[Amtrak trip] From Houston to Tucson

After enjoying the three days in Houston, it was time to head to Tucson, Arizona. The departure time for the train was 6:55 PM. This train ride was supposed to be very special to me because it is the longest ride (about 26 hours) during this Amtrak trip and it was the only train ride that I would be staying on the sleeper car.

Other than this trip, I just used ‘reserved coach’ seats. It was free with Amtrak rail pass and the legrooms were spacious enough for me to have a good enough rest. However, on this train ride from Houston to Tucson (Sunset Limited,) I chose to try a sleeper because it was looooong ride, meaning the upgrade fee should worth it especially considering that all meals are free for sleeper car passengers.

The upgrade fee to use ‘roomette’ type sleeper for this ride was $338. This amount was for the entire roomette that up to two people could stay. If you are traveling alone, you wouldn’t be staying with a stranger but use the whole roomette by yourself. If two people are traveling together (like us,) one should be using the lower bed, and another the upper. In either case, the upgrade fee is the same.

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Roomette on Amtrak Sunset Limited

I made a reservation for the roomette about two months ago, by visiting the Amtrak office in Boston South Station. The sleepers are known to sell out fast especially during the summer vacation season, so I booked for it as soon as I could.

When I arrived at Houston three days ago, the train was about two hours late due to some kind of construction that made our train detour. It was the same train that I needed to take to go to Tucson, and as expected, the train arrived about 1.5 hours late this time too. Passengers at the (tiny) Houston Amtrak station got pretty frustrated because the only staff at the station would tell us she had no idea where the train was, or when it would arrive.

When the train FINALLY arrived around 8:00 PM, sleeper car passengers were allowed to board first. The room number was already printed on the ticket. We were advised to find our room on the first floor. I was excited+nervous to see my first sleeping car and dashed to the sleeper ‘#13.’

It was very very small room with minimal decoration. One thing that caught me surprised was that there was only one outlet for electricity! Every coach car had two outlets per two adjacent seats, so on this matter the coach seats were better. I wished I would have brought one of those multi tabs, but I didn’t, so I had to manage to switch between my gadgets.

And I also found out there was no wifi on the sleepers either. This kind of shocked me too because when I asked the Amtrak staff a few days ago (when I was on a coach car) about the wifi, he answered “only in sleepers.” I am still not sure it was only us who didn’t catch wifi or the entire car was ‘off.’

After dropping the luggages+baggages down, we went for our first free meal on this ride. We were advised by the staff to head to the dining car as soon as we got into the train because it was getting close to the closing time (for the dining car.) I didn’t want to starve whole night so hurried to the dining car.

I was informed if number of people on your group is less than three (one or two,) you must share the table at the dining car. Ok, I was expecting this, but sharing the table with strangers was never easy for me, considering my poor English speaking ability! We were party of two and the staff advised us to sit side by side. In front of us were empty seats  at first, but the seats were soon joined by very nice middle aged husband and wife. I nervously greeted “hello!” and they greeted back to us with a nice smile. And then the silence followed, and we were saved by a menu given by the waiter. I chose Angus beef steak (‘Amtrak Signature Steak,’ $25) because… it was the most expensive one on the list!

And then again, a few awkward minutes of silence passed by… everybody just looking out the window.  The sunset was beautiful and I accidentally (?) shouted “wow!” After my brave action of breaking the silence, the conversation naturally evolved to “where are you from?” and stuffs. It was nice little chat and the food was better than my expectation. For sleeper car passengers, even desserts and tea/coffee were free, but one has to pay extra for alcoholic beverages (beer $6.00~7.50, wine $7 per a glass etc.) I learned by googling, that I should leave gratuity according to the original price of the meal so I left $10 in cash on the table. Other people seemed to be doing about the same.

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Angus beef steak as a dinner

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Seats at Amtrak dining car (soon to be filled by strangers)

***dining car menu in case you are interested (click to enlarge)

After my first experience ever of having dinner with complete strangers, I headed back to the sleeper. It was getting late and I was so tired after walking a lot around the city of Houston, so immediately got ready to go to bed. If I needed to, I could have asked the train attendant to make bed for me. However, there was an instruction of the wall about making beds that seemed pretty simple. We managed to do it ourselves without any problem. I chose the upper bed without contemplating about anything. I climbed up the simple ladder, turned off the light, and crawled inside the blanket which seemed very new and clean. The train was keep moving and I realized the bed was shaking with the train, up and down then right to left and down and up. Despite the rattling of the bed, I fell asleep fast.

