I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
The Road Not Taken – Robert Frost
Instead of taking Interstate 40 for our family vacation last week, we opted to take a pair of shiny rails. And the decision to take Amtrak for the transit portion of our trip from Los Angeles to Albuquerque and back made a tremendous difference on our entire trip. The most noticeable one being that we arrived sooner and better rested than if we had driven the distance ourselves, as we usually do.
According to Google Maps, the 800 miles from LA to ABQ should take about 12 hours to drive. Obviously, Google doesn’t make their calculations with two small children in mind, as well as a wife who loves to make hour-and-a-half stops at whichever Cracker Barrel is closest at mealtime. Ultimately, it amounts to two full days of driving, logging close to eight hours a day behind the wheel — or stuck in transit purgatory.
With Amtrak, our trip was more like a long international flight in business class, with better meal options, more entertaining views, more options to keep oneself entertained en route, and a whole lot less hassle. It also took only 16 hours of elapsed time, and we slept a fair portion of that away. We left LA on Friday evening, and arrived at our destination in time for lunch the next day.
It started when we pulled into the Patsaouras Transit Plaza parking garage behind Los Angeles’ Union Station (at $6 a day, one of the great bargains in LA parking), parked about 20 yards from the elevators up to the station, and entered the terminal with no lines, no security checks and no hassles. My wife stayed with the kids and luggage as I went to the other end of the station, scanned my confirmation email at a self-serve kiosk and received all four tickets in about 30 seconds. (I did have to wait in a line for 3 minutes or so to get seat assignments.)
We rolled our kids and luggage up the ramp to Track 12, where the Southwest Chief sat waiting for departure. We put our big bags in the storage carrels on the lower level and took our carry-ons upstairs to our seats. The closest thing to a hassle we encountered on our whole train trip was a large group traveling together that ignored their seat assignments and created a bit of a logjam for people whose seats were in the section they commandeered. I coordinated a little horse-trading to swap assignments so they had the seats they needed, and others who needed to sit together had adjacent seats. It was like a dynamic game of Go Fish on a train.
After a nice dinner (flat iron steak medium rare with a glass of shiraz) in the dining car (make reservations early, or eat late), we reclined our seats, lifted the leg rests and let the kids watch some videos on the portable DVD player. The kids slept well; Mom and I slept well enough. There was a young girl a row in front of us who had a crying jag from 2-3 am, but I offered an episode of Dora the Explorer on the iPhone [iTunes link], and she finally settled down. Dora to the rescue! ¡Lo hicimos!
We had breakfast in the dining car (omelettes and french toast, no reservation needed but subject to waitlisting if they’re busy), and then relaxed in the lounge car as we watched the world stream by from our glass-enclosed perch. Our two-year-old son especially appreciated the view of Interstate 40, as semi after semi entered his line of sight. “Truck!” “Truck!” “Big truck!” The tracks themselves essentially follow the same path as Historic Route 66, which I-40 replaced, and many of the stations are named in the song: “…Gallup, New Mexico. Flagstaff, Arizona. [Don’t forget Winona.] Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino…”
When the conductor announced that we were 15 minutes out from Albuquerque, I called the Enterprise rental office. They said they’d be out front when we arrived. After deboarding, we walked through the terminal (which is very small) and the Enterprise agent was right at the front door. He picked us up with the car we were renting for the week, allowing us to load luggage and install car seats only once, instead of having to redo it at the rental office. It couldn’t have been easier.
After completing the rental paperwork, we headed out to continue our adventure — this time in a blue Ford Fusion instead of a silver Superliner. We joined my sister, nephew, niece and cousin for lunch at Los Cuates — a favorite of mine — rested and ready to socialize as opposed to exhausted and trying to get by. For our money (we estimate total costs were about $200 more than driving ourselves, and about half what flying would cost), this looks like a great alternative to any trip less than 1,000 miles.
And this was but the start of our journey…