Here’s a few things I’ve learned from my Amtrak travels…
There are 3 USA Rail Passes. The adult prices are $389 for 8 segments in 15 days, $579 for 12 segments in 30 days or $749 for 18 segments in 45 days. I’ve now done two coast-to-coast trips this way. On the first trip I had the cheapest one and I had to pay a little extra because i went over the 15-day limit. On the second, I went for the next one up and I found I needed more than 12 segments. That’s how I roll, always just going over the limit… However, I found them to be excellent value for money.
The important thing to remember when planning is that a journey might take up more than one segment. “Amtrak considers a travel segment any time you get on and then get off a vehicle (train, bus, ferry or other allowable leg) regardless of length.” So my trip from Washington DC to Belfast, Maine consisted of 3 segments: DC to Boston, Boston to Portland, Portland to Belfast.
Also remember that this just gets you a seat. If your journey is overnight and you want to sleep in something more comfortable than a coach seat, you’ll have to pay extra.
The Terms and Conditions Page is worth a look.
It’s best to make a reservation as soon as you know which train you want to get. Amtrak does not oversell as far as I can tell. You won’t see people standing or sitting in vestibules in the way you might on a UK train. There were a couple of occasions when the train I wanted to get was sold out – this can be awkward in those areas where there’s only one train a day, which is to say pretty much everywhere outside of the North East routes. When I faced this going from Milwaukee to Austin, I was advised to call again after midnight on the day of travel when reservations that haven’t been paid for get reset – it worked for me, though of course it’s not guaranteed.
It’s worth asking for a system-wide timetable when you pick up your pass. All stations also have paper copies of the timetables for the services that run there. Trains are referred to by their brand name (The Texas Eagle) as well as their number (21 or 22 depending on direction) It’s useful to be able to see just how far behind schedule you are on longer trips Freight traffic gets priority on the network, so some delay is pretty much guaranteed. Be prepared for a 1 or even 2 hour delay on any journey that’s more than 12 hours. I didn’t miss any connections, but was told that Amtrak will pay for buses, accomodation and food if things go really wrong. The Amtrak phoneline gives fairly accurate real-time information on how each train is running – as I remember it’s good to know the train number.
1-800-USA-RAIL or 1-800-872-7245 store it in your phone now! The automated agent “Julie” is rarely of use if you’re planning anything more complicated than getting train information. Say “Agent” as soon as you’re given the choice and you’ll get put in the queue for a real person. I found Amtrak phoneline (and station) staff to be extremely friendly and helpful, mostly enjoying the challenge of dealing with my out of the ordinary requests.
At the station
Even if you already have your tickets, it’s worth asking how the train’s running to schedule and checking out which gate or track you’re going to be leaving from. Get a seat as close to the gate as you can as British queuing rules do not apply. People get up before they’re called and before you know it there’s a crowd of people hovering around. This does not automatically form into an orderly line as you might expect… so get there first! Also, chill out. You will get on the train and you will get a seat, you might have to sit next to someone and not get a choice about sitting by the window or the aisle, but that won’t kill you.
Getting on the train and finding a seat
Conductors will often call seniors (over 62 yrs, I heard a couple of times) and families with babies and small children first. On North Eastern trains you can get on at any door. On other routes you’re likely to be directed to a particular car based on your destination. You will likely have some discretion choosing your seat if you get on at a terminus, though cars are sometimes divided into areas for single travellers and those in parties of two or more.
A conductor will come round soon after departure to check tickets. They will then put a seat check (a small piece of paper or card) in the rack above your seat denoting where you’re getting off. Most conductors will prefer if you don’t move around to different seats but if you do, make sure you move your seat check with you.
Finding your way around
There are two types of train, the single-decker ones mainly found on the North Eastern commuter routes and the double-deckers elsewhere. On single-deckers the restrooms are at one end of each car and you’ll get to the cafe and/or dining car if there is one by walking in one direction or another On the double-deckers, restrooms are on the lower deck of each car accessible via the stairs in the centre. Then the layout is usually that sleeping cars are at the front, followed by the dining car, then an observation car with big windows and sideways seats and a cafe downstairs and then then coach cars. So if you’re sitting in coach, walking in the direction that the train is travelling is a good idea if you want to find anything else.
I can’t tell you anything about the sleeping accomodation as I was always too tight-fisted to try it out. I had three nights sleeping in a single seat and four when I had a double seat to myself. Raising the leg rests on two seats together gives you quite a bit of lying down space, though at 5′ 11” I’m probably at the top end of being able to do that comfortably and I can’t say that I got more than 5 or 6 hours sleep on the nights I did it.
Doing it again, I would make sure I had some sort of blanket (the air-conditioning is unpredictable) and some sort of pillow or cushion of my own in addition to those given out. I doubt that it’s the healthiest thing to do to rest your head on a seat and breathe in where someone else has been sitting for 24 hours but when you’ve been on there for 12 hours yourself you’re not thinking so much about that. An eyemask and earplugs might be handy too if you can handle that level of sensory deprivation in a space full of strangers.
Eating and Drinking
I always took food and drink with me for these journeys. Stocking up at a supermarket or grocery store beforehand means you get to eat well, eat what you want and save money. If I’d been even better prepared I’d have taken a coffee flask to fill up before boarding too. The coffee that’s served onboard (currently $1.75 + tip) is not really what you want to wake up to after a night sprawled across coach seats.
I ate once in the dining car this year. I had a microwaved cheeseburger with small limp salad and some crisps that cost me about $12. I was really hungry and it was better than nothing. That’s all I’m going to say.
For those alcoholically inclined I think that state alcohol laws apply wherever you are but I saw people buying beers at 10am. I also observed several people being warned that being drunk would get them ejected from the train. I’m aware that one guy had a very cold early morning in Spokane because he’d had a few too many.
Always best to board with all of your electronics fully charged. Generally there’s a pair of outlets for each pair of seats, but there was one train that had no power outlets at all in the car I was in, and on another they were only working intermittently. When you have the aisle seat it can be awkward leaning over someone you’ve not met, who happens to be asleep, to plug your stuff in. Having a power block is a good idea, though I suppose overloading could have been one reason for the intermittent failure that time. Also the power outlets are quite close together so if you have big chunky adapters for big chunky 13-amp UK plugs you might not be able to use them both at the same time.
Phone Coverage & Wifi
This depends a bit on what network you choose to use but through rural areas of many states I had little or no coverage usually from a carrier that would give me voice/text but no data. Do some research beforehand on what you can get that will give you what you need – I ended up making a decision based on last year’s information and although it worked out OK, I might have been able to do better.
I only got wifi to work on the Downeaster from Portland to Boston. It’s available on the Acela Express too I believe but I never got to try that. Wifi in stations is advertised but rarely worked.