Top 16 travel tips for taking the train in the United States
Especially for those on a tight budget, taking a train across the United States is a fantastic way to see a lot of ground. Though the national rail operator of the United States, a href="MY_REDIRECT_PREFIXhttps://www.amtrak.com/home" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Amtrak/a>, won't take you everywhere, it does cover a lot of ground; its 30 routes visit over 500 stations in 46 states. In addition, taking a train across the United States is an exciting way to see breathtaking scenery pass by, and you can enjoy tasty slices of Americana as you cruise through charming small towns. No other mode of transportation offers such a diverse array of locals to meet (or observe) as you travel. Tempted Then keep reading for our 16 tips for train travel in the United States, covering everything from planning ahead for your railroad adventure in the United States to making reservations.
The best way to decide on a route is to use Amtrak's interactive route planner, so be sure to check it out before you embark on your American train adventure! While the journey itself may be the destination, it's still important to think about where you're headed before you get too deep into the nuts and bolts of your travel itinerary. Once you get there, you won't want to miss out on the good stuff. The following are just a few of the many possible routes:
The 900 mile journey from Chicago to Memphis to New Orleans, which encompasses the history of American music. What to do and see in New Orleans is covered in detail in our travel guide.
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
It takes an epic 32 hours to travel from Chicago to San Antonio via the Texas Eagle route, which involves crossing the Mississippi River, driving through the piney woods of East Texas, and finally passing through Dallas on the way to the beautiful city of San Antonio.
The Pacific Surfliner travels 351 miles through Southern California in less than six hours, passing through the counties of San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo.
The second suggestion is to look into rail passes.
After careful consideration of your options, a USA Rail Pass should be considered if you intend to travel across the country by train. These begin at $499 and allow you to visit any of Amtrak's 500+ destinations over the course of 30 days, on up to ten separate trips (called segments in Amtrak lingo). The following are some examples of one-way ticket prices:
Flights from Atlanta to New Orleans cost $39
It costs to travel from Chicago to Washington.
New York City to Chicago: .00
Los Angeles to Seattle: $101
Roundtrip from New York to Orlando: $123
Chicago to Los Angeles: $146
Views from the Pacific Surfliner are breathtaking. Hilo Pictures/Shutterstock
If you know where you want to go, you should buy train tickets early because all passengers are required to have seats and some trains (especially those traveling between major East Coast cities) can sell out. Here's a rundown of the various ticket types, in addition to the rail passes already mentioned:
The best deals, known as Saver Fares, sell out quickly because of their low price and limited availability.
Discounted fares are offered on all routes, but can only be refunded or changed under certain conditions.
Fares are flexible, as they can be canceled without penalty and changed without a hassle. If you prefer to wing it and see where the road takes you, this is the way to go. You'll have the freedom to stop whenever you like and check out the hidden gems recommended by locals.
Business Class, which has its own car or section of the train, offers an "affordable, enhanced travel experience," as described by Amtrak. A few examples of these upgrades are free (non-alcoholic) beverages and additional legroom, though they can vary by train and route.
Acela First Class (complimentary onboard food and beverage services, plus privileged access to Club Acela lounges) and Sleeper (rooms and roomettes available on most long-distance routes) are the two premium services available at higher fares. Your Premium Fare already includes the cost of these amenities.
Setting out on my own See our recommendations for the top destinations in the United States for those traveling alone.
Read books you enjoy while traveling
Though you won't be physically traveling, reading about exciting journeys across the United States will do wonders to get you in the mood for your upcoming trip. Actually, this is one of our favorite general travel tips for the United States, whether you plan to take a train or not.
There's nothing like getting lost in a good book about an epic journey to get you in the mood before you set off on your own, whether that's On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, American Gods, or the Slow Road to San Francisco.
Get yourself ready by reading Shutterstock
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One of our top practical tips for train travel in the USA is to bring your own climate control, but we won't go over everything you might need (we have a whole feature dedicated to packing). Keep a sweater or cardigan handy; Amtrak maintains a consistent temperature in their cars all year long, so even if you're zigzagging through the scorching Arizona desert, you'll be riding in relative coolness. You owe us an apology, but you can send it in whenever you
Also, bring a pillow and blanket, depending on your lodging plans (details below).
Depending on your budget and preferences, you can either book a room, a roomette, or a bedroom, or you can rough it in a coach. However, if you've packed like a pro, it won't be that bad.
Only those who are intimately acquainted with their travel companions should book a roomette, as these small double cabins often feature an in-cabin toilet.
When the seats are set up for day travel, the bedrooms become much larger and offer more space to stretch out. A more traditional, enclosed toilet is also available. Certain ones even provide access to showers.
