Packing for a train trip

or

sleeper car compartments require different solutions

You may be the world’s most experienced traveler, ready to fly on a moment’s notice with a super-organized one bag solution that works every time… but you may not be ready for your first overnight in an Amtrak* sleeper compartment.

Train travel isn’t like most other modern trips. Yes, the train provides for your conveyance from point A to point B, just like your bicycle, the SUV in the garage, a Greyhound bus, or a Boeing 737. However, unless you customarily hit the road in a small RV, your typical ride isn’t also your home away from home for a night or two. I’m not familiar with any other type of travel where every inch counts for so much.

Cruise passengers may be the closest commercial counterparts to travelers enjoying the train compartment experience. A ship will take you from place to place, and will provide for your sleeping and toilette accommodations along the way. Even the tiniest interior stateroom on a modern cruise ship is palatial when compared to Amtrak’s sleeper car offerings, though, and knowing what to expect can make or break what may be a once in a lifetime trip through some of America’s most spectacular scenery.

Before I frighten you away from the train—one of my favorite modes of travel!—let me assure you that you will have more personal space than you endure enjoy on any commercial flight. An average- to plus-sized American will fit comfortably in every seat on the train, including those in the smallest sleeping compartment. If you can fit yourself and your belongings in a domestic first class airline seat and overhead bin, you are more than prepared for the daylight hours aboard the train.

The difference comes once the beds are “made down” in your sleeping compartment, prepared by your sleeping car attendant for the night’s repose.

The cozy dimensions of spaces on the train are never more obvious than during the transition from day to night (and back again, come morning.) Unless your attendant gets your bed made down while you are in the dining car, you will have to step into the hall while s/he performs this task. There simply isn’t room for an extra body in the compartment during the transformation. They are that small. Luckily, it only takes a skilled attendant a few minutes to accomplish the task.

Once back in your private compartment, the under seat areas you could reach easily during the day become difficult, if not impossible, to access with a bed stretched from wall to wall. You might be able to reach the bag, but not get it past a metal leg that now blocks the opening. Even if the bag can slide under the obstruction, if it has a rigid side, it may not have room to come far enough out to lift it up leaving it halfway in and halfway out of its under seat dungeon until freed in the morning.

Happily, solutions are easy! Forewarned that your wheeled carry on is not the best bag for a train trip, you can plan ahead to have a comfortable and convenient journey.

1) Rigid-backed, wheeled bags will be hard to access under seats, and heavy to stow in upper storage bays in Viewliner cars. It will also be hard to find room to open them for access at night. Soft-sided bags are a smarter choice on the train.

Your wheeled luggage is a fine choice for checked bags. On the bi-level Superliner trains out west, rigid bags can be conveniently stored in the luggage rack you pass upon entering your sleeping car. They won’t be in your compartment, but they will be accessible during travel. You would still face the inconvenience of finding a large, open space to open an inflexible bag, like the floor in the middle of the hallway by the toilets. Ugh.

Better choices for overnight bags to access in the privacy of your compartment include soft-sided luggage and simple duffel bags. Backpacks are the easiest to carry aboard, but use caution when stowing bags with loose straps under seats. I’ve had bags get hung up on the bed transformation mechanism underneath. A travel pack with self-storing straps is probably ideal, but not a necessary purchase if you won’t use it again.

2) Hanging bags are space- and sanity-savers in small compartments.

One utterly unique piece of luggage that seems a perfect option for use in a train compartment is the Rolo soft, rolling, hanging bag. I wouldn’t purchase one for a single trip. It isn’t a requirement for a good journey. If the organization of this bag appeals to you, it worked better on my most recent rail journey than anything I’ve used before.

Rolo bag empty roll hang suitcaseRolo is unique because it hangs up like a garment bag, which would also work well on the train if still own one. Unlike an old-fashioned garment bag, Rolo has zippered pouches more suited to folded or rolled casual clothing. Larger men’s sizes might not fit, but it was the perfect size for a change of clothing plus nightwear for one of my kids and me.

Every Amtrak compartment has at least one coat hook as a legacy of an earlier era when people dressed up to travel. This little foldaway hook is the perfect place to hang a long, flat bag. Garments stored in such hanging bags will be accessible even when the beds are deployed.

Another option would be to use a lightweight bag with long handles to temporarily store just you want for the night and early morning and hang that bag from the coat hook. You’ll need to plan ahead before bed, but this cost effective option can keep your belongings under control and accessible overnight.

In spite of half a dozen overnight journeys on Amtrak and reasonable planning and packing skills, I invariably end up sleeping with a lightweight bag on the bed near my feet. I’m not very tall, so this is comfortable for me, but it might not work for every passenger. If you are petite, it can be easier to sleep with yesterday’s laundry than contort into position to stow it after dressing for bed.

3) Toiletries should hang up, too.

Only the sleeping compartments known as “Bedrooms” have full en suite baths on Amtrak, but all sleepers have access to toilets and showers. Your toilet might be in your compartment (all Bedroom compartments, Viewliner Roomettes) or down the hall (Superliner Roomettes, Family Bedrooms.) Showers are en suite in the Bedroom compartments, and down the hall for all Roomettes and Family Bedrooms.

