The Ramblers ride Amtrak to New Orleans

The Ramblers have always liked trains, and have ridden a few in various parts of the US including the Durango and Silverton RR through the mountains of Colorado. However, we had never taken an Amtrak train anywhere. Since we’re not doing road trips anymore, and we wanted to visit our new grandson in New Orleans, we thought about taking the Amtrak as something different. We could, of course, fly but the train had potential. We would see the route we had traveled many times by car, from a different angle, which could be fun.  So, as the Rambler travel planner I investigated the possibilities. I did know there was a train that went from Atlanta to New Orleans so it should be doable.

I checked with AAA and found that Amtrak tickets were booked online, through the Amtrak website not at a travel agency. Here is the link. It is relatively easy to use after you play around with it.

Amtrak does offer several discount fares, AAA, senior, children’s’  etc., , but I quickly found out that I could use either the AAA discount or the senior discount but not both at the same time. No double dipping here. Since the senior discount was slightly better, I eventually used it to buy our tickets. I found that coach tickets were not that expensive, a little less than a good deal for an airline ticket, and all seats reserved. Of course the schedule showed that the  train took a full 12 hour day to get to New Orleans rather than little more than an hour in the air. Unfortunately the Ramblers didn’t realize just how long it actually would take our train to get to NOLA.

Amtrak also offers 15 and 30 day passes which allows you to visit multiple cities during the stated time period, much like the Eurail passes in Europe. We didn’t consider this option since we only wanted to go to NOLA and back, but it might be something to consider in the future.

I purchased two senior tickets round trip for about $300. for a train that would leave Friday morning at 8:30 AM and arrive in NOLA at 7:30 PM. Not too bad, we thought, since we  would have a different view of the journey from the train and the seats were supposed to be comfortable and roomy. The train also had roomettes available, but they were quite pricey and our trip would only take about 11 hours so we didn’t consider them. It turned out we seriously underestimated the time it would take to get to NOLA on Amtrak.

The day of our trip the weather was sunny and warm in Atlanta. Our only luggage was the backpack I had recently bought.

A romantic poster from the heyday of travel which hung inside the station.
A romantic poster from the heyday of travel which hung inside the station.

We were pretty sure it would hold enough clothes and other necessities for our week-end trip. I planned to use it as my carry-on when we next flew overseas and this would be a trial run. Consequently we packed fairly light but as it turned out, we had more than enough for our trip except for several items we hadn’t considered necessary for a summer week-end in the South.

The Ramblers had never been to the Atlanta Amtrak station and were surprised at how small it was, and how high up.

A view of downtown Atlanta from the station parking lot. The stairs in the foreground lead to the track far below.
A view of downtown Atlanta from the station parking lot. The stairs in the foreground lead to the track far below.

The station  had a wonderful view of the Interstate highway and downtown Atlanta from its parking lot. I later learned that it had been built in 1918, almost 100 years ago, as a suburban station by a prominent architect.. Atlanta had then been much smaller and the close in neighborhoods of Decatur and Brookwood were then suburban and it was originally called the Brookwood station, but is now known as the Peachtree Station.

Peachtree Station in 2016
Peachtree Station in 2016

The main station of the Southern Railroad in 1918 was the Terminal Station, a magnificent 5 story building, in the heart of a much smaller downtown Atlanta. Atlanta was a city that had grown up around the Western and Atlantic Railroad, so it was not surprising that the city had a splendid terminal.

As you can see, the Terminal station was a magnificent structure.
As you can see, the Terminal station was a magnificent structure.

The Terminal Station  had been built in 1905 to serve the many train travelers of the day. There was so much train traffic that the Union Station was added a few years later. Both were eventually torn down after Amtrak was created to handle carrying passengers while the private companies continued to haul freight. Railroad passenger travel began its decline due to  the proliferation of  auto travel before WWII , and the growth of air travel after 1950 sealed its fate. Terminal Station closed in 1970 and was torn down two years later, as were the Atlanta Union Station and many other once magnificent railroad stations around the country. Amtrak took over the passenger service to Atlanta, mainly the Crescent which travels every day from New York to New Orleans with stops along the way.

Since there was no overnight parking at the Peachtree Station, our daughter and grand daughter dropped us off on their way to a shopping expedition.

