Turns Out We’re Train People

During the fall Tall Dad celebrated a “big” birthday and in the year leading up to it I questioned him about what he’d like to do to celebrate his day.  As a long-time baseball fan, he wanted to head to Boston, the home of the Red Sox, to see Fenway Park. Simple enough, right? Not quite. Boston is a long 730 miles away from our home.   He was also interested in traveling by train. Well, what a guy wants for his fiftieth birthday he gets, right?

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Fenway Park was Tall Dad’s Ultimate Birthday Destination.

Because this would be an extended trip we had to adjust the timing of the birthday trip to a few weeks later to early winter to accommodate Tall Kid’s school schedule.  This was fine, too, because Tall Dad loves the winter holidays. The first step of preparation was to study up on Amtrak travel. I read up as well as possible on related blogs, but there’s a stunning lack of first-hand information online about traveling by train.   A year before the birthday trip, Tall Family tried out train travel by using Amtrak to move across North Carolina for a short trip. Our initial impression was positive, and it gave us some practice with the processes, though it was a far cry from the long adventure we had planned.

So on Christmas Day when we were ready to board the Carolinian’s business class section at our hometown station (BNC) I was as well informed as the internet could make me.  Our hometown station hosts both the Carolinian and Piedmont trains. It is well maintained and rather than having to arrive two hours early for a quick frisk, we simply drove across town and arrived a few minutes ahead of our departure time.  Parking for the duration of our trip was free and the station‘s parking lot is monitored by video cameras. The attendant reported that there had never been a problem with security in the lot. When the Carolinian arrived at BNC we were quickly helped on board and chose seats at the front of our section.  Because there were three of us, we chose to sit in a section of four seats (rows of two seats facing each other) with a table between us. We settled in to our comfortable, spacious seats and couldn’t help but mention the marked difference between our train and airplane seats.

On our last long distance air ride I was pretty sure Tall Dad was going to give us a reason to meet an air marshal and get stranded in Los Angeles.  He had a tough time. As it turns out being able to buy a plane ticket doesn’t always equate to also being able to use good manners, and we encountered some less than pleasant characters aboard a well known (definitely not cut rate) airline with no real intervention by the crew.  Tall Dad had a man virtually sleep in his lap, and that didn’t sit well – either literally or figuratively.

In contrast, our Amtrak business seats provided a nice recline without impeding on neighbors with plenty of legroom for a family of  long inseams. That “crammed in there” feeling wasn’t an issue, and even the bathrooms were far more spacious than those we had found in the air.  

While Tall Dad has his own air challenges, mine are more about the luggage situation.  It makes me uneasy to hand my bag filled with belongings over to handlers and have it out of my eyesight. When traveling by air, I spend half of the journey wondering if my luggage will arrive where and when I do.  But not so with Amtrak travel where you can see and access your luggage. True, Amtrak’s bag regulations for this particular trip did mean that I had to limit what I packed for a rather long trip, but in the end I was thankful for the parameters that it provided so that I wasn’t lugging unnecessary items around from stop to stop.  I simply had to be more thoughtful about packing and make sure every item would be useful multiple times.  For reference, we used this luggage (rolling duffle, Olympia) and it was surprisingly sturdy.  The wheels make all of the difference for rolling off the train and platform!

The ride to Penn Station in New York City is about twelve hours in length.  Before you think “Wow, what a long ride!” consider that it has actually taken us longer to drive there due to traffic in Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC.  There’s nothing worse than being in standstill traffic and wondering how long it will take you to get to the nearest restroom. A real plus for the Amtrak journey is the opportunity to get out and take a stretch break on platforms at some of the bigger stations along the way.  Sure can’t do that with air travel.

Around the middle of the day I took out our soft-sided cooler where I had packed all sorts of goodies for Christmas lunch (also an air no-no).  We enjoyed our ham sandwiches and sausage balls as towns zipped by outside of our window. The Amtrak staff regularly served water, juices, and soda.  Amtrak serves Pepsi products which is always the tipping point for me. On later legs our family enjoyed the dining car with a croissant breakfast, for example.

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Tall Family took in the dining car’s cuisine aboard Amtrak.

Admittedly, train travel is more leisurely and necessitates a traveler who understands the value of slowing down the pace.  The time passed with reading, playing video games and Uno and of course, electronics. The wi-fi worked well and we had easy access to multiple electric outlets.  The birthday boy watched a plethora of movies on his electronic device. This, my friends, was why I emailed my mother-in-law on Christmas Day not to wish her a festive holiday but rather  to report that, “It turns out we are train people.”

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This is the moment I realized we were officially Train People. Everyone had all of their needs met during the journey.

After dark we enjoyed the Christmas lights at homes that we could view from the train window.  Shout out to all of those near the train tracks who made the effort as this entertainment surely delighted in those final hours of the trip.

Upon arrival at New York’s Penn we made a quick exit and had checked in at the New Yorker Hotel within a matter of minutes.  That, too, is simply not possible from air travel. After a grueling ride in the sky the next step is transportation to the hotel.  In this case we simply rolled our bags down the sidewalk. I had been concerned about the upfront cost of train travel but found that it really is all-inclusive in a way that other transportation methods are not.

I had pined to try the New Yorker for a few years as it really seems like the epitome of the city and is well located near the station.  But I have to admit that beyond location it was not all I had hoped. Tall Family was stunned by the small size of the room and we literally had to communicate about who would walk and where before anyone moved.  My son’s feet stuck out from the bottom of the bed at night. The New Yorker simply wasn’t maintained as well as what we are accustomed to, and I am giving some allowances for the age of the property. The holiday decor in the lobby area was beautiful, and since we were there for sightseeing, we chalked the room up to “Just gonna sleep there” and tried to overlook some things.  The view of the Empire State Building (from our small window) each night was beautiful. If the place is good enough for the likes of Hilary Clinton and Nikola Tesla then surely it ought to suffice for us.

