Rail and Sail - Transportation Options

Believe it or not, you don't always have to fly to the ship

It's a lucky cruiser who lives close enough to an embarkation port to drive to the pier. Even better is being able to walk, as I have done more than once, wheeling my bag from my New York apartment to the Passenger Ship Terminal. But most of us aren't so fortunate, so as the sailing date looms, we begin to fret and fuss about having to fly to the ship, facing long lines, heightened security, delays, crowding, cramped seats, indirect routing and the ultimate question -- will I be reunited with my cruise wear at baggage claim?

Over the last several decades of cruising, I have reached many ports of embarkation -- including Boston, Baltimore, Savannah, Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans, San Francisco and Montreal -- calmly, commodiously and conveniently by train. Yes, the connection took longer, but it also became part of the vacation -- and sometimes it even cost less than flying. If you want to go in a Pullman-style sleeper, it is more expensive; but an overnight on the rails adds to a much-anticipated adventure. The train trip is a journey, not an ordeal, and most scenery out the window is far more diverting than the cloudy view from 35,000 feet.

If your fall, winter or spring cruise leaves from Port Canaveral, Fort Lauderdale/Port Everglades, Miami, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Houston, San Diego or Los Angeles/Long Beach, there may be a rail alternative to flying, driving, or busing.

Something about trains

All medium- to long-distance passenger trains in the U.S. are operated by Amtrak, a quasi-independent government corporation. They span the continent, serving over 500 stations, and they use tracks that are almost exclusively owned by private railroads. Most overnight routes have a single daily service, while the Northeast-to-Florida run offers three trains a day, and the Sunbelt line between California and Florida departs three times a week.

Eastern long-distance trains are equipped with sleeping car compartments and TVs, lounge cars for socializing and snacking, and full service sit-down dining comparable to a medium-priced restaurant. Superliner trains out west have bi-level sleepers, glass-roofed lounges for viewing and watching movies, and full dining car service. On all Amtrak trains, the comfort and roominess of coach seating is comparable to business class in the air, so if you are used to flying overnight to Europe in an economy seat, your night on the rails will be more restful. Passengers may check up to three bags per person, not exceeding 50 pounds each, at no extra cost. If all this sounds brochure beautiful, what are the drawbacks? Long-distance trains traveling across many states may run late, so if, for example, your ship sails at 5 or 6 p.m., make sure the train is scheduled to arrive by noon to allow for a possible few hours' delay. If the schedule doesn't work that way, consider traveling a day earlier, book an Amtrak hotel package, and explore South Beach in Miami, the Kennedy Space Center at Port Canaveral, the French Quarter in New Orleans or any of several attractions in southern California. Service aboard a train takes on more importance because of the time you'll spend en route, whether by sleeping car or coach attendants, lounge or dining car personnel. In my experience, most of them do a credible to very good job; but if a pill of a personality does happen to enter your space, on a train you are not confined to a single seat.

The Best Rail Routes

Should your cruise sail from a Florida port, Amtrak operates the Silver Palm, Silver Star and Silver Meteor south from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and stations in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. The Silver Palm, the first train of the day, will reach all the ports the next day before noon, and Miami a few minutes after High Noon. The return trip north allows plenty of time between disembarkation and train departure. The scenery south of Washington is rolling Old Dominion farmland and orange groves in central Florida.

For sailings from New Orleans, the Crescent from the Northeast, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia passes through the Deep South and crosses Lake Pontchartrain, arriving on the second evening. Everything in the city is walkable, and there are many hotels located a very short cab ride away from the pier. From Chicago and the Midwest, the train they call the City of New Orleans arrives mid-afternoon, convenient for evening sailings, but it's a bit too close for ships leaving before 7 p.m.

Train service from Florida to New Orleans and Houston, and to those two cities from California and the Southwest, operates every other day, so the schedule may mesh or require a hotel overnight.

For cruises leaving from Los Angeles and San Diego, the Southwest Chief from Chicago, Kansas City and Albuquerque conveniently arrives in L.A. in the morning, with immediate connecting trains south to San Diego. The Chief provides a fast overview of Mid-America and the Southwest, with a Native American guide providing commentary while traversing New Mexico. From Washington, Oregon and northern California, the Coast Starlight gives a most scenic mountain and coastal ride, and qualifies as Amtrak's best long-distance train. Those traveling in a sleeping car have access to the first-class Pacific Parlour Car, which offers a hospitality hour, games, a small library and entertainment. The train arrives at Los Angeles in the evening, so plan a night on the town and visits to Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Disneyland before the upcoming cruise. An even better idea is a tour, dinner and a night aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach before or after the cruise. Savor the distinct contrast between the Mary's pre-war art deco ocean liner style and your modern floating resort. Add a train ride, and you have the best combination for a hassle-free vacation that literally never leaves the ground.

When sailing the Inside Passage to Alaska from Seattle or Vancouver, the northbound Coast Starlight from California and Oregon puts into port in the evening, and both cities deserve at least two nights before embarking. From Chicago, Milwaukee and the "North Coast" states, the famed Empire Builder chuffs across leafy Wisconsin, the wide open prairies, Montana's ´┐ŻBig Sky" country and makes an early morning transit through the Cascades into Seattle, with connections onto Vancouver. The rail cruise segues so naturally into the Alaska cruise.

Amtrak Information: Toll-free 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245); or the web www.amtrak.com

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