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How to Commute on Amtrak Like a Boss

I recently commuted on an Amtrak train for the first time, a three-hour, stop-and-go journey from DC’s Union Station to Newark International Airport. I wasn’t deterred by the fatal train accidents of the past two months or the prospect of sitting next to a guy who wants to talk about his pet rock or last weekend’s Dungeons & Dragons marathon.

The Newark trip took about three hours, minus a delay at the onset of the trip. Here’s what I learned to commute on Amtrak like a boss.

1: Make sure you download the Amtrak app onto your mobile phone. The boarding pass is built in and will provide you notifications of schedule changes and/or cancellations. It’s a helluva lot better than dealing with, ya know, customer-service reps at the counter on the ninth hour of an eight-hour shift.

2: Get a seat on one of the two cafe cars. The cafe cars are conveniently located on either side of the galley. The cafes have tables, so you can have a nice, stable platform to work on your laptop … or a level surface to place your adult beverage.

3: Bring your own booze if so inclined. I was riding the Northeast Regional line, which stops in Philly. For those who are accustomed to breezing through this station without getting off, consider this: Philly sells booze that you can then bring back aboard the train. Fly Eagles, fly.

4: Be prepared to set up a mobile hotspot using your cell phone in order to access the Internet. Amtrak trains have free WiFi, but connectivity is a bit slow. If you have movies or podcasts you want to enjoy during the ride, download them before you board. And a little reality check here: the mobile hotspots will occasionally get interrupted while the train is traveling underground or in between major metropolitan areas.

5: Backpacks and gym duffels rule; roller suitcases suck. Big train terminals like Union Station are a bit chaotic — lines zig-zag throughout spaces that are a bit too tight. People zone out in front of TV monitors as they look for schedule updates. And there’s you, trying to weave in and out of the unwashed masses with your Gucci roller bag. What the hell are you doing? Stay mobile. Spread-load your crap between a backpack and a small duffel that won’t rip your rotator cuff as you sling it over your shoulder.

6: Stay expeditionary! There was no announcement over the loudspeakers about my train boarding and no sign directing me to the appropriate gate. After getting a little suspicious about the dearth of news so close to the departure time, I snooped around until finding the right gate and stepped aboard a couple minutes before the train pulled away from Union Station. Being expeditionary is a mindset that requires you to stay nimble, flexible and ready to sprint to contact on a moment’s notice. STAY EXPEDITIONARY, PADAWANS.

7: If you’re traveling through the Northeast Corridor, use Acela Express — if you can afford it or expense part of the cost. It’s a bit more expensive, but worth the time you may shave off your commute. Just a word of warning: passengers can’t change their train tickets within an hour of departure. But the Acela Express is apparently where it’s at — better food and an upper-crusty clientele where you can exchange recipes for soufle.

8: Expect delays. I always expect delays while using mass transit, but during my maiden Amtrak voyage, the maintenance crews had to install — get this — a new engine. WTF? Does anyone know if that’s normal? Bring some work, a good book, movies or other entertainment. Or be prepared for the person sitting next to you to try to convert you to Scientology.

9: Bring earphones. Good ones. Some travelers don’t know what an “inside voice” is. And if you’re looking for complete silence, consider …

10: The quiet car. Ahhhh. Silence is golden. If people start talking too loudly on the quiet car, the conductor chides you harshly over the PA system. Fellow quiet-car passengers trying to catch a wink of sleep may likely shoot you the stink eye—a not-so-subtle warning to zip it.

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