Posts tagged train travel
October 2017 Money Diary: Everything We Spent on Our Train Trip Across America
The Origami Life October 2017 - Money Diary Savings-2.png
The Origami Life - October 2017 Money Diary-2.png

In October,  Jennie and I took 15 days off and traveled from Los Angeles, California to Boston, Massachusetts - by Amtrak rail.

Here’s what we spent on this long train journey:

Everything We Spent on Our 15 Day U.S. Train Journey with Amtrak

Our Travel Spend Priorities

Before I lay out the expenses for the trip, I should provide some context on what Jennie and I value when we travel. The following are not hard and fast rules, but I think it paints a pretty accurate picture of what our spending priorities are

  1. We dine out for a light breakfast (usually just coffee + pastry) to go over our plans for the day.

  2. We dine out for one of lunch or dinner (and buy groceries for the other meal).

  3. We choose one paid “attraction” per day and plan several free ones around it.

  4. We plan our meals around relationships we value. If we’re staying with friends, we will always pay.

  5. How a restaurant looks, ‘its vibe’ and the attentiveness of its waitstaff are of minimal importance to us.

  6. Whenever possible, we will ride public transit at least once. It’s not just cheaper, but you get to see a cross-section of society interacting (or not interacting).

  7. We don’t believe in souvenirs or other knick knacks that can’t be immediately consumed.

  8. We don’t do ‘fine dining’ (our definition is any meal over $35 per person incl. tax and tip), fusion cuisine, or places that advertise farm-to-table ingredients. These are just personal preferences.

  9. We don’t (really) drink and avoid bars, breweries and nightclubs designed specifically for that purpose. The only exception are jazz clubs (i.e. the drinking should be the secondary objective to whatever the main point is).

  10. We will pay a (significant) premium for a quiet coffee shop or bookstore with fast wifi, strong coffee, and a clear view of the passing scenery (hence, 100 hours over 15 days on trains).

With that out of the way, here’s what we spent:  

Before the Trip

Amtrak USA Rail Passes (x2): $918 ($459 each)

28L Patagonia Refugio Backpacks (x2): $0 (swag from Jennie’s company #privilege)

20L Packable Eddie Bauer Daypack: $25 (Bought on sale from Amazon. Waterproof and super useful to stow our valuables! We’re bringing this on our RTW trip)

Day 0 Total: $943

For the USA Rail Pass, a 15 day trip works out to around $30 a day per person, with stopovers in up to eight cities. Keep in mind some segments are overnight so you can actually save on accommodation. 

The Amtrak USA Rail Pass guarantees you a coach seat (roomettes are extra), but you’ll still have to call or show up at your nearest station prior to your trip to pick up your pass and reserve tickets for the individual segments. 

You can learn more about how to plan your trip using Amtrak USA Rail Passes here:

Leg 1:
The Coast Starlight
(~12 hours from Los Angeles to Emeryville)

The Coast Starlight goes from Los Angeles to Seattle. Our favorite segment of the trip takes you along the coast of California. 

The Coast Startlight follows along the Pacific Crest Highway (PCH); it's gorgeous.

The Coast Startlight follows along the Pacific Crest Highway (PCH); it's gorgeous.

Day 1: Los Angeles Union Station to Emeryville

  • Groceries: $40 (Two bento boxes and snacks for the 12 hour journey)
  • Dining Out: $0 (There is a dining car onboard that we tried on another leg of our journey. The food was...edible)
  • Sightseeing: Free (We sat in the observation car working, reading and chatting until it was dark and the stars came out and the ocean was illuminated by moonlight) 

Day 1 Total: $40

Watching the sunset from the train.

Watching the sunset from the train.

Day 2: Emeryville, California (NorCal)

  • Accommodation: $0 (Arrived in Emeryville at 10 PM. Stayed with a friend for the night)
  • Dining Out: $36 (Treated friend to early morning breakfast before leaving for Salt Lake City)
  • Groceries: $30 (Hummus, pita chips, and fruit from Safeway for the next leg)
  • Transportation: $10 (Two Lyft rides to and from Emeryville Station)

Day 2 Total: $76

Leg 2:
The California Zephyr
(~50 hours from Emeryville to Chicago) 

Checking out the  Mormon Tabernacle Choir  at 8am.

Checking out the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at 8am.

