Richard Yuan via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Richard Yuan via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

8 Reasons to Take a Train This Summer

Richard Yuan via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Richard Yuan via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Most of us don’t get much vacation time. When we travel, we want to get to our destinations quickly, so we usually hop on a plane. But just as slow food and slow living movements are becoming the trend, it may be time to decelerate travel, too. This year, as The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, celebrates 45 years in business, give slow travel a try by taking a train. Depending on the route, you might pass green forests or yellow deserts, mighty rivers or tall mountains, charming country homes or grand city skylines. Here are a few reasons to board a train this summer—whether for a few hours or for a couple of days.


With planes, your journey starts when you land. With trains, your voyage begins once you board. Yes, trains are slow, but that’s the point, says Slow Travel Europe: “Speed destroys the connection with the landscape. Slow travel restores it.” Slow Movement also says that slow travel reconnects you with people and culture. Curt Fettinger, a Seattle-based IT professional and a train aficionado who rode Amtrak the first day it started operating on May 1, 1971, and says he has ridden nearly every route since then, finds rail travel more pleasant and more interesting. “You’re not stuck in a tiny seat and you can get up and move around,” he tells mental_floss. “People tend to let down a little bit on trains and talk to each other.”


The Central California Coast. Photo by iStock.

Whether you travel along the coast for a few hours or board a cross-country train, you’re sure to see some incredible scenery. On the West Coast, the Pacific Surfliner, which connects San Luis Obispo and San Diego, will take you along the famously beautiful California seascapes (any closer and you’d be swimming), while the Coast Starlight, which runs from Los Angeles to Seattle, will show you the snowy peaks of Mount Shasta and the Cascade Range. On the East Coast, if you take the Lake Shore Limited, which runs from New York or Boston to Albany and then to Chicago, you can watch the Hudson River splashing right next to the tracks, and then travel along Lake Michigan.

Depending on what landscape you want to see, there are multiple cross-country routes. The Southwestern Chief will take you from Chicago to Los Angeles, passing eight states on the way, including the surprisingly desert-like stretches of Southern Colorado and golden-red canyons of New Mexico. You will also travel through the Grand Canyon, but you won’t see much of its grandeur because you'll pass it at night. For more mountainous glory, opt for the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco through the Rocky Mountains, passing Nebraska, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno on the way. Fettinger’s top three favorite sightseeing rides are the Coast Starlight, the California Zephyr, and the Cardinal, which passes through West Virginia and Shenandoah Valley.


A Superline roomette. Martin Deutsch via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’re traveling overnight, you can buy a sleeper ticket, which gets you a roomette or a bedroom. Roomettes are small private compartment that features folding beds, a table, and sometimes even a personal toilet. Most compartments accommodate two people, but some can fit a family of three or four. For a cross-country ride, be prepared to stay on the train for two nights. The prices fluctuate: A one-way sleeper cross-country roomette for two adults can average $800 or more (a little cheaper for seniors and students), but Fettinger says he has found deals for half that price. Sleeper tickets include all meals during your journey. It also includes night and morning service: Your Amtrak car attendants lift your upper berth, and fold your lower one into two comfy chairs in the morning, then transform them back into bunks in the evening.

Bedrooms are slightly different compartments—they're larger, but also more expensive. Some trains feature overhead luggage spaces inside roomettes, while others feature luggage racks in shared areas. Some roomettes are built to fit a small flushing potty next to your bed, which comes in handy if you don’t feel like shuffling to the restroom in the middle of the night. And no, it doesn’t smell like an outhouse!


An Amtrak dining car. Photo by Lina Zeldovich

Every Amtrak train has a café car, and every overnight train features a dining car, which employs a real kitchen. You will get served real food on real plates with real linens, and the metal cutlery will actually cut your steak. From baked chicken to crab cakes to sizzling stakes grilled to perfection, your food is cooked right before you eat it. The bacon is crispy, burgers are juicy, and dinner rolls are warm and fresh. Desserts, however, are pre-made (and usually taste like it).

You can order a bottle of wine with dinner, or drinks at the bar. If you’re traveling on a sleeper ticket, all meals are included in the price.


Lina Zeldovich

One of the best things about waking up on the train is that you have nowhere to go—you can lounge in bed all morning or even all day. Whether you’re too comfy or too lazy, your attendant can bring your meals to your compartment, so you can prop yourself on the bed and munch on your food slowly, watching trees or cactuses float by.


In this set up, jet lag is easier to beat. When you pass through multiple time zones slowly, you adjust to the hours on your own inner schedule. You can hit the sack as soon as the sun sets, or past midnight. You can sleep in late, take a nap in the afternoon or stay up all night reading. Whether you’re a lark or a night owl, you make your own schedule as the miles go by.


