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My First Trip on Amtrak Trains in America

Although I have been on numerous trains in Europe, as well as a few in Australia and New Zealand, I had never been on a train in the US until a few weeks ago. All trains from Michigan go to Chicago first and there is no passenger service to or through Ontario which is quite inconvenient, and I never actually traveled much in the US before I left for France. I had already planned to visit my niece and nephew in Virginia upon returning from Australia, and I decided to try the overnight Capitol Limited train to DC and the Northeast Regional train to Newport News. It would take nearly 24 hours and cost $230 per person for the one-way trip (slightly less than the cost of a roundtrip plane ticket), but I wanted to experience American train travel. My mother was accompanying me to Virginia to spoil her grandchildren so we shared the sleeping accommodation on the overnight train.

The most important thing you should know about Amtrak is that trains are very often late since commercial trains have priority over passenger trains on the railways in the US. Do not book two trains that are within 2 hours of each other because you could very well be arriving 2 hours late. We were supposed to arrive in DC at 1:05pm and we had to book the 5pm train to Newport News because the system would not allow me to choose the 2:30pm train. Of course, I could have booked two separate tickets, but it was a good thing I didn’t since we didn’t even get off the first train until 2:45pm…

If you are not getting on the train at a major station, be prepared to board the train really late or really early. I could have taken a train from Flint to Chicago and boarded the Capitol Limited there, but that would have added another 18 hours to my trip (seriously!), so I decided to drive 2.5 hours down to Toledo, where the train was scheduled to depart at 11:49pm. Getting on the train in Cleveland? It departs at 1:54am.

Since you can print your ticket when you buy it online, there is no actual check-in process at the station, unless you are taking a train that has baggage check and you actually want to do it. Amtrak’s luggage allowance include two regular (not carry-on) size suitcases weighing 50 lbs. that you take on the train with you, plus two additional 50 lb. suitcases as checked luggage. If you have even more luggage, you only have to pay $20 for each additional suitcase (up to 2 more).

I booked a regular bedroom for the journey to DC, which includes a private toilet/shower in the room as well as free meals. Up to three people can be in one bedroom since the bottom bed is a double bed, but I don’t know if I’d recommend it considering how little space is left in the room after the beds are down. (This is also why you should leave your luggage on the rack downstairs and just take a backpack or small carry-on suitcase upstairs.) I even had trouble standing in front of the sink and I am very small! Soap, shampoo, towels, linen, and bottled water are provided – though you might want another blanket for the bed. The shower is in the same tiny room as the toilet so it will get soaked, but there is a rack at the top for towels and the toilet paper has a long cover over it. Roomettes are a cheaper option which do not include a shower, but may or may not include a toilet depending on if you’re on a Superliner or Viewliner train.

Amtrak train bedroom

Seats that convert to beds in bedroom on Superliner train to DC

Light sleepers beware – most of the rooms have a door leading to the next room so you can definitely hear noises from your neighbors. I could hear snoring next door so I had to move my pillows to the other end of the bed, underneath the air vent, to block out the noise. However, there are plenty of other noises to keep you awake anyway – the train can be quite bumpy, and the whistle blows often, plus other trains passing by make a lot of noise. I actually did not sleep very much at all – perhaps only an hour or two in the early morning. If you are on the top bunk, there is a safety strap to prevent you from falling off.

The sleeper car attendant was incredibly nice. He even checked on us in the morning to see if we wanted breakfast since we didn’t get up for it. Normally the Capitol Limited to DC doesn’t include lunch, but since we were arriving late, those of us in the sleeper cars were offered hamburgers/hot dogs. You are told where to sit in the dining car, so you will most likely end up next to strangers. The cafe car is open as well if you prefer to snacks or smaller meals.

Passengers with sleeper tickets should have access to Acela lounges at departure and arrival stations (if available), but I didn’t actually check out the lounge in DC. Union Station has free wifi, and plenty of shops and restaurants to keep you busy while waiting for your next train.

