While booking our pre-Memorial Day Weekend trip to Montreal, we faced a dilemma – pay nearly $400 round-trip per-person to fly, or take the 11-hour trip via Amtrak through scenic New York State for about $120. We were not in a real hurry, I’m still in the high-energy, comfortable stage of my pregnancy, so Amtrak it is. Plus, taking NJ Transit from my home to Penn station is much easier than going through airport security.
Boarding the train at Penn Station is, as expected, chaotic. A long line forms over an hour before boarding time, with no guidance or instructions from Amtrak. I was told by the Albany commuters who regularly take the train that usually two lines form – those who are heading all the way to Canada, and those who will hop off the train along the way in New York State (to ensure orderly boarding). The Canada-bound also needs to get their tickets validated and stamped at a registration booth. However, none of that was conveyed until about 15 minutes before boarding. Therefore, chaos and unrest in the Amtrak rotunda. Nothing is new!
The train departed on-time, and we grabbed two seats on the right side of the train at a window (yes – there are seats without windows). With plenty of leg room (my short-ish legs can stretch all the way out), and a wide aisle between seats, I did not feel cramped through the whole ride north. The seats recline, also feature a pop-up leg rest that is somewhat unwieldy to set up. But once in position, allows you to sit in a few different ways to tweak your sitting comfort during the journey. Pretty cool stuff!
Pro tip: on the way to Canada, the left (West-facing) side of the train will afford you a few hours of morning views of the Hudson River. The right (East-facing) side of the train, where we sat, gave an afternoon view of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont (on the way back, vice-versa). Pick your seats according to which view you want, and note that the windows do not have blinds, for those who have a preference of sitting in/out of the sun. We sat on the right-side of the train both ways – saw lots of wildlife on the way up (bald eagles!!), and I was able to take some photos of the gorgeous sunset over the Hudson River on the way back.
There is a cafe car available with hot and cold foods and drinks (and wine and beer, while in the US) available. We didn’t partake in much of the food as we packed our own lunch and snacks, but much of our fellow riders did. Many of the passengers left their seats to hang out at the tables in the cafe car, where there is also WiFi available. Very spotty WiFi, that is – if cell phone signals drop out, which happens quite often when you’re in the middle of the woods in northern New York, the WiFi goes as well. No Netflix for you!
Both ways of our trip were punctuated with expected and unexpected delays. On the way up, we were stopped for about 45 minutes outside of Albany due to a felled tree. On the way back, a freight train crossing near the Canadian border forced our train onto an adjacent track to wait for their customs inspection, delaying us by about an hour. The border inspection on both ways of the trip took a little over an hour, where agents boarded the train, inspected our passports and asked random questions while taking our customs declaration forms. The trains are also old enough that the engine needed to be swapped out each way in Albany, taking up more time. I longed for the Shinkansen that took me from Tokyo to Kyoto (320 miles) in two hours and change. If train travel in the US can catch up to the infrastructure in Asia and in Europe, I would travel more often, and would more likely pick destinations available to me by train. This particular trip was as comfortable as Amtrak could make it, with some beautiful views – but if it were shorter and cost us less patience, I would repeat this in a heartbeat and maybe even look up where else Amtrak can take us (other than Acela – yes, I’m aware that Acela to Washington D.C. is pretty awesome).
And Montreal, you ask? It’s beautiful! The food is wonderful! The people are friendly! Check out the Montreal Biodome and the Botanical Gardens! Have dinner at Les 400 Coups and O’Noir! Walk all over the place, especially around Old Montreal and down Rue Ste-Catherine!
In the mean time, happy Memorial Day! Enjoy this beautiful weekend, hug and kiss your loved ones, we’re going back to work on Tuesday!