Why didn't I fly? 13 hours on Amtrak from New York to Montreal
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Taking the train isn't always the fastest way to get around, but sometimes that's the point.
At least that's what I told my boyfriend when I convinced him he should join me on a train trip to Montreal for the weekend. Even though it takes under an hour and a half to fly from New York City to Montreal — and six for a car ride — many travelers take the 10-to-12-hour train ride on Amtrak's Adirondack route instead.
I've long been a fan of train travel. Even on the most mundane routes (the Metro-North from New York City to New Haven, Connecticut, the Acela from Boston to Providence, the B train from Brooklyn to Manhattan), I often opt for the train, even when it's not the fastest or most direct. There's no sitting in traffic or carsickness, no waiting in line at airport security or cramming your toiletries into a tiny plastic bag. Sometimes there's even free Wi-Fi, and the baggage allowance is always generous.
And for nervous flyers or travelers concerned about their carbon footprint, trains are just the ticket.
That's why I couldn't wait to board the No. 69 Adirondack train from New York-Penn Station to Montreal's Gare Centrale. I'd heard wonderful things about the scenery and the leisurely route that cuts through New York's Hudson Valley and snakes alongside the shores of Lake Champlain. During peak fall-foliage season, Amtrak has even been known to haul its vintage glass-roofed Great Dome Car out of storage so travelers can really admire the colorful landscape from the panoramic windows.
Related: Guide to Maximizing Amtrak Rewards
Of course, sometimes romantic notions of travel are just that, as I learned over the course of a 13-hour trip from the Big Apple to the City of a Hundred Steeples.
One thing that remains consistently less stressful with train travel is booking seats. You want to take the Adirondack train from New York City to Montreal? Great. You're going to buy tickets through Amtrak: no cross-referencing fares on metasearch engines or setting deal alerts.
Book far enough in advance and you could find saver tickets from $46 one-way. Book the week of, like I did, and a standard "value" coach seat will set you back around $70, though this number can fluctuate depending on how last-minute you're booking and how many seats are left. A flexible fare jumps up to $101, and first- and business-class fares are not available on this route.
If you have a stash of Amtrak points in your Guest Rewards account, a one-way ticket on the Adirondack will set you back at least 2,415 points or more, depending on availability.
If you need more points, consider applying for the Amtrak Guest Rewards© World Mastercard®, which earns 3x points on Amtrak travel, 2x on all other travel and 1x on everything else, as well as 40,000 points when you spend $2,500 within 90 days of your account opening. (For reference, that's more than 16 one-way trips from New York to Montreal.)
You can also charge your ticket to a card such as the Capital One Venture Rewards card and cancel out the travel charge with points, or pay using a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3 points per dollar on travel charges. Personally, I charged my $78 ticket to my Chase Ink Business Preferred credit card, as I was working toward a minimum spending requirement and the card earns 3x on travel.
We arrived at New York-Penn Station a nail-biting 30 minutes before departure, thanks to a few unexpected delays. I wasn't too concerned — until I saw the twin lines for the Adirondack and Maple Leaf trains snaking back toward the Amtrak entrance of Penn Station.
I was really anxious about getting good seats for this trip, so I walked past the line to find the Amtrak Red Cap service. Years ago, an old colleague told me that she takes advantage of the complimentary service to get assistance with her bags — and a guaranteed good seat every time.
But when I tried to enter the lounge, I was told I needed my documents verified first. That's when I realized I had walked straight past the passport check, with its giant, red-and-white Canadian flag.
Fortunately, there was no line, so I walked straight up to the security agent and had her review my ticket and passport. I was given bag tags and a blue slip verifying that my documents had been checked, and I was cleared to cross the Canadian border.
I hurried back to the lounge just a few minutes before boarding, and asked a Red Cap agent for assistance. My boyfriend, who had wandered off to buy breakfast and get his documents cleared, joined me there. Before he could sit down, our bags were loaded onto a cart and we were escorted past the line and down an escalator to the track.
"That's strange," I muttered, unsure how we had skipped the process of having our tickets checked and presenting our blue border pass to the Amtrak gate agent.
Sure enough, the Red Cap agent had taken us to the wrong track. In an effort to skip the line, we were quickly losing time (and window seats).
