Sleeping the rails

As some readers may know, in a former life I worked as an English language teacher in Russia. At that time, it was typical for expats to arrive on a business visa, which as a rule only allowed you to be present in the country for 91 out of every 180 days. The idea was, you'd arrive on a business visa, get a job, and then switch over to the appropriate visa at some later date (I think of this whenever I hear about unauthorized immigrants who "overstay" their visas to the United States — that was me and most of my friends, and it was simply the way things were done).

In the winter of 2007-2008, rumors started to spread that the Russian Foreign Ministry had issued a new decree that visas could only be issued in the home country of foreign passport holders. While previously people had hopped over the border to the Baltic states, those Russian embassies were refusing to issue visas to third-country passport holders. However, we were hearing reports that the Russian Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, was still issuing visas to third-country passport holders — for now.

With that in mind, my company bundled me off to Kiev to spend the Christmas vacation waiting for a visa. The embassy was no longer issuing one-day visas, so I would have to spend 10 days in the country while my visa was prepared. In Kiev, the hostel I ended up in was owned and operated by a fanatically racist Englishman (this is a common problem in expat communities), and after a day or two I decided I couldn't stay there any longer. But where to stay? Having just gotten off an overnight train ride, I quickly arrived at a solution. Here's a map of Ukraine:

Glancing at this map, you can immediately see there are four cities located roughly equidistant from one another: Kiev, Lviv, Odessa, and Dnipro (still called Dnepropetrovsk while I was there). Not only are they roughly equidistant, but they're also all about 7-9 hours apart by train. The solution to my housing problem was obvious: I'd board a train about midnight each night, sleep on the train, and arrive in a new city around 8 am. I could spend the day exploring the city and get back on the train that evening.

I eventually got back to Kiev, got my visa, and headed back to Russia. But that adventure has always left me wondering: could it work here?

Using Amtrak for both housing and transportation

Trying the same thing in the United States poses several difficulties:

  • our trains are far less frequent than trains in Eastern Europe, often passing through a given community as rarely as once a day;
  • our trains are more expensive than trains in Eastern Europe (although often less expensive than you think, and very often less expensive than flying);
  • and our network of train stations is more limited, with routes that typically either feature very frequent stops or very infrequent stops.

So, I decided to investigate if it's possible to replicate something like what I did in Ukraine, and if so, at what cost?

Back and forth

Due to less frequent US train schedules, the easiest way to do what I'm describing is simply to go back and forth on the same route. Head north, south, east, or west one night, and head back the next night.

For example:

  • Northeast Regional 65/67 southbound from Boston to Richmond, leaving 9:30 pm and arriving 9:29 am, and Northeast Regional 66 northbound from Richmond to Boston, leaving 7:00 pm and arriving 7:58 am, roundtrip (2 nights) from $166;
  • or City of New Orleans 59 southbound from Chicago to Jackson, MS, returning on City of New Orleans 58, roundtrip from $196.

This is, obviously, a pretty boring way to travel since you'd be bouncing back and forth between the same cities. It is cheaper than a typical downtown hotel, though, at less than $100 per night.

Hub and spokes

A more interesting way to sleep the rails would be starting at an Amtrak hub and taking individual routes out and back each day. This would give you the benefit of a little variety in your site-seeing. Amtrak, unfortunately, is a little short on hubs, with the only ones I can think of worth mentioning being Chicago (11 routes), Los Angeles (5 routes), and New York (14 routes). New Orleans is another possible option with 3 routes.

I think all three hubs are fairly promising, depending on the part of the country you want to see. For example, from Chicago you can overnight to Denver on the California Zephyr ($97), Pittsburgh on the Capitol Limited ($57), West Virginia on the Cardinal ($62), Memphis or Jackson on the City of New Orleans ($86), North Dakota on the Empire Builder ($102), Buffalo or Rochester on the Lake Shore Limited ($59), Colorado on the Southwest Chief ($102), or Texas on the Texas Eagle ($98).

Circle the country

To circle back to my original anecdote: is it possible to spend time around the country while spending every night on a train, instead of in a hotel?

The short answer is no: long-haul train schedules are too infrequent in the United States to give people the opportunity to arrive in the morning and leave the same night on most routes. Here's one option I found that illustrates the network's limitations:

  • Empire Builder westbound from Chicago, leaving 2:15 pm and arriving in Portland 10:10 am 2 days later;
  • Coast Starlight southbound from Portland, leaving 1:50 pm and arriving Los Angeles 9:00 pm one day later;
  • Sunset Limited eastbound from Los Angeles, leaving 10:00 pm and arriving in New Orleans at 9:40 pm two days later;
  • Overnight in New Orleans;
  • City of New Orleans northbound from New Orleans, leaving 1:45 pm and arriving in Chicago at 9:00 am the next day.

The route described above would cost, if booked sufficiently far in advance, about $483, and would take 7 nights to complete, from beginning to end, although you'd be on the hook for one night in New Orleans. That would give you a cost per night spent in the coach car of a train of $80.50. Not a bad deal, and a much better set of views than a roach motel in Chicago (I've seen my fair share).

Don't forget Amtrak unreliability

Of course, the stylized route above assumes that four different Amtrak trains all run on schedule. This will not happen, because Amtrak trains don't run on schedule. On most versions of this run you would end up spending many more nights on trains than I indicated, which would drive down your per-night cost of sleeping on Amtrak trains.


Unfortunately, American cities and Amtrak routes aren't very accommodating to the kind of tour I was able to take of Ukraine. Only rarely are cities served by the kind of morning and evening trains that are typical in Eastern Europe. But if you have to spend 10 days in the United States waiting for a consular official to stamp a visa in your passport, remember that we do have trains, and you can see a lot of the country in 10 days without spending very much money.