Even though the calendar declared an official end to summer, the thermometer here in the South continually hits 90 degrees with depressing regularity. And yet, there’s a slight shift in the twilight that hints at the promise of an approaching fall. Which usually leads me to daydreaming about New Orleans. The sweltering heat and oppressive humidity of southern Louisiana reluctantly loosens its grip, allowing a brief window to get out and enjoy outdoors. What better time to scare yourself silly on a Haunted History tour? Or join a walking cocktail tour in the French Quarter? Or maybe even paint a masterpiece in City Park?
Luckily I’m just a few hours drive from New Orleans so getting my fall “New Orleans fix” comes easy. But, in the spirit of adventure, I wanted to shake things up on my latest trip to the Big Easy. So instead of loading up the car and hitting the road, I booked a ticket on Amtrak’s Sunset Limited.
Aboard the Amtrak Sunset Limited
The long-distance Superliner known as the Sunset Limited, rolls along across the southern-most aspect of the United States connecting Los Angeles and New Orleans. Train #1 leaves New Orleans three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday) at 9 am heading west. Along the route, the Sunset covers 1,995 miles of rail. It stops at 20 different stations before reaching Los Angeles approximately 48 hours later. Eastbound, Train #2 pulls away from the Los Angeles station on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings covering the same route. Notable destinations along the Sunset Limited include Houston, San Antonio, Tucson, and Palm Springs.
Aboard the Sunset Limited, passengers leisurely contemplate as towering big city skyscrapers, lush fields, and everything in between lumber past. The dual level cars provide guests with ample opportunity to stretch their legs. The Sightseer Lounge on the upper deck boasts wraparound windows, spacious seating, and plenty of outlets to charge all your electronics.In the lower level, you’ll find spacious, roomy coach seats with reclining backs, extendable leg rests, stowaway tray tables, and more electrical outlets. There’s also a snack bar with the usual concessions and a full-service Dining Car where chefs concoct hot and fresh dishes onboard. Or if you rather, feel free to pack your own snacks.
Pros and Cons of Traveling Sunset Limited to NOLA
- Potentially Significantly Cheaper – Depending on how far you plan on traveling, it may be cheaper to travel by train. For instance, my last round-trip fare only set me back $60, $30 each way. Had I driven the four hours to New Orleans I would have easily spent $30 or more on gas. Not to mention the cost of overnight hotel parking (anywhere between $20-$40/night depending on the hotel) plus tips if your hotel requires you to valet. If I do decide to venture further than walking distance to my hotel, I can always take the trolley, a taxi, an Uber, or a Lyft for less than a parking lot fee.
- More Relaxing – If you have ever had the misfortune of sitting for hours on the incredibly long Atchafayala Basin Bridge due to a stalled car or accident, then you know what I’m talking about. Or ever crept at a mind-numbingly slow pace through Baton Rouge because of afternoon traffic or LSU home game traffic then you understand. While other travelers risk road rage, flat tires, and accidents, Sunset Limited passengers are on their second beer with their feet propped up.
- A Novel Experience – Unlike other parts of the country, train travel remains less prevalent in the South. Sure, some of our major cities have trams to get around within the city, but commuting from city to city by rail isn’t as popular. Maybe it’s because our major metropolises aren’t as close as those in the Northeast. Or maybe we don’t have to demographics to warrant having multiple railway routes. Either way, the train schedules aren’t usually flexible enough to promote consistent usage. But for a versatile traveler or adventures group looking for a unique experience, its ideal.
- Easy Booking and Boarding – I used the Amtrak app to buy my ticket and keep up with the status of the train. I then used my eTicket on my phone when boarding, completely hassle-free. Option two: buying and printing your ticket on Amtrak’s website.
- Train travel may not be for everyone – There is a noticeable rock and sway to train as well as the steady thunder of the rails. I found the lulling motion and low rumble soothing, but I can see where others may find it troublesome. There are Accessible bedrooms and seats available for those worried about remaining steady on their feet. Those prone to motion sickness should play it safe and take the necessary preventive measures.
- The trains regularly run behind – Just as cars must yield to red lights and crossing guards, passenger trains must yield to commercial rail traffic. The majority of rail traffic in America consists of freight shipping with a much smaller percentage consisting of passenger transportation. I won’t bore you with logistics of industrial shipping, just know that both passenger and freight trains share much of the same track. So when a railyard must rearrange cars or switch lines passenger trains must wait for the line to clear. The crew does their best to make up lost time, but they are at the mercy of commerce. To be fair, sometimes the stars aline and the train can run ahead of schedule. Luckily, the Amtrak App notifies you regularly with any changes to the trains arrival/departure times.
- Travel time is longer – On a perfect day, I can drive from Lake Charles to New Orleans in four hours. On a perfect day, the Sunset Limited can travel from Lake Charles to New Orleans in just over six hours. Multiple stops between Lake Charles and New Orleans prevent the train from gaining too much speed. As long as you are flexible or not in a hurry this shouldn’t be much of an issue.
- The train is dated – If you are imagining sleek, stylish trains like those found in Europe and Asia, you are going to be sadly disappointed. The Sunset Limited boasts spacious seats and airy observations lounges but lacks roomy, modern restrooms. They are very similar to restrooms found on airplanes. But overall a comfortable and relaxing experience. Who knows, if more people begin using it, maybe Amtrak can justify an update.
Now that I have a taste for traveling by rail, I can’t wait to head west and see what adventures I can find. Until then, with events such as the Beignet Festival, Voodoo Music & Arts Experience, and Boudin, Bourbon, and Beer, New Orleans calls, and I must answer! So, who’s up for train ride?