Let's face it: You don't want to stink on a train. Also, how do you save money on food?
So, that would be: Eat by bringing your own food on board the train, Pray you’re able to sleep without a bed, and Shower without a shower.
Some folks like to camp in a tent with no creature comforts. Perhaps you know the type: Building their own fires, hunting small game, and shitting in the forest. Others prefer glamping, or in other words, camping in an RV or some extravagant tent setup with all the comforts of home.
I’m somewhere in the middle.
I’m a city boy, so instead of the woods, I’ll go "urban camping" by traveling the country sleeping in my car. No RV comforts, but I do still have to shower (without a shower). No game hunting, but no kitchen, either.
This being my first cross-country Amtrak trip, I brought that philosophy with me: excitedly living in a travel space somewhere between camping and glamping. Sure, I’m not eating a squirrel I caught in the woods, but neither am I in a private berth.
This trip meant coach class seating for eleven days with only two of those nights in hostels – the rest on board a train watching our nation’s best scenery out the panoramic windows of an Amtrak superliner. Let's get into it:
Eat by bringing your own food on board the train. In an exercise of attempted financial responsibility, I hit up Food Bazaar before I left Brooklyn and picked up enough food to fill a backpack. Small but nutritious things to keep me floating, while supplementing my nutrition with goodies I bought on board the train. The intent here was not to avoid buying train food altogether, but to prevent myself from hemorrhaging a paycheck purchasing every meal in the café car.
My backpack food consisted of pro-series protein shakes, fruit cups (no sugar added), oatmeal and… Pop Tarts. It’s called balance.
I decided to go for foods higher in macronutrients like protein and lower in sugar and fat, since I knew the food I would buy on board would have much more sodium, saturated fats, and carbs. By supplementing my protein, I would not only keep myself fuller for longer, but would keep my daily calorie count at a manageable level, considering the lack of physical activity over the period.
…the Pop Tarts were for snacking because I love myself.
Is this too complicated for only 11 days? Maybe. Did it give me something to focus on and help me save some money? Also yes.
Pray you’re able to sleep without a bed, that is. The good news: The seats in coach recline to a pretty significant angle. I packed a blanket and a neck pillow and that was mostly good enough for me. If you require extra creature comforts, plan accordingly.
One thing I was missing was just one more pillow. You see, I never sleep face-up. I only sleep on my side or face-down. Face-up leaves me feeling uncomfortable, or exposed, even. As you can imagine, sleeping in a chair that's not completely flat makes anything but face-up impossible.
On the off chance that I do sleep face-up, I require something on top of my chest; most typically a pillow. I hadn't the space in my suitcase for an extra pillow and I felt that missing element every. single. night.
I recommend that you bring a sleep mask, too. I did not have one. The lights do switch off later in the evening, but the center lights above the aisle remain on for safety reasons. For most of the long-distance trains, this isn't too bad, because the lights are blue. You can probably get by without a mask on those trains.
But on the Crescent and Lake Shore Limited, the center lights were white. This meant that without a sleep mask, the lights (albeit small) are shining right onto your face as you lay face-up. If you’re sleeping in the window seat, you’re fine (the overhead luggage rack blocks the aisle light), but if you’re in the aisle seat, you’ll want a mask – or you can cover your face with your blanket, a hat, or whatever else you might have handy.
Shower without a shower. I wanted so bad to avoid the term ho bath. Thankfully, in chatting with a fellow passenger, he introduced me to the alternative term: bird bath.
Sure, we'll go with that.
You’re in a train car with dozens of other people for an extended period of time. Know that going in and plan accordingly! Though I didn’t have access to a shower, I did have access to bathrooms and changing rooms. It’s perfectly possible to keep yourself clean and fresh over the course of your trip this way.
A full-on shower would be preferable – obviously – but bringing a small bottle of body wash with you can go a long way. For about $6, I picked up a few four-packs of cheap washcloths at Target. With that, water in the sink and your body wash, you can keep yourself perfectly fresh. (Throw away each cheap washcloth after use.)
Dry shampoo will be your best best to keep your 'do fresh, as the sinks don't lend themselves to hair-washing very well. The sinks are far too small to fit your head into.
This is what my nightly hygiene routine looked like:
Step into one of the five downstairs bathrooms. With five to choose from, I didn't feel guilty about taking one of them up for a little while. There were plenty to go around!
Hang your toiletries bag from one of the coat hooks.
Disrobe and get started. (Keep the shoes on, though.)
Take a washcloth and wet yourself down. Get a good scrub in.
Suds yourself up with body wash.
Use the washcloth and sink to get the soap off. This might take a few rounds, but not smelling like pits and crotch in close quarters with other passengers is self-assurance worth working for.
Wash and dry your feet one at a time: Take your foot out, wash and dry it, sock and shoe it. Be sure to dry it well. This method will prevent you from touching your bare feet to the bathroom floor while still keeping them clean.
Get dressed and brush your teeth.
Pack it up and head back to your seat.
The first night I "showered" on the train took me about half an hour while I figured it all out. After that, the whole experience could be completed in a cool 15-20 minutes.
Doing this while the train is in motion took a night or two to get used to, but get used to it I did. I was fueled by my desire NOT to be found dead of a broken neck, naked, half-soaped, in a train bathroom.
If you're only spending one night on the train (or even two, maybe), this might not be necessary. But 11 nights? I thought it best to keep up with myself.
And of course, all of this can be avoided if you book hotels between routes on your Amtrak journey and take real showers in your room. In the interest of saving money, I... did not do this!
Train Fact 2:
Did you know that despite the United States' general preference for air or vehicular travel, we actually have the largest rail network in the world? The United States has over 155,300 mi (250,000 km) of railway, followed by China's 62,100+ mi (100,000 km). Additionally, here in the United States there are plans for several high-speed rail projects, including projects in California, the Midwest, Texas, and the Northeast. (Will these projects be completed any time soon? Who knows.)
Part 2 of 5.