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Elegant, Exciting, Affordable Train Vacations: The Rockies, Pacific Coast, New Orleans, Chicago

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Imagine yourself sipping a glass of wine and looking out the window at the mountains in the distance. Then as the train rolls along, you glance at your watch and realize it’s time for a card game in the lounge car.

Scenarios like this play out every day as more savvy vacationers choose to travel by train. Rail travel lets you…

  • Avoid the hassle of driving or dealing with airport check-ins.
  • Relax and have a chance to meet people, especially in dining or café cars, where passengers often chat or play cards.
  • See the country. Many trains have observation lounge cars with panoramic views.
  • Disadvantages: Although trains go to more US cities and towns than airlines do, they still don’t serve all of them, including Las Vegas… Nashville… Columbus, Ohio… Louisville, Kentucky… and Tulsa.

    Note: Amtrak operates all intercity trains in the US. VIA Rail Canada operates intercity trains in Canada.

    ON A NEW TRACK

    If you haven’t recently traveled by train, you might be surprised by how much they have improved over the last few years…

  • Coach. There’s more leg-room than you’ll find in first-class seating on most airlines. Also: If you want to nap in your coach seat, many daytime runs have “quiet cars” where passengers aren’t allowed to speak on cell phones or disturb others with loud conversation.
  • Roomettes. Private rooms with two facing seats by day flatten into a bed at night, while an upper berth pulls down from the ceiling. A sink and toilet are either in the roomette or in a separate bathroom. A common-area shower is also available.
  • Bedrooms. Bedrooms come with private bathrooms and showers, and are designed for two people. Three — two adults and a child — can ride in them if two don’t mind sharing the bottom bunk. All overnight trains have bedrooms that are wheelchair accessible.
  • Today’s overnight trains also have dining cars and/or café cars.

    Typical Amtrak ticket price: About $1,000 per couple, round-trip, for a roomette on a 36-hour trip purchased in advance for off-peak travel (fall, winter and spring, excluding holidays). For the same round-trip, a bedroom for two people would cost $1,500 to $2,000. Roomette and bedroom prices include three meals a day.

    Ticket prices vary because Amtrak charges more as seating becomes scarcer but lowers prices if there are still empty seats a few days before departure.

    Special meals, including kosher and vegetarian, are available at no extra cost, and disabled passengers can have meals brought to their seats or rooms.

    Passengers who are at least 62 years old are eligible for lower prices on most US trains. In Canada, discounts start at age 60.

    Luggage rules: Coach passengers can carry on up to two bags that don’t weigh more than 50 pounds each or measure more than 28″ x 22″ x 14″. For sleeping-car passengers, the limit is three bags. All passengers can check up to three more bags with the same weight and size limitations. Three additional bags may be checked for $10 each. But bag check is not available at every stop or on every train.

    Information: Amtrak (800-872-7245, www.amtrak.com)… VIA Rail Canada (888-842-7245, www.viarail.ca).

    RELAX AND SEE THE SIGHTS

    Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada operate trains to several hundred cities, so you can usually go by rail directly to your vacation destination or with only one change of trains. Some routes are so scenic that the train trips themselves can be a big part of your vacation. Some of my favorite…

  • The Canadian. A luxury VIA Rail vacation train that runs 2,774 miles between Toronto, Ontario, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Passengers enjoy high-quality dining and terrific views of the lake region north of Lake Superior, the spectacular Canadian Rockies and the Fraser River in British Columbia.
  • The Canadian departs three times a week from both Toronto and Vancouver.

  • Coast Starlight. Running for nearly 1,400 miles between Los Angeles and Seattle. During the 35-hour Amtrak trip, you’ll see some of the most beautiful scenery in the US, including the Pacific Coast north of Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay, the Cascade Mountains and Puget Sound. There are wine and cheese tastings on board.
  • City of New Orleans. It’s today’s version of the train that was celebrated in the song of the same name. Passengers who make the 19-hour trip between New Orleans and Chicago will see the historic area around Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana as well as rural Mississippi, Memphis and the heartland of the Midwest. Passengers dine on Cajun and Creole cuisine.
  • Empire Builder. The train runs for more than 2,200 miles between Chicago and either Portland, Oregon, or Seattle, Washington. On this 46-hour trip you’ll have great views of the Mississippi River, the Big Sky country of Montana, the Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Park. Many vacationers take the train to the park, where they spend a few days, and then continue on (open only in summer).
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    Source: Bob Johnston, a passenger train expert and columnist for Trains Magazine, 12 issues/$42.95. He is coauthor of The Art of the Streamliner (Metro). Date: August 1, 2008 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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