tips for taking long-distance amtrak trains

These days, long-distance American train travel is for dreamers. And by dreamers I mean sentimentalists, luddites, retirees, writers, readers of historical fiction, train buffs, honeymooners, world travelers, last-minute travelers, and people who feel strongly about security theater. You don’t take the train to go somewhere, because flying would be much faster. Buses are cheaper. Driving is more convenient.

If high-speed rail ever actually happens in the US, long-distance trains will be a different story. But at the moment it looks like Amtrak is embracing the nostalgia. They’re offering writing residencies and partnering with Pullman Rail Journeys to bring you fifties-style train trips (minus the racism, I hope). And there is a lingering charm to dining, sleeping, and listening to loudspeaker lectures on Amtrak.

Here are my tips for making the most of your sentimental journey:

Book early to get the best price.

Amtrak recently changed their refund policy, but it’s still much more generous than the heavy change fees the airlines offer. You have to cancel your reservation 24 hours before you’re scheduled to get on the train to get a full refund. And at the same time, the earlier you book, the cheaper tickets tend to be, so it pays to book as soon as you have a rough plan for your trip. If your travel dates are flexible, even better; you can enter a bunch of different dates into their trip planner to see when the cheapest trains are. You should also sign up for Amtrak’s Rewards program and emails, and check out the latest deals on different routes to see if any apply. As with other rewards programs, don’t expect it to pay off unless you travel regularly.

This is car country.

People really like their cars here. Some American cities were even built with car travel in mind. So while you can easily reach any of the cities on your chosen train route, you need to figure out 1) how you’ll get around that city if its public transit system is less than adequate and 2) how you’ll get anywhere else you want to go, like National Parks and other non-city destinations.

Train travel is slow, but not slow enough.

It takes around 4-5 days of actual travel to cross the country. At the same time, it’s not slow enough — you’re still just watching the country go by through the window. To really engage with your surroundings and get out of the big cities you need a car or bike. Or you could walk.

You can get off and on by booking separate tickets.

On my way west I stopped in San Antonio, Austin, and Tucson. I booked separate tickets for each trip, but ordered them all at once on Amtrak’s website. The only potential problem is that once you get off a train, you have to wait for the next train on that route to come through again, which only happens on certain days of the week.

Coach Class

Tips for taking long-distance Amtrak trains: Coach class

Expect to get a seat assignment.

Either a few minutes before or at boarding time, you’ll show your ticket (yay e-tickets) and receive a small slip of paper with your seat assignment. The assignment will depend on your destination; everyone going to the same place sits in the same car or same part of the car. When I took the Sunset Limited from New Orleans, Louisiana to San Antonio, Texas this was a good thing, because our car was almost empty and we sat by ourselves for the entire ride. When I took the Coast Starlight from San Luis Obispo to Oakland, California, this was a bad thing, because even though seats freed up the conductor kept us all crammed together in one part of the car.

The good news is that long-distance, “Superliner” Amtrak trains have much more legroom than regular, commuter Amtrak trains. It’s still sort of annoying if someone leans their chair back, but not in the crushing, in-your-face way you have to deal with on commuter trains and planes. There are seat-back tables, two outlets under the window, and foot rests. There’s an upstairs and a downstairs, but the downstairs seating is usually reserved for passengers who might have trouble climbing the stairs.

Tips for taking long-distance Amtrak Trains: outlets

Yes, there are outlets, but…

If you’re not sitting next to the window and your seat partner has no interest in your life whatsoever, it’s pretty awkward to try to reach one. You might want to reserve your battery power or use an external battery.

Bring your own food, but not your own alcohol.

The dining car prices are outrageous for coach passengers (meals are included for sleeper passengers). There’s also a snack store on the lower level of the Observation Car, but it’s good for snacks and drinks, not so much meals. I brought packets of microwavable vegan/vegetarian food like lentil soup and ate them cold. You can’t bring on your own alcohol though; that’s a sleeper class privilege.

Use the Ladies’ Powder Room.

All the bathrooms are downstairs. I like to use the “Ladies’ Powder Room” option, which is straight ahead and features a little actual powder room area plus what is probably the cleanest toilet on the train.

