I’m no stranger to Amtrak. As my primary way of getting back to Michigan, I’ve grown quite familiar with the Wolverine and Blue Water train lines, and last year I used Amtrak to travel between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Though the Wolverine and/or Blue Water occasionally (okay, regularly) experience delays, none of these are particularly long haul trips. Even with delays on my trains to Michigan, I’ve never spent more than five hours or so riding Amtrak.
The City of New Orleans train, as the name suggests, travels between Chicago and New Orleans, with intermediary stops in a variety of cities in between in major areas (Champaign, Memphis, Jackson, to name a few) and some not-quite-so-major areas (Kankakee, IL; Macomb, MS; Hammond, LA; to name a few). All told, the trip takes about 20 hours. I won’t lie: I thought that sounded fairly miserable, like something I’d have to endure before I could enjoy my vacation. To my great and most pleasant surprise, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The City of New Orleans leaves Chicago at 8:05 p.m., which means that almost as soon as you get on the train, it’s about time to fall asleep. You can purchase tickets for sleeper compartments if you’d like, or go the cheap route and buy a coach seat, which is what I did (a one-way ticket from Chicago to New Orleans is $104, which is fairly comparable to what you’d normally pay to fly one-way as well, unless you’re going to fly Spirit or something like that). Do not be fooled by the “coach” aspect of that: this is absolutely nothing like flying coach. I didn’t measure it, but if I had to guess, I’d estimate that each seat comes with about two feet worth of leg room: more than enough space to store my backpack, coat, blanket, and pillow, even when I pulled up my foot rest (because yeah, these seats have foot rests). The seat in front of you is so far in front of you that the person in it can recline their seat entirely and still not encroach on your space. The windows have curtains, there’s space to store your luggage both above your seat and downstairs (the cars on the City of New Orleans are all two levels), and there are multiple bathrooms in the lower level of each car (which aren’t really much to write home about, but hey, at least they’re there and have running water). If you’re looking to travel without feeling cramped, the City of New Orleans is the way to go.
At the recommendation of my sister and mom, who’ve both taken the City of New Orleans before, I wore yoga pants, a comfy t-shirt and a sweatshirt for my trip. My sister said there’s space to change downstairs on the train if you so choose, but I never figured out where that was. I brought along a neck pillow and blanket to make sleeping slightly easier, and while I wouldn’t say that I got a good night of sleep either on the way down or the way back to Chicago, I was comfortable enough to doze.
Several stops along the train’s route are designated “smoke stops,” where those who feel so inclined can get off the train and have a cigarette, as no smoking is allowed on the train. This certainly felt like a relic from a different time to me, though I suppose expecting someone who does smoke to go 20 hours without a single cigarette would be a bit much. Anyway, the point of this paragraph: you can get off the train at smoke stops, if you’d like to escape for a moment and stretch your legs. Of course, you can also get up out of your seat and walk around the train at any time you’d like as well, which I certainly did.
The longest smoke stop of the trip takes place in Memphis, which is designed to give the conductor a break, since 20 hours is a long time to work without stopping. On the way down, we arrived in Memphis just as the sun was rising a little after 6 a.m., and didn’t leave until 8 a.m.
Once daylight made its appearance, I spent a fair portion of my time in the sightseeing car, which features floor to roof windows and comfortable, window-facing seats where you can sit and watch the world go by. I felt fine leaving my backpack by my seat while hanging out in the sightseeing car, just bringing my phone and purse with me, and never had any trouble with anyone bothering my things. Sometimes I would listen to Serial, sometimes I would listen to music, but honestly, sometimes I would just sit there and look out the window. I’ve done cross-country road trips, but personally I enjoyed seeing the country this way much more.
Next to the sightseeing car is a lounge car, which sells a variety of drinks, snacks and food. I brought a TON of snacks with me (pretzels, apples, cereal, rice cakes, KIND bars, trail mix), so I only used the lounge car for food once when I needed something more substantial than my stash. The train also has a dining car that serves more elaborate meals, but I believe you may have to make reservations to eat there? I’m not sure. I never figured it out, and I had enough food available to me to survive just fine.
The train arrives in New Orleans around 4:45 p.m. the day after you leave Chicago (I left on Wednesday night and arrived Thursday afternoon, for example). The train station drops you off right next to the Superdome in New Orleans, about a mile and a half from the French Quarter and much closer to the heart of everything than the airport.
Heading north, the City of New Orleans leaves New Orleans at 1:45 p.m. This time of year, you have daylight from New Orleans through Jackson, so there aren’t quite as many opportunities for sightseeing as on the way down. (The sun rises while you’re in southern Illinois, so you can enjoy that scenery if you’d like, but by that point you’re so close to Chicago that it barely seemed worth it to me.) The train is scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 9 a.m., but my train got in a little after 8:30 a.m. I expected to be antsy by the time we got into the city, but I wasn’t – or at least wasn’t to the extent I thought I would be. I was certainly grumpy, but that’s just because I had a harder time sleeping on the way back than I had on the way down, and a sleep deprived Bethany is a cranky Bethany.
I would absolutely recommend the City of New Orleans to anyone. If you’re not in a hurry, this is, without question, the best way to travel in my opinion. I felt like my traveling was part of my vacation, rather than merely a means to an end. I avoided all of the usual airport hassles, all of the usual airport anxieties, and those 20 hours I spent on the train heading south did not at all feel as long as they sound. This was an incredible way to see the country, and I can’t say enough good things about my experience.
Are you an Amtrak rider?