Train Travel in the USA: Tips for Getting Around America

Bennett Collins

Whenever I bring up Amtrak, it seems like people have automatic responses. “Amtrak is only good in the Northeast corridor.” “It’s easier and cheaper to fly than it is to take Amtrak.” And, “Expect to arrive two hours late if you take Amtrak.” 

This isn’t to say that the cliches are entirely wrong. There are nightmare scenarios that occur with Amtrak, especially when you don’t know the nature of the beast you’re traveling with, or how to make the best of a train system that needs a lot of work. However, in my opinion, Amtrak is the best way to see the U.S. for visitors and residents alike.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to raise Amtrak to the same level as the railways of Europe or Japan.  At the same time, I don’t find it appropriate or useful to compare railways. First off, it’s depressing to realize how little progress Amtrak since its inception in the 1970s. Secondly, Amtrak is something that is, in many ways, unique to the U.S. and has developed its own travel subculture that gives the commute a whole different meaning.

So, for those traveling within the U.S. and looking to hop the rails, Here are some tips for getting the most out of the experience. I’ve also solicited some stories and advice from friends to help give you a feel for the different sorts of Amtrak journeys.

Plan for the Journey

“The line from Detroit to Chicago is terribly slow, though, as you can be stuck behind freight trains, which can delay the already long journey. It’s more reliable and quick to drive or get a bus, which is a real shame.” – Sarah, R., U.S.

First, let’s dispel the myth that Amtrak is more expensive than flying. It’s not, and it can be more comfortable than flying.

Here are three strategies to help you plan your train travel in the USA:

Accept this now rather than later: Amtrak is not a streamlined and well-oiled machine. All routes, stations, and even train cars have their own perks and downfalls. Embrace the inconsistency.

A little knowledge goes a long way in getting your journey off to a great start, instead of becoming stuck in a travel nightmare.

Some things to know before you travel:

  • Be at the station ahead of time (if the station is open) to check luggage
  • Have a photo ID with you (which is needed to store luggage)
  • Download the Amtrak app
  • Call 1 800 USA RAIL to check on whether train is going to be late
  • Print or download your ticket ahead of time and avoid relying on ticket counters

Late arrivals are one of the biggest criticisms of Amtrak. They share the rails used by freight trains and consequently deal with heavy traffic. Plan around possible delays by allowing in adequate time to get to appointments and events at your destination. For example, if your train is scheduled to arrive at 1 p.m., consider leaving the afternoon open.

Take the initiative to make sure any error made by Amtrak won’t ruin your travel day.

 

Pack for the Journey (not just the destination)

“Bring long sleeves, coats, and sweaters to wear while riding! My first and only time riding was to Boston and I did not know that trains were air conditioned. I was so cold I asked them to turn it down and in one minute it was boiling hot so they had to turn it back on! It was an uncomfortable ride the whole way there and back.” – Robert, T., U.S.

The comfort and luxury of Amtrak journeys vary widely. From Business Class and Reserved Coach to Unreserved Coach, from the Viewliner and the Superliner to the Acela Express, and then the Sleeper or Observation cars, you will find varying levels of comfort on Amtrak trains.

I tend to prepare for an unexpectedly closed café car, a broken electrical outlet, a drafty or overheated car, as well as that person who thinks talking on speakerphone is appropriate in a public place.

Pack snacks, blankets, external battery packs and headphones; they’re are always a must for me. Luckily, Amtrak lets you bring two carry on bags so you’ll have plenty of room to bring everything you need.

For short rail journeys, the Homebase or 35L Outbreaker bags are all you need. If you’re embarking on longer train travel in the USA, the Setout or even the Homebase duffle will be lots of room.

Be sure you have a daypack with the essentials easily accessible in your seat. If you’re traveling with a laptop, you’ll want something more robust, like the Outbreaker daypack. If you’re just carrying the basics for a sightseeing trip, the Setout packable daypack will be just right. 

Fun fact: Amtrak will not only let you bring a cooler on the train, but will even help you fill it with ice as well.

“Lesson I’ve learned: train wine is always worth it. Also, BYO train wine if you remember because the cafe car isn’t always open.” – Becca M., U.S.

Train Travel in the USA: Talk to Strangers

“I once spent a long Amtrak ride with a woman who grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. I had very recently read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because it was my late grandmother’s favorite book, and it turned out it was HER favorite book too! I don’t remember many of the details of our conversation now… I just remember feeling like the stars aligned somehow, and that I was really lucky to have met her.” – Linnea C., U.S.

This is the best thing about Amtrak, in my opinion. Because of the expansive journeys, conversations with strangers happen very naturally.

In my experience, people tend to be chatter boxes on Amtrak trains. In the same way that hikers greet each other on the trail, or people wave between boats, train travelers talk. Depending on the length of the journey, which can last for days, a sense of community (yes, on a train) is often developed.

As some journeys become long, your fellow passengers can be your best distraction and entertainment. So, while it’s tempting to just enjoy the solitude and views, especially if you’re in the Quiet Car or on a Sleeper, don’t miss out on the potential to meet the unique characters who ride the rails.

Research Your Routes

“You see places where you would never go and which are so beautiful, especially the route from Philadelphia to Washington DC via Wilmington, Delaware). From Chicago to St Louis, the train follows Route 66!” – Andreas P., Germany

Every Amtrak route has its own unique flavor. Some are a breathtaking five-star meal. Others are a gas station hot dog (e.g. Newark Airport to Penn Station). Amtrak even lists its best routes to take. At the end of the day, it’s hard not to find good views. The Empire Builder and Coast Starlight routes both have wine and cheese tastings, which even feature local wines along the route of the trains.

There are railways beyond Amtrak that take you even deeper into the USA. The Grand Canyon Railway and Alaska Railway’s Coastal Classic are two routes that are on my own bucket list. 

If you’re looking to get from A to B fast, the most traveled routes on the coasts are usually the most reliable. But if you’re looking for scenery and particular amenities, you need to do your research beforehand to decide if the route you’re about to take is ultimately worth your time.

“I had a lovely experience on an Amtrak from New York City to Montreal. It kept stopping for extended periods no clear reason, but in very beautiful places with views of lovely pastoral scenes.” – Charlie, B., U.K.

TL:DR

Don’t let anyone tell you that train travel in the USA is terrible. While it might not be as ubiquitous or efficient as the European rail system, train travel in the USA is, perhaps, the best way to see the country.

  • Manage expectations and ensure you understand the idiosyncrasies of traveling the country by rail
  • Plan and book your trip strategically and ahead of time
  • Amtrak is different depending on where and how you’re traveling, so do your research
  • Pack for the journey, not just the destination
  • Talk to strangers, the camaraderie of a long train journey is a unique experience that neither flying nor driving can provide
  • Every route is different and has its own beauty and quirks, embrace the experience

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