How to Travel by Train Across the United States for Under 200 Dollars

train emeryville

Trains.  Riding in a train is like riding inside history.  It’s practically sitting in an artifact that dates back to the 19th century.  There’s a sort of romantic infatuation with trains, more so than there is with jet-planes.  In cinema, the train platform acts as the sprinting ground for those chasing after infatuation.  Many times the train platform acts as the rendezvous point that unifies those who scale great distances to return back to the ones that they left in waiting.  In the literary world, trains are often used in fantasy novels and in stories where protagonists seek a new life by running along countrysides to jump onto empty shipping containers.  There’s an overall mystical and magical quality that’s attached to rail culture.  Although American trains no longer stop on platforms as behemoth 19th century locomotives leaving behind a trail of coal powered gas through the smokestack of its leading car, trains still hold an enchanting quality that other modes of transportation simply don’t have.

During my time in Europe, I’ve taken the train on several occasions.  The first time was due to missing my flight from Barcelona to Madrid.  At times, it was because there weren’t any available flights between neighboring cities at reasonable prices.  Most of the time, trains act as the best transportation, or only mode of transportation, to regions within a country without airports.  However, in taking trains, I’ve managed to view parts of the European countryside that many overlook.  The seven or more hour train ride that took me throughout the south of Spain to get from Barcelona to Madrid was decorated with the much overlooked rural world of the Spanish nation: miles of trees, farmland, old structures that withstood centuries.  At one point, spanning through miles beside the train were sunflowers sitting in the sun.  This is a part of Spain that I would’ve have missed out on if I didn’t take a train or even just took a more direct route from Barcelona to Madrid.  On the train between Budapest, Hungary, and Ljubljana, Slovenia, I woke up to the mountains and the mist floating underneath their peaks.  Forest and farmland were sitting quietly waiting for the sunrise.  These places, a field of sunflowers and the mist underneath the mountains, don’t get to be seen by those who seek to move from city to city disregarding that anything exists in between.

Of course, there’s the time factor when taking trains.  Trains take longer than flights.  Although they don’t have to accommodate for the issue of traffic, sometimes they may even take longer than cars to get from one destination to the next.  However, when traveling, trains serve a significant service to those looking to see more of the world and that’s the ability to catch a glimpse of places less traveled.  The difference between traveling between train and airplanes is that trains see more than just clouds.  When traveling, time shouldn’t be the issue when the focus of traveling is experiencing new horizons.

I never had an interest in flying over the United States of America to reach the East Coast.  I wanted to see the countryside.  I wanted to meet people, ask them where they were from, and what it’s like to be a part of their city.  I wanted to wake up to sunrises along a moving plain and navigate my travels as if I was progressing through great distances.  Being able to watch myself move through state after state like a growing thread stretching directly across America has always enamored me.  Doing it for less than 200 dollars, well, that’s beyond bargain pricing.  

How I was able to take the train across America for less than 200 dollars

It may seem remarkable to have traveled across the United States of America for such an economically frugal price, but to be honest, it’s simply a means of asking.  Once I had the idea to travel across the United States, before I had a place to stay, a source of income, or anything to really establish myself in any place on the East Coast, I decided to look into travel costs.  From California, the cost of traveling to the East Coast by plane, one-way, to places like New York, Boston, or Washington D.C. were upwards of 400 dollars.  Of course, to some, 400 dollars isn’t much.  I could have taken the flight and flew over the states like many do and gotten to my destination within a day’s time.  However, I’ve alway wondered what was between the major metropolitan cities that establish themselves by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.  I’ve always wondered what mid country towns and cities I was missing out on, and the people that came from those places.  Due to this curiosity, I decided on inquiring about the train.

Unless I’m incorrect, I believe the Amtrak is the only interstate rail system that travels through the United States.  I did some research, google research, and was able to find a traveler named Derek Low who had the idea to travel across the country much in the same style that I did.  In his article, he talked about how he previously traveled across the United States by train.  Although our destinations differed slightly (his New York, mine Washington D.C.) we both took the train much in the same way: a straight line.  Both starting in California, he was able to get to New York by train on 213 dollars.  I was able to get to Washington D.C. on less than 200 dollars.  

I first began looking at train tickets by plugging in dates and times like what would seem like second nature when finding the correct transportation ticket.  However, after reading Low’s website, I found that there are special rail services that Amtrak offers.  Amtrak offers deals and promotions, and special train routes all across America.  There is one that runs along the East Coast called The Silver Service/ Palmetto which runs through New York to Miami, Florida.  There is one that moves between California and New Orleans, Louisiana called Sunset Limited.  The one that I was interested in was the California Zephyr.  

Instead of the trial and error approach of plugging in dates and times, I decided the fastest route would be to contact the train service number and ask them directly how could I get to Washington D.C. from California and what’s the cheapest way to do so.  I will be completely honest, the customer service was beyond exceptional.  The phone representative simply plugged in my route and was able to give me a ticket price of 186 dollars!  What would have taken me several hours plugging in times and dates into the Amtrak site manually took me no more than a couple minutes: less than ten minutes.  I thought about the 186 dollars.  Although, 186 dollars is what I believe would be beyond bargain pricing, I still wanted to think about the ins and outs.  The representative mentioned that it would be a three-day direct trip in coach, meaning that there weren’t any showers and there wouldn’t be any prolonged stops outside of the typical smoke break until I got to Chicago.  At Chicago I would have a break of several hours and then transfer to another train that would send me from Chicago to Washington D.C.  The California Zephyr only went from Emeryville, California (located near Oakland, close to San Francisco) to Chicago, Illinois.  My second train would finish the trip.  What the phone representative was able to do for me was reserve my ticket for a limited number of days and when I was ready, I would be able to purchase it over the phone at the same price.  I was almost baffled by this extremely courteous customer service.  It was beyond exceptional.  

For one day, I thought about the bargain price and the possibility of finding other modes of transportation.  But, as I spent the day with my ticket reserved, waiting for me to finish the process of purchasing it, I thought about what I might miss by not taking the train ticket.  There was much I wanted to experience traveling, and much of that would only be available to me by taking the train.  It was the very next morning when I decided to purchase my 186 dollar ticket that would take me to Washington D.C. from the state California.  The experience was very satisfying.

In future posts, I will be sharing more about this particular experience taking the rail across the United States.  Until then, keep in touch, read my books, and leave me a comment below on your experiences with the rail or any travel gambits you were able to find.  Until then, take care.   

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