Archive for May, 2018

Tips for Long-Distance Travel on @Amtrak

May 15, 2018 2 comments

Engine 182 leading Amtrak’s Hoosier State 851 at historic Union Station in Indianapolis, IN.

Printable length: Seven pages and 3,400 words. #Amtrak #AmtrakAdventure

Is there a long distance cross country Amtrak® trip in your future that covers two or three days—such as the California Zephyr®, Coast Starlight®, Empire Builder®, Southwest Chief®, Sunset Limited®, City of New Orleans®, or the Texas Eagle® (among others)? 

Then here’s a checklist of things to consider when packing (in addition to your clothes, of course) that I hope you will find useful. 

This list summarizes what I’ve gleaned from watching countless YouTube videos and reading numerous TripAdvisor, Pinterest, and posts that I researched while planning my very first trip on Amtrak later this month (May 2018).

I’m writing from the point-of-view of a male passenger who is 67, retired, and on a fixed income. Make adjustments for your own situation as necessary. Here is my itinerary with reserved seating in coach: 

  1. Five hours and 196 miles in coach on the Amtrak Hoosier State® 851 from Union Station in Indianapolis, Indiana to Union Station in Chicago, Illinois. Then:
  2. Three days, 51+ hours (assuming on time arrival), 2,438 miles in coach — through seven states — on the California Zephyr 5 Superliner from Chicago to Emeryville, California (near Oakland in the Bay Area), with 33 stops in between including Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno, and Sacramento, among others. Then:
  3. I’m going to do it in reverse a week later on the California Zephyr 6 and the Hoosier State 850. Onboard totals: 6 days over a 9-day period, 113 hours, 5,268 miles! Wish me luck!
  4. I paid $33 each way on the Hoosier State, $137 each way on the California Zephyr, for a total of $340. I made my reservations 114 days before my travel date. Reserve as far in advance as possible for the lowest fares.

I’m not in a particular hurry westbound, so even if the train is 10-20 hours late at its final destination, I’ll still be on time for a ticketed event I’m attending in Oakland that is 28 hours after scheduled arrival in Emeryville. I built an extra day into my travel plans just in case. 

But eastbound there’s not much wiggle room for a late train: scheduled arrival in Chicago is 2:50 pm with a same-day connection to Indianapolis at 5:45 pm. So I’ve got my fingers crossed for good luck and smooth sailing on that day!


The waiting room at historic Union Station in Indianapolis (dating back to 1853 before the Civil War, it’s the oldest Union Station in the world).

I’ve done my best to research this trip and do my homework in advance. I’ve worked on this blog post for nearly four months. Here’s what I have found.


