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a woman on a train looking out the windowI fall for it every time: the idea that train travel is grand and romantic, much the same way I always expect New Year’s Eve to be exciting and momentous. With both, I usually end up disappointed and ready for it to be over.

I was recently reminded of this on a three-hour train ride from Newark, NJ, to Washington D.C. on Amtrak. Though it’s more of a commuter train experience than a travel one, I nevertheless initially visualized sitting in the dining car with a book and something pleasant to eat, relaxing all the way to D.C. The reality of the ride was somewhat different: the dining car was full and I had to walk through two train cars before I found an open seat – and the woman sitting in the adjoining seat was none too thrilled when I asked her to remove her two bags and discarded newspaper so that I could sit. Three hours turned into four when a “police action” in Philadelphia stopped our train cold. By the time I got to Washington D.C. I was hungry and irritated.

Looking back on it, I have no idea why I thought it would be different. I’ve trained it around Europe before and never walked away relaxed or feeling like I’d just had a grand adventure.

In fact, I have almost no memories of any of my long-haul train rides. My first “real” train ride, from London to the Holyhead ferry terminal in North Wales as a 21-year-old backpacker, is a complete blur. I slept through almost the entire thing, exhausted after a flight from New York City to London. I have a few bleary memories of opening my eyes to see what looked like a castle whir by and thinking how beautiful it must be and what a waste it was that I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

European Train Tips

Another overnight train ride, from Bucharest, Romania to Sofia, Bulgaria, is also mostly a blur, though my strongest sense memory is one of fear. Fear of finding out I would have to share my sleeping compartment with a stranger – this worry popped up at every stop we made, all through the night (I never did have to share, though I didn’t sleep very well either). Fear that if I left to go get food from the dining car, someone would break into the cabin and take my stuff (I stayed in my compartment all night, forgoing food for reassurance).

Yet despite my mostly unromantic and humble train travels, one of my most intriguing travel memories actually did take place on an overnight train from Prague to Zurich in the days before the European Union existed.

When we got to the German border, immigration officers got on the train and passed through every car, looking at each passenger’s identification. The German officer who entered our car wore a dour face and demanded our passports in a tone of voice that invited no argument. There were six of us in the car: my sister and me (U.S. citizens) and four Italians traveling together. The officer took the first Italian’s passport, looked at it, looked at her, looked at the passport again and then handed it back. He did the same with me. Then he took a second Italian’s passport. Looked at it, looked at the guy, looked at the passport again, frowned and held on to it. He then proceeded to check my sister’s passport and those of the two remaining Italians before finally turning back to the young man’s passport he still held.

The officer held up the passport and inspected it, then looked at the man for what felt like an eternity. Suddenly, the officer started laughing, handed the passport back and left. We were all stunned. That entire routine had been the officer’s idea of a joke — something to keep himself amused during the monotony of checking passports, I guess.

The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

That incident is one of my strongest memories of a six-week backpacking trip in Europe, and it happened on the train. Perhaps that’s why the notion of romantic, exotic, grand and, most importantly, memorable train trips has stuck with me. Train trips may be mostly boring, sleep-inducing experiences, but you never know what might happen.

Have you ever had a memorable experience while traveling on a train? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

– written by Dori Saltzman

There’s something about train travel that just feels romantic. You’re not behind the wheel; you’re not in a middle seat at high altitude; you’re simply coasting along with an oftentimes sweeping view. This form of travel lends itself well to getting lost in thought, so why not use it to do something memorable? Here are three ways to turn your next rendezvous with the rails into more than just an ordinary journey.

Write the Next Great American Novel
girl, train, thinking

Have you ever wished for a prestigious writer’s residency? Well, how about one onboard a train? The #AmtrakResidency program, sponsored by Amtrak, is calling all writers to submit their applications for a multi-day writing residency aboard one of the railroad’s domestic trains. Free of charge, the program is in part marketing for the train line, but it’s also a fantastic chance to use our nation’s passing landscapes to inspire poems, prose or even tweets. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis through March 2015. According to the site, “A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.”

Travel Back to the ’20s with National Geographic
train, spain, El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo is a private train with original British Pullman cars refurbished from the 1920s. Serving the northern coast of Spain, the line is frequently chartered by National Geographic for rail journeys through the scenic region. Your expedition includes the tips of a professional photographer and a special excursion through the wine region with a one-night stay at Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos, which claims to be the oldest hotel in the world. Suites onboard the train include a queen bed, living room, large windows, private bathroom with a shower, hydro sauna, and steam bath. Watch Basque country pass by your window as you chat with onboard National Geographic experts.

