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The people you meet on a 46-hour train ride across the country

Sept. 27, 2019
7 min read
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All aboard! For the entire month of September at The Points Guy, we'll be exploring the world of train travel with reviews, features, deals and tips for maximizing your trip by rail.

In March, my wife Katie and I took a 46-hour-long train ride from Portland, Oregon to Chicago, Illinois, traversing some of the most remote parts of the U.S. While we could have made the journey by air in under four hours, it was a fascinating experience to ride through parts of the nation we'd never seen before.

The other reason we booked this trip? To see who else we would meet along the way. Turns out, it's not hard to get to know your fellow Amtrak passengers on a two-day journey across the country. All you need to do is head to the dining or observation cars to make fast friends. From spring breakers to grandparents and their grandchildren, here are the types of people we met while riding the Amtrak Builder.

Related: The best credit cards for train travel

Railfans enjoying the train

Just as there are AvGeeks who love every aspect of aviation, there are so-called railfans that get just as excited about trains. It didn't take long for us to run into our locomotive-loving counterparts. Shortly after arriving at the Portland's Union Station, we entered the lounge reserved for business class- and sleeper car- passengers.

When we checked in, there were two older men standing by the check-in desk. The lounge attendant noted we would be in roomette 2, and I asked the attendant if this was a good room. Before the attendant could respond, one of the men jumped in to share his thoughts on the room. We learned it was on the upper floor, in the middle of the car and right across the hall from the cabin attendant.

Multigenerational families

There's no getting around it: train travel can be slow -- especially when you're crossing the country as opposed to just going between two cities that are relatively close together in the Northeast or similar. That makes it best for travelers who really have time to sit back and enjoy. That's probably why we saw grandparents traveling with their grandchildren.

On our second day, we met a grandmother and her preteen granddaughter getting breakfast shortly before last call was announced. The grandson -- who we learned would be celebrating his 13th birthday that week -- hadn't gotten out of bed in time to make breakfast. The group of three would ride with us for the entire journey from Portland to Chicago. Once there, they planned to meet up with the kids' parents and other relatives who were flying to Chicago to spend a few days together.

Commuters and short-haul travelers

In addition to those of us taking the train for the entire 46 hours, there were a number of passengers who were riding for much shorter distances, when the train was simply the most logical transportation option. During boarding in Portland, I met a passenger who was commuting back to western Washington and told me the train was by far the best way for him to get between the city and his home. Later in the journey, I ran across workers heading to the oil fields in Montana and North Dakota.

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While passing through Glacier National Park, we met a young family in the observation car. They'd just boarded a couple of hours earlier in Whitefish and were headed four hours down the rails to their grandparents' house near Shelby. Rather than drive through the national park, they opted for the much shorter distance to the Amtrak station and let the train handle the majority of their journey. The mother and daughter were enjoying the scenic views, but the rocking of the train had lulled the young boy to sleep. After surviving a cold Montana winter, the family hoped to head to the Bahamas for spring break — but it seems work got in the way. Maybe next year, they pined.

International tourists on the scenic route

While you can cover a lot of ground quickly by flying, riding the rails is a great way to truly see the country's diverse landscapes. In addition to the local families we met, there were a number of international travelers on our train.

In the observation car, we spoke with an older Scottish couple visiting from the UK who were traveling nearly coast-to-coast by rail. They'd joined our train in Spokane, Washington and were taking the Empire Builder all the way to its terminus in Chicago. After seeing the Windy City, they planned to drive through Ohio and Michigan to visit family before catching another Amtrak train to New York City and flying back across the Atlantic from there.

Travelers who avoid flying

There's a number of reasons someone might prefer to take the train -- from being afraid of flying to needing extra legroom.

It can also be cheaper. In addition to reasonable fares, Amtrak lets you check two bags for free plus bring your carry-on bags, so it may be much cheaper to take Amtrak than paying for a flight with the cost of checking bags. There's no charge for pets on the train, and pets are allowed on most routes.

Also, there were no security or identification checks on our domestic train trip, which makes the process less stressful.

For breakfast on our last day, we sat at a table with a couple who'd just boarded that morning in St. Paul. We learned the man had traveled extensively on Amtrak, but it was the first time for the woman. They were headed from St. Paul to Chicago, a journey that would take about 8 hours by rail. When I asked why they chose the train over the plane, they pointed to cost and the experience of riding the train. Plus, they knew the economy seats are a lot more spacious on the train.

Related: The ultimate guide to Amtrak Guest Rewards

Bottom line

Outside of the Northeast and some spots out West -- where Amtrak can often be the most practical choice -- it's easy to assume the only people riding the rails are tourists enjoying the scenery. While you'll certainly find these travelers, there are plenty of others you'll meet riding the rails on Amtrak's long-haul routes.

One thing is for sure: riding Amtrak is a social experience. In the dining car, you're likely to be randomly seated with other travelers. And while the tradition of the dining car is undergoing some changes at Amtrak, the observation car seems to be as much a social gathering spot as a place to enjoy the view. In just under two days on the train, we met dozens of fellow passengers -- more than I've ever gotten to know in my many days in the air.

People from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds can be found taking the train. But just as you have the option to mingle with and get to know your fellow riders, there also aren't assigned seats in coach — so you aren't stuck sitting next to someone who you don't want to talk to for the whole ride. That's a blessing for when you are ready to pause for a moment and just sit back and enjoy the view.

Featured image by Emily Moser / AMTRAK