An Amtrak lounge car. Paul Sullivan via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Unless you’re traveling as a group of three or four, you will likely be seated together with complete strangers for your meals. It’s like the dinner seating on cruises—except you get paired up with different folks all the time. It may sound intimidating or awkward, but most train travelers say that they often enjoy the social aspect of their journey the most. Everyone takes a breather from their frenzied lifestyle, and gets talkative and friendly.

The cross-country trains also feature viewing cars with huge window and glass ceilings, where you can mingle or choose a single seat, hug your camera, and stare out the window. If you prefer to chill in private, you can draw privacy curtains in your roomette and choose room service, but meeting people is part of the fun. “It almost develops into a little temporary community traveling together,” Fettinger says.” It’s an experience in and of itself.”

An Amtrak privacy curtain. Photo by Lina Zeldovich.


Amtrak coach seats generally recline further than plane coach seats, and they also offer more leg room. So while many train rides are longer than an average plane ride, you won’t be forced to sit there twisted into a pretzel. You can walk around, stroll to a café car, have a cup of real coffee and drink it at a real table. If you’re traveling in a sleeper car, the folding beds are spacious enough and comfortable, although falling asleep to the clickety-clack of the wheels may take some getting used to.

Being on the road is no excuse for skipping your morning routine, and not only are there showers on the train, but they’re comfortable, the water pressure is decent, and, surprisingly, the train movement seems to have little effect on how the water flows.

What Happens When You Flush an Airplane Toilet?

For millions of people, summer means an opportunity to hop on a plane and experience new and exciting sights, cultures, and food. It also means getting packed into a giant commercial aircraft and then wondering if you can make it to your next layover without submitting to the anxiety of using the onboard bathroom.

Roughly the size of an apartment pantry, these narrow facilities barely accommodate your outstretched knees; turbulence can make expelling waste a harrowing nightmare. Once you’ve successfully managed to complete the task and flush, what happens next?

Unlike our home toilets, planes can’t rely on water tanks to create passive suction to draw waste from the bowl. In addition to the expense of hauling hundreds of gallons of water, it’s impractical to leave standing water in an environment that shakes its contents like a snow globe. Originally, planes used an electronic pump system that moved waste along with a deodorizing liquid called Anotec. That method worked, but carrying the Anotec was undesirable for the same reasons as storing water: It raised fuel costs and added weight to the aircraft that could have been allocated for passengers. (Not surprisingly, airlines prefer to transport paying customers over blobs of poop.)

Beginning in the 1980s, planes used a pneumatic vacuum to suck liquids and solids down and away from the fixture. Once you hit the flush button, a valve at the bottom of the toilet opens, allowing the vacuum to siphon the contents out. (A nonstick coating similar to Teflon reduces the odds of any residue.) It travels to a storage tank near the back of the plane at high speeds, ready for ground crews to drain it once the airplane lands. The tank is then flushed out using a disinfectant.

If you’re also curious about timing your bathroom visit to avoid people waiting in line while you void, flight attendants say the best time to go is right after the captain turns off the seat belt sign and before drink service begins.

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Don’t Fall For This Trick Used by Hotel Booking Sites

Hotel booking sites can be useful tools when comparing prices, locations, and amenities, but some services use deceptive tactics to get you to click “book.”

A new report spotted by Travel + Leisure determined that those “one room left” alerts you sometimes see while perusing hotels can’t always be trusted. Led by the UK-based Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the eight-month investigation concluded that many sites use “pressure selling” to create a false sense of urgency in hopes that customers will book a room more quickly than usual. Similar notices about how many people are looking at a particular room or how long a deal will last are some of the other tactics travel booking websites employed.

The CMA also found that some discount claims had either expired or weren’t relevant to the customer’s search criteria, and hidden fees—like the much-maligned "resort fees"—are sometimes tacked on at the end of the booking process. (To be fair, many hotels are also guilty of this practice.)

The report didn’t drop any company names, but the consumer agency said it warned the sites that legal action would be taken if their concerns weren't addressed. The companies could be breaking consumer protection law, the CMA notes.

“Booking sites can make it so much easier to choose your holiday, but only if people are able to trust them,” Andrea Coscelli, the CMA's chief executive, said in a statement. “Holidaymakers must feel sure they’re getting the deal they expected … It’s also important that no one feels pressured by misleading statements into making a booking.”

Still, booking sites remain a convenient option, so if you decide to use one, just take your time and be cognizant that some of the claims you're seeing may not be entirely truthful.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]


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