The USA‘s national rail operator Amtrak won’t get you everywhere you want to go, but it’s an excellent way to explore this vast country on a budget. Incredible landscapes will zoom by and you’ll see a slice of real Americana as you slow through quirky little towns dotted along each route, plus, there’s no better way to meet the locals.
With special fares promoted every week, you might be surprised just how far your dollars will take you. Here are a few tips for travelling by train in the USA.
1. Research your rail passes
If you’re planning a seriously long-distance trip, it may be worth looking into getting an Amtrak Railpass. These start from $459 for a maximum of eight journeys (also known as segments) taken over 15 days, right up to $899 for 45 days of travel over 18 trips.
Otherwise you can buy individual tickets a few weeks in advance for all but the most popular routes. Amtrak’s interactive route planner will help you choose a route.
2. Buy your tickets in advance – but forget about reservations
You can easily buy tickets on Amtrak’s website which offers mobile ticketing and handily puts multiple journeys on the one ticket.
You can’t usually reserve coach seats in advance. If you’re travelling in coach, Amtrak staff will allocate your seat on the platform. Seats are configured in pairs facing towards the direction of travel, with doubles always put aside for those travelling in pairs or groups.
Solo riders are slotted into wherever there’s space, but don’t worry, there’ll always be a seat kept free even if you won’t know exactly which coach it’s in until you board.
3. Sleep on it: coach, roomettes & bedrooms
Travelling overnight presents you with a few accommodation options: you can book a roomette or bedroom, or you can rough it in coach.
Roomettes are fairly compact double cabins and some even boast an interesting in-cabin toilet – only for those who are particularly well acquainted with their travel partners.
Bedrooms are noticeably larger with more room to stretch out when the seats are arranged for day travel. They have a more conventional, private enclosed toilet and 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 quite far back.
Plenty of people do sleep in coach cars and it’s perfectly safe to do so; you’ll see whole families boarding and preparing to camp down with their own duvets and pillows.
4. Plan for delays
Amtrak trains often share their tracks with massive, mile-long freight trains, which get priority. This means that delays on longer routes are 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.
Remember also 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.
5. Book a table in the diner
A meal in the dining car is a must-have Amtrak experience. The Dining Car opens, usually for multiple sittings, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and attendants will take reservations throughout the train in advance.
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 the food you’ll come for. If you’re travelling alone or as a pair, you’ll likely be seated with fellow passengers, offering the chance to chat with locals and other travellers, exchange travel tips and make new friends as the all American scenery outside provides ample conversation starters.
6. Get your bags checked
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) but 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, since it frees you up to wander off to the dining car, bar cars or vestibules without worrying about your valuables.
7. Check out the bar car
Most trains should have a Bar Car, and you don’t need to spend a cent on board to enjoy them.
They’re usually next to the dining car, with tables and comfy leather booths for four where you can play cards, watch the scenery roll past, enjoy a coffee and a snack and chat to fellow passengers.
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 landscape out the window.
8. And 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.
9. Pack some climate control
The temperature in Amtrak’s coaches is uniformly regulated year-round. This means that even if you’re winding your way through the baking Arizona desert you might find your car a bit nippy, so it’s worth packing a jumper in your carry-on.
10. Know your rest stops from your regulars
Not all stops are created equal. If you’re a smoker, or you 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 enforced strictly across the Amtrak network.
11. Use the lounges
If you’re travelling in a sleeper cabin (or in business class) you should also 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 simply kill a bit of time after ‘detraining’ – as the Amtrak parlance has it – on routes arriving in the small hours of the morning.
12. Map out your 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.
Explore more of the USA with the Rough Guide to the USA. Featured image from Pixabay / CC0. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.