  • If Amtrak emailed your tickets, as they did mine, the email contains a QR code that the conductor can quickly scan directly from your smartphone before you board the train. But TAKE PRINTED TICKET RESERVATIONS if for any reason you can’t access them on your smartphone at the boarding point. NO TICKET? NO BOARDING! A word to the wise!
  • Smartphone and charger–of course!
  • Computer: laptop, tablet, Kindle, etc.
  • Download to your computer or smartphone any apps or documents or files you need before you get on the train. Many long-distance Amtrak trains do not have wi-fi service, including all the ones mentioned above (except the Hoosier State). Even if your route offers it, Amtrak wi-fi does not support high-bandwidth usage such as streaming music, streaming video, or downloading large files. See Amtrak Wi-Fi Information.
  • Take some Cash, $1 and $5 bills. You’ll need it to buy food items on the train, and it is appropriate to tip Amtrak employees for their good service. There’s a discussion about tipping near the end of this blog post in the “Comments” section.
  • Snacks that do not require refrigeration (peanuts, raisins, energy bars, maybe a PB&J sandwich or two, Little Debbie or Hostess snacks, Pringles, chocolate, candy bars, beef jerky, etc.). I’m sure you have your own personal favorites.
    • If you have a berth in a sleeping car, all meals in the Dining Car are included in the ticket price on the California Zephyr.
    • But if you are seated in coach, you will pay the published menu price in the Dining Car for sit-down, plated meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner selections) or in the Lounge Car for short-order and carry-out type items (sandwiches, pizza, snacks, beverages, etc.).
    • It appears that three squares in the Dining Car–breakfast, lunch, and dinner–could easily cost a coach passenger $50-$75 a day, plus gratuities. See Amtrak Meals and Dining.
    • Even if I were to spend $75 a day on meals on the train (which I won’t), it’s still way less expensive for a coach seat with pay-as-you-go food purchases compared to a roomette with meals included—at least based upon the ticket prices I was offered for a roomette on Amtrak’s Web site when I tried to upgrade 21 days after my original reservations ($1,908 round trip vs. $340 coach). All things considered, I think I’ll munch on my snacks in coach, drink my water, and maybe get some hot food from the Lounge Car.
    • By the way, Amtrak accepts major credit cards for meal and food purchases: VISA, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, and debit cards featuring a credit card logo.
  • Two liters of water per day. Why? Because that’s what my doctor told me to do. I’m taking four liters of Wal-Mart’s Clear American water because that’s my favorite: no sugar, no sodium, no calories, no carbs, but still tastes great. I’d take six but there’s not enough room in my baggage.
    • Four one-liter bottles fit nicely into one of my 14x11x7” carry-on bags with room for my snacks. Then I’ll use some packets of Crystal Light lemonade mix to refill the empty bottles on the third day.
    • An Amtrak customer service representative in Indianapolis told me that the sink water in the restrooms is drinkable (but not cold).
  • Camera plus any lenses, spare batteries, charger, and memory cards. There are lots of great photo opportunities on the train, both inside and out. Smartphone photos and videos are OK these days, but I consider a quality digital camera with HD video capability to be a mandatory item on a trip of this length and nature. By the way, this trip is tailor-made for GoPro and other video enthusiasts!
  • Battery chargers needed for any other digital devices. I’m taking a Jackery Giant, which will charge two devices at the same time (and also has a small flashlight built in).
  • Ear buds for your smartphone, tablet, DVD player, or laptop. Respect your fellow passengers and keep the sounds to yourself.
  • Ear plugs and/or ear muffs for peace and quiet, and/or at sleep time. Here’s an ear muffs suggestion.
  • Travel blanket and pillow. Several bloggers say that it’s cold on the train. You will appreciate a blanket in coach, especially at night–and might just be the envy of those who did not bring one. Suggestions:
    Travel blanket/pillow combo.
    Travel Pillow Cover.
    Or pick up an Amtrak Passenger Comfort Kit for $10 available in the Lounge or Cafe Car on board. It includes an inflatable pillow, ear plugs, blanket, and eye shade in a keepsake tote.
  • Sleep mask. Here’s a suggestion for a sleep mask. I don’t know if it will help me sleep, but I’m taking one and will at least give it a try.
  • Duct Tape. A small roll of duct tape may come in handy if your luggage or clothing or shoes come apart, or for minor repairs on board.
  • Binder Clips. A handful of binder clips are good for holding curtains together, keeping paperwork from scattering, securing food packaging that has been opened but only partially consumed, etc.
  • Cable cuffs are perfect for securing items you don’t want to lose; also good for organizing power and extension cords, etc. I fasten my key chain to one of the belt loops on my jeans with a cable cuff so my keys don’t accidentally fall out of my pocket. Cable cuffs are available in several sizes at Home Depot in the electrical aisle.
  • Perhaps a small first aid kit (although I’ve read that first aid kits are available in all Amtrak cars).
  • Pocket flashlight (sure, I know your smartphone has a flashlight, but a little one that fits on your key chain will come in handy after lights out, especially in coach).
  • Shoes are required to be worn in all cars on the train when you leave your seat or sleeper berth. Several bloggers have suggested taking flip flops for use in the showers (coach passengers do not have access to a shower).
  • Six-foot extension cord. There are only two power outlets in each row in coach. If you have a passenger in the seat next to you, the extension cord will come in handy. It’s a nice gesture if the passenger has the aisle seat, and you’ll be glad you have the extension cord if you have the aisle seat.
  • Multi-outlet power strip (especially if you have more than one digital item to charge. For example, you could easily charge a smartphone, laptop, and camera battery simultaneously, or share the outlets with your fellow passenger.)
  • Multi-outlet USB charger (might be a good alternative to the power strip, depending on your needs).
  • A three-prong adapter, just in case.
  • A couple of hand towels and wash cloths (and take a Ziploc bag for the wet cloths). An Amtrak customer service representative in Indianapolis told me that coach passengers do NOT have access to a shower. So I’ll use my wash cloths, soap, hand sanitizer, and wet wipes for hygiene and cleanliness during the trip.
  • Empty 13-gallon trash bag for dirty clothes.
  • TSA approved luggage locks for all your bags.
  • Books or other reading materials.
  • Playing cards (if you are traveling with kids, think through what else you may need to keep them amused).
  • Sunglasses.
  • A small cooler if you need to keep anything cold (may be substituted for one of your small 14x11x7” carry-on items).
  • For females, feminine hygiene items as needed.