Amtrak bedroom third seat

Third seat in bedroom is across from seats that convert to beds, with storage space above

On the Northeast Regional to Newport News, we were in business class, but I do not think it is worth the extra money. The seat configuration is 2 x 2, so there is still the same amount of people as in economy. You are supposed to get free newspapers and drinks, but no one came through the car to offer them to us (so you have to go to the cafe car on your own). The seats did not seem any larger or more comfortable than those in economy class either. Luckily, there is free wifi on this particular train, which helps to pass the time. The bathrooms are large enough, and there is a free water fountain in each car.

There are no assigned seats in either business or economy class, so boarding is a free-for-all. Not all doors open so you have to find the Amtrak employees in order to get off the train. Sometimes they walk through and announce the stop and tell you to follow them to a particular door. They often help with luggage, especially for business class passengers.

Yes, Amtrak takes forever to get you across America – but it’s more environmentally friendly, and best of all, it’s the opposite experience of flying. You do not need to arrive 2-3 hours ahead of time just to wait in line to get through security where TSA doesn’t allow you to bring enough shampoo for your trip. It is quite cheap to bring tons of luggage, and the food is surprisingly good.

I wish the US had more passenger railways and better connections between cities, especially between Michigan and Canada. Currently, Amtrak stops in Port Huron, and if you want to continue to Toronto, for example, you need to take a taxi across the border to get to the Sarnia train station where you can board a Via Rail train. It’s quite ridiculous. I highly doubt the US will ever have extensive train travel like Europe since state governments do not want to spend money on it, and American car culture is so pervasive that it will be hard to change. I enjoyed my time on Amtrak trains, but I don’t know if I’ll be doing another sleeper train since I am such a light sleeper. For shorter trips, it is definitely a cheaper and less stressful option than flying, as long as you live near an Amtrak station.

TL;DR – Your train will most likely be late. No assigned seats. Free wifi sometimes. Don’t expect to sleep much on overnight trains. Lots of luggage allowance. NO LIQUID BAN IS AWESOME.

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.

Can we talk about how awesome Darwin is?

My birthday present to myself in May was one last trip in Australia. I used my Qantas points to get a free flight to Darwin and booked a day tour to Kakadu National Park to see Aboriginal rock art at Nourlangie and crocodiles in Yellow Water Billabong.

Darwin itself is a nice tropical destination and most of the attractions are walkable. Be sure to visit in the dry season though (May to September are probably best). The temperature was perfect for me and I am always cold!

A photo posted by Jennifer Wagner (@ielanguages) on

Eavesdropping on foreign tourists and guessing which language they are speaking is always fun when travelling. Coming across multilingual signs is an added bonus.

 

A photo posted by Jennifer Wagner (@ielanguages) on

The day trip to Kakadu was very long and expensive, but worth it. We saw quite a few crocs at Yellow Water.

A photo posted by Jennifer Wagner (@ielanguages) on

We ended the trip at Mindil Beach for the beautiful sunset.

 

A photo posted by Jennifer Wagner (@ielanguages) on

We stayed at The Cav near the bus depot and information centre, and used Darwin Airport Shuttle for transfers to/from the airport. You can see a few more photos on Instagram and I’ve uploaded a video of a crocodile and the Mindil Beach sunset to YouTube.

The next time I come back to Australia, I will definitely visit Darwin again!

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.

Oslo, Bergen and fjords in Norway

Part 3 of Vacation 2014: Norway

I’m not going to lie: Norway is really as expensive as everyone says it is. The exchange rate may be a tiny better than for the Swedish krone, yet you still end up spending more money. A single adult ticket on the public transportation system costs 30 NOK. That’s about $5. For one ride. And that’s only if you buy the ticket in advance. It’s 50 NOK if you buy a ticket from the driver. Those crappy sandwiches you find at gas stations? 59 NOK, or almost $10. Twenty minute train ride from central station to Gardermoen airport? 170 NOK ($30). Joker and Kiwi are the names of supermarkets where you can find somewhat cheaper food, and if you like salmon, you are in luck. It’s probably the one type of food that is actually cheaper in Norway than anywhere else.

