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American Orient Express

United States - Deluxe Rail Journeys On Americas Premier Train

By Carl Morrison,

Notes and Photos

The American Orient Express (AOE) has always been the train most asked about when people learn that I am a train travel reporter.  I've always been asked if I have ridden it, and until now had to always say, "No."  Now my response will be, "Yes,  and you've got to go youself!"

I now know why the AOE carries such mistique.   She (I use that gender to refer to the AOE, as is done with great ships of the sea) is the most elegant train I've ever had the pleasure of riding, and I've ridden a few private trains (see:

The most impressive part, to me, is the dining.  The quality and variety in the meals is unsurpassed, even on cruise ships and in fine restaurants.


Jef Bennett , Tour Leader, is one AOE staffperson with whom I was most impressed.  Perhaps it is because I got to know Jef the best of any employee, but he seems to be enjoying his job.  He accompanied the guests on all the off-train tours in Savannah, Charleston, Williamsburg, and Monticello.  He also lead the Orientation before we were taken to the train, and lead an informative session about other tours by AOE.  He is always smiling and accommodating.  When other local tour guides are giving their information on the busses, Jef is always offering water and snacks.  I dubbed him, "Snackman."  Jef is very open to questions such as, "Where are you from?  How did you get this job?  What did you do before working for AOE?"  Some folks may not want to give this information, but Jef answered each question with a smile and honesty.

Jef was the first (and last) employee we saw on this "Land Cruise."  He led the Orientation at the River Inn Hotel where all passengers attended before we were taken to the train.  There he mentioned that one guest had been on 13 AOE trips!  Prof. Ann Dupont would provide three lectures on the train.  He had past guests repeat, in relation to the size of the rooms, "My cabin is compact, but comfortable."  He said the AOE was a 'vintage train' restored to 40s and 50s.  All buttons on the panel work except the one marked, "Porter."  Instead there is a phone in the room and we should just dial zero and the Passenger Service Office would find our porter for us.  The PSO also has stamps, and can cash traveler's checks.  We could register a credit card for souvenirs and staff tips at the end of the trip.  Vestibule windows can be opened and used for photography (unlike Amtrak), and for smoking.  All water is potable and bottled water will be provided daily in the room and on tours.

Other comments by Kitty, were that when the train is moving, be careful.  Use one hand for the train and one hand for yourself, especially between cars, and be aware of the moving plates between cars.  If you return to the train after it is closed for the night, go to the dome car's lower level windows and knock.  Someone is always in the Passenger Service Office there and will let you in.  (On the first morning in Charleston, I took an early morning walk to photograph the train in the ideal setting, and had to use this procedure to get back into the train.)  The order of running on railroads in America is:  First, freight; Second, Amtrak; and Third, AOE; so we may sit on a siding now and then, or leave later than planned.

Megan, Lead Guide on this trip,  gave her comments next.  She said our first meal on the train would be this evening.  Meals are all open seating any time dinner is served.  There are 88 seats in the two dining cars, which are adjacent in the center of the train, and only 70 guests on board, so no problem finding a seat when you want to eat.

There is a large route guide in the cabin with our stops and highlights on the cities we pass.  There are commentaries on the passing sights, except during piano time in the club car.  There is a consist list at the end of each day's itinerary.  She explained that the difference between a tourist and a hitch  hiker is about 5 minutes, so don't be late returning to the train.  She also gave us the Lead Tour Director's cell phone number in case there was a problem.  We were urged to wear our name badge all the time for security and meal service off the train while on tours.

Gratuities are handled off the train by AOE.  Onboard it is suggested that we tip $15 per person per day.  This goes into a kitty for all the staff except AOE Tour Leaders, which we should tip independently. 

This first day there will be a champagne reception in both the (mid-train) Seattle Club Car (with piano) and the (end-of-train) New York Club Car.  They were doing a photo shoot for a new brochure, so we all signed a model release.  The brochure would reflect a new name for the AOE,  and/or a new owner. 

AOE has five-course dinners.  The train is 1/4 mile long.  "Stable" (not moving) the first night here in Savannah.  Newspapers are provided in the club car each day that we are stable.

We had two Genesis engines, PD42DCs #145 and 198, made in Sept. and Oct. 2001 respectively. Between the engines and the guest cars were four cars for the crew:  Los Angeles, for supplies; Yellowstone Park and Tallahassee for  crew quarters; Monterey, crew diner.

A second employee who I was impressed with was our Porter, Gregg.  He attended to our every need plus providing services above and beyond the call of duty.  For instance, we had the smallest room and could find no place to store our empty suitcases, even though we had brought the suggested size.  We discovered that under the sofa in our room there were drawers rather than a place to store our suitcases.  Gregg, sensing our dilemma, offered to take our empty bags to an usused cabin and store them there.  This made our room much more enjoyable.  Gregg even took our off-train purchases and put them in the empty bags. 

