Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Rail

Visiting the California Railroad Museum

During a long weekend in Sacramento with my older two kids, we visited the California Railroad Museum. It is located on the north end of Old Town Sacramento in a brick building (part of which is actually an old roundhouse, which is super cool).

Admission to the California Railroad Museum

The California Railroad Museum is managed by the State Park system. Adult admission is $12, while kids between 6 and 17 ring up at $6. Kids 5 and under are free.

The museum didn’t feel busy when we arrived, but there was a line of several people.

In the meantime, we decided to examine the small steam engine that greeted us.

The kids were excited. I don’t believe either have ever traveled by train, and they were very interested in seeing what trains were all about. After paying the admission, we decided we’d explore the place floor by floor.

First Floor

All the coolest stuff is on the first floor. Ok, that may have already spoiled floors two and three. But it’s true. You can’t really stick full size locomotives or railcars on the upper floors without some more serious engineering, so it follows that all of those at ground level. Which makes the first floor the coolest.

The first section focuses on the history of the railroad in California. Specifically, it highlights the Transcontinental Railroad. As a kid, this was a section of history I thoroughly enjoyed, and the fascination with the race to span a continent has not faded. I started to read every part of the exhibit.

California railroad museum

The kids quickly grew bored of this and ran ahead while I was engrossed in the details of the Central Pacific Railroad, the company racing eastward from California. If you’re not familiar with this section of American history, the Federal government offered financed the construction of the railroad by offering $16,000 per mile of track. The Central Pacific Railroad was the company constructing track eastward from California, eventually meeting the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah.

The kids eventually arrived to drag me further into the museum. I seriously could have spent most of an hour in the first rooms.

The railroad revolutionized the economy in California by linking the Golden State with the rest of the country. The next area focuses on the development and impact of the railroad in our own state. One section in particular highlights Sacramento, including it’s role in the Pullman strike.

california railroad museum

Further along there are a variety of locomotives and railcars, some historic, others new.

You are able to walk inside several. One of the kids’ favorites was the bullet train.

I also enjoyed the mail car. There were park staff inside who explained how the sorters managed the mail as the train clicked along the track, picking up new bags and delivering sorted ones.

Dining and Pullman coaches

The most interesting cars at the California Railroad Museum were the Pullman sleeper car and the dining car. I’d read about Pullman cars and knew that they were the standard for sleeper cars in their time, but it was way cooler to actually experience one!

The general layout resembles Amtrak’s modern Roomettes. I may be dreaming, but the beds in the Pullman look both wider and more comfy. You lose the privacy of the modern version, though, as you only have curtains to block out your car companions.

Connected to the Pullman sleeper is an exquisite dining car from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe named “Cochiti.” It has quite the kitchen! No, the cook is not real.

Displayed in the car are a large number of china sets from various trains. Unlike air travel where every pound counts, train china was designed to be beefy so it wouldn’t slide off the table as the train swayed.

There was also a menu displayed. If only prices were still this reasonable. Caviar for $1.75, anyone?

We spent a good amount of time on the first floor, but eventually it was time to check out the other sections of the California Railroad Museum.

Second Floor

The second floor of the museum contains some exhibits on high-speed rail, the museum theater, and…the simulator. This was a big hit with the kids. Both of them were up for waiting in line to drive a simulated Japanese bullet train. This might not sound as thrilling as an airplane simulator, but it was still fun for them.

The goal of the simulator is to take the train from one station to the next. You get to release the brakes and pull out of the station, carefully managing the throttle based on what section of track you’re on.

Later, the simulator skips to full speed, which is approaching 200 mph!

Finally, you get to stop the train at the next station. The goal is to park it as perfectly as possible and at the end it’ll tell you how how far off you were.

I as so engrossed watching my kids that I completely forgot to take pictures. Sorry.

Third Floor

The third floor of the California Railroad Museum is geared toward both kids and collectors. There are a large number of model trains displayed in cases, including many of the pieces that you’d use to set up a really nice diorama.

Maybe alluding to the Empire Builder Amtrak service?

There are also several full dioramas featuring moving trains at various scales. We enjoyed watching these.

The last section is the children’s play area. You also get a good view of the first floor laid out below you.

At the very end we stopped for a bit and played with the toy trains. There were a bunch of other kids there and it was sorta wild, so my two ended up wanting to head out pretty quickly.


