16 tips for travelling by train in the USA 2021

written by Joanne Owen
updated 7/22/2021
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Travelling by train in the USA is an excellent way to see vast swathes of this vast country, especially if you're on a budget. While the USA's national rail operator Amtrak won’t get you everywhere, it's pretty darn extensive, with thirty routes throughout travelling to over 500 destinations across 46 states. What's more, travelling in the USA by train offers the exhilaration of seeing incredible landscapes zoom by, with tasty slices of Americana served up when you slow through quirky little towns. There’s also no better way to meet (or people watch) the huge range of locals who'll hop on and off during your journey. Tempted? Then read on for our 16 tips for travelling by train in the USA, covering everything from what to know before travelling to the USA for a railroad adventure, to practical booking advice - all of them top tips for USA train travel.

1. Research routes

Amtrak’s interactive route planner will help you choose a route - checking out this tool is definitely one of our most useful tips of USA train travel. But even before you get into the nuts and bolts of route-planning, you'll probably want to dig deeper into where you might want to end up - while the journey can sometimes be the destination, you won't want to miss out on the good stuff once you get wherever you're going. Here's an overview of a few of many route examples to consider:

City of New Orleans route - music-lovers might want to investigate the 19-hour Chicago-Memphis-New Orleans route that takes in 900 miles of US music heritage. Our guide to New Orleans will fill you in on what to see and do once you arrive.

All aboard for the music mecca that is New Orleans © Shutterstock

Texas Eagle route - this epic 32-hour-trip from Chicago to San Antonio crosses the Mississippi River, traverses the piney woods of East Texas, and passes through Dallas before winding up in stunning San Antonio.

Pacific Surfliner route- at under six hours, this 351-mile route takes passengers through San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties, with portions of it tracking Southern California's coastline.

2. Research rail passes

If, having done your route research, you decide to take a seriously long-distance trip, it will be worth looking into booking a USA Rail Pass. These start from $499 for a maximum of ten journeys (called segments in Amtrak speak) taken over 30 days to over 500 destinations. For comparison, here are some sample one-way fares:

Atlanta - New Orleans $39

Chicago - Washington $84

New York - Chicago $90

Los Angeles - Seattle $101

New York - Orlando $123

Chicago - Los Angeles $146

The Pacific Surfliner serves up seriously stunning views © Hilo Pictures/Shutterstock

3. Book ahead

Once you know where you want to go, you'll want to book tickets well in advance - all passengers must have seats, and some trains (especially those travelling between major East Coast cities) can be booked solid. In addition to the rail passes covered above, here's a run-down of the different ticket types:

Saver Fares: the lowest available fares, with limited availability, so book early to secure the best deals.

Value Fares: available on all routes, with some change and refund options, limited availability.

Flexible Fares: fully refundable with no cancellation fees, with reservations easily modified. This is your best option if you're given to travelling by instinct and on impulse - you might want the flexibility to hop off and explore those must-visit nuggets shared by locals during your journey.

Business Fares: located in a dedicated car or section of the train, Business Class offers an "affordable, enhanced travel experience", as Amtrak describe it. These enhancements vary by train and route, but include the likes of extra legroom and complimentary (non-alcoholic) drinks.

Premium Fares: there are two premium services - Acela First Class (complimentary onboard food and beverage services, plus privileged access to Club Acela lounges) and Sleeper, with rooms and roomettes available on most long-distance routes. Prices for these accommodations are included in your Premium Fare.

Amtrak's Texas Eagle route crosses the mighty Mississippi River

4. Relish road-trip reads

OK, so you might not be on the actual road, but reading novels about adventures across the US will do wonders to fire up your pre-trip excitement. In fact, this is one of our favourite general USA travel tips - whether you’re travelling by train or not.

From On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to American GodsandSlow Road to San Francisco(to highlight but a few examples), there’s nothing like getting lost in a good book involving an epic journey to get you in the mood before you set off on your own.

Read to ready yourself © Shutterstock

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5. Pack like a pro

While we're not going to run through everything you might need (we have a whole feature dedicated to packing), we do want to share one of our top practical tips for USA train travel - take your own climate control. That is to say, keep a cardie or jumper to hand - the temperature in Amtrak's coaches is uniformly regulated year-round, meaning that even if you're winding through the scorching Arizona desert, your car is likely to be on the chilly side. You can thank us later. 

In addition, depending on what you decide to do about accommodation options (see below), you might also want to pack a pillow and something to snuggle under.

Think forward to pack like a pro © Shutterstock

6. Consider kipping options

If travelling overnight, you have a few accommodation options to consider - either book a roomette or bedroom, or rough it in coach. Having said that, if you've packed like a pro, it needn't be that rough.

Roomettes are compact double cabins, some of which include an in-cabin toilet – only recommended for those who are very well acquainted with their travel partners.

Bedrooms are significantly bigger with more room to stretch out when the seats are arranged for day travel. They also have a more conventional, private enclosed toilet. Some even have showers.