Door detail of the Peachtree Station
Door detail of the Peachtree Station

However, just as we pulled up to the door, another car was pulling out. The driver told us that the train was delayed 4 hours and they were going out to breakfast. In theory Amtrak was supposed to text me if the train was delayed. Unfortunately the text didn’t arrive until we were already at the station. After a brief discussion, we decided to wait there, as it otherwise would be an inconvenience for them. The station already held quite a few disgruntled passengers, even though the Amtrak clerk had set out coffee and donuts for us to munch on as we waited.

What was the reason for the delay? clerkWell, the Ramblers hadn’t  realized initially that the Crescent originated in New York. Earlier there had been some bad weather along the route which caused the signals to stop working along a stretch of track. Thus the Crescent had to stop until the signals were fixed. Another thing we didn’t know was that Amtrak does not own or service the tracks its trains run on. They are owned and serviced by the major freight-hauling railroads, in this case, the Norfolk Southern, which are responsible  both for fixing any issues and giving the all clear.

The time seemed to move very slowly  as we waited for the Crescent ,and the oak benches, though aesthetically pleasing, were very uncomfortable.

These benches probably date from 1918, they were solid but uncomfortable.
These benches probably date from 1918, they were solid but uncomfortable.

We soon moved to the modern addition which had slightly more comfortable chairs.The wait did give me a chance to go outside and take some photos of the station and its surroundings. To our relief, we noticed that there was an elevator down to the tracks, as well as a very long flight of stairs.  When the train finally arrived at 12:45,  we couldn’t board immediately as the passengers traveling to Atlanta had to get off.

At last we made our way to our train car, and the conductor gave us our seat assignments as we boarded. On the Crescent, the reserved seats are assigned as the passengers board, and you can’t change your seat without the conductor’s permission.  The train was full, according to the conductor as more passengers would get on at other stops.

Many of the passengers made their way down or up the long flight of stairs to the Crescent which had stopped far down the tracks. The Ramblers took the elevator.
Many of the passengers made their way down or up the long flight of stairs to the Crescent which had stopped far down the tracks. The Ramblers took the elevator.

At last, we were underway. We left Atlanta behind and headed south. Thus began the most interesting part of the trip. You get quite a different, and sometimes fascinating, view of the  countryside from the train. All the seats in the car faced forward, although they could be flipped over. The seats were very comfortable, much more so than an airplane seat. The Ramblers settled in for an interesting experience but were uncomfortably aware that we would be getting to New Orleans much later than 7:30. At this point, we didn’t realize just how much later. We had talked to our son in NOLA about the delay and told him we would text when we got close. It was also possible for him to check the ETA of the Crescent on line.

When the conductor announced that the dining car was open, the Ramblers decided to have some lunch. Dining on the Crescent is not a gourmet experience, but we have had worse food.

The dining car in the evening after. We had just finished our stew and rice.
The dining car in the evening after. We had just finished our stew and rice.

Seating was family style at tables for four, as space was limited. We didn’t mind and enjoyed the company of the couple from New York who were traveling to the west coast by train. This turned out  to be a very good idea.

Back in our coach, we  were enjoying the scenery when the train slowed and stopped. There was no station visible, and the train at this point was traveling thorough a heavily wooded narrow valley in the Alabama foothills. Now what, we thought??? What was a tornado in the area.  Passenger trains have to stop if a tornado has been sighted for safety reasons. The conductor assured us that the train would be underway as soon as they got the all clear but this was very slow in coming.  Time really started to drag, as the sky darkened and the wind blew rain against our car windows. The tornado missed us, passing across the tracks in front of the train. Of course the high winds blew some trees across the tracks. AAAARGH! of course we were going nowhere until they were removed by the Norfolk Southern. By now, many of the passengers were downright hostile, and if they could have mutinied, they might have. But we were Amtrak captives at the moment.  By this time, we had been on the Crescent for 5 hours and still hadn’t gotten to Birmingham, AL which normally takes about 3 hours by car.

To pass the time, and gain a little good will, the Conductor announced they were going to feed all the passengers red beans and rice. I was pretty hungry as I had virtuously ordered a large salad for lunch, and even the senior Rambler was ready to accept the offer of food. We really shouldn’t be complaining, I thought as I watched a young mother with two small children manage them without tears and tantrums despite the delays. As it turned out, red beans was actually canned beef stew over rice with rolls and butter. Almost all the passengers ate their stew with few complaints and some even went back for seconds. Not only did it assuage our hunger pangs but it helped the time pass.

Three hours later, we were on our way again and chugged into Birmingham at dusk. The smokers, including the Senior Rambler, were allowed to get off the train and indulge their habit.