Day 3: Salt Lake City, UT

  • Accommodation: $0 (We got off train at 3 AM and we boarded the next one 24 hours later. We were tired. Would not recommend).     
  • Groceries: $15 (Clif Bars, crackers and cheese from Trader Joe’s)
  • Dining Out: $65 (Ruth’s Diner in the mountains for dinner and Village Inn because it was either that or Denny’s at 4 AM on Sunday)
  • Transportation: $30 (A lot of Lyft rides)
  • Sightseeing: $24 (Ensign Peak and Mormon stuff were free. Paid for Red Butte Garden)
  • Other: $15 to leave our packs at the station and $10 worth of coffee to keep us awake

Day 3 Total: $159

Someplace between Utah and Colorado...

Someplace between Utah and Colorado...

Day 4 - 6: Denver, CO

  • Accommodation: $0 (We stayed with family for two nights)
  • Groceries: $20
  • Dining Out: $80 (Paid for as many meals as we were allowed to by family)
  • Other: $30 (Edible gummies from marijuana dispensary and Popeye’s Chicken)

Day 4-6 Total: $140

Wandering around Downtown Omaha, Nebraska

Wandering around Downtown Omaha, Nebraska

Day 7: Omaha, NB

  • Accommodation: $0 (Hyatt Place Old Market for 8,000 points, transferable 1:1 from Chase)
  • Groceries: $15
  • Dining Out: $50 (Two meals worth of BBQ at Smoking Jay’s)
  • Transportation: $10
  • Sightseeing: $46 (Henry Doorly Zoo and a special exhibit at the Joslyn Art Museum)

Day 7 Total: $121

Having a classic Chicago deep dish pizza at a local shop before we left.

Having a classic Chicago deep dish pizza at a local shop before we left.

Day 8 - 10: Chicago, IL

  • Accommodation: $210 (Airbnb for two nights)
  • Groceries: $15
  • Dining Out: $170 (Because Chicago)
  • Transportation: $10
  • Sightseeing: Mainly free stuff and hanging out with friends

Day 8-10 Total: $405

Leg 3:

Lake Shore Limited & the Northeast Corridor
(~21 hours from Chicago to New York to Philly to Boston)

Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown, New York City

Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown, New York City

Day 11: New York City, NY

  • Accommodation: $0 (Stayed at friend’s $300 a month apartment in Chinatown)
  • Groceries: $15
  • Dining Out: $65 (we were only in New York for 16 hours) 
  • Transportation: $5

Day 11 Total: $85

Looking out into downtown Philadelphia from the famous "Rocky" steps.

Looking out into downtown Philadelphia from the famous "Rocky" steps.

 Day 12: Philadelphia, PA

  • Accommodation: $82 (Airbnb for one night)
  • Groceries: $10
  • Dining Out: $64
  • Transportation: $15
  • Sightseeing: $28

Day 12 Total: $199

We went running along the Charles River in Boston and it was perfect.

We went running along the Charles River in Boston and it was perfect.

Day 13 - 15: Boston, MA

  • Accommodation: $0 (Again, we lived in Boston and have several close friends)
  • Groceries: $45
  • Dining Out: $140
  • Transportation: $15

Day 13-15 Total: $200

Flying Home
 (~7 hours Boston to Los Angeles)


$25 for two one way tickets from Boston to Los Angeles: flights were paid for with miles through United (transferable 1:1 from Chase)

The Origami Life Cross Country

Train Trip Summary

Total all-in spend for the 15 day trip
was $2,393, or $1,196 per person

Jennie and I were fortunate enough to have friends and family living across the country, which saved us anywhere between $300-500 on accommodations

However, even if you add those costs back in, you could still travel quite comfortably across the U.S. for well under $1,500 a person, or less than $100 a day. If you traveled in a larger group of say 4 people, and split the cost of accommodation and food, that number would be closer to $1,000, which is about as much as you’d spend for just one week in Europe. 

6 Things We Learned Travelling Across America by Train (10/13 - 10/28)

Ivan here.

It’s been a while.

Over the past two weeks, Jennie and I travelled from Los Angeles to Boston - by Amtrak rail. We spent nearly 100 hours on trains, making 24 to 48 hour stopovers in the following cities: San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston.

We’re calling this Part 1 of our “Goodbye America” tour, before we leave for our round the world trip in 2018.

Here are just some of the things we learned travelling across America:

1. Life In Prison Reflects Life Outside Prison

April (not her real name), our Uber driver to Los Angeles Union Station, once worked as a mental health practitioner at one of LA’s largest prisons. During her two year internship, there were five suicides in her ward - or “pod” as she called it. Pods look something like this:

Prisoners with mental illnesses wear yellow jumpsuits and live together in one pod. The handicapped wear brown. Child molesters wear red. Celebrities (like Chris Brown) get their own separate pod, away from the ‘general population,’ a term which applies to your garden variety inmate, who wears blue.

