How to stay sane on the train

The best train survival tips to turn you from rail rookie to rail master

Riding the rails is a smart option for savvy commuters. Trains can be relatively cheap, offer some lovely views, and give you prime time to sleep between destinations. But those who aren't in the know can quickly find torture in train travel. Whether you're traveling on the Metro North, the RER, or aboard a Shinkansen, knowing a few handy tips can help you avoid a train disaster.

Be timely

If you know me, you'll know that I am perpetually early. Early to a fault. So when it comes to mass transit, I cannot urge you enough to be early. There is nothing more sad/embarrassing than to see a person running down the platform in heels, suitcase twisting and flopping, screaming in ironic slow-mo for the conductor to wait. Don't be that person. Know what time the train leaves and set your watch 15 minutes early. Oh, and be sure you're on the right platform. Sometimes, commuter trains wait until the last minute to decide which platform on which they'll be arriving, so keep your eyes on the schedule and be prepared to bolt if you need to. (Wear sensible shoes!)

Be safe

I will be blunt: trains do not rank #1 in safety among other methods of transportation. Recent years have seen a handful of train accidents prompted by derailments or collisions. If you're paranoid, it's wisest to sit in the middle cars of a train, where it is much less likely to be hit. Though you are giving up a sacrifice if you are a quiet car-seeker like me. Often, quiet cars will be located in the front or rear of a train. If you must, try to sit in a rear-facing seat, which will help minimize impact in an emergency braking situation.

Maybe this is the germophobe in me, but another aspect of train safety is train cleanliness. I always like to wear a coat with a hood, so I can comfortably lean my head back without worrying about contracting lice or whatever from the previous person who rubbed his or her potentially dirty scalp all over the seat head. I also like to sit on my coat if I can, to minimize contact with the questionably "clean" seat. I search for seats that have less worn upholstery which will likely mean that they are cleaner.

I also like to avoid the train restrooms if at all possible. If you're interested in reading about train toilets, you'll find this a fascinating read, but if you're more on the squeamish side, I'd just keep reading. While some trains are making huge advancements in their "hands-free" bathrooms, they are often uncomfortable because of the incessant shaking that railway travel imparts on trains. I once tried to insert contact lenses in an Amtrak bathroom and almost poked my eye out. Not fun. Plus, some of them have questionable soap…

When you're sitting in your seat, you'll see many train passengers with their headphones in, in an attempt to tune out. But please be careful, kids, and don't turn your headphones up too high so you can't hear train announcements. Also, you should know that excessive headphone volume can put you at risk of serious hearing damage. While trains are often soporific, be careful about sleeping on them. Though I sometimes can't help but surrender to near-unconsciousness on trains, I always sleep with one eye and ear open.

Be comfortable

Trains are usually more comfortable than economy class on planes, but most of them are nothing too spectacular. There are a few things you can do to help amp up your level of comfort. First, always take a window seat. This will of course give you the best view, and you won't have to move in when someone inevitably has to sit next to you. Go for a 3-seater over a 2-seater, because the new person will likely sit on the aisle seat, giving you that extra breathing room of the middle seat.

To maximize space, stow any additional luggage overhead. (If you have poor arm strength, like me, look around for a kind and handsome stranger to help you out.) But make sure that you have all your necessities in a carry-on on your lap or under your seat. You will not want to be that person who has to reach up into their overhead bag half-way through the journey. Also, don't eat any offensive smelling things or perform any ablutions, like nail clipping or makeup applying. This is never appreciated by anyone. But you know this.

Be savvy

The next most sad/embarrassing thing to someone running in heels down the train platform is someone fishing for their ticket for hours, infuriating everyone around him or her. Keep your ticket in a transparent compartment in your wallet, so you can just flash that puppy whenever you need to. (Or, if you're really ahead of the curve, a lot of trains now have e-tickets that you can buy straight from your phone.)

Other wallet essentials? Extra cash. You should know when your train is peak or offpeak, but just in case you have a brain spaz, always have a few extra shekels around in case you need to adjust your ticket. Don't argue about it; just pay it.

Oh, and if you're in the quiet car, be quiet.

Trains can be awesome or trains can suck. The choice is yours.


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