I hoped for waking up in the morning without waking up in the middle of the night, but unfortunately, I woke up around 2:00 AM. I never had any problem with closed space in my life  but I suddenly panicked and felt stuffy in my chest because the ceiling was so close (like 30cm from my face) above. I adjusted myself to face the open space on the right hand side, which made me feel a little better.

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Roomette with beds installed

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Upper bed at the roomette

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Shower room that sleeper passengers can use

After half sleeping for a while, I decided just to get up around 5:30 AM. The train was passing around San Antonio, which was still Texas. The breakfast was from 6:00 AM so after washing my face, I headed to the dining car again, now for free breakfast. There was also a shower room in the train. It seemed very clean and there were plenty of towels and everything but I was not brave enough to take shower in the shaky train so I decided to pass this time and go straight for the breakfast.

While having egg omelette as a breakfast (again with very nice middle aged gentleman and lady,) I realized the scenery had changed a lot from Houston. There were definitely less trees and more sands. I even spotted some whirling sands ascending upward. The gentleman sharing the table kindly taught me that special things were called ‘dust devil.’

After the breakfast I moved to the observation room, because I didn’t like the feeling of being trapped in the small space and also there were more outlets there. It was amazing to see the scenery changing to desert, and more surprisingly it was STILL Texas. Later I found out Texas was about seven times larger than my home country, South Korea!

The train ran and ran and ran across this huge state. I had four meals during the 26 hours of train ride (dinner-breakfast-lunch-dinner.) The sun went down and came up and started to go down again and it was still Texas! And then we touched the border of New Mexico and finally crossed the border of Arizona.

When the train was near Sunland Park, NM, we could see the huge wall lining up along the border between Mexico and the US. Passengers took pictures like crazy, thinking that the walls were the world famous Trump wall. However, the gentleman we were having a lunch with told us the wall was already there before Mr. Trump’s presidency. Naturally, the conversation started to point toward the topic of politics, which was not the best theme to share with strangers so it quickly gave a way to more fun stuffs like the experiences on the train.

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Looking out the border wall near Sunland Park, NM

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Looking out the border wall near Sunland Park, NM

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Looking out the border wall near Sunland Park, NM

Now I was definitely on the desert. I was so excited because it was the first time for me to see the real desert this closely. I exclaimed “wow” too many times and the nice lady told me she found my reaction very interesting because she thought the scenery of endless desert was the most boring thing in the world. We laughed and wished each other the best of luck while traveling. After having four meals straight with strangers, I found myself not to be too scared of talking to people I didn’t know. It was even a bit fun to guess who my next meal companions would be.

The train finally arrived at Tucson around 8:00 PM. I was to stay in Tucson only one night and head north to Sedona, Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas by a rental car. I thought of Tucson as just a passing city, a city with not too many interesting things to see, which proved to be 300% wrong!

***Amtrak trip: full list***

***Here are some pictures from Sunset Limited train from Houston to Tucson. They are all ‘day two’ pictures because it was already too dark when the train was leaving Houston on the day one.

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Day 2, morning: Pecos River, TX
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Day 2, morning: between San Antonio, TX and New Mexico
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Day 2, morning: between San Antonio, TX and New Mexico
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Day 2, afternoon: near Sunland Park, New Mexico

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Day 2, afternoon: near Sunland Park, New Mexico

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Day 2, afternoon: near Sunland Park, New Mexico

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Day 2, afternoon: near Sunland Park, New Mexico

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Day 2, evening: near Peloncillo Mountain Wilderness, New Mexico
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Day 2, evening: sunset near Sierra Vista, AZ 

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Arrival at Amtrak Tucson station

[Amtrak US #5] planning detailed schedule

After drawing the BIG PICTURE on how I wanted to travel the US (with 30 days of USA rail pass), now it is time to make more detailed plan. You have to make reservation for the each train ride, even if you have the pass (will get back to this is later posts) meaning you have to know specific date/time of the trains you want to ride.

I sort of decided the starting date to be July 23rd and ending date to be around one month after that. According to the big picture I want to visit about ten cities (including Grand Canyon), so that means I will spend 2~4 days in each. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well… I don’t know if there’s an easier way, but for me it was a bit complicated task to finish (took whole afternoon.) Maybe it was because I started from punching in the cities on Amtrak reservation site, to find out the best choice of train to hop in. For example, I punched in Boston–>Chicago on July 23rd like this.