Smokers and passengers mix on the Birmingham station platform.
Smokers and passengers mix on the Birmingham station platform.

There is absolutely no smoking on the train. Unfortunately as the sun went down, the temperature in our car dropped like a rock. Most of the other passengers brought out fleece blankets and jackets and hunkered down. The Ramblers, of course, had neither and were really cold. The Senior Rambler got out some t-shirts and we put our arms into them which helped a little…If  you are planning to travel on Amtrak in the future, bring a jacket and fleece blanket as otherwise you will be COLD. Most of the people in our car were frequent train travelers so they were prepared for this. No where on the Amtrak website do they mention the temperature of the cars, but our Conductor told us they had three settings, hot, cold and off.

The sunset that night was beautiful, but it didn’t really make up for the fact that we still had many hours before we would reach NOLA.

A relic of Birmingham's steel and iron producing days, The Sloss Foundry is now an historic site visible from the tracks. One of the points of interest before dark.
A relic of Birmingham’s steel and iron producing days, The Sloss Furnaces is now an historic site visible from the tracks. One of the points of interest seen before dark.

There was no more scenery to enjoy, just scattered lighted buildings and a few stations. We finally got to New Orleans at 3:30 AM, and our son was waiting for us. We didn’t get to see much of the station as everything was closed and we just wanted to get to a comfy bed.

Would we take Amtrak again? Probably, as it seemed that everything outside of a breakdown or collision went wrong on this particular run.

Another view of the long abandoned Sloss Furnaces.
Another view of the long abandoned Sloss Furnaces.

People we talked to on board said they usually enjoyed riding the train, so we shall see. The Ramblers didn’t go back to Atlanta on the Crescent. Our children had arranged a birthday surprise for me in NOLA. The shopping trip was a ruse and my daughter and grand daughter drove to New Orleans, leaving after they dropped us off at the station. Naturally they got there hours before we did.  The next night I was mightily surprised when they walked through the door at dinner time.

Needless to say we rode back to Atlanta with them.

The Ramblers talk about choosing a Camper; Part One

Although the Ramblers are leaving the driving to someone else these days, they spent many years cris-crossing the US and Canada by camper or car. We visited every state except Alaska and Hawaii by camper, and every Canadian province except the Maritime Provinces and Nunavit. Never kept count on total mileage, but it must have been over 50,000.

Recently a friend asked me for advice about choosing a camper. As I started to explain the various types available, I thought, why not blog on this topic. With the current low price of gasoline and the high cost of hotel rooms, the Ramblers are sure many people will  be buying campers this summer. Picking the right model is not as easy as it seems, since there are so many kinds available. The Ramblers have camped in nearly every type of rv available from a borrowed school bus conversion to a 40 ft. diesel pusher motorhome and enjoyed them all.  So here goes…

First off, campers are divided into classes,  self- propelled vehicles or motorhomes, and tow-able campers or trailers.  Motorhomes are again divided into three classes. class A campers are motor-homes built  built on a chassis designed for them. Class B campers are van conversions. Class C campers are often called mini-motorhomes although they can be quite large, because they are built on a truck chassis and the truck cab is part of the rig.

The pull-along campers include trailers of every shape and size which are attached with a trailer hitch to the back end of a car, truck or SUV. The hitch for 5th wheel trailers is mounted in the bed of a pick-up truck which allows them to be towed smoothly on the highway and they have some over the truck bed living space.  Finally truck campers are specially designed units that slide onto the bed of a truck. They are not strictly a trailer because they are not towed, but neither are they motorized. Trailers, no matter what the type, are not self-propelled. However, in order to camp in a 5th wheel or truck camper, you need to own or buy a truck that has enough power to pull the 5th wheel or fit the camper.

In recent years, another type of trailer has been added to the mix, the toy hauler. The Ramblers have never owned a toy hauler, but toy haulers are designed, as their name implies, so that an ATV or a motorcycle can be carried in their rear compartment. The forward area is fitted out as  living quarters. Even horse trailers sometimes have a cabin area for their owners to sleep in these days.