Toiletries Organizer:

  • My organizer holds all the items mentioned below and fits easily into one of my large suitcases with my clothes. Your needs may vary, but these are some items you may want to include in your organizer, based upon suggestions I’ve read online (some of these are little comfort items that are easy to forget but can come in handy):
    • Any medicines or prescriptions you use. If you have a pill box, put it inside a large Ziploc bag so the box doesn’t pop open causing pills to spread all through your luggage! Remember you have no access to checked luggage enroute, so keep your meds in one of your carry-ons.
    • Hair dryer, comb, brush.
    • Shaving kit.
    • Toothbrush and toothpaste.
    • Deodorant.
    • Travel-size Kleenex and/or handkerchiefs.
    • Wet wipes (you will find these very useful on board, I’m told).
    • Travel-size hand sanitizer.
    • Chap Stick (it can get dry on the train, I’ve read)
    • Soap.
    • Travel-size shampoo.
    • Travel-size mouthwash.
    • Antacid.
    • Powder.
    • Air freshener. I don’t know how Amtrak feels about this. Ask your Amtrak attendant before you open or use such an item on board.


I found all the travel and snack items mentioned in this blog post at my local Wal-Mart. They have small travel-size items in an aisle near the pharmacy for around $1.00 each (soap, shampoo, shaving cream, wet wipes, tissues, mouthwash, toothpaste, simple first aid kit, deodorant, air freshener, hand sanitizer, etc.).

Wal-Mart also has a travel section in the aisle where they sell suitcases. It has travel blankets and pillows, pillow cases, luggage tags, TSA approved luggage locks (combination or key), travel organizers, sleep masks, some small travel items, etc. $1-$10 price range per item.

Amtrak’s Very Generous Per Person Baggage Allowance:

  1. You can take two big bags up to 28x22x14 inches and 50 pounds each that can be checked through to your destination or placed in the baggage compartment in your car, plus:
  2. Two carry-on items up to 14x11x7 inches and 25 pounds each that you can take to your seat.
  3. There are no baggage fees unless you go over this allowance!
  4. If you have a roomette or sleeping berth, it appears to be a good idea to check your two big bags. It doesn’t look like there is enough space for them in your room.
  5. You cannot access checked bags while enroute. They are in a separate baggage car that passengers cannot access.
  6. You CAN access your big bags in the luggage rack in your coach car or sleeping car to retrieve changes of clothing, etc. (according to my Amtrak contact at the Indianapolis station).

Here’s what I found: My two big bags are smaller than Amtrak’s max size. Still, everything mentioned on my checklist above fits into my four bags (except the cooler and feminine hygiene items, which I did not need), and I still have room for more. I’ve done a dry run; I’ve got about 80 pounds total in all four bags (30-30-10-10), nowhere near Amtrak’s weight limit.


Tipping. I found this information by Jim Loomis on 

As a basic rule of thumb, and assuming courteous, friendly service throughout the trip, I suggest tipping the car attendant no less than $5.00 per passenger per night. In other words, for two people on a two-night trip, whether in a roomette or a bedroom, an appropriate tip would be $20.
Tip the dining car crew the same way you would tip in any restaurant: start with 15% of the menu prices and go up or down from there depending on the quality of the service.
One other thing: some dining car crews pool their tips and others do not. I‘ve developed the habit of asking at my first dining car meal on any Amtrak trip. If the crew pools its tips – and the best crews usually do – I will sometimes give the Lead Service Attendant $20-$30 at the conclusion of my final meal on that trip. Otherwise, I’ll tip after each meal according to the quality of the service.

