by: Crissy Neville

For a travel formula that offers ease, affordability, and a wide range of choices in both amenities and destinations, with an added measure of adventure, train trekking is an enticing mixture. Long popular among Europeans, trains are an increasingly sought-after travel method for U.S. travelers, too. Plus, since a scenic ride on the railways can be a vacation in itself, travel by train can be a welcome change from the usual ways to get to and fro. 

There are a number of private operators who offer excursions on private passenger trains in the country, but the semi-state-owned Amtrak is the only one offering passenger service in North Carolina. The carrier lauds 500 destinations in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces. All 21 thousand miles of route network are available to North Carolina travelers through connecting railways. 

With 31.7 million U.S. passengers served according to Amtrak’s most recent
statistical report, train travel is at an all-time high.

In the Sandhills, travelers can choose to board either the northbound Silver Meteor train in Fayetteville which extends from Miami to New York City or the southbound Palmetto which has a run from New York City to Savannah, GA. Southern Pines offers another option with the Silver Star traveling from Miami to New York. In addition to these routes, Amtrak maintains depots in 23 additional North Carolina cities and towns including Durham and Raleigh in the Triangle, Winston-Salem, and Greensboro in the Triad, and other major hubs like Charlotte, Greenville and Rocky Mount. 

According to Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods, ridership in North Carolinian is at nearly 900,000 passengers annually, which includes those boarding and traversing through the state. 

“Many of the customers on these trains are leisure travelers,” she said. 

“Additionally, we provide a vital transportation service for a growing number unable to fly or drive, including many senior citizens and persons with disabilities. Amtrak offers large spacious seats with ample legroom and no middle seat.

Amtrak offers one-of-a-kind journeys with the chance to relax, move about freely, work or play.”

Where are these leisure destinations? From southeastern North Carolina, treks to our nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C., Disney World in Orlando, Florida and the Big Apple, New York City are popular excursions. Frequent train traveler Constance Ramey boards the midnight train from Fayetteville multiple times a year to see beloved Broadway musicals and plays on weekend jaunts to the city that never sleeps, while others choose NYC for attractions such as the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Plaza or to shop. Ramey notes ease and comfort as two of the reasons she touts the train. 

“Unlike flying, my husband and I can get to the train depot shortly before departure and take our bags on board with us, or check luggage without fees. Seating is relaxed and comfortable and we can move around the train to stretch our legs. For meals, there are many choices in the dining car but we can also take food on if we wish. 

I love taking the night train to NYC; I sleep through the night and then get right off a few blocks from Times Square. It’s easy.”

Riders to New York can also choose transfer and travel to other places like the Windy City, Chicago where an included hop-on, hop-off tour takes tourists to sites such as Millennium Park, the Navy Pier, Magnificent Mile, and other popular landmarks. 

From the Chicago Union Station, passengers can ride the famous California Zephyr to Salt Lake City where the journey west is an experience in and of itself. An experienced Amtrak blogger, Elysia McMahan, described her 36-hour trip on the Zephyr as a magical experience.

“The iconic silver, double-decker train glides through the American heartland’s amber waves of grain, small towns, and twisting canyons,” she wrote of landscapes she viewed on her rolling adventure.

From the observation car, passengers enjoy views from vantage points in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska in route to Denver, Colorado. The greens and tans of America’s breadbasket morph to the reds and oranges of the western world as the train meanders to its mark. Climbing the Colorado Rockies from the Denver Union Station, the Zephyr snakes its way across the Continental Divide, Rocky Mountain National Park and along 235 miles of scenic railway adjacent to the Colorado River before reaching its final stop in Utah. 

This expedition is just one made by connecting from New York to Chicago, Amtrak’s national center, with other itineraries available through Memphis to New Orleans, through Denver to San Francisco, via Grand Rapids to Detroit and Pontiac. 

Moreover, it is possible to board a train in North Carolina and experience a getaway to our country’s national parks such as Grand Canyon, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. Traverse the Pacific Coast hallmarks of Napa Valley, Redwood National Park or famed Hollywood Hills. See cityscapes in Boston, Atlanta, or faraway Seattle. Visit the Deep South vistas of New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, or Miami. Explore the Southwestern sights of San Antonio, Tucson and Oklahoma City. Encounter international landscapes in parts of Canada. The possibilities are endless.

While on board, passengers enjoy many choices for amenities in each car type. All seat-types provide Wi-Fi and electrical outlets to keep guests connected, entertained or working while traveling.

Coach class is the open seating, general-passenger car affording riders ample legroom and reclining chairs. Here guests enjoy leg and footrests, fold-down trays and curtains at each window. These seats are best for the budget.

For a quieter environment, business cars are a choice item for guests needing a space to work or unwind without a lot of noise. This choice offers an enhanced level of comfort and perks in a separate car or part of the train. 

Sleeping cars with bathrooms and showers accommodating one to two adults are another must-have for long-distance routes, with Superliner cars offering family suites. 

Passengers on the sleepers are entitled to a range of hotel-like perks such as fresh linen and towel service, and special access to the lounge and dining cars with meals included in the ticket price.

Food service varies by car. On short-distance trains, dining options are available in a cafe-style car. Casual foods such as sandwiches, pizza, snacks, and beverages are served here.

Longer-distance trains have dining cars featuring seasonal menus with a variety of entree selections and kids’ selections, too. Beverage choices include cocktails, beer, and wine as well as coffee, tea, or soft drinks. 

An additional bonus is budget friendliness. Train fares stay more stable than those of airlines and are often more cost-effective for shorter distances. Customers can take advantage of various discounts at Amtrak like Share Fares and credit card travel rewards. 

The rail operator often gives discounts to children, seniors, students, AAA members, military personnel and other key demographics. 

The train ride will be longer than the corresponding flight but for cost-cutting, the train choice often wins out.

All in all, the experience of riding the train is the primary reason many choose a railway vacation. To enjoy the journey as well as the destination, choice and savings, history and charm, and a slower pace, consider a time-tested travel alternative – try the train.