How do you want to see America? From the roar of a jetliner at 35,000 feet as you blast from coast to coast? Inside a cramped car while you barrel down a vacant highway? On a bike, out in the elements? A motorcycle? Jogging, Forrest Gump-style? There are so many methods of exploring the vastness and greatness that is these United States.
For more than 100 years, one of the most iconic ways to really dig into the country has been to train travel. Sure, trains feel a bit old-fashioned in the age of discount airlines. But while air travel offers speed and convenience, you end up missing everything in between point A and point B. And it’s often those between spaces where the heart of your adventure lies. It’s in those small towns, mountain valleys, and unexplored reaches of the country where you just might find the wonder that you seek.
So take to the rails this year and see America in a whole new light. We’ve put together three options below — enough to show you the range of prices you can find if you’re willing to dig. Each one is built around a two-week vacation in the summer months and booking far enough out to take advantage of Amtrak’s 20 percent Saver Fares. From there, how you pick and choose your path is up to you.
OPTION 1: COAST TO COAST
Train details: Seattle To Chicago takes 45 hours and 15 minutes. You’ll have a 5h30m Layover in Chicago during the afternoon. Chicago to New York takes 19 hours and 53 minutes.
If you’re planning a two-week stint on the road this summer, one of the easiest options is to take the train coast to coast in one giant straight shot. It’s not quite the slow train to ‘Orleans, this is more of a direct line. The train winds its way over the Cascade and the Rocky Mountains, across the Great Plains and past the Great Lakes. You’ll hit some of the most breathtakingly beautiful vistas America has to offer on one ride.
The most basic seat will set you back $291. You’ll spend 65 hours or three nights on the train. This is a coach ticket, so you’ll have to either pay in the dining car or bring along your own food. If you’re eating in the dining car, expect to pay upwards of $50 for two meals and drinks per day (check out a sample menu here). That’s at least an additional $200 if you’re being frugal.
Once you’re off the train, your budget for food really depends on you. You can easily get by on around 20 bucks a day if you go to grocery stores and stay in self-catering digs. Alternately, you can also easily spend hundreds a day touring the best restaurants that Seattle, Chicago, and New York have to offer.
Where you stay before and after your train ride in Seattle and New York really depends on your comfort level, too. A private room with Airbnb in Seattle and New York City can range from $40-$100 a night. Hostelworld’s hostels in Seattle and New York generally fall into the same price range. And if money isn’t an issue, then go baller and find a dope five star.
OPTION 2: SEGMENTED COAST TO COAST
If you’re eager for a little more of an in-depth look at America, consider breaking the train journey into segments. Each leg gives you a place (seat) to sleep in overnight before arriving at a new destination. Below is a sample itinerary.
Leg 1: Seattle, WA to Whitefish, MT
With a ticket cost of only $94 and a ride time of 13 hours and 41 minutes, traveling from Seattle to the Montana Rockies might be a cool trip to do on its own — much less as the first leg of a cross-country trek.
After leaving the culinary wonderland of Seattle behind, Whitefish offers a gateway to Montana’s wilderness and the jaw-dropping beauty of Glacier National Park.
You can rent a nice cabin in the woods through Airbnb for anywhere from $100 and up per night. From there, you can plan your visit to Glacier — which costs $15. Or just relax in the Montana wilds for a few days next to alpine lakes.
Leg 2: Whitefish, MT to Fargo, ND
The next leg will take you across the Great Plains of Montana and North Dakota. The ticket costs $133, taking 17 hours and 37 minutes. There is a wrinkle: This one drops off really early in the morning, just after 2AM.
Fargo sits on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota. It’s quintessential small town America with a vibrant main street (N Broadway Drive) with a cool bar, art, and food scene. Don’t miss the venison (elk in this case) hot dogs at Würst Bier Hall. Plus, you can live out all of your Fargo film and TV fantasies on the streets.
Airbnbs range from $40-$100 for a whole house.
Leg 3: Fargo, ND to Milwaukee, WI
This leg will have you going from living out your Fargo fantasies to living out your Wayne’s World fantasies in Milwaukee. The ride from Fargo to Wisconsin’s biggest city costs $88 and takes 11 hours and 49 minutes.
The other city on Lake Michigan has a ton to offer. So expect to pack a lot in a short amount of time. What’s essential is at least one or two (or three) beer tours. Miller, Pabst, Lake Front, Great Lakes, and Brenner are all great options of varying class, crass, and irony. Maybe brush up on your Laverne & Shirley opening credit reenactment skills now.
Overall, Milwaukee has a ton of accommodation options. Airbnbs are going to run from $35 to $100 and more around the city. Beyond that, hotels are your best option as the hostel pickings are pretty slim. If you want some rad hotel digs, check out the Brewhouse Inn & Suites — built into the old Pabst Brewery.
Leg 4: Milwaukee, WI to Chicago, IL
The ride to Chicago is only 90 minutes and will set you back $25 from Milwaukee. That’s a pretty easy leg. And then you’re in one of the greatest American cities.
If you only have one meal in Chicago, make it the cheeseburger at Au Cheval. It’s arguably the best burger in America … at the moment. If you still have time, head to N. Milwaukee Ave. around Logan Square and go bar, record shop, and arcade hoping.
Depending on how close you want to stay to downtown, expect to pay anywhere from $50 to well over $150 for an Airbnb room. There are plenty of hostel options starting around $40 a night. And, there’s a long list of amazing hotels waiting to pamper you (not literally).
Leg 5: Chicago, IL to Cleveland, OH
The leg to Cleveland will set you back $46. It’s an overnight train that takes 7 hours and 5 minutes and drops you in Cleveland early in the morning — just in time for a kickass breakfast.
It’ll be hard to make it all the way to Cleveland and not go to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and rock out for a spell. Tickets will set you back $23.50. If you didn’t make it to the West Side Market for breakfast, check it out during the day to fill up on great food and drink.
Leg 6: Cleveland, OH to New York, NY
The last leg to New York City costs $66 and takes 12 hours and 33 minutes. Then you’re in New York where the options for great culture, amazing food, and endless partying are damn near endless.
You can snag a room on Airbnb for around $60 and up, a whole place hard to find for less than $100. Hostels are going to run from about $40 and up depending on the neighborhood you choose. And then there are hotels … so many hotels. If money isn’t an issue, grab yourself a room at The Plaza.
Overall, the total costs for the train tickets for this journey comes to $552. Alternatively, you can get an Amtrak Rail Pass that’s good for 15 days of travel and eight segments, adding an extra two stops to the above itinerary. That ticket costs $459, saving you $93. Hey, that’s at least a meal or two somewhere cool or a night in a hotel.
OPTION 3: AMTRAK GRAND RAIL EXPERIENCE
If all that planning and booking of hotels is too much headache, then there’s a great third option on the table. Amtrak has the Grand Rail Experience that covers all your legs on the train plus accommodation in five cities across America over a 15-day journey. You’ll hit Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington, DC.
Right now a ticket in August costs $2,049 per person. You’ll still be responsible for your own food on the trip unless you upgrade to a sleeper car and then all meals are covered on board. The package also includes day tours in each city on the itinerary allowing your maximum exposure to the cities you’re visiting.
This option allows you take a complete roundtrip of America in a two week period. That’s pretty amazing.