Yes, you’ll need some Amtrak train tips to get the most out of your adventure. If you’re going to be on the train for more than 18 hours, it’s best to prepare. And then prepare some more.
These Amtrak train tips will help you travel in comfort and peace. You’ll step down at your destination ready to stretch your legs and set out to explore. Promise!
My experience was on the 19-hour City of New Orleans route, running from Chicago to New Orleans. But to give you another perspective–from a longer route–let’s look at the Empire Builder, which goes between Chicago to Seattle in a mere 45 hours. That’s TWO nights onboard. Buckle up, Buttercup!
- Get a sleeper. This is an important Amtrak train tip! True, you can reserve a coach seat for less than $200–definitely a bargain. And it’s all yours for the next two days…all you have to do is figure out how to get decent sleep and where to find over-priced food. Instead, think of your train trip as part of your trip, not just a means of transportation. Calculate what a hotel and meals would cost, then realize that a Roomette, with privacy, seats that turn into a bed, access to private bathrooms, and tasty meals, might be worth it for under $700. A full bedroom–with its own toilet and sink–may be pricey at $1142, but that’s up to you. Both types of sleepers get the same amenities.
- Check your bags. Two bags are free, so go for it. With limited storage space in the cars, just keep a small bag with your toiletries, change of clothes, and something to do. It’s much faster and easier than on a plane. Just make sure they’re properly tagged.
- Pack layers to stay warm/cool. Rather than put on your Sherlock-style deerstalker hat to solve the mystery of fluctuating temperatures, bring a light jacket or sweater, regardless of the weather. Long pants may be a better bet, too. Sleeper cars provide a light blanket. One the outward journey, it was sufficient. Coming back, I was freezing.
- BYOB. Woo-hoo! Except for in the dining and cafe car, passengers can bring on and enjoy their favorite adult beverages in their sleeper rooms. Don’t ask to share the train’s refrigerators, though. Food and snacks can be eaten anywhere except in the Amtrak dining and snack cars.
- Don’t count on Internet. Free AmtrakConnect Wi-Fi is supposed to be available at many stations and on most trains. I brought my laptop, based on this promise. No luck, either way, which made me miss a deadline. I’d also planned to sort out my Pinterest boards and other chores that relied on Internet.
- Use the observation cars. With windows curving to the top of the car and seats arranged for looking out–instead of forward and backward–the observation cars may be the best part of the journey. We loved watching the fields and swollen springtime rivers, but were especially struck by the view of poverty that lined the tracks. True America, from its cities to its farmlands to its poor. You won’t get this intimate perspective of our country any other way.
- Plan for delays. Except for a small stretch on the East Coast, Amtrak trains share the rails with freight companies…and those profit-making freight companies get priority over the government-subsidized passenger trains. Throughout the trip, there are many stops in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the freights to go by. There may be other delays, too. Because of spring flooding on the tracks near New Orleans, we had to take a bus to Jackson, MS, to board the waiting train. Then, during the night, a freight train collided with a semi-truck. We sat for six hours for the clean-up and initial investigation. Our 9 a.m. arrival into Chicago happened at 3 p.m. Just knowing this eases your stress. Which is why it’s important to pay attention to the next tip…
- Bring plenty to do. A single copy of People magazine isn’t going to cut it. On the other hand, War and Peace might be overkill…depending how far you’re going. Think of ways to pass the time that are easy to do and won’t disturb others. A DVD player–with earphones–would have been a good idea. A deck of cards is brilliant and easy to pack. I wish I knew how to knit or crochet. Reading is essential, but I left my latest Inspector Gamache book at home, bringing a dull “I-should-read-this” book instead. Never again!
- Tip! Before leaving, I looked this up, not because I wanted to know IF we should tip, but HOW MUCH. Trains operate more like cruise ships than planes, so tipping is appreciated. In his helpful Trains&Travel blog, Jim Loomis gives advice for tipping both the sleeping car attendant/porter and the dining room server. Of course, you’ll also tip in the snack or cafe car. We were shocked when dining companions tipped nothing and when passengers said goodbye to their attendants without a thank you or a tip. To be fair, perhaps these things were done privately–I certainly hope so.
- Relax. One of the reasons to travel by train is to enjoy the slow pace. To embrace your inner Zen. To actually talk to your partner and those you meet. To see the country go by. To stretch out your legs instead of being scrunched into an airplane seat more suitable for a child. To nap in peace, lulled by the train’s motion. To really settle into that book you’ve not had time to start. Well, now you do….
A bit of Amtrak history
Amtrak is the U.S. government-subsidized organization that was created to allow citizens to travel as train passengers. Amtrak (officially the National Railroad Passenger Corporation) happened in 1971 because people were using trains less (highways and planes offered more options) and railroad companies were losing money. We all know what that means: a cut in services, schedules, and stops. The railroads wanted to dump the passengers and keep the profitable freight component. The Government stepped in, and Amtrak was born.
Amtrak now serves 500 cities in 48 states and three Canadian provinces. With more than 31 million passengers a year, it’s been a success.
Do you have other Amtrak train tips to share? Leave a comment, please!