WESTLAKE, La. | After more than a day of train travel across the desert Southwest, the green woods in Louisiana outside our sleeping compartment's windows were a pleasant change. But we weren't moving. For hours.
The Sunset Limited until then had been making good time, even occasionally extending station stops to stick to scheduled departure times.
But then a swing bridge at Lake Charles, La., got stuck and stayed open, eventually forcing Amtrak to back up the train to Beaumont, Texas. There my wife and I and nearly 60 other passengers were put on a bus for the last 281 miles to New Orleans.
Instead of checking into our New Orleans hotel at 10 p.m., we made it to the check-in counter at 6:30 a.m.
That was the inauspicious start of an 11-day, 6,889-mile train trip circling nearly the entire country, starting in Arizona, heading southeast to New Orleans, north to Washington, D.C., west to Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, ending in Southern California.
But would I do it again? You bet, though for variety's sake I'd substitute a couple of different Amtrak routes for some of the five that we rode.
Sure, the nighttime quarters were cramped. But we broke up our counter-clockwise sequence of train segments with overnight hotel stops and sightseeing in big cities, including a four-hour layover in Portland, Oregon, where we stretched our legs, shopped and had lunch. One of the stopovers enabled me to get in a decades-overdue reunion with a high school chum who lives on the other side of the U.S.
I wish that we hadn't missed the scenery when our long-distance trains kept rolling at night. Historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and the Rocky Mountains at Glacier National Park in Montana were in the dark when our trains on the Capitol Limited and Empire Builder routes passed by.
But during daylight hours, the Columbia River Gorge between Oregon and Washington was gorgeous (pun intended) for mile after mile and bend after bend. Earlier, North Dakota's stark beauty had my camera glued to the lounge car's big windows. But be quick with the shutter because what you see may be out of view in seconds.
Pricing the trip
While many people use Amtrak's long-distance trains as basic transportation, particularly in rural areas, we were among those riding the rails mostly for the travel experience. It was sort of like a bare-bones cruise ship on steel wheels. We bought 15-day rail passes ($459 per person, coach travel) and spent extra for sleeping compartments. Prices vary by compartment size and, as with airlines, your travel dates. We spent about $1,000 for five compartments for an early winter trip that included six nights on board.
The sleeping car experience
Sleeper cars have several types of rooms. Roomettes are the smallest and we found them fine for daytime with two facing seats but not so great at night. The seats become one narrow lower bed and there's a pull-down upper bunk for a second person. The person in the top bunk won't have space to sit up and has to climb into the tight space. Bedrooms, which are bigger, have a sofa-like seat that becomes the bottom bed. It's wider than a roomette's bottom bed but still a tight fit for two. Bedrooms have a small closet-size space housing a shower and toilet, which is convenient at night. Fares for sleeping cars include meals and use of first-class lounges in some big cities' stations.
Time to eat
Amtrak's dining car offerings aren't up to cruise ship standards, but we had no complaints with the quality. We had choices of about six entrees for each meal, which provided enough variety. Seating is usually assigned to fill tables as passengers arrive in the dining car. We had some very nice conversations with table-mates and only one that was forced. We particularly enjoyed two meals with a frequent traveler who regularly posts travel videos on individual Amtrak long-distance trains.
Odds and ends
Not all trains have Wi-Fi and service is spotty on some of those trains that have it. We took print and digital books to read but still used lots of cellphone data.
Be prepared for delays along the way. If there's track work or heavy freight traffic, your train may sit for a while. However, aside from our Louisiana bridge issue and another bridge-related delay later on, our trains largely stuck to their schedules.
Still, think twice about booking train connections with tight timing. If the arriving train is tardy, the departing train may be waiting or it may have left. Hotel stops in cities where we changed trains avoided that possibility and allowed us to sightsee and sample local cuisine.