So now you know there are even more varieties of campers to choose from than you expected. How do you zero in on what kind you want? If you have never camped or hauled a trailer or have never driven or camped in  a motor home of any size, the Ramblers suggest renting a small version of the kind you are interested in first, to see how you like rv camping. Many dealers have campers for rent, and at least one company rents mini-motorhomes nationwide. You may find you hate either camping in or driving your test camper and that will solve your problem! The Ramblers have heard many folks scoff at RVing, saying the only kind of camping they like is staying in a luxury hotel. However, they have never looked at some of the high end campers on the market or visited a luxurious campground. Some match the luxury of the finest hotels. However, you don’t need a fancy rig to enjoy camping. Campsites range from free,  with no facilities in a national forest or Corps of Engineers Campground, to a luxurious campground complete with pool, landscaping, paved roads and campsites and hook-ups for water, electric and sewer.

If you have tried camping and like it, the next step is to decide on what kind you might want to buy. HOWEVER, the Ramblers strongly suggest that you look for a used camper, not a new one. If you think cars depreciate quickly, motorhomes depreciate in value even faster. If you buy a new unit, no matter how good the deal seems, it will take a big hit in value the first year. Looking at used campers can be discouraging, as some are amazingly run down or the supposed non-smoking unit reeks of smoke and/or pet odors. However, if you persevere, you will eventually find what you are looking for. Most RVers these days travel with their pets. That makes camping attractive for those who have a beloved furry companion, but often times makes for a smelly unit. Also, if  you want to camp mainly at state parks, don’t get too big of a camper. Most state park campsites were laid out 30 or 40 years ago when campers were much smaller. Very few state park campsites accommodate  a 40 ft. diesel pusher motor home. In fact, the Ramblers have found that 28 ft is the maximum length for most.  When we got our 35 ft 5th wheel, we couldn’t fit in many.

Another thing to consider for those of you who live in states with an Ad-Valorem tax; you will be paying several thousand dollars(or more) to license your motor home every year. Some people try to get around this by licensing their unit in another state, usually Montana, which doesn’t have an Ad-Valorem tax and actively encourages this. However, the police are wise to this ploy and while some get away with this somewhat illegal ploy,  others have had to pay large fines and back taxes. State police often check to see where the folks driving that RV actually live. After all, Montana has a small population . When the Ramblers had their motorhome, they thought about trying this, but decided they didn’t want to break the law. If you can’t afford the tax, buy a less expensive unit.

Of course, you will have to insure your new pride and joy. Insuring a motorhome is more expensive than insuring a trailer. You might also check on the cost of on the road service as well. A good source of information on this and many other RV related topics is the Good Sam Club website.

Motorhomes depreciate faster than trailers and have more parts that can fail. However, many people enjoy being able to walk around inside their camper while they are rolling down the road. The down side is that during your stay at a campground, you have to un-plug your unit if you are hooked up to electricity or water,  if you want to go to a store or sight-see. Thus quite a few people tow a car behind their motorhome, which they use to get around when they get to their destination. The main problem with this is when the car is attached to the motorhome, it is impossible to back up unless it is unhitched first. Obviously this involves some careful planning. The Ramblers were going to tow a car behind their motorhome, but then decided to plan their trips differently. When they stopped at a place which offered many side trips, they rented a car from Enterprise or any  company that would pick them up at the campground. This worked very well for.. Another option is to carry a scooter or a motorcycle on the back of your camper. We toyed with this idea but felt that safety might be an issue as would riding one in bad weather.

On the other hand, if you want something inside your trailer, you have to stop at a rest area or parking lot so that you can go inside. Not so much fun if it is raining. And, if you have a pop-up camper that folds down for towing, you can’t get inside unless you open it up. Finally, the advent of the slide out, has further complicated the issue. A slide out is a part of the wall of a trailer or motorhome which slides out (you either do this electrically or with a crank) to extend the sides of the camper, giving you much more interior space.  Slide outs are great, but when they are retracted, they often make it difficult to get around inside the camper. Be sure and see how and where the slide outs retract in any unit you like.

Oh yes, one more thing. Where are you going to keep your camper once you have it? Many subdivisions have rules against parking campers anywhere, and yes, your neighbor will report you. LOL If you are lucky, you own a place in the country, live in an unincorporated area or in a neighborhood without restrictive rules. If you don’t, you will have to find a place to keep it and factor this cost into the total upkeep.

Now comes the fun part, shopping for your camper. The best way to get a feel for what’s out there is to attend one of the big RV shows held through-out the year in many parts of the US. There you can not only see a huge variety of campers but go inside and check out the living space and furnishings. The dealers who exhibit at the show will have many seemingly great deals…resist them unless you have already done your research or money is no object. Keep in mind, it is far easier to buy a camper than it is to sell one.

Next, shopping for your camper.