So, why would you want to do that you ask?
Good question! I can’t remember exactly when I decided that travelling by train as part of my holiday might be a great plan. If you currently do or have ever used a train to commute for work, it might sound like quite possibly the worst idea you could ever have.
And I fully understand why. Here in the UK, the majority of my train experience extends to the always-packed-to-capacity Chiltern line into Marylebone, London and when necessary, onwards on the always-packed-to-capacity tube. My poor credit card will be forced to take a hammering in cabs to avoid the Underground at all costs if I can get away with it. First world problems and all that.
On holiday in another country though, the thought of taking a long train journey seemed fresh, mysterious and generally quite fascinating. Just think of all the scenery! As a 30-something female travelling alone, I love the flexibility of being able to fully tailor my holidays to my exact desires. No package holidays for me. But you’re unlikely to find the trains as an offered form of holiday transport if you’re just looking through deals on the regular travel sites in Britain. If you’re after a fly-drive to Orlando on the other hand, you’ll have considerably more luck.
And so, having finally formed the outline of this particular trip (beginning in Illinois and ending in Georgia) and already having 2 trans-Atlantic and 3 domestic flights to take, I decided to bite the bullet and take the City of New Orleans Amtrak service from Chicago to New Orleans. Just a solid 900 miles and 19 hours of pure train fun!
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to treat myself so rather than book a regular seat (that’s just asking for a lifetime of back problems), I went ahead and booked a room (a family-sized room – if you are indeed a family of hobbits). For the most part I was drawn to this particular accommodation because it came with a private bathroom and full fold down beds so you can be gently rocked to sleep by the soothing motion of the train. Though regular seats are super cheap, the upgrade to the room still cost around the same as it would have cost me to fly so really, it was still a bargain!
You’re doing what?
Feeling rather pleased with my grand plans of travelling down through the States by train, when I relayed my intentions to colleagues and friends, I was mostly met with bewilderment. “Ooh I couldn’t do that” and more perplexingly, “ooh you’re so brave”. I didn’t really question why this made me brave at the time, but it’s something I hear a lot when I go away by myself and I came to realise that the idea of travelling or holidaying solo, for a lot of people, is just not something they’d consider. Either because they have a family/a significant other/friends (with the same interests/budget – I have friends, honest 😋). Or they have a fear. And thus here I am to impart some – not always wise – but hopefully interesting anecdotes of my solo-travel experiences.
Chicago in the sunshine
I digress. My holiday dates soon came around and I was all set to go. First up, I had 4 thoroughly enjoyable days in Chicago. It was early November and particularly balmy for the time of year, which coming from the rain and cold of London, made for a refreshing and welcome change of weather pace.
Headed for Union Station
And then the night came. This was it. I was finally ready to get my Amtrak on!
I took a cab (definitely should have Uber’d) to Union Station from the Thompson Hotel where I was staying (recommended, I’ll be doing separate posts on places to stay). Once the cabbie eventually found where he was going, he dropped me outside…the completely wrong entrance. If you’ve never been to Union Station and you’re going to turn up at night, be prepared to get a little lost. Do find someone immediately to ask where to get Amtrak from. Or if you enjoy a good walk, do as I did and think you know best until you’ve successfully walked round the buildings 5 times and still not figured out where you’re going. To be fair, the station was undergoing a lot of re-construction at the time so it might not be quite as complicated as I can now recall – or perhaps navigation is just not my forte!
I finally managed to find where I needed to go and lugged my bags downstairs to the ground floor (there is a lift don’t worry, I was just being dramatic). I didn’t really know what to expect. Is it like a bus station or an airport? How do i actually check-in? Where does my luggage go?
The set up was a lot like a (small) airport with a number of check-in desks and conveyor belts behind to sort the checked bags. I rocked up to the first free attendant with a big old smile on my face and proudly announced I was checking in for the 8pm train to New Orleans like I was the first ever person to do so. He looked at me like I had asked to kill his dog.
Once we got over that first-date awkwardness, he kindly went about printing my tickets for me as I hadn’t managed to get round to it before leaving home. Then I had to additionally tag all 4 bags with special Amtrak tags – just one suitcase but 2 small and one medium piece of hand luggage. With each tag, as my new friend handed them over and watched me dutifully scrawl my name and address as quickly as possible, I could feel a little bit more of his soul just dripping away. I got the feeling he’d watched too many people writing their names and addresses on an Amtrak tag in his time.
5 minutes later I was done, checked in and ready to get going… in 2 hours when the train was due to leave. Bags need to be checked in a minimum of 45 mins before departure but this can vary by station so do always double check before you leave. I was obviously over-excited in this instance and decided that hanging out at the station would be much more interesting than hanging out in the city.
Are we there yet?
Looking to waste some time, I wandered back up and outside and quickly found myself faced with…not a whole lot. Although not super bulky, my hand luggage wasn’t particularly conducive to meandering around and exploring easily so you could venture a little further if you have time and travel light.
Back inside I went and made my way down to the Amtrak waiting room via a small convenience shop to pick up a drink and a (definitely high-brow, definitely not US Weekly) magazine.
The waiting room is sizeable with lots of seating depending on the time of day. It was in a bit of a forlorn state at the time, it had those harsh yellow lights that give you a headache in 2 minutes and it definitely smelled a bit funny. But I don’t mind things like that and it might have had a lick of paint during the ongoing restoration work.
I was much more interested in people watching the fascinating and sometimes bizarre mix of Amtrakkers around me – huge groups of families arguing, a young boy backpacking, construction workers, an Amish couple. I was almost disappointed when the call for the train came and I had to tear myself away from the guy in front of me who was casually brushing his toupee as if he was stroking a cat.
But so the call did come and after lining up in the allotted space ready for the staff to check my ticket and direct me to my sleeper car, it was goodbye Chicago, hello adventure…
Check out more about Union Station here: Riding Amtrak: Union Station Chicago
Part 2 coming very soon! Feel free to ask questions in the comments! 👍