I wouldn’t say that I’ve traveled extensively on Amtrak trains, but I have done my fair share of train travel. I don’t like flying when I travel, unless it’s necessary due to time or, you know, the ocean. So, when I get the chance to ride on a train, I do. You don’t have to arrive 2 hours early, answer a thousand questions about your baggage packing habits, wait in a cramped cabin, sit in a cramped cabin, wait for your baggage at the end of your flight . . . the list goes on.
One thing that makes train travel much better is acquiring your own double seat. On short distance train, this is harder but also less necessary. On longer distance trains, you want to sit by yourself—it’s not like the people who use the train are any better quality individuals than those who fly, and you want to get as much room as possible.
Here are some tips I’ve accumulated after many train trips and years being the kind of person who never, ever wants to talk to strangers (whether it be on a train or anywhere else).
Boarding. Seating on Amtrak coach service is first come-first served, and as we will discover soon, getting just the right seat is vital. You want to get on the train as soon as possible. Here’s one place where size really helps. The rush to get on the train is immense and having long legs really helps. Sorry, short people, you are kind of screwed here. Do your best to initially locate yourself as close as possible to the gate, and then take those big steps and get to the train first. Go to the car that is farthest away from the gate as possible.
Seating. This is hard. Once you get on the train, how do you pick just the right seat. Here’s one place where psychology is important. By getting on first, you guarantee that you have a pick of two empty seats by themselves. You may think that you want to get as far as possible to the front, but that would be a mistake. Once all the single seats are taken, there will be two types of people boarding. The first type will try their hardest to find a single seat and will thus go as far as possible until they are guaranteed that there are no single seats. They will find this out at the very front of the train and will have no incentive to turn back. So, if you are sitting at the front trying to defend your hard-fought turf, you’ll be screwed. The first type of boarder will give up and plop next to you. The second type of boarder after all the single seats are taken is the person that gets defeated early and just finds the first open seat. So, you don’t want to be sitting right where people board. The sweet spot is dead in the middle of the car, as far to the front of the train as possible.
Posturing in your seat. Once all there are no double seats available, you need to adopt a defensive posture. This is another time where being taller and bigger is better. Spread your body out. Don’t lean up against the window. You want to take up as much seat real estate as possible. I like putting my leg up on the other seats foot rest. You want the person to believe that sitting next to you is going to be an intimate affair.
Bag placement. You’re trying to not have a seat mate, but don’t be a dick. Put all but your smallest bag above your seat. Use your smallest bag as another obstacle to a person sitting, but by using your smallest bag, you are ensuring that you don’t look like you are trying to do this. A bigger bag doesn’t make a bigger obstacle; the obstacle for the person looking for a seat is asking for you to move the bag.
Don’t make eye contact. This is actually a good tip for life, as well as for when you are trying to avoid getting your bag searched on by the NYPD on the NYC subway. The vast majority of people do not want to try to get someone’s attention. It’s science: it opens up the possibility of failing and having to repeat yourself or, worse yet, just being ignored. As social animals, we are wired to avoid negative situations (you should know this—you’re trying to sit by yourself on the train!). Making eye contact makes it easier for the other person to ask you to move your small bag.
Watch violent or explicit movies on your laptop. By sensible and use headphones, but if you watch something on your laptop that other people won’t want to see, you improve your chances of sitting by yourself. Warning: This could backfire as violent or explicit movies might attract a seat mate. Use with caution.
Techniques I’ve seen used but don’t use myself—I have standards.
Eating sloppy, smelly food.
Being a sloppy, smelly individual.
Talk loudly on your cell phone (but if you get dirty looks, you deserve them—that’s your own damn fault).
Have a cold or other gross illness (I’m not opposed to this as a technique, but I’m not gonna go out and get a cold just to get a double seat).