Upon our return from the day excursions, porters were always assigned to meet us at the vestibules.  It was always like returning home when we saw Gregg's smiling face.  After all guests were back on board, he would come to our cabin and ask if we needed anything.  We asked for soft drinks the first time and he remembered our order and each time we returned from a day of touring, there would be our drinks with a glass of  ice on white linen on our table!  Sue discovered that she had left her hair dryer at home. Gregg had said over and over, "Do you need anything?"  So we thought, "Why not."  Sure enough, Gregg found us a brand new hair dryer!

He was well versed in the traditional duties of a porter as well, such as preparing our room for sleep, making up the room while we were at breakfast,  holding the door as we passed from car to car, and having a pleasant greeting if we met him in other cars on the train.  He was, as were other employees, knowledgeable and informative about the areas in which the train parked, such as local drug stores, internet access, and attractions.

I suggest that you wear long sleeves since the public cars seem to always be cool.  The work staff does not notice the coolness because they are warm from working so hard.  Take a jacket on excursions.  In Savannah we were in an open trolley bus and sped out of town to Bonaventure Cemetery, returing at 5:30, and it was very windy and cool at freeway speeds in the open vehicle.

In your rail car, while moving, if you hear a lot of rail noise at night:  close the sink drain and be sure the shower door is closed.

Guest and Staff Comments:

Near the end of the trip, I asked guests and staff for their comments about the trip and AOE in general. 

The Purls, from Madera, California, were on their first AOE journey, in celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary.  Mike said, "We would go again in a heartbeat!"
Repeat AOE guests get substantial discounts on future trips, especially if they sign up for another trip while onboard.  They also receive 'reserved' observation car seating.

Waiter Julian Laredo, from San Antonio, TX, said, "We have our own diner and chef, and he's very good...I love his biscuits and gravy in the morning!"  Julian has been with AOE a year and a half, and says, "I Love it, because I get to see places I've never seen before."

Porter Mario, who sports a "Cars" pin on his lapel, says he got it from a Pixar studio tour, and his kids love the things he was given on the tour.

AOE provides each cabin an extensive questionnaire near the end of the tour.

From these questionnaires they learn that some guests feel the beds are too hard, but that's changing.  Others mention the time to get hot water is too long, but I did not find that a problem.  Our porter had warned us about that on the first day, but there never was a lag in getting hot water in our cabin or in the car's shower.  Air conditioning is sometimes not satisfactory, but consider the task of keeping a metal rail car in Utah cool!  Finally, sometimes a specific step-on tour guide may not be up to par and I imagine AOE wants to hear about this.

Compliments are always received about the food being great.  Some say there is not enough train riding on their tour, and conversely they say there is too much riding, such as on the cross-country trip of 3,000 miles in a week.  The response to these complaints of too much or too little riding, would be the suggestion of a different tour next time that more satisfies their needs.

Some were disappointed with New Orleans being cut from the Itinerary, and therefore less miles of riding, yet others liked less riding.  Personally we enjoyed less rail travel, since we had ridden many thousand miles on Amtrak and the movement of the train during travel is similar.  Less miles per week means longer time stable in towns with plenty of tours.  We were always happy to return to the train for it's food, family, and accommodations.  It was like a moving hotel!  "Rhythm of the Rails," is a misnomer, if you're a long-time rail traveler, you know it is more like "Trashed by the Track."

Most of the off-train meals were good, but I felt the Magnolia Restaurant in Charleston was far below the AOE standard.  Michie Tavern also was not to AOE standards, but the proximity to Monticello and the historic significance of the tavern and the waitresses in period costume made the fried chicken lunch palatable.  I would imagine it is a considerable challenge to find a restaurant in all the cities the AOE visits with a private room large enough to accommodate all of the AOE guests and still have good food.  With this in mind, I have no complaints, nor did I hear any from other guests.

There are few children on the American Orient Express trips, and none under 8 years of age are allowed.  One special young guest in the past was a 12-year-old from Richmond, VA, who was on the Grand Canyon portion through Make-A-Wish Foundation.

There were only 70 guests on our Antebellum South trip, but about 115 would be on the return/southbound, Civil War, trip.

One small item that the AOE could provide, to make navigating through the train much easier for the guests, would be to station porters at each vestibule, as I experienced on the Expresso Maya private train in Mexico, to open and hold the doors for the guests.  It seemed that all AOE guests were having trouble, some were on their first train ride, others were handicapped, walking with a cane, but even able-bodied guests mentioned the difficulty with the doors.  I had not had such trouble on Amtrak trains, then I realized Amtrak has newer, pneumatic, doors which can be opened by the press of one hand or one foot.

Summary of the trip:  I had not experienced as much luxury in my lifetime that I did in this one week on the American Orient Express from Savannah, GA, to Richmond, VA.

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