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.
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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.
These tend to fill up quickly on iconic routes like the California Zephyr, which passes through spectacular and otherwise inaccessible stretches of the Colorado Rockies, so nab a seat early.
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.
© Khanh Le/Shutterstock
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.