florida in what turned into a lesson in cultural diversity ("Mom, what's mudslinging?" Turns out, it's a game Southern kids play.)
The Langes, a family from Holbrook seated in front of us, entertained themselves with a portable DVD player ("Full House" episodes, mostly), a laptop, video games and magazines.
It was quite chilly in our car, so I was glad to have had the foresight to pack blankets. We'd been warned they wouldn't be available gratis. ("Souvenir" blankets are sold at the snack bar for $15 apiece). Other cars were too warm and stuffy.
As bedtime neared, we reclined and curled up into our blankets. I awoke nearly every hour to shift positions and found it necessary to include two Advil with my breakfast. Nevertheless, we arrived in Kissimmee reasonably refreshed and exactly on schedule. And you know what? We'd do it again.
Bring a blanket
Have a toothbrush handy
Arrive at Penn Station more than an hour before departure
Don't wait on line for a boarding pass; use a self-service kiosk
Board the train unless you're absolutely clear about your seat assignment
Count on access to an electrical outlet