The weathered, silver passenger train roared into Orlando Station. A few minutes behind schedule, its passing cars made a merciful wind in the staggering Florida heat as a few ambling passengers made their way out of the station and began to board.
There were no lines, and there was no wait.
As I joined them, a conductor scanned my ticket and instructed me to throw my bag in an overhead bin. If I fell asleep, he said, he’d wake me up at my stop—such is the stress-free nature of train travel in the United States.
Five hours later, I found myself and my bag eating tacos on South Beach.
Each day, Amtrak delivers passengers to destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, running over 21,000 miles of steel. With more than 500 destinations, America’s forgotten rail system offers an endless buffet for travelers, but at least three routes should stand atop any vagabond’s bucket list. And, they’re joined by a Canadian cousin that might top them all.
Chicago to New Orleans on City of New Orleans
Start to finish, this route travels more than 900 miles from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Crescent City. The journey lasts about 19 hours, but why hurry when you can soak up some of America’s most legendary music towns along the way? The train itself became legendary in 1985 thanks to a hit single by Willie Nelson, a cue for you to pay homage to its musical pitstops.
The City of New Orleans traces a line from the electric blues of Chicago to the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis, and on towards the mecca of jazz in New Orleans. Amtrak Vacations offers excursions in each city, but you can make your own way by purchasing segment tickets along the route. Full route rates start at around $130.
Hot stops for music lovers: Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago; Sun Studios in Memphis; The Spotted Cat Music Club in New Orleans.
San Francisco to Denver on California Zephyr
The California Zephyr runs from San Francisco all the way to Chicago, but you can maximize your time onboard by hopping off in Denver. The one-day, 11-hour journey is one of the most breathtaking in America, launching passengers from the Pacific coast through the Sierra Nevada mountains, the deserts of Utah, and on to Denver through the Rocky Mountains. One-way rates start at just over $100.
Passengers searching for a layover can stop in Salt Lake City or Reno, while adventurers making a weekend of the journey can hop a one-way flight back to the Bay Area for less than $100.
Hot stops for photographers: Baker Beach in San Francisco; Saltair in Salt Lake City; Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Los Angeles to Seattle on Coast Starlight
Amtrak’s direct service from the City of Angels to Seattle began in 1971 and hasn’t stopped since. Today, the Coast Starlight runs the 1,300-mile route daily, skirting the California coast to San Luis Obispo, before ducking inland and winding its way through the volcano-laden Cascade Mountains of northern California, Oregon and Washington. And with rates starting at under $100, this west coast adventure is a bargain.
Hot stops for foodies: Master Ha Korean Restaurant in Los Angeles; Basilisk in Portland; Saigon Vietnam Deli in Seattle.
Vancouver to Banff on Rocky Mountaineer
Canada’s most popular train route won’t leave you with the same elbow room you’ll get south of the border, but it will leave you with a completely new perspective on the Rocky Mountains. The Canadian Rockies are even more magnificent and imposing than their American counterparts, highlighted by the hiker’s paradise of Banff National Park.
Departing from Vancouver, rail passengers can soak in an endless landscape of peaks on the two-day trek to Banff. The only downside? Prices for the sojourn start at more than $900—almost nine times what some of its U.S. brethren run for.