I took a budget-friendly train, and here’s how it went


Why don’t people in the South ride on the train more?

For those looking to make a quick weekend trip to (or from) New Orleans, you have several options to choose from on how you want to get there.  You can fly, drive, take the bus or ride the train.  It’s that last choice that a lot of people don’t remember is even there.

I’ve traveled from Birmingham, Alabama to New Orleans plenty of times and I’ve always flown or driven.  However, flights have become quite expensive and they are no longer direct, so you are looking at about five-and-a-half hours of travel time if you fly and about the same for driving.

I was looking for a cheaper and more relaxing alternative, so I decided to give the train a shot.  Amtrak has “The Crescent,” which travels from New York to New Orleans, and for $45 I was able to jump on in Birmingham for a seven-and-a-half hour leisurely ride to New Orleans.

Here I am by the window, the best place to be.
Here I am by the window, the best place to be.

The process was very easy.

I booked a coach seat online, showed up at the terminal about a half hour before the train was to arrive, waited for the gates to open and boarded the train with ease.  You are allowed two personal bags and two carry-ons, you can also check two bags for free so there are no other fees (hidden or otherwise) associated with your trip.  Your seat is assigned as you board the train.

I was given an aisle seat but really wanted a window seat, so I moved up to the lounge car where the snack bar is located and planted myself in one of the many booths with a window view.  It was here in the lounge car where I met Cleveland, the lounge car attendant.

See also: These smart travel hacks can save you hundreds

Cleveland was tremendously helpful and friendly. The whole staff was.
Cleveland was tremendously helpful and friendly. The whole staff was.

He was very friendly and made sure my trip was a comfortable one.  In fact, everyone that worked on this train was extremely friendly and accommodating.  It is much more laid back than traveling by air, and you are not tied to your seat.  You can get up and walk around anytime you want, and you can eat and drink anytime you want.  And if you want to be budget conscious, pack your own food and drinks to avoid spending money at the snack bar or dining car.  Carry-on drinks and food are fine everywhere but the dining car, where they want you to purchase those items.

I did visit the dining car for dinner, and it was a nice experience.  Again, the staff was friendly, the service and food were respectable and you could eat a nice dinner on a white table cloth while having a glass of wine and watching the towns pass by.

There were multiple dining options for different tastes and budgets. This was a nice spread.
There were multiple dining options for different tastes and budgets. This was a nice spread.

The views are varied; you pass through everything from small, country towns to farms, to small cities such as Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  We had six stops between Birmingham and New Orleans, and each stop lasted about five minutes, long enough for some people to climb aboard and others to disembark.

And getting back to the budget, I’m told train travel is a popular option for students wanting to experience a night in New Orleans.  They take a train into town, arrive in the early evening, stay out the whole night, then crash onto a return train the following morning (no pricey hotel stays this way).  We’re not necessarily recommending this, but it’s an interesting idea for the younger crowd.

And other than the train wobbling from side to side, it was a pretty relaxing ride.  The seats were comfortable, there were plenty of outlets for you to charge your electronics, and on this particular train there was WiFi.

Don't worry about getting up or moving around; this isn't constricting like a plane or bus.
Don’t worry about getting up or moving around; this isn’t constricting like a plane or bus.

Overall, I really enjoyed the experience.  Although our train was delayed along the way, the kindness of the staff combined with the ability to move around as you pleased while experiencing great views of Americana outweighed the inconvenience of the delays (contrast that with those awful flight delays when you’re crammed into a tiny seat on an airplane and can’t escape).

Train travel is something I would definitely do again.

Tips for riding the train:

  • Bring your own food and drinks to save money.
  • Check the status of your train before heading to the terminal in case of delays. You can  receive updates via text or email.
  • Check for discounts before booking.  Seniors, students, kids, military personnel and AAA members receive discounts on travel.