Looking to travel the slow and scenic route? There are fifteen long-haul Amtrak routes between the East and West Coasts and from North to South, including the Auto-Train and the train they call the City of New Orleans (think Arlo Guthrie). Here are 10 tips for making the most of a long-distance Amtrak trip.
You have several options for accommodations. On long-distance trains, there are a selection of sleeping rooms available, including handicapped-accessible, family (for up to two adults and three children), a roomette (chairs that convert to a bed, an upper berth, and a shower and bathroom available for roomette passengers).
Bedrooms have a sofa that converts to a bed, an upper berth that pulls down, a small closet, a sink, bathroom, and shower. The bedrooms also have a small pulldown table with a game board on it if you bring checkers or a chess set, or for a dining surface.
Sleeping car passengers receive meals, bottled water, and a beverage that can be alcoholic or not (and you can bring a bottle of wine or other beverage with you to consume in your bedroom). A sleeping car attendant is available to make the bed, carry and stow your luggage, and other services. Sleeping car attendants are usually tipped $10-20 a day per passenger. Note: due to Covid-19 regulations, cash is not accepted in the café car or elsewhere, so be sure to bring an active credit card.
Some bedrooms have a connecting door for a family or couples traveling together. The attendant will open the door for you which offers a little more room to socialize.
Amtrak tickets include two suitcases, each up to 50 pounds, and a carry-on bag at no charge. Bring snacks and beverages with you or buy from the café car. Whether you’re in coach or a sleeper, you can walk around whenever you want (with a face mask).
Now, what do you need on your multi-day/night trip? If you travel light, just yourself and some basics. Plenty of passengers enjoy every aspect and idiosyncrasy of train travel. If you’re packing a lot of clothes for a vacation or long-term visit, bring an overnight bag with your essentials and put your big bag(s) in the luggage rack. If you’re starting in a cold-weather climate and you’re headed toward warm weather (or vice-versa), pack a change of clothes in the overnight bag. Don’t forget pajamas, shower shoes (or flip-flops), a toothbrush and toothpaste, earplugs and an eye mask if you are a light sleeper.
While blankets are available, you might want to bring one, just in case. And, you may want to keep a sweater handy. An LED nightlight, multi-plug adapter, multiple chargers for your electronics, a travel-size pillow, a cooler (find a small one that slips over the handle of your suitcase), small roll of duct tape (for metal panels that rattle), sanitizing wipes, and binder clips (to hold the curtains together in case the Velcro has lost its grip).
Amtrak offers a number of discounts, for seniors, children, military (and retired military), and disabled. They offer 15-, 30-, and 45-day trips that allow you to make eight, 12, or 18 segments for a fixed price for adults, youth (13-15), and child (2-12). Infants under two are free. They also offer discounts for groups, and periodically will have a two-for sale. Amtrak and Bank of America offer an affiliate program with bonus miles for a specific spend and train travel discounts when using the credit card.
You can make reservations online (www.amtrak.com), but it’s not the most user-friendly program. Once you know where you want to go, call Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL) and when “Julie” answers, ask for an agent. You have to be a little persistent, but once you reach a human, they’re the nicest agents you’ll find. They’ll compare prices at various times and figure how many reward points you need for each leg. They’ll also let you book one leg with points and another with a credit card. Book as far in advance as possible, for the prices are dynamic and change according to availability and demand. If you’re trying to reserve a specific date and there are no bedrooms available, check again at midnight. The computer clears any non-paid reservations at 11:59 p.m., thus a bedroom could become available.
Take Advantage of Stops
Check the time schedule or talk with a conductor to ask when the train will make a water or crew change stop and schedule that time to insert or remove your contact lenses or wash up before bed or apply makeup or shaving. It’s a lot easier doing these things when the train is stationary rather than moving along at 60 mph or faster.
While the free WiFi is fairly reliable along the Northeast Corridor (between Washington, D.C. and Boston), it’s intermittent at best throughout the rest of the system. Therefore, download any videos you may want to watch along the way at home before you board the train.
When you’re taking photos remember that you’re shooting through a window. In other words, turn off the flash. You can also take a U.S. map to mark your progress.
Amtrak can’t keep medications (e.g., insulin) on ice. The sleeping car attendant may bring a bag of ice to you, but it’s not a real solution. That’s when you need the little ice chest.
When you book a room or roomette, you get access to the staffed Acela lounge (Washington, D.C.) or Metropolitan Lounge (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, OR, New York), and unstaffed lounges at St Paul/Minneapolis, St. Louis, and New Orleans.
Amtrak fans have created numerous Facebook pages where you can learn about news of Amtrak in general or a specific line in particular, meet others who may be traveling your route at the same time, and suggestions to make your trip more enjoyable.
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