There are free things to do in Oslo, however. We spent a lot of time wandering around Vigeland Sculpture Park and walking on (yes, on) the Opera house. City Hall, the Royal Palace, and Parliament are all in the city centre so it’s easy to take photos (check out the carvings at City Hall!) There are also many museums related to ships and the sea, but they are all located on the Bygdøy peninsula. You can take the number 30 bus to get there or a ferry from City Hall (also costs 30 NOK if ticket is bought in advance, but it’s not part of the Ruter public transportation system so the day/weekly pass won’t work). These museums all cost around 80 or 90 NOK each, so if museums are your thing, you’ll probably want the Oslo Pass.

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Vigeland Sculpture Park

Opera House

Opera House

Fortunately for me, the conference I was working and presenting at was being held in both the Kon-Tiki Museum and the Norwegian Maritime Museum so I got in for free. The people who work at these museums are the nicest people in the world so please visit them! The Fram Museum is also quite popular (every tour bus stops there), and the Viking Ship Museum and the Norwegian Folk Museum with a 14th century stave church are also nearby.

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Kon-Tiki Museum

Instead of taking the direct train from Oslo to Bergen, we decided to do the one-day Oslo to Bergen Norway in a Nutshell route and book our own tickets. There are five different legs to this journey and it takes all day, so if you have a lot of luggage, it may be best to take the direct train to Bergen and do some day trips instead. I didn’t have enough time for that, so I had to drag my overweight suitcase with me the entire day. The first leg is the train from Oslo to Myrdal, where we had a 15 minute stop at Finse, which is the highest point along the rail line and yes, there was snow in June. Silly Norway, snow is for winter!

Along railway between Oslo and Bergen

Along railway between Oslo and Bergen

The second leg is the train from Myrdal to Flåm. It is very touristy and expensive. (The 4.5 hour journey to Myrdal costs less than the one hour ride to Flåm: 249 and 300 NOK.) It stops for a few minutes at a waterfall and music starts playing and a woman dances around. It’s odd. The good thing about it being a tourist train is that if you arrive late in Myrdal, they will wait for you.

I warned you it was weird...

I warned you it was weird…

Third leg: When we arrived in Flåm, we had two hours for lunch before hopping on the two hour ferry to Gudvangen (295 NOK). There is a luggage storage shed, but the cheapest price is 40 NOK (for one day; there are no hourly rates). The ferry was very crowded! There were definitely not enough places to sit inside so most people had to stay outside, where there are plenty of chairs. You leave your luggage on the lower deck where cars would normally go, so at least you don’t have to drag it around with you.

Fjord time!

Fjord time!

Fourth leg: Arriving in Gudvangen, you have to hop on a one hour bus to get to the train station in Voss (they make sure there are enough buses for everyone on the ferry) for 97 NOK and you can buy the ticket on the bus (cash only). Finally, the fifth leg is the 2 hour train to Bergen, which costs 189 NOK – you can buy the ticket from the machine since the counters will be closed by the time you arrive.

So fourteen hours later and 1130 NOK poorer, we made it to Bergen. Cute adorable Bergen. We did the guided walking tour of the Bryggens and Hanseatic Museums and took the funicular up for a nice view of Bergen. We also wandered a bit around the park near the Rosencrantz Tower. If you’ve gone on day trips outside of Bergen and still need to buy souvenirs when you get back, don’t worry – some tourist shops stay open until 10pm. I recommend staying at the Hotel Grand Terminus. It is literally across the street from the train station (take the exit for taxis) and breakfast is included. Great if you’re hopping on the 8am train back to Oslo like I was.

Adorable Bergen

Adorable Bergen

If you’re going to the main airport in Oslo, the train is probably the easiest option. You can buy your ticket as well as check in for your flight plus print your luggage tag for certain airlines at the central train station. Keep your train ticket though, as you will need to scan it to get through the gate at the airport. Even though this train was specifically made for the journey to the airport and there are lots of luggage racks, there are also steps to get on the train leading up to the racks so it’s a bit inconvenient if you have heavy luggage. (Seriously, why do airport trains have to make it so difficult to get luggage on the train? Most people going to and from airports have luggage! I just don’t get it.)

