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Thomas' Top 5 Amtrak Routes

These 5 Amtrak routes are the best I've experienced, and you know I'll rank them.


(Photo: Travel + Leisure) (all other photos: Amtrak)

 

I've been on my fair share of Amtrak trains in my 18 years here, and I've learned that more or less every single route has something to offer. They can have spectacular views, affordable long-distance travel, or simply save time compared to driving. Out of all of these I've had the luck to ride (which unfortunately doesn't include some bucket listers like the Empire Builder), there are 5 that exemplify at least 1 aspect of a good Amtrak route.


5. Illinois Zephyr/Carl Sandburg


This scrappy little pair of trains between Chicago and Quincy, IL, might not have the best views or best dining experiences and may not even be the fastest compared to the 110 mph Lincoln Service to Saint Louis, but the Illinois Zephyr and the Carl Sandburg are heavy hitters in 2 categories: affordability and speed. The base cost of a one-way ticket from Chicago to Quincy on these trains is $32, which is insanely cheap. Not only that, but the speed is far better than driving; at 4 hours and 22 minutes, the train can shave off 20+ minutes from the drive without accounting for traffic, which could widen the gap even further. These trains might have the best value out of any Amtrak route.


4. Lake Shore Limited


Want to travel like a 50s movie star from one nexus of world culture to another? Lake Shore Limited might be for you. This route from Chicago to New York City (with an optional leg to Boston) is not the greatest at saving time; a flight is probably the quickest way to travel this route, and the 12-ish hour drive is shorter than the scheduled 20-hour and 12-minute journey. However, if you're traveling the whole way, it doesn't matter; this is a night train, and you can simply eat and sleep while the drivers out the window have to sit in traffic. In addition, the views on this route are splendid; you kind of miss out on the lakeshore views, as that part of the route is mostly scheduled for the dead of night. However, your second day onboard is reserved for the scenic mountains and rivers of Pennsylvania and New York. Despite all these benefits, the time issue is a problem if you're not traveling the whole route; if you'd like to disembark at Cleveland or Toledo, halfway through the route, you'll have to wake up in the middle of the night to make the stop.


3. Adirondack


The Adirondack also goes through New York, traveling to Montreal, Canada, once a day. This route is not a time saver; driving this route takes about 6 hours while the train takes 11. However, what the Adirondack lacks in speed it makes up for in scenery; unlike the Lake Shore, this daytime route shows you all of the beauty and grandeur that upstate New York and Vermont have to offer. Everything is immaculately timed: spending the morning in the mountains, the daytime around Lake Champlain, and finishing by pulling into the cyberpunk-esque neon lights of Montreal at dusk. It's also well-priced; an international plane ticket is certainly more than $61 one way.


2. Southwest Chief


Combining the affordability and time savings of the Carl Sandburg and the long-distance heritage of the Lake Shore Limited, the Southwest Chief runs between Chicago and Los Angeles once a day. As the train stops in Kansas City, this is the route I used as a kid visiting Chicago for the first time(s). The drive between Kansas City and Chicago can be brutal, especially if you're unfortunate enough to hit rush hour in either city. This route not only saves time, but it also has a level of luxury above either of the aforementioned trains since it features Superliner passenger cars. These double-decker cars have some of the best legroom in the history of travel, and the dining service is up to par as well. In addition, when you go all the way to LA, the views of the desert mesas and scenery are unmatched.


1. Acela


Finally, we have the only true high-speed rail the USA has to offer. The Acela zooms between Boston and Washington, DC, at speeds up to 150 miles per hour, stopping in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The speed is a huge factor in why the Acela is the #1; it saves hours of rush hour traffic, perfectly connecting the northeast megalopolis with high-frequency service. The views are not nearly as compelling as the former entries, but they're serviceable, showing off the Atlantic coasts not only in Maryland but also the seaside of New England. The cost is definitely a little pricier than other entries on the list, starting at $126 one-way. I'd say it's worth it; the pain of driving between Boston and DC is, in my humble opinion, thousands of magnitudes worse than spending a couple hundred dollars.


In my opinion, I hold the last 3 routes in similar regard, and I wouldn't say one is better than the other, but I'll get back to y'all once I ride every Amtrak there is.

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