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.
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.
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.
Atlanta - New Orleans $39
Chicago - Washington $84
New York - Chicago $90
Los Angeles - Seattle $101
New York - Orlando $123
Chicago - Los Angeles $146
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.
Going on a solo trip? Check out our guide to the best places to travel solo in the USA.
From On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to American Gods and Slow 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.
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.
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.
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).
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alternatively, if you prefer to skip the planning all together, our tailor-made USA trips might be exactly what you’re looking for.
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