There’s a wealth of information about Amtrak on their Web site. Look through and to research their site for more information (taking bicycles, musical instruments, skis, weapons, pets, special items, handicap accessibility, and lots more). And for the most comprehensive guide, download the 138-page PDF of the Amtrak System Timetable.

For information about historic Union Station in Indianapolis mentioned in this blog post, listed on the National Register of Historic Places (a pre-Civil War structure dating back to 1853, the oldest Union Station in the world!), visit:

For information about historic Union Station in Chicago mentioned in this blog post, a designated Chicago Landmark, visit:

A Dozen Parting Thoughts

Here’s what I’ve learned from watching hundreds of YouTube videos and reading TripAdvisor and Pinterest posts:

  1. Published arrival time is a target at best. The train may arrive early or several hours late, so don’t plan a tight schedule. The longer the route, the further behind schedule the train may get. Plan ahead so you don’t miss connecting trains or flights, hotel reservations, scheduled meetings, ticketed events, or dinner reservations at your destination. Friends and relatives can check your ETA using Train Status at the top of the Amtrak Home Page.
  2. I’ve read that the train could possibly run out of food and beverages if you experience a long unscheduled stop or delay. Plan accordingly and hold some snacks in reserve.
  3. If there are long unscheduled delays, Amtrak’s employees may reach their maximum allowable hours in a work day. If so, the train has to stop until a new crew arrives.
  4. Amtrak employees must provide service to many passengers on such a long-distance route (a full coach section on the California Zephyr is around 80 per car, from what I’ve read–and that doesn’t count the sleeper cars). Attendants may not come around to your seat as often as you would like, or may not show up at the drop of a hat if you call. You’re not the only one on the train. Patience!
  5. Amtrak trains may be delayed by freight trains (which have priority), debris blocking the tracks, heavy snow, flooding or other inclement weather, equipment failure, accidents, etc.
  6. With all those passengers (I’m estimating about 250 maximum, and that’s just in the coach cars), dirt and trash can accumulate on a long trip of this nature. Do your part to help keep the train clean. Clean up after yourself!
  7. Occasionally some of the convenience items may not work (power outlets, air conditioning, call buttons, lights, etc.).
  8. I’ve read that it can be noisy on a train even in the middle of the night. Ear plugs and/or ear muffs may help you get some sleep!
  9. The observation car is probably the most popular car on the train. It may be difficult to get a seat in this car, especially during the most scenic portions of the trip. It appears there are about 50 seats in this car; there could easily be 250+ passengers on your train. Be considerate of your fellow passengers and don’t monopolize the seating.
  10. You may encounter noisy kids, crying babies, loud music, unpleasant smells,  attitudes, security issues, quiet hours issues, etc. Sure, you can get up and move around, but remember that you will be in a confined space for many hours with many people, 24/7. Tolerance and civility are admirable qualities! Oh, and smoking is prohibited aboard all Amtrak trains (I’ve read that passengers have been removed from the train for violating this policy).
  11. BUT YOU KNOW ALL THIS IN ADVANCE! It seems to me that some of the negative 1- or 2-star reviews that I read on TripAdvisor can be traced to the passenger’s failure to plan ahead, at least in my opinion. I think some of the tips and little travel items that I’ve mentioned in this blog post might help you avoid certain potential pitfalls and add to the enjoyment of your long-distance trip. So don’t just fill a suitcase and go get on the train. Do your homework! Different trains have different amenities and features.
  12. BOTTOM LINE: Enjoy your ride on the rails! If you are realistic and are simply expecting a L-O-N-G ride on public transportation from Point A to Point B, you’ll be just fine. Relax. Think of it as an adventure! Take good notes and write your own blog about it.

If you can’t tell, this is a major event for me. I want to get it right. I want to be comfortable. I don’t want to smell bad. I don’t want to annoy anyone or make other passengers mad at me. I want to be safe. And I want to have a good time. Who doesn’t? As I mentioned, I’ve been working on this blog post for nearly four months. It will be interesting to see what I think after my trip!

