Step back in time to the Golden Age of train travel aboard Hudson River Rail Excursions
- The United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey runs vintage train cars up the Hudson River.
- Travel back in time with 1940s-era train cars and experience the Golden Age of train travel.
- A daytrip to Albany is included in the old-timey experience.
- You'll need to act fast to get tickets.
A cool train, a fun daytrip and a great excuse to get dressed up in 1940s-era attire and hit the rails — my interest was immediately piqued.
When the team at TPG heard about the vintage train cars the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey runs up the Hudson River Valley from Manhattan to Albany, New York, we had to try it out for ourselves. Having now made the journey with TPG social media staffer Capri Whiteley, I can wholeheartedly say that climbing aboard these old-timey trains is absolutely worth it.
If this old-fashioned experience sounds like it may be a good fit for you, then read on for everything you need to know about Hudson River Rail Excursions.
What are Hudson River Rail Excursions?
Operated by the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey, Hudson River Rail Excursions trains run from New York's Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station to the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station in upstate New York. Passengers get a two-hour layover in Albany before turning around and going straight back to Moynihan Train Hall. The whole trip, which includes a stop in New York's state capital, takes about nine hours to complete, making for a solid daytrip.
The original railroad — The New York Central Railroad — launched the 20th Century Limited, which ran from New York to Chicago in 20 hours, way back in 1902. Interestingly, the 20th Century Limited literally invented the red carpet to differentiate its flagship service a few decades after it launched.
Two cars that were saved from the wrecking yard — the Tavern-Lounge No. 43 and the Hickory Creek, which was the model featured in all the company's promotional materials in the 1940s — are now used for the Hudson River Rail Excursions trains, and Capri and I were lucky enough to try out both on our trip back in time.
What it's like on Hudson River Rail Excursions
Boarding the train is a bit like transporting yourself back to the 1940s. The 20th Century Limited's famous red carpet greets you as you approach the two historic cars attached to the back of an otherwise normal Amtrak train, and you'll find some passengers donning formal attire similar to what would've been worn in the '40s.
My coworker and I quickly found ourselves feeling like we'd entered another time period once on board. The experience was truly immersive, right down to the slightly musty smell and colorful retro decor you'll only find on an old train car from the 1940s.
Inside the classic cars, you'll notice a variety of seating arrangements, many of which can be adjusted throughout the journey. We especially loved turning the chairs to face the windows after pulling out of the stations so we could take in the stunning Hudson River views.
During the ride, passengers learn all about the train's history from the staff. Our host Kevin Phalon and every waiter we encountered were a joy to interact with, as they provided all kinds of interesting tidbits that made the journey even better. It really was exceptional service on par with what you'd expect in the 1940s.
For an even more elevated experience, passengers can reserve a spot in the more expensive car. At the end of the train, this car has wraparound windows, so you can take in the gorgeous scenery on all sides of the tracks.
Food and drinks on Hudson River Rail Excursions
One of the train's many highlights during our outing was its dining.
Waiters in vintage white jackets and black bow ties serve a variety of drinks and dishes as you traverse the rails.
Due to the low passenger count on these cars — no more than 70% of seats are sold so riders can comfortably spread out — the staff can more easily provide individualized service and attention. We immediately picked up on this while on board, receiving nothing but excellent and warm service.
Come hungry for your ride, as you'll have numerous options to choose from.
For lunch, we tried the Tavern-Lounge No. 43's sandwiches, including one with salmon salad, another with grilled chicken breast, an option with meatloaf, a classic Italian sub, a vegetarian wrap and a BLT featuring smoked turkey. All were delicious, as were the homemade potato chips served on the side. To wash down your meal, you can pick from various sodas and nonalcoholic drinks without incurring any additional fees.
If you wish to imbibe during your journey, pay for a seat in the pricier Hickory Creek car, where a selection of beer and wine are complimentary. Hickory Creek passengers also enjoy a four-course meal — including a cheese course, a salad and an entree like flounder Meunière, red wine-braised short ribs or cheese ravioli with sun-dried tomatoes — and plusher seats.
Regardless of which car you choose, you'll have a nice selection of hors d'oeuvres available for the journey home. On our ride, we were offered caprese skewers and deviled eggs with salmon on top. Warm cookies were a welcome sight as the end of our trip approached.
An afternoon in Albany
An added bonus of this journey is the opportunity to spend a few hours in Albany, a highly underrated city.
After making the short trip from the train station to downtown Albany, which lies just across the Hudson River, we decided to venture to the state capital for a quick tour and the observation floor at Albany's tallest building, Corning Tower, to get the lay of the land from above.
Our short Albany layover ended with a visit to the New York State Museum, which had all kinds of displays about New York City, including a moving one dedicated to 9/11. Unsurprisingly, my favorite exhibit ended up being one with a vintage subway car.
Booking Hudson River Rail Excursions
Now for the bad news: This trip to the past is one hot ticket. In fact, Hudson River Rail Excursions have sold out in just minutes in the past and aren't currently available.
We booked tickets for our May departure in February when tickets first went on sale. At the time, prices for rides in the Tavern-Lounge No. 43 car ranged from $149 to $179, depending on the day of the week. Meanwhile, the fancier Hickory Creek car cost between $347 and $379 per ticket. All proceeds go to the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey.
Passengers who want to book future journeys should join the email list so they receive an email when the dates for 2024 are announced. We expect tickets will quickly sell out again next year, so you'll want to be sure to opt into the email list and be ready to purchase your tickets as soon as they become available.
You may need a little luck on your side to snag seats on this vintage train, but after experiencing the daylong trip for ourselves, we feel it's well worth the effort.
Views of the spectacular Hudson River Valley and entertaining conversations with fellow train enthusiasts made it an adventure to remember. Not to mention, all the free food and drinks we tried were tasty, and the complimentary lounge access in the terminal was much appreciated. The few hours you get in New York's capital make for a fun excursion, too.
When I asked Phalon, our host from the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey, what his favorite part of the vintage train experience was, he answered "the people" without hesitation.
"I've now done the train ride a million times, but the people are very eager to learn," he added. "We have you here for a daytrip, and then we teach you something."
Having become quite a train addict myself since coming to TPG and going on a father-son adventure on the Alaska Railroad, a Brightline journey in Florida and a ride across the Pacific Northwest on Amtrak's Empire Builder line, I completely agree with Phalon. The experience on board is what makes train travel so special.
While I understood how nice riding the rails can be long before this particular trip, our Hudson River Rail Excursions adventure cemented that sentiment even more.
I definitely recommend adding this one to your bucket list — it's an experience you won't forget.
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