If the Red Cap service had gone as planned, we would have in fact skipped to the front of the line — and we still managed to breeze through pretty quickly when he brought us to the right track.
Using the Red Cap service or arriving early is crucial if you're planning to take the Adirondack. There's no reserved seat selection, and the good seats do in fact fill up quickly. Not all of the seats have windows — which is supposed to be the entire reason you would book this train — and if you get stuck in a bulkhead seat, you'll be cruising along for 12 hours without a tray table or footrest.
On another trip to Penn Station, I asked a customer-service agent how early he recommends arriving for the Adirondack.
"The earlier the better," he told me, but said at least 45 minutes ahead of departure is key. But, he added, if you're running late, this isn't the airport, so they'll check your passport and let you on until the moment the train pulls away from the station.
Because the Adirondack and Maple Leaf trains split outside the city to accommodate track work, we needed to make sure we were in the right car, too. Otherwise, we might have ended up in Toronto.
Train and seat
Because there were no reserved seats, it was first come, first served — and the full train meant no one was without a seatmate for the more-than-10-hour crawl to Montreal.
I was immediately impressed with the pewter-colored leather seats, which felt fairly new and clean. Everyone on the Adirondack had a seat that, well, didn't lie flat but had a steep recline, as well as loads of legroom, a personal tray table and a footrest.
There were also two outlets beneath the window, but that was awkward: If the person in the aisle seat wanted to power up, the person occupying the window seat had to be OK with cords running across his or her lap. Fortunately, there were plenty of places to charge up in the cafe car, too.
Even tangled in charging cords, the Adirondack was definitely more comfortable and more spacious than most flights you might otherwise take for a weekend in Montreal.
Families and groups traveling together had limited options, but the seats at the front of the car did afford more legroom and storage space. Many travelers spent the majority of the ride in the cafe car, which had rows of tables that could seat four to six travelers.
We pulled out of the station just a few minutes behind schedule, and were greeted by a hilarious conductor, Jeff, who checked our tickets and confirmed to a handful of nervous travelers (myself included) that, yes, this was in fact the right car for Montreal.
"I'm not a drill sergeant," he said. "I'm not ex-military. But these restrooms stay only as clean as you keep them."
He warned that if we, as a collective, didn't take care of the train's bathrooms (four for the Adirondack, specifically) they would "disappear."
In addition to vague restroom threats, Jeff also told the travelers sitting in front of us, at the front of the car without windows, that they should head to the cafe car after the Whitehall stop. That, he said, is when the view would really get good.
As part of my romantic vision of the scenic rail ride to Canada, I imagined I would buy a light breakfast from the cafe car, grab a seat by the window and work. If nothing else, I figured, a 12-hour train ride must be good for forcing productivity.
But the Wi-Fi on this ride was garbage. Trash, if you will. Total rubbish. I could hardly connect, and because of the route, my cell service was spotty the entire time, too. I couldn't even load Instagram, let alone use my phone as a hot spot.
Proof? I tried to run a speed test to figure out just how bad the Wi-Fi was, and I got errors the likes of which I haven't seen when trying to connect to the most outdated inflight Wi-Fi.
That's all right, I thought. Perhaps I could enjoy the scenery from the cafe car and write, or do some light reading. This is definitely a more viable plan for any readers interested, shall we say, in the long-haul route to Canada. But the cafe car was always packed and rowdy, too. Families and groups were chatting and snacking, and there was a heated game of cards that lasted for a couple hours. At least, unlike on a plane, you can always walk away from crying babies and belligerent grown-ups.
But two entire tables were reserved for Amtrak crew members, and except for early in the ride, I never saw them occupied, save for the luggage holding the space. Another two tables in the second cafe car were almost always filled with conductors who were chatting loudly across the aisle. It would have been fine, had so many of the tables not been unusable to passengers as a result.
I frequented the cafe car multiple times during the trip, including right when it opened, to see what inventory they had. While waiting in line, I noticed that a number of items on the overhead menu were marked as sold out (including the cheese-and-cracker tray, the white cheddar macaroni and cheese and the oven-roasted turkey sandwich). But during one of the stops, presumably the unscheduled hour we spent at the Albany-Rensselaer station, they seemed to restock.