The view from the train was great

Such pretty nature – reminded me of New Zealand

Some advice about Norwegian trains:

1. There is free wifi but you must already have an account at NSB.no in order to use it. Make sure to sign up for an account before you get on the train because even though you can sign up as a new user while on the train, the system will only send you an SMS containing your password if you have a Norwegian mobile number. Otherwise, you’ll have to find someone on the train with a phone or laptop who will let you check your email for the password.

2. There is no first class on Norwegian trains but there is Komfort Class which is essentially the same thing. However, this class is not marked very well at all (the seats look the same as all of the others) and it’s usually half of the first carriage rather than its own carriage. There are no big 1s and 2s like on practically all other trains outside of Norway. It cost 90 NOK extra to sit in Komfort and the main difference is that you get free coffee/tea. There are no signs on the drink machine though, so make sure you don’t use it if you haven’t paid for Komfort class. A few tourists on our train used it thinking that everyone got free drinks (there’s free wifi for everyone so why not free drinks?), but later found out they had to pay for them.

Norwegian realia to come!

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.

Australian Vacation / Holiday 2012

I recently returned from two weeks of travelling around Australia. A friend from Arizona, Michelle, came to Australia for the first time and we decided to visit all of the major tourist attractions. We went to Sydney and Melbourne, drove along the Great Ocean Road, enjoyed a few days at the Great Barrier Reef and Whitehaven Beach, and finished at Ayers Rock Resort. Michelle also came back to Adelaide with me and we went to Cleland Wildlife Park so she could hold a koala (one of the few places in Australia where you can do that) and up to the Barossa Valley for a wine tour. Because of the large distances between all of these places, we had to fly everywhere but since flying in Australia is the opposite of flying in the US (i.e. it is actually a pleasant experience), we had no problems with our flights or baggage.

I met Michelle in Melbourne where I had rented a car so we (ok, I since Michelle had never driven on the left before) could drive along the Great Ocean Road. We actually did it in one day, which turned out to be nine hours of driving for me, but we made so many stops along the way that I was not tired at all. Plus the drive is incredibly beautiful and I was so excited to finally be doing it.

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We also wandered around Melbourne in 100° heat (38°C) and watched the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island. Then it was off to Airlie Beach where we did the Great Barrier Reef and Whitehaven Beach tours with Cruise Whitsundays. I managed to not get sick on the boats, but even if you are prone to motion sickness, they are totally worth it!

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Next we flew down to Sydney and luckily it was not as hot as in Melbourne. I don’t really like big cities but the big cities in Australia are different than those in Europe or the US. I can’t really explain it but they are just somehow better (like everything in Australia!)

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The last destination was, of course, Ayers Rock – or Uluru, as it is called by the traditional owners of the land, the Anangu people. There are also other rocks in the national park, called The Olgas or Kata Tjuta, which are just as beautiful. A three day pass to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park only costs $25, but getting there and the price of accommodation can be a bit high.

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We flew to the Ayers Rock airport instead of Alice Springs (“only” a five hour drive away) because we were staying at the Ayers Rock Resort next to the national park, which is the only place to stay since there is no camping inside the park. It is essentially its own little town, with a gas station, grocery store, post office, police station, etc. but what I loved most was hearing so many languages. Since Ayers Rock is the biggest tourist destination after Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, there are more foreign tourists there than Australians. Australia is very multilingual and I often hear several languages in the big cities and even when I’m out shopping in the suburbs of Adelaide, but languages were everywhere at Ayers Rock! In addition to the wonderful dry heat of the desert (anything less than 95°F / 35° C and I’m chilly), it was paradise for me.

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I’ve already uploaded my photos to the Gallery, and I’ll work on typing up some travel trips for anyone who is interested in going to the same places. But I do need to get back to working on that pesky thesis over Christmas break. If only I had the life of a kangaroo…

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I’ve uploaded some videos of Ayers Rock, the Great Barrier Reef and Australian animals to my Youtube channel.

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.