Monday, May 25, 2009

Midnight Train

This week's newspaper column:

Want to take a low-carbon-footprint vacation this summer? Try Amtrak.

According to the US Department of Energy, trains emit less carbon than airplanes or automobiles per passenger mile making rail travel the greenest way to commute long distances. (In the early 1900’s, artist Walter Anderson crisscrossed the country on dirt roads with a rusty old green bicycle – a great deal more sustainable than plane, train, or car - but I wouldn’t suggest this for the faint of heart.)

With fares comparable to flying, Amtrak is an attractive way to see the country on the way to your final destination. And unlike the cramped quarters of a commercial airliner, seats are spacious with much more room to stretch and move around.

Watch the passing landscape from your seat, or saunter down to the lounge car for a panoramic view. Have a drink and a snack while you meet interesting and diverse fellow travelers.

When mealtime comes around, take advantage of the dining car where window-side booths are adorned with white table cloths and fresh-cut flowers. The kitchen offers a variety of menu choices -including healthy and vegetarian options - serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Don’t expect a four star restaurant, but for diner food, the quality is surprisingly good.

Sleeping rooms with fold-out beds are available at a premium rate, but if comfort is a priority, that’s the way to go. Meals are included when you book a sleeper.

Getting beyond energy efficiency, rail travel fosters another facet of green living: cultural sustainability.

On the train, you will have the potential (and probability) of meeting people from all parts of the county and any corner of the globe. Long conversations are standard fare. Why hurry? You’ll have a few hours to relax and enjoy the ride.

If traveling alone or in a pair, the dining car hostess takes the liberty of seating you with a random rider or two leading to unexpectedly delightful conversations with people you probably never would meet otherwise.

Riding cross-country on passenger rail is the equivalent of taking a graduate level sociology class, except this course is “hands-on” and most your fellow students are up on the subject matter.

If you are planning an extended vacation, the USA Rail Pass is a great value. For less than four hundred dollars (and under two hundred dollars for kids), you can ride anywhere Amtrak travels for 15 days with up to 8 stopovers. Thirty and forty-five day passes are available as well.

Amtrak does not have advance purchase discounts per se, but as seats on a train sell out, the price gets progressively higher, so buy tickets as far ahead of your trip as possible.

Consider riding the rails this summer. Take a good book, and I bet you’ll have some great travel stories to tell when you return.

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