Even though they're the least expensive, coach seats have comfortable proportions, plenty of legroom (often more than many airlines' business class seats provide), and a decent amount of recline. Many people do, in fact, spend the night in their coach car; it's not uncommon to see entire families setting up camp with their own sleeping bags and tents.
7 Anticipate Setbacks
It's important to be aware that Amtrak trains frequently share their tracks with massive, mile-long freight trains that are given priority. Long-distance routes are thus doomed to experience delays. Download the Amtrak app or sign up for email alerts in case of travel delays; doing so could prevent you from wasting time at your departure station.
Don't forget that the two hours you'll be traveling could be a mere fraction of a much longer, multi-day route. One of the most important pieces of advice for taking a train in the United States is to try to avoid making any tight connections.
Don't get stranded, make sure your connections are well thought out, and be aware of potential delays Shutterstock
8 - Precaution is the first priority
In the United States, taking a train is a perfectly safe option so long as you exercise common sense and avoid major train stations late at night. Having insurance is also recommended.
Watch your luggage and put away anything of value. Since opportunistic bag theft is the biggest risk you face when taking night trains, you may want to consider purchasing a simple bike lock to tether your luggage to something sturdy for complete peace of mind. Alternatively
Different stations range in size from sprawling hubs with dozens of restaurants and shops to solitary platforms with just a sign and a few benches. If you want to take advantage of most cities' free baggage check policies, you should arrive at the airport or train station at least 40 minutes before your departure. But if you'd rather not check your bag, there's plenty of room in the coach's overhead compartments.
On longer trips, it's a good idea to check your bags so you can relax in the dining car, the Bar Car, or the vestibules without worrying about losing your belongings.
Enter your information so you can check out of the train without worrying. Shutterstock
Ten. Have some food and talk with your friends
Dining in the dining car on an Amtrak train is a must when traveling across the United States because eating is a fundamental part of any trip to the United States. The Dining Car serves meals at various times of the day, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Keep an eye out for attendants so you can make a reservation in advance.
However, you shouldn't anticipate fine dining à la Pullman Choices are limited, and the menu rotates as frequently as the schedule. But it's not all about the food - if you're travelling solo or as a pair, you'll likely be seated with fellow passengers, offering the chance to chat with locals and fellow travellers, exchange travel tips, and make new friends, with a backdrop of all-American scenery providing plenty to talk about
American railroad depot with a touch of rustic charm Pixabay
Chill out in the Bar Car, Number Eleven
Typically, there will be a Bar Car onboard. Visiting the Bar Car is one of the best tips for USA train travel if you're the sociable type because they are typically located next to the dining car and have tables and comfortable leather booths for four where you can play cards, enjoy a coffee, and chat with fellow passengers.
National Park Guides, who travel with Amtrak as part of their Trails on Rails programme during the summer months and wear sharp Scout-like uniforms, can also be found in the Bar Car. They are more than happy to provide informative pamphlets and highlight exciting features of the surrounding landscape as you travel.
Coffee and conversation await you in the bar car. Shutterstock
Explore the Dome Car, Number 12
Dome cars, which have seats facing outward and panoramic windows designed to maximize the sublime scenery you'll be passing through, are available on certain scenic routes.
Be sure to snag one of these early for popular routes like the California Zephyr, which travels through breathtaking, inaccessible regions of the Colorado Rockies.
Not all resting places are the same It's helpful to know if a stop is a designated'rest stop,' which means you're allowed to get off the bus and stretch your legs and take a breath of fresh air if you're a smoker or just want some fresh air on longer trips. If not, don't even think about trying it anywhere on the Amtrak system.
So relax and take it all in Khanh Le/Shutterstock
14 - Chill out
Lounges in some of the larger city stations offer free Wi-Fi, newspapers, drinks, and snacks for those riding the train in a sleeper cabin (or business class).
If you arrive at the station early or need something to do after 'detraining' (as Amtrak calls it) on routes that arrive in the wee hours of the morning, this is a great option.
15 Show locations of various transportation choices
The Amtrak station is not always conveniently located in the downtown area. Although most will be accessible by public transportation, some, such as Atlanta, will require the use of a taxi.
Plan ahead to make the most of your trip.
Improve your direction-finding by the number 16.
Lastly, if you’re wondering how to travel to the USA in the first place, or keen to plan where to go and what to see in more detail, check out our USA guide book, and read our USA travel tips for getting around more generally - by train, plane, automobile, bus and bike
On the other hand, if you'd rather not worry about logistics, one of our custom-designed trips to the United States could be perfect for you.
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- Guidelines for Vacationing Abroad
- The Amtrak Experience
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