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NEW YORK: A few minutes after we sank into our seats, the train whistled out of the station and the conductor made his way down the aisle. It was just like any other trek between Penn Station and Union Station, except for one thing.
The conductor looked down at our printed ticket and mentally checked off my wife and me before pausing and giving a friendly but perplexed look. “Rufus and Hamilton,” he read off the sheet. “You’ve got four?”
At our feet were Rufus and Hamilton, our two black pug dogs. They were nestled into their sherpa-lined travel bags, quietly being lulled to sleep by the rhythms of the train as we headed from New York to Washington.
TRAVELLING WITH FAMILY
When we travel, the pugs come along whenever possible because, to us, they are family. We learned long ago that travelling with dogs always makes our adventures more fun, even if it is a bit of a hassle. And it turns out we are hardly alone: Many other people love to bring their pets on vacation, too.
That means dogs, cats and other animals are increasingly showing up in places they were once shunned, with hotels, restaurants and even airports becoming more hospitable to pet parents. Not everyone loves our pets, but the world seems to be catering to us - or at the least, tolerating us - and it is making it easier for us to take our pugs with us when we travel.
So, we were predictably intrigued a couple years ago when Amtrak began allowing travellers to bring small dogs on select routes for a fee. The move unlocked yet another way for our road warrior pugs to move about the country.
Eager to experience the latest mode of dog transportation, we booked round-trip tickets to Washington where we were heading for, well, a pug meet-up. We reserved spots at our feet for Hamilton, our gray-chinned, 10-year-old with model looks, and his wide-eyed little brother, Rufus, a curious four-year-old with a white paw, who is stunningly friendly.
TRAINS IN THE US ALLOW SMALL DOGS ON BOARD
Amtrak allows pets 9kg or less to ride in small carriers for trips up to seven hours, so our compact 8kg pugs qualified for the 3.5-hour ride to Washington. The fee of US$25 (S$34) per pet, each way, felt like a steep discount as airlines charge at least US$100 each way for small dogs to fly in the cabin.
To be sure, train travel is hardly glitch-free and Amtrak is no exception. There can be inexplicable delays, cancellations and scary derailments. Like other ways of getting around with a pet, the anxieties about unwanted smells, a nervous pet or a cranky fellow passenger still apply. And the waiting area at Penn Station is not exactly a majestic dog beach.
Since Amtrak began allowing dogs, our pugs have taken three round-trip journeys with us - twice to Washington and once to Boston - and with each trip, we discovered an element of simplicity to travelling with them by train that has made it our preferred method for exploring with them in tow.
Dog tickets can be reserved online, along with human tickets. One of the few requirements involved filling out a pet waiver, in which I essentially took responsibility if the pugs caused any trouble while in transit. (They did not.)
On each of our trips, we took the subway to Penn Station, arriving early, before killing some time in the Amtrak lounge. The waiting area can be warm on summery days - and it is a far cry from the state-of-the art, pet-friendly roof deck at Kennedy International Airport that Rufus explored before boarding a flight to California last year - but it at least provided a place to sit away from the crowds.
MORE CONVENIENT THAN FLYING
Travelling with a dog does not mean early access to the train or a preferred seat, but it was still far easier to board a train than a plane: There was no juggling an antsy pup, a suitcase and shoes - while hoping no one asks you to put the dog on the X-ray belt.
Onboard the train, the pugs slept in their bags at our feet, invisible to most of the people sitting near us, aside from an occasional whine or bark. On our recent visit to Boston, we experimented with putting the pugs on our laps at times - which is against the rules - and the conductor, as well as our fellow passengers, did not seem to mind. The pugs enjoyed briefly looking out the windows as we breezed through charming New England towns.
Our pugs were a particularly good fit for the train, or nearly any other mode of transportation. They are good-natured and they seem delighted to hang out in their travel bags for several hours, getting an occasional treat.
SEASONED FOUR-LEGGED TRAVELLERS
Long before they took to the rails, our pugs were seasoned travellers. Adopted as a youngster in Ohio, Hamilton soon settled into city life in New York, while making many trips - by car and plane - back to the Midwest. Before a Thanksgiving road trip years ago, Hamilton became increasingly distressed as I loaded the rental car with his things, unsure where I was going and desperately hoping he would come with.
“Hamilton, just relax, buddy,” I tried to tell him. He didn’t believe me until we were on the road - and after he had given himself an upset stomach. (We made a lot of stops along the way.)
Over the years, his confidence grew. During a flight delay in Cleveland, he entertained antsy passengers by giving high-fives and begging for snacks. One time, he sat silently in his bag under my seat, conveying the injustice of me paying his travel fee, while a screaming baby nearby flew for free.
Another time, a stranger noticed him and assumed me to be trustworthy, asking me to watch her bags at the airport (I declined).
Rufus experienced life on the road before we even met him, as he made the journey by truck from a shelter in Texas to New Jersey, where we adopted him from a rescue organisation. We rented a Zipcar for the short ride to his new home in New York, and he insisted on sharing my wife’s lap with Hamilton.
Since then, Rufus has been on the move with us. He greets people with his curious big eyes and his friendly demeanour could put any nervous traveller at ease. One of Rufus’ favourite hobbies is barking at planes in the sky. That made it especially amusing when Rufus - unbeknown to him - took that flight to California last year, sitting quietly under the seat for over six hours each way, even during some mild turbulence.
LINT AND MYSTERIOUS SMELLS
But it is not always so smooth.
During a road-trip to Boston with Hamilton, Rufus and their pug buddy Finn, we pulled off the road to inspect the car for a mysterious smell - and never could quite get to the bottom of it. After a drive to Chicago with the same trio left our rental car covered in pug fur, we ended up lint-rolling and vacuuming the seats before returning the car to avoid a fee.
Trips on the Long Island Rail Road during the busy summer months are rather hectic when balancing a dog, especially when there are fewer seats than customers. A bus ride on the Hampton Jitney was a tight squeeze with a dog in hand.
And even on our recent trip to Boston, our train was running 90 minutes behind, a delay that was not announced until we had nearly arrived at Penn Station. To complicate matters, it was an usually warm day in early May, which turned the waiting area into a toasty den. But we let the pugs out of their bags to stretch their legs outside while we waited for the train to make it to the station.
If the delay bothered Hamilton and Rufus, they did not let us know. And they were raring to go when we arrived at Boston’s Back Bay Station.
By Steve Eder © 2018 The New York Times