Jennie and I learned that life in prison is very similar to life outside.

The politics in prison is the same as the real world: knowing whose hands to grease to use the phones or to buy a bag of Doritos from the vending machine. With prison overcrowding and budget cuts lowering the standard of living for guards and inmates alike, everyone tries to do more with less. Social tensions run high. While the State segregates inmates by crime for easier management and control, the inmates self-segregate by race just to get by.

In other words, America.

I was trapped in a windowless cell, same as everyone else, from 8 AM to 6 PM. The only difference was that I got to go home every night.
— April

 2. Light and Shadow in Salt Lake City


In Salt Lake City, a city which by the way, has the cleanest Taco Bells in America, Jennie and I witnessed an obvious case of unconscious bias. It was Sunday morning. We were leaving Temple Square after a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Maybe I’m just a bad guy, but I found every Mormon I ever met to be...creepily nice. It’s like the cameras were rolling and I was walking through the set of The Stepford Wives.

Anyway, like most other affluent cities, things got noticeably “less nice” once you stepped onto public transit.

At the light rail station, a young black male was making his way along the platform, asking strangers for a light for his cigarette.

I saw people visibly recoil as he approached them - and it wasn’t my imagination. You could see the frustration on his face. In the end, a student couple lent him a light. As the light rail pulled into the station and we all got on the train, I saw him slip the couple a $5 bill before disappearing into the crowd.

3. How Productive is the Term ‘White Privilege’?

I’m going to tread carefully here.

On our way from Salt Lake City to Denver, we met a woman in her late fifties/early sixties from Austin, Texas. A lovely human being. Jennie and I ended up having a long conversation with her in the cafe car over canned wine, cheese and crackers, talking about her experience volunteering for disaster relief in the States and Central America. We talked about our plans for 2018, and bonded over our shared love of travel.


At times, the conversation turned serious. Without going into detail, she shared with us very real and personal struggles she’s had in her relationships and finances.

I suppose that’s what they call white privilege,” she said.

It was only a passing remark, but it got me thinking.

Does America need to have a serious, prolonged, and uncomfortable conversation about race? Yes. Are there systematic and racial injustices in this country? Absolutely. But as a minority, one who would never want assumptions about my race to define who I am, why wouldn’t I wish the same for all races?

Is it better to feel ‘woke’ educating the West Virginian coal miner about their privilege, or is it better to practice the empathy we wish to see in others?

4. What’s in Omaha?


Not the golden-breasted starling, apparently. Did you know that according to TripAdvisor, Omaha has the best zoo in America? As recently as 2014, it was ranked above the San Diego Zoo for the top spot.

While we have mixed feelings about animals in captivity, the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo seemed well run, spacious, and definitely worth a visit if you somehow find yourself in Nebraska.

5. There Will Be No Napping at the Chicago Public Library

Harold Washington Library, Downtown Chicago

Harold Washington Library, Downtown Chicago

While waiting to board a late night train from Chicago to New York, we decided to get a few hours of work done at the Chicago Public Library. At some point, Jennie dozed off at her table, only to be woken by a security guard making the rounds.

“You gotta wake up,” he said. “No sleeping.”

“Is that library policy?” I asked. “Staying awake is mandatory?”

He shrugged. “I don’t make the rules.”

Fair enough. I know we all like to follow orders around here. So we left the sleep police alone to do his job.

Liability issues aside, how is this not a policy that obviously targets the homeless? But I get it. The library is for readers - all twelve of them. It’s a place for the respectable taxpayer to while away an afternoon with his $1,000 Macbook, leaving the unwashed masses and their stench to freeze out in the Chicago winter.

I mean, aren’t there homeless shelters for that? The state of Illinois being on the verge of bankruptcy and all. 

6. $300 Rent in New York City

Chinatown, New York City

Chinatown, New York City

A friend of ours lives in a studio above a restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown. Including utilities, he pays $300 a month in rent.

I know what you’re thinking: Fuck that guy, right?

Here’s the thing. Five or six decades ago, when his grandmother signed the hundred year lease on the property, $300 was a lot of money. In fact, it was practically highway robbery when you considered the gang violence that was happening in Chinatown at the time.

His grandmother passed in 2012, after raising her family (of seven) in that studio. And now, one of her grandsons gets to live the high life in New York City for $300 a month.

I don’t know about you, but I think this woman was a true visionary and long term investor.

She represented everything that was great about America.