Take a walk to the observation car.

As on all Superliner trains, there’s an observation car and a dining car in-between the coach cars and the sleepers. I liked walking to the observation car to stretch my legs, but otherwise it’s really just a train car with big windows.

Learn something about your surroundings.

Amtrak teams with the National Park service for their Trails & Rails program. I only caught snippets of a couple of guides giving information over the loudspeaker, but it turns out that you can provide your own guides on some routes with their podcasts.

Sleeper Class

tips for taking long-distance Amtrak trains: roomette

A roomette is basically a private bunk bed with a door.

You don’t need to make your bed yourself, although you can by following the directions on the chairs and retrieving your “mattress” from the top bunk. You basically need to push the two facing seats together until they flatten out. But usually your sleeping car attendant will let you know when and how to notify them that you’re ready for the changeover. Same thing goes for undoing the bed.

The room does include the world’s smallest closet, a carpeted shelf, an outlet, light controls, and temperature controls. There’s one bathroom upstairs and more bathrooms, and a shower room, downstairs. Be careful when showering -- you are on a moving train.

Tips for taking long-distance amtrak trains: travel tray

Your room or roomette is a safe place to leave stuff, but…

It’s still not a good idea to leave stuff, especially valuables, lying around. It’s not like the door locks from the outside (you can lock it at night from the inside). Also, if you’re not there when the sleeping car attendant makes or unmakes your bed, your things might end up flung in unhygienic corners of the room. I found that Tom Bihn’s Travel Tray came in handy for this, since I could just tie up all the small stuff and take it with me.

Yes, you should tip if you get good service.

In the dining car I usually tipped depending on the price of the meal and the service. I tipped the sleeping car attendant depending on how long the ride was, and how the service was.

The dining car food is decent, but it gets old if you’re a vegetarian.

Oh vegetable pasta, how I now loathe thee. A sleeper class ticket includes breakfast, lunch with dessert, and dinner with salad and dessert. I usually ate yogurt or oatmeal with fruit for breakfast (skip the tasteless biscuit/roll), the black bean burger or salad for lunch, and the pasta for dinner. You can’t eat lunch items for dinner or vice versa, and you can’t order off the kids’ menu (unless you are a child, obviously). By my last train trip (from Chicago to DC on the Capitol Limited) I refused to eat in the dining car and instead brought on dinner from The Chicago Diner.

You do usually need a reservation to eat in the dining car. The dining car manager or your sleeping car attendant will ask when you'd like to eat lunch and dinner, and give you a reservation time on a piece of paper. Breakfast starts around 6:30/7, unannounced and without reservations. If the dining car is understaffed and you don’t get first picks of the times you may find yourself eating dinner at 8pm. If you’re boarding the train at night and you get on by 8pm you may make the dinner service.

The dining car has a “community seating” system, as announcements will constantly remind you. It was nice to eat with people, since I was traveling alone, but since I was often seated with couples, or parents busy with their children, I rarely had the best conversations.

tips for taking long-distance amtrak trains: coast starlight

Take advantage of the perks.

The sleeper perks start at the station in some cities. For example, both the New Orleans and Chicago stations have exclusive sleeper lounges. I can only speak to Chicago’s, which was replete with helpful staff, nice bathrooms, free drinks, TV, wifi, and comfy couches. We also got to board before everyone else (not that it matters when you have a reserved compartment).

On board, the perks vary. The sleeping car attendants all provide juice and coffee in each car. You can get room service from the dining car if you can’t make it over there. On some routes there’s a daily wine and cheese tasting (these might be going away, actually). But that’s just the standard service. On the Empire Builder, our incredible sleeping car attendant (Gul, who is apparently famous among regular Amtrak travelers) repeatedly gave us mimosas and candy and provided us with complimentary shower kits. The toilets were somehow always clean and even decorated with air fresheners.

On the Coast Starlight, sleeper class passengers get access to an additional car called the Pacific Parlour Car. It’s basically a dining car with a bar and an alternative menu. It also has wifi.

Trip taken Spring 2014.