Our visit to the California Railroad Museum made for a great half day excursion. I enjoyed reading the history of the railroad in California, seeing a variety of rail cars, and watching my kids enjoy themselves. I highly recommend the California Railroad Museum as a must-see if you are ever in the Sacramento area!

Montreal to NYC on Amtrak Adirondack

Train travel has been my favorite method of transportation since I first set foot on one in Britain when I was 19. Nothing beats it if time is not an issue. I didn’t get another chance to ride one, however, until I was 22, when I traveled to San Diego and back on the Amtrak San Joaquin. This was the trip on which I hatched my honeymoon plan, figuring out how to acquire thousands of Amtrak Guest Rewards points through the co-branded Chase Amtrak Card (now gone) and Chase Ultimate Rewards. It proved to be a kick-starter to my points and miles travel hobby.


Amtrak Adirondack in the snow. Image courtesy of New York By Rail blog.

As part of our recent trip to Canada, my wife and I rode the entire length of the Adirondack Amtrak route, departing from Montreal in the morning and arriving at New York Penn Station late in the evening. Most of our train travel experiences have been in long-distance, first-class sleeper accommodations, but this route is only a single day trip, and it was our first journey in coach since 2013. I was hoping it would be better than the Amtrak San Joaquin.

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Bye, Montreal! Sad to be leaving, but excited to see New York again!

As we boarded the train in Montreal, I immediately noticed two things. First, it was only a single-level train, and most that I have ridden have been double-decker Superliner cars. This indicated to me that the route is not especially popular. Second, I wondered for a few minutes if we were in business class since the seats on the train had more legroom than any other coach class that I had ever ridden. I half expected the conductor to come by and re-seat us when he saw our coach tickets! I have yet to ride business class on a train, though, so I really do not know what it is like and have no yardstick for comparison.

The seats were very comfortable, there were adequate power outlets, and the tray was the perfect height for me to work from my laptop while we wound our way past lake Champlain and along the Hudson River toward the Big Apple. Overall, the coach felt less cramped and more comfortable than other trains I have ridden. Coach on the Adirondack is definitely a step up from the San Joaquin, and I would venture to say it was better than our first experience on VIA Rail.

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Winding along Lake Champlain.

The scenery was exquisite along Lake Champlain. We saw men ice fishing on frozen sections of lake, snow covered hills in the distance, and beautiful winter forest landscape for many miles. The WiFi was spotty as well for this stretch, so I spent more of the time taking in the scenery and cuddling with my lovely wife than getting any work done. For a total of $16, the on board cafe provided both lunch and dinner of a packaged wrap and sandwich. I missed the dining car, a feature of long-distance trains.

One of the only complaints I have about the trip is how bumpy the ride was over a few sections. I would be busily debugging a block of code when we would hit a patch of…..something (turbulent rail?), and I would have to hold onto my laptop to keep it from flying off the tray table. These jittery sections were intermittent, but occurred frequently enough that I had to be careful with my computer.

Other than that, the entire ride was pleasant. By the time that I was wishing that we were already in New York and checked into the Element Times Square, there was only an hour of train ride left. The trip was also the best of two worlds: it was a long enough trip to enjoy the scenery and train travel in general, but it wasn’t an overnight. Overnights are fun, but only if you’re in a sleeper car.

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We de-trained at Penn Station in New York, caught a cab to the hotel (since the Uber app on my phone is ridiculously slow when I am not on WiFi), made a quick food run, and then slowly fell asleep with a view of the Empire State Building. It was a good day.


3 Thoughts From Our First Trip On VIA Rail

Train travel beats air travel in so many ways. The seats are larger, the scenery is better, at-seat power is basically guaranteed, and it’s simply a more comfortable experience overall. Granted, you trade significant time for said experience, but I typically find it far more enjoyable and stress-free. I might have a different perspective, however, if I had any first-class air travel and less first-class train travel under my belt.