So I hope you found this checklist to be useful. If you’ve traveled by train, did I miss anything important? Or did I say something that is just completely wrong? Add your thoughts or corrections in the comments (moderated and subject to approval).


Visit Indiana (Mark Newman, Indiana Department of Tourism)
Visit Hendricks County (Josh Duke)
Visit Morgan County (Tosha Daugherty)
Visit Madison (Ann Mulligan, retired)

NOTE: “Amtrak” and all the train names mentioned in this post are registered trademarks of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Other company names and product names mentioned in this post are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies.

DISCLAIMERS/DISCLOSURES: At this writing I have not traveled on an Amtrak train. This is my independent personal opinion based upon my online research ONLY. Your needs may vary from those on this list. Amtrak, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Home Depot, Ziploc, and any other brand or company names mentioned did not pay me to recommend their merchandise or services, did not give me free merchandise or products, and none of them even know I’m writing this blog post. I do NOT get an affiliate commission for any links you may click in this post. There is no conflict of interest here.

New @connerprairie in 2018: Fort Hoosier

May 10, 2018 1 comment

Photo provided by Conner Prairie and used with written permission.

By Duane Brodt
Conner Prairie Interactive History Park

A new nature experience for the wild child in everyone is now open at Conner Prairie.

Fort Hoosier is a 1,000-square-foot addition to Treetop Outpost, a 4-story treehouse filled with interactive, hands-on activities and surrounded by experience areas in which visitors of all ages to build, dig, make music and explore.

Fort Hoosier features climbing walls, a climbing cargo net, passageways, tunnels, balance beams and more.

Treetop Outpost, which opened in 2016, is located in the middle of a Nature Walk that leads visitors through the woods and along the White River to an observation deck that overlooks the prairie.

It is part of the Bicentennial Nature Center Network, a statewide coalition created two years ago to ensure that all Hoosier youth have access to environmental education and creative outdoor experiences within 60 miles of where they live.

Other features of Fort Hoosier, made possible in part by support from Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent, include a signal lamp, which allows visitors to communicate by Morse code to visitors in Treetop Outpost, and a pulley and bucket for transporting items.

Fort Hoosier is included with museum admission.

Conner Prairie is location at 13400 Allisonville Road in Fishers, Indiana. For more information, visit, or call 317-776-6000.

11th Annual Asian Fest, June 24, 2018

May 7, 2018 1 comment

Image provided by the Asian Fest and used with written permission.

By Young Hee Yedinak
On behalf of the Asian Fest

Instead of flying 18 hours to travel to Asia, Hoosiers can experience the many dimensions of Asia in their own backyard. The 11th annual Asian Fest is set for Sunday, June 24, 2018, 12-5 PM, at the Indiana State Museum in downtown Indianapolis. ADMISSION IS FREE.

Each year, Asian Fest spotlights one Asian country, and this year, Burma/Myanmar will take center stage. Indiana has one of the largest Burmese immigrant populations in the U.S. This is an opportunity to learn about this fascinating country and our new neighbors in the Hoosier state. More information at

Festival highlights include:
· Entertaining cultural performances from China, India, Japan, Burma/Myanmar and more
· Cultural Discovery of Featured Country – BURMA / MYANMAR
· Traditional Burmese costume fashion show
· Asian cuisine from local restaurants
· Children’s activities
· Asian communities booths
· Asian American Alliance scholarship presentation

Festival goers will receive $5 reduced event parking in the White River State Parks garage.

The 2018 Asian Fest is made possible by these generous sponsors:

Title Sponsors: Barnes and Thornburg, Indianapolis Power & Light, IUPUI

Event Sponsors: Morgan Stanley, Honda Manufacturing of Indiana, Purdue University Asian American & Asian Resource and Cultural Center, Roche, International Center, Indianapolis Foundation, Christel DeHaan Family Foundation

Event Partner: Burmese American Community Institute (BACI)

In-Kind Sponsors: Indiana State Museum, Indy Asian American Times, Asian American Today, Indy Korea

Asian Fest is hosted by Asian American Alliance, Inc., a local, nonprofit, pan-Asian organization whose mission is to empower Asian Americans to serve and lead in businesses and communities. Visit www.aaalliance.orgto learn more.