We recently returned to the US to get our Covid-19 vaccinations and to see friends and family before returning to Argentina as soon as they allow foreign travelers to return. Shortly after we arrived stateside, the price of an Amtrak 30-day USA Rail Pass was cut from $499 to $299 per person for 10 rail segments used within 30 days. We obviously prefer slow overland travel, so we jumped at the chance to travel on the Coast Starlight from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles, California with a stop in Paso Robles, then from Paso Robles to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (to see dear friends we first met in Mexico very early in the Trans-Americas Journey) on the Texas Eagle/Heartland Flyer, then from Oklahoma on to New York City on the Southwest Chief to Chicago, continuing on the Lakeshore Limited. During our 121 hours of train travel, we covered 4,888 miles (7,866 km) and picked up a few Amtrak travel tips that will make taking the train across the US more enjoyable.
15 long-distance Amtrak travel tips
Here’s what you need to know to make the most of a long-distance Amtrak train journey across the US.
1) Book online because many Amtrak stations are closed or do not offer ticket sale services, so if you walk into an Amtrak station there is no guarantee that they’ll be anyone there to sell you a ticket.
2) Open an Amtrak Guest Rewards account to accrue miles that can be used toward future train travel, car rental, and hotel stays.
3) Sign up for an Amtrak Guest Rewards Mastercard credit card. At the time of writing, Amtrak was offering 50,000 points for new credit card applicants (which has a value of up $1,250 in Amtrak tickets) if you spend $2,500 on the card in first 3 months. This special offer is in celebration of Amtrak’s 50th anniversary and it’s a dramatic increase over the usual 20,000 point bonus offered to new Amtrak card applicants.
4) Don’t count on Wi-Fi on your train. Despite the fact that Amtrak brags about internet connectivity on its trains, only one of the seven legs of our trip across the US had Wi-Fi on the train and even then it was weak and unreliable.
5) Bring your own food. Amtrak is not known for its cuisine and during the pandemic, the full dining car is only available to passengers traveling in the sleeper cars (which include all meals but will run you hundreds of dollars per night). Those traveling in coach, like us, only have access to the train’s cafe which basically sells junk that can be microwaved like mini-pizzas and unhealthy snacks like chips and Cup-o-Noodles. We brought our own food and bottled water (never drink train water). Insider train food tip: on long-distance Amtrak trains even coach seats have electrical outlets at every seat. If you want hot water to make instant soups, noodles, or hot beverages, bring an electric kettle or immersion coil and you can