VIA Rail – Canada’s National passenger rail service provider. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Having taken several excursions on Amtrak, I was very interested to see how VIA Rail would compare. As the national passenger rail line of Canada, I was expecting the two to be pretty similar. And it was, in my opinion. I have a few observations from our first trip with VIA:

  1. Decent free WiFi . This came as a big surprise. Compared to the two Amtrak trains that I have ridden that offer WiFi, the signal on the Montreal-Quebec train was both stronger and more consistent. This allowed my wife to watch some shows while I got a few productive hours of work in during the trip.
  2. Baggage allowances are different than Amtrak. I should have been prepared for this, but I wasn’t. The night before we were scheduled to depart, I finally checked the fine print of the tickets, and realized that we had to get our large bag down to 40 lbs, not 50 like Amtrak. We were pushing 50 already when we flew out to Montreal, so this was a bit tricky. We then ended up being extremely late getting to the station for our train toward Quebec, due to an unfortunate address mishap with an Uber driver, and we didn’t have time to weigh the bag. The station agent was kind enough to simply lift the bag and say, “that feels about 40 pounds,” and let us run down the escalator and board the train.
  3. Major temptation for cross-continent travel. Oh my. I should not have opened the pamphlet in the back of the seat. The pictures of the Canadian Rockies are breathtaking, and if there is anything I will fall for (besides my wife) it is mountains. VIA has one main cross-country route, and everything about it appealed to me. I have not found an easy way to accrue points for a first-class ticket with VIA Rail, however, so that idea may stay out of reach.

The beautiful vistas along the VIA Rail line through the Rockies. Image courtesy of SmartCanucks.

With two trips to Canada in a year, I don’t foresee my wife and I heading back anytime soon. Currently, the only other area I have my eye on is Vancouver and British Columbia. For any future trips, though, VIA will definitely be in the back of my mind.

Our Honeymoon: An Introduction to Travel Rewards

By December of 2011 I had been engaged for 9 months and was about to be engaged for 6 more. Yeah. Way too long. I was also just beginning to give some real thought to the whole idea of where my soon-to-be-wife and I would go on our honeymoon. So I packed my bags and headed to Mexico. Ok….this was not why. I was headed on a trip to see a friend who does ministry with women and children who have been victims of human trafficking, and who also helps run homes for them. He is an amazing man with an amazing calling. See the results of one of his most recent operations here.

The trip to Mexico provided me with the initial idea that turned into a 2 1/2 week honeymoon adventure. I was taking a long (but cheap) trip by bus and train on Amtrak to San Diego from northern California. And by northern, I really mean northern, like 4+ hours north of San Francisco. The Bay Area will only ever be northern California if the state of Jefferson comes into existence. But that is a completely unrelated story and I digress.

The Amtrak trip was painfully long, and I arrived in SD about 5:00 a.m. after leaving Humboldt the previous morning. I was exhasuted. First light came as I was taking the trolley to the border, which I walked across, and then caught a cheap van taxi to Rosarito, where my friend lived at the time. THIS is what you call cheap travel.

While I was at Santa Fe Station in downtown SD, however, a sign caught my eye regarding the Chase Amtrak co-branded Mastercard. I didn’t give it much thought, initially, but I browsed the Amtrak Guest Rewards website while in Rosarito, and on my way to Tijuana on a day trip, everything clicked: I could apply for the card and get enough points for a sleeper redemption to Denver. We will spend our honeymoon in the Rockies.

I texted my fiancé at the time and said: “We are on our way to Tijuana today. I just had the best idea for a honeymoon.” Looking back….that came out completely wrong. And it is painfully obvious how my completely unrelated thoughts indicated to her that I wanted to take her to Tijuana on our honeymoon. I am fortunate I didn’t get a text back saying: “If that is your idea of a honeymoon, this relationship is over.” I had a bit of explaining to do for the rest of the day as I sorted this one out.

Brief stop in Fraser, CO

Fast-forward a month, and I had successfully applied not only for that Chase Amtrak Mastercard, but also for a Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa, from which I transferred all the points to the Amtrak Guest Rewards program. After purchasing another 2,500 points for about $70, I redeemed them for one amazing train trip. Our first leg went from Martinez (north Bay Area), California to Denver, Colorado where we stayed for a few days in the Rockies, like I had initially wanted to do. But I added more. From there we flew on Delta to New York City, a place to which my wife had always dreamed of going, and spent another 4 amazing days. From there it was free train travel for the remainder of the trip, with a stopover in New Orleans for two nights, as we headed back from New York City to Klamath Falls via the Crescent, Sunset Limited, and Coast Starlight routes. It was an experience of a lifetime, and got me hooked on the travel rewards game. Those two credit cards that provided my wife and I with an experience that we will never forget, and could never have afforded (essentially $3,500+ of first-class train travel for $70 out of pocket). now we plan to have many more.


New York City: My wife looking out over Central Park from the Top of the Rockefeller Center