Relive a Wes Anderson Film in India
train, india, darjeeling, himalayan, railway

Director Wes Anderson’s newest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” features many scenes onboard a train in a fictional faux-European region called the Republic of Zubrowka. But another one of his films, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was inspired by a very real train line: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Train travel in India is a microcosm of the whole country: crowded, chaotic, unpredictable, impressive and a feast for the senses. The railway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the beauty of the countryside is just as apparent on screen, during sibling spats, and off. Whether you’re three brothers on a cinematic journey for closure, or just along for the ride, this train trip is bound to bring a plot twist.

Slideshow: The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo photo used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Simon Pielow.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

switzerland glacier express train railEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

There’s nothing like the freedom of riding the rails around Europe, visiting the sophisticated cafes of Paris one day and the cobblestone streets of a tiny French village the next. But while the Continent’s wide variety of rail passes can save you a pile of euros, don’t assume that you should whip one out for every single train trip you take. In European Train Trips, we offer the following advice:

“Plan your itinerary carefully before you purchase your pass. Flexipass holders may save money and travel days by purchasing separate tickets for shorter trips. For example, say you’ve purchased a Eurail Italy Pass, valid for seven days of travel in a two-month period. At $329 for a second-class pass, your average cost per travel day is $47. Instead of wasting a travel day for a trip from Florence to Pisa — which costs just $9 — you can buy an individual ticket for that trip and save the travel day on your rail pass for a night train or longer journey.”

You can check prices for rail passes and individual tickets at RailEurope.com.

If your itinerary includes any lengthy trips, you also may want to consider flying. There are quite a few discount airlines that crisscross the Continent for surprisingly low fares (though you have to watch out for unexpected fees and inconvenient airports). We break down the options in Europe — By Plane or By Train?.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

train suitcase woman travel railroad railsEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

With airfares rising to dizzying (or nauseating!) heights, having to shell out an additional $50 for baggage fees on a roundtrip flight is like piling insult on top of injury. That’s why many travelers are choosing to drive this summer — at least you can bring as much luggage as you want. But do you really want to weigh your car down with extra stuff when gas costs $4 a gallon?

There is another way. Caroline Costello writes, “While airlines are charging left and right for big bags, extra bags and even carry-on bags (we’re looking at you, Spirit), train travel is a different story. Amtrak’s baggage allowance policy says passengers may carry on up to two pieces of luggage (not including personal items like purses, strollers or computer bags) and check up to three pieces of luggage — for free! Additional bags cost a surprisingly low $10 per bag. Plus, for a small fee (usually $5 to $10, depending on your route), train travelers can bring big-ticket items like bicycles, surfboards or musical instruments onboard.”

Five bucks for a bike or a surfboard? Compare that to a budget-busting $150 on American Airlines. And with such a generous checked bag allowance, you can pack as many bathing suits and tank tops as you want.

There’s more good news, too. It may not help you this summer, but over the next few years train service across the U.S. will be improving. Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded more than $2 billion to various high-speed rail projects across the country, investing in better and faster service in the Northeast, California and the Midwest.

See six more ways to avoid baggage fees.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Union Station, Washington D.C.This Saturday, May 7, hundreds of train-themed events will be engineered across the U.S. in celebration of National Train Day. The festival’s lineup of railroad memorabilia exhibits and historic car displays is more than enough to lure train fanatics of all shapes and sizes, the kinds of avid hobbyists who build elaborate model train sets in their basements and own the DVD “Unstoppable.”

For the rest of us, Train Day offers plenty to pique our interest too. Like cake. Last year, none other than “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro created an enormous train-shaped confection for the event in New York. Who knew locomotives could be so moist and delicious? While there’s no word on whether Buddy will appear at this year’s fete, there will be food prepared by celebrity chefs. There will be concerts. (Gladys Knight is the spokesperson for National Train Day 2011.) And there will be giveaways!

Here’s a sample of some upcoming National Train Day events taking place in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago:

-Amtrak Security K-9 Units will be performing exciting demonstrations featuring fearless, furry guards.

-There will be sweepstakes galore with some big-ticket prizes. Spoils include everything from free hotel stays to, of course, complimentary train tickets.

-Various celebrity chefs (such as Michel Richard of Citronelle) will prepare samples of gourmet meals served onboard Amtrak dining cars.

National Train Day events are taking place in small towns as well as big cities across the U.S. To find an event near you, use the handy National Train Day interactive map.

Throw in a major milestone — along with some celebratory money-saving deals — and you’ve got even more excitement. This year, Amtrak celebrates 40 years as “America’s Railroad.” The country’s biggest passenger rail service, which created National Train Day, is honoring its birthday by bestowing double and triple points on Amtrak Guest Rewards members and letting youngsters ride for free.

Will you be taking part in National Train Day?

– written by Caroline Costello