For breakfast, I ordered a hot Dunkin' Donuts coffee, a Chobani Greek yogurt and a fruit cup, which set me back $13.50. And no, that purchase did not code as travel.
There was also a full list of liquors, wines and beers and an array of light bites (hummus with pretzels or vegetables, peanuts, Miss Vickie's potato chips) plus a few items that might qualify as meals: DiGiorno personal pizzas, beef or vegan burgers, hot dogs and a vaguely tempting Mediterranean chicken-and-quinoa bowl.
But the pro move here is to order Shake Shack at Penn Station before boarding and pack your favorite snacks from home. The only reason you'd want to spend your dollars at the Amtrak cafe car is for the diversion. Because after 10 hours of, well, just about anything, you start looking for diversions in strange places.
Case in point: the bathrooms.
Just like Jeff prophesied, three of the four bathrooms had "disappeared" by noon, with more than seven hours of travel left. So I went to scope out the rest of the train.
Still quite nice and modern, but without the footrest or same angle of recline, many of the cars at the front of the train were completely empty, including those with cafe car-style seating, which I wish I'd known about earlier in the trip. Those bathrooms were also extremely clean and still working, while the bathrooms for the "Adirondack" portion of the train were disgusting, or totally off-limits.
"Not working," warned one hot pink Post-It note stuck to a bathroom door. "Out of water." Another bathroom had "Not working" written on a manila envelope duct-taped to the door.
So, while spacious bathrooms should be a pro of train travel, humans continue to be incapable of using facilities without ruining them. Or, at least, getting them very, very wet.
Just before crossing the Canadian border around 2:45pm, a conductor came to our car to explain the process. Immigration, she said, could take just 30 minutes. But she'd also seen the process last four hours. So, she warned, have your immigration card filled out and your passport ready.
Obviously, because the train was full of humans, no one did any of those things. A brother and sister (too old for this to be cute) sitting across from me were using their immigration documents to play an impossibly competitive game of tic-tac-toe.
Canadian law enforcement officers boarded the train and reviewed everyone's documents, asking such questions as "What do you do for work?" and "Why are you going to Canada?"
One officer asked a woman behind me, "Why did you decide to take the train to Montreal?"
I was already asking myself that question.
Many people were taken for more thorough questioning, and the entire process took approximately two hours. This is about the point in the journey when I started playing a dangerous game with myself.
"I could have flown to Canada and back at this point," I thought. "Twice."
Though the train ride was scheduled to last about 12 hours (already two more than the southbound route that originates in Montreal), we were starting to stare down the barrel at more than 13 hours.
When we arrived at Montreal's Gare Centrale more than an hour and a half behind schedule, the station was dark and empty.
As we gathered our belongings, one man rushed past everyone when the train doors opened, explaining that he had a dinner reservation, well, right now. And after all, this is one of the single greatest factors of train travel (usually, anyway) — that trains tend to run according to a tight, to-the-minute timetable. You can usually rely on them like clockwork, and make reservations around the scheduled arrival, which you rarely want to do when flying.
Yet even at this, the Adirondack train was a letdown.
From the very beginning, the Adirondack train did not meet my admittedly lofty expectations. The check-in process was a bit confusing, and even though I didn't have to take my shoes off, I actually missed the familiarity of breezing through TSA PreCheck.
Boarding is a free-for-all without seat assignments, and if you end up without a tray table or a window, the two reasons you probably booked this trip (see: forced productivity, leaf peeping) are sort of a moot point. And that's before you even try to connect to the Wi-Fi.
And, yes, the scenery is lovely. But as a final nail in my locomotive-shaped coffin, Amtrak retired the Great Dome Car this year. And it was actually not all that easy to admire the view from the train. The windows were filthy, and the view was cropped.
Sure, Amtrak may be the more affordable option when you're booking far enough in advance (under $100 round-trip if you plan ahead) versus a minimum of $200 for airfare.
But here's the real thing: You can drive to the Hudson Valley from New York City in two hours, even with traffic. And if you really want to experience the fall foliage — admire the view and all that jazz — I'd argue you're much better off taking a car and getting out into nature for the day. Spend those hours hiking or picnicking by a lake upstate, instead of stuck inside a gloomy train car for a dozen or so hours.
And if it's a trip to Montreal you're after, well, like I said: There are planes for that.
All photos by the author.