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The Wyndham New Yorker’s lobby was beautifully decorated for Christmas.

We visited some of our favorite places in the city and I adored Bryant Park’s ice skating and holiday shops just as much as I always have.  We scheduled ahead of time to take part in a tour bus visit to Dyker Heights to see the incredible lights. The fellas weren’t so much into that but it was something a bit off the beaten path.

 

So due to our room situation a few days later when we left the New Yorker I don’t think any of us were too terribly sad to move on to Boston.  I am grateful to have had the opportunity to try Wyndham’s New Yorker but on future trips would probably book long-time love, the Sheraton Lincoln Harbor in Weehawken. The view of the city is incredible from across the Hudson and Weehawken feels so quiet and spacious juxtaposed against the Big Apple.

We took a regional train out of Penn Station and headed to Boston’s South Station.  This was a trip of about four hours and was again comfortable and accommodating. Our only delay was due to boxes of Corona bottles on the tracks.  Must have been an interesting story there, but I never figured out what had happened. The route included some obvious business travelers making their way to obligations through the Northeast Corridor.  This was my favorite section of the trip as the tracks aligned with beautiful water-side territory particularly in Connecticut. The view out of the window was Hallmark movie worthy. We arrived in Tall Dad’s Promised Land via South Station in the early afternoon and as we exited the train I noticed that the platform had been salted proactively due to the likelihood of freezing precipitation.  Snow was something I had been concerned about as I planned the trip but unlike a plane, I knew that short of a blizzard, my train would absolutely be leaving on time in a few days.

Our stay in Boston was at the Seaport Hotel.  Seaport was a last minute change I had made thanks to a great online coupon from Expedia that I learned about via Extreme Hotel Deals and Frequent Miler.  With the highly coveted deal, I was able to save $500 and book an incredible hotel for our stay. We welcomed our time in a more spacious and updated room complete with beautiful view of the water, a big screen t.v., multiple onsite restaurants, and really comfortable beds.  Seaport even provided a surprise birthday dessert for Tall Dad on our first night there. I would stay at the Seaport again without hesitation. There was simply nothing not to love – including the hotel’s “no tipping” policy. How incredibly refreshing.

Because the ultimate goal had been to see Fenway Park Tall Dad and Tall Kid made the trek over to the baseball park for a tour on our first afternoon in Boston.  While Seaport is an amazing hotel, it is in an “up and coming” area rather than on the beaten path and though there is a bus station nearby, using the bus and subway rarely made much sense for our situation.  While we generally use public transportation the routes in the Seaport area were often inconvenient so it was Uber that saved the holiday. Tall Kid reported that the Uber personalities were a favorite part of the trip.  While I made the mistake of purchasing a public transportation pass, the entire city told me to take the Uber.

Over the course of the next few days Tall Family hit a variety of spots in Boston, and though most of that was achieved in a cold rain, Tall Dad reported his birthday trip was awesome.  We spent our days touring – the US Constitution museum and ship, Tea Party museum, and the North End Pizza Tour (which included the North Church). We experienced the Northern Lights Cocoa and Carols cruise and though we enjoyed views of the city from the water we also learned that we may not be a Cocoa and Carols kind of family.

My favorite afternoon in Boston was spent on leisurely strolling through Boston Common and the surrounding area. The afternoon was sunny, and it was a relief to be able to take in ice skating, a one man band, and chubby squirrels in the park.

When the Boston portion of Tall Dad’s birthday trip drew to an end Tall Family did an evening boarding at South Station (BOS) which meant that we were the first to board the Amtrak train headed to Washington, DC’s Union Station (WAS).  Again, it was spacious seating in business class for our peaceful journey through the night. Our fellow passengers were consistently incredibly respectful and though there was often a quiet car during the Amtrak journey, I can’t imagine that it could have been quieter than where we were at any point. Tall Dad suffers with sleep apnea and the train’s space and electrical connection made it possible for him to use his machine on board and get some shut eye.

Arrival at Union Station was the next morning and although a solid itinerary including a visit to the Capitol Building for a timed tour was planned for Washington, DC before the train took off toward home for mid-day, the rest of Tall Family threw up a white flag of surrender.  We used a pass to enter Club Acela at Union Station. The pass is a perk of our Amtrak Bank of America Guest Rewards credit card. The lounge was like a “members only” club that required a secret door knock. I was the only one of Tall Family who had the opportunity to check out all of the new furniture and televisions as the remainder of the group collapsed on couches and took long, long naps before the next train departure.  Club Acela was a very welcome reprieve from the chaos outside of its doors and the snacks and drinks there (soda fountain and goldfish crackers) were appreciated. That was the first time I considered using the very helpful Red Cap service who were basically delivering luxury at its finest. Those folks would have placed my luggage on board for me for just a tip. I had made it that far, though, and since I had packed lightly was determined not to go powder puff on the last leg, I resisted.  When I woke Tall Dad and Tall Kid for the trip home I realized that Club Acela had further spoiled them and that there would be no turning back.

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Tall Kid’s time in Union Station’s Club Acela was mostly spent with shut eyes.

After another pleasant trip through the evening back to BNC there was no moving through a large building through turnstiles to exit.  The Carolinian simply set us out at our station and we walked across the parking lot to our car and headed home. As I buckled the seat belt Tall Dad looked over at me and as he cranked the car’s engine said, “If you can get there by train, that’s the way to go.”  Birthday trip well done.

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