Coach seats, despite being the cheapest option, have generous proportions, ample legroom (often superior to many airlines' business class seats) and recline pretty far back. Plenty of people do sleep in coach cars - you'll see whole families preparing to camp down with their own duvets and pillows.

7. Plan for delays

When visiting the USA while travelling by train, it's worth knowing that Amtrak trains often share their tracks with massive, mile-long freight trains that are given priority. This means that delays on longer routes are pretty much inevitable. To be notified of delays on the move, get the Amtrak App or sign up for email notifications, which could save you from kicking your heels at your departure station.

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In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

Also bear in mind that your two-hour journey might just be a small section of a much longer, multi-day route, so try to avoid any tight connections - one of the most essential tips of USA train travel if you want to avoid any unexpected bumps in the road (or tracks).

Don't get left behind - plan your connections and be mindful of delays © Shutterstock

8. Safety first

Statistically speaking, rail travel is still one of the safest modes of transport, and providing you take all the usual common-sense precautions, travelling in the USA by train is generally safe, but it pays to be vigilant at major stations, especially at night. As always, having insurance is a smart idea too.

Be sure to keep an eye out for your bags, stowing away all valuables. If you're using night trains it might be worth investing in a basic bike lock to tether your luggage to something sturdy for total peace of mind, as opportunistic bag theft is probably the greatest threat you'll face. Alternatively...

9. Check in your bags

Stations vary in size from huge complexes with multiple bars, shops and cafés to a single platform with a station sign and a bench. Most cities will let you check your baggage for free - get to your station 40 minutes before departure to take advantage of this. Having said that, all coach cars have ample overhead storage if you prefer to keep your case with you.

Checking your bags is certainly worth it on longer journeys - it frees you up to wander off to the dining car, Bar Car or vestibules without worrying about your valuables.

Check-in to be able to check-out the train with peace of mind © Shutterstock

10. Chow down and chat

Feasting on a whole lot of food is an essential experience of travel to the USA, so it goes without saying that when travelling in the USA by train, a meal in the dining car is a must-have Amtrak experience. The Dining Car opens for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and usually for multiple sittings. To reserve in advance, keep an eye out for attendants.

That said, don't expect fancy Pullman-style dining. Options are fairly limited and the menu changes about as often as the timetable. 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.

US railway station with rustic charm © Shutterstock

11. Chill in the Bar Car

Most trains will have a Bar Car. They’re usually next to the dining car, with tables and comfy leather booths for four where you can play cards, enjoy a coffee, and chat to fellow passengers, which makes visiting the Bar Car one of the best tips for USA train travel if you're the gregarious type.

The Bar Car is also where you'll find the National Park Guides, who ride the trains in their smart Scout-like uniforms during the summer months as part of Amtrak's Trails on Rails programme. They'll happily give you educational leaflets about the journey and point out interesting aspects of the passing landscapes.

Be sure to head to the bar car for coffee and chat © Shutterstock

12. Discover the Dome Car

Some of the more scenic routes will also have a Dome Car, with seats facing out with views through panoramic windows designed to make the most of the sublime scenery you'll be passing through.

These tend to fill up quickly on iconic routes like the California Zephyr, which passes through spectacular and otherwise inaccessible stretches of the Colarado Rockies, so be sure bag a seat early.

13. Stretch without stress

Not all stops are created equal. If you're a smoker, or just fancy stretching your legs and sampling the air outside on longer journeys, it pays to know if a stop is a designated 'rest stop', which means you're allowed to get off. If it's not, don't even try it - this rule is strictly enforced across the Amtrak network.

Sit back and soak it up © Khanh Le/Shutterstock

14. Lounge around

If you're travelling in a sleeper cabin (or in business class), you can make use of lounges in some of the bigger city stations, which offer complimentary wi-fi, newspapers, drinks and snacks before or after your train.

It's a great way to relax if you get to the station early, or want to kill a bit of time after 'detraining' (as Amtrak call it) on routes that arrive in the small hours of the morning.

15. Map transit options

Amtrak stations aren’t always slap-bang in centre of town. Most will have metropolitan transport links, of course, but some - like Atlanta, for instance - will be a cab ride away, so plan your accommodation and onward travel accordingly.

Map it out to make the most of your trip

16. Get more guidance

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.

Alternatively, if you prefer to skip the planning all together, our tailor-made USA trips might be exactly what you’re looking for.

At Rough Guides we’ve always taken pride in telling it like it is - whether we’re updating details in our guide books, or researching emerging destinations. With that in mind, we want you to know that when you click on links that lead to our affiliate partners’ sites, we can earn a small commission (at no cost to you). This is one of the ways we’re able to keep doing what we do best - provide you with travel advice and inspiration you can trust. Speaking of which, you can trust what we link to - our travel writer experts are exactly that (experts) and have highlighted them to share ideas that might make your trips all the more satisfying.

Travel advice for USA

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written by Joanne Owen
updated 7/22/2021
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Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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