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This route was no problem because there’s only one, daily train from Boston to Chicago. I HAVE TO take THE train. But this kind of searching became a problem later because for some of the route, the train was not there everyday! For example from New Orleans to Houston the train leaves only Mon, Wed, and Saturday.   So if you punch in, for instance,  Sunday as a starting day you get something like this. Notice of ‘no train available’ and only one alternative. I felt like ‘hmm…. what if there’s better alternatives?’

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You can play around with Amtrak reservation system punching in random dates, but for me, it did not seem efficient.

Then I found the old fashioned Amtrak time table booklet!

It is a bit ironic because yes, it is old fashioned booklet but Amtrak does not print the hard copy (one that you can pick up at the train station) anymore (at least it seems… making many people furious <related discussion>.) But the good new is that you can still acquire free pdf booklet of the national timetable on Amtrak website. ***Here is downloadable link of June 2018 version of the Amtrak System Timetable***

It is 139 pages pdf of booklet that you can search cities easily by ‘ctrl/cmd+f’. I am a ‘paper’ person so I also printed out the whole booklet.

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<Amtrak System Timetable> printed out

The book has every timetable of Amtrak trains and connecting buses run by Amtrak (you can use a USA rail pass for a ride on these buses.) The chapters are sorted by regions (Northeast, East, Midwest, West, Pacific Northwest, and California) and in the first few pages (‘Amtrak Service Location’) all the cities are listed alphabetically with the page(s) to look up the schedule.

Ok finally, here’s how I constructed the detailed schedule. I will display the steps by example of <New Orleans–> Houston> route. (*I used the free Adobe Acrobat reader for the example.)

  1. (Done before) Draw the big picture and sort out the cities to visit.
    For me it is: Boston–> Chicago–> New Orleans–> Houston–> Tucson–> (by rental car: Sedona–> Grand Canyon–> Las Vegas)–> LA–> San Francisco–> Portland–> Seattle
  2. Look up the name of the city for the train ride in the ‘Amtrak Service Location’ pages (pp. 3~12) . Either departure or arrival city is okay. I looked up ‘New Orleans’ and it has four pages to look up (58, 69, 70, 87.)Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 10.39.21 AM
  3. Punch in the pages () in the pdf reader. I found the route connecting New Orleans–> Houston in page 70. Oh, it is the same train that goes from Houston to Tucson (my next ride)! I can easily the train only runs on Mon/Wed/Saturday ()Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 10.49.02 AM
  4. Write down in separate paper or document file the departure/arrival cities, departure date and time for the ride. In my case, it is July 30th (Monday.) You will have to use this paper/document to make reservations for the ride.For this ride I wrote down (in a piece of paper):
    July 30th (Mon) New Orleans 9:00 AM –> Houston 6:18 PM
  5. Repeat 1~4 until you have the complete schedule!

Later I made neatly arranged spreadsheet to take to the Amtrak station where I picked up the USA rail pass and made the reservations for each ride. Will get back to reservations on later post and for now, here’s the schedule I made using the above steps. The letters look kind of small below, but you can look up the spreadsheet here in case you are interested😁!

 

[Amtrak US #1] All aboard!

I am planning one month of Amtrak train trip next month.
As a Korean studying in the US for one year (Aug 2017- Aug 2018), I wanted to explore the US to the fullest. How foolish I was to think that I could experience the US in just ONE year!
I have to get back to work in South Korea by Sep. 1, 2018 and realized that there are still so many cities that I want to, or I have to visit. Chicago, New Orleans, cities in Texas, Sedona, Las Vegas, San Francisco… 😓😓😓There was no possibility that I will visit all these cities before I go back to Korea.
Then I found out there is USA rail pass, just like Eurail pass in Europe, designed for train lovers who want to travel across the US states via train!
I bought the pass through Amtrak website, and have finished planning the itinerary about 2~3 weeks ago. Also made reservation for the each train ride (yes, you have to make reservations for the each trip even if you have the pass… will get back to this in following posts.) It surely wasn’t easy, but wasn’t impossible either.
In this blog I am planning to share my one month journey across the US, starting in July 23.
I am planning to add on ‘how to prepare’ tips, itinerary, city info, experiences on the train, pros and cons, and etc. I have never written a travel blog or travel book by myself, so the info I post might not be 100% correct (though I will try to be as accurate as possible). In this case, just let me know by writing in comment section or sending me an e-mail (sky4994@gmail.com) and I will correct the info as I go along.

This is my Amtrak USA rail pass that will accompany me for one month of travel