It’s a good idea to bring a robe or other quick-to-don garment for modesty during trips through the corridor if you are staying in anything but a full Bedroom.

Whether you will be sharing the facilities or using your own in a Bedroom, it can be handy to have a hanging strap or hook on your toilet kit. The train moves, shimmies, and shudders on rough tracks, and anything that isn’t fastened down can shift, sometimes suddenly. I always hang my toiletry bag on the coat hook (yes, there’s one in each toilet and shower room, too) lest it take a tumble into a sink or onto a floor that’s been left less than immaculate by the user before me. Your Bedroom or Viewliner Roomette sink will be as clean as you’ve left it, but it won’t pitch any less from side to side. An unsecured bottle can roll into an inaccessible corner under the bed pretty quickly, leaving you without your favorite toiletries. It’s safer to tuck them back into your hanging bag as you go about taking care of your toilette.

Particularly in the shower compartment, I take great care to place all of my clothes into a securely hung, water-resistant bag before running the water to wash. I managed to drop my clean pants into a puddle on the floor during my first Amtrak trip, and it made for an uncomfortable morning. Now, I wear yesterday’s clothes into the shower room and only bring my fresh undergarments to put on there (beneath my old clothes.) When I make it back to my sleeping compartment, I change out of yesterday’s outfit and into my clean, dry clothes for that day.

4) Eyeglasses and bedside necessities

In case I haven’t made this point clear enough yet, the train is moving, and sometimes that movement is abrupt. You might have a shelf or ledge next to your head while you sleep in your compartment, but important items you place there may not stay still through the night. If you wear glasses, use a travel alarm clock, or have other items you’d like to access in the night, a soft bag with a strap that can disconnect to wrap around or hang from a hook or bar is a very good idea. I use the same Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag for this that I use for comfort items on a plane. It’s about the size of an average ladies’ purse. The key is the strap that can disconnect so it will work with either a hook or a fixed arm/bar.

Bags on hooks Waldsee

Green bag at left is my expensive and perfect Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag, but the cheap white mesh shower organizer on the right has its uses

The upper berths (top bunk beds) always seem to have a built-in pocket for personal items, but I’m very reluctant to use them. I’d say that these pockets are likely about as clean as the seatback pockets on an airplane—not very! If you do plan to put your things in here, consider bringing an empty gallon size Ziplock bag to line the fabric pouch with first for hygiene’s sake. I’ve seen a wad of used chewing gum, for example, in a seatback pocket.

5) Cash

This final suggestion may be ridiculously obvious to some, but caught me off guard on my first cross-country Amtrak trip. It is wise to make sure you have enough small bills to last throughout your journey. There is no ATM on the train.

Food is included with Amtrak sleeper car fares; full service, sit down meals in the dining car were included in the price of your ticket. Since tipping is customary in American restaurants, and service charges have not been included in your fare, it is usual to leave a cash tip for the wait staff after every meal on board. Traveling as a family of four, we typically leave $5-10 at breakfast and lunch and $10-20 after dinner.

We had cash with us, but not enough small bills, during our first trip. If you are in a sleeper, you may not spend any other money during your trip, so you won’t be getting any more change. Drinkers who purchase alcoholic beverages in the Diner or the Café Car would be an exception to this.

Traditionally, one would also tip the sleeping car attendant who makes your beds and keeps the facilities tidy. Amounts vary—and Amtrak’s service is known to range from exemplary to downright awful—but I budget up to $20 per compartment per day for this. The only time I didn’t tip the attendant at all was when I literally didn’t see him the morning I left the train. That was an unusual case.

* Commentary applies about equally to Amtrak trains in the United States and ViaRail trains in Canada, though I can’t remember if there were as many coat hooks in the Canadian sleeper car. The ladies’ room in the ViaRail sleeping car was the nicest train restroom I’ve ever seen, and was both larger and cleaner than any other. That was the one train washroom where I didn’t feel compelled to corral my toiletries in their bag at all times.

I haven’t traveled on any other nations’ overnight trains to make additional comparisons.

4 thoughts on “Packing for a train trip

  1. Pro tip: if you tell the attendant *not* to come mess with your bed, you can leave it down all day and lounge around as you see fit. As one who likes to be horizontal when relaxing, I prefer the bed to stay down so I can lie back and watch the countryside scroll by. Train travel is really relaxing, much better than airplane travel. Also: if you come out at a stop to sneak some wifi from the station or local library, keep an eye on the train – they will absolutely leave you behind if you’re too engrossed in your email to get back on.

    • I’d rather sit up! 🙂 Sleeping car attendants do work very long hours and I try to accommodate their rhythms when I can, but passengers should be allowed to enjoy their journey in comfort. This is one of Amtrak’s weakest points, especially for the fares commanded in sleepers/first class. Service should be uniformly good. It isn’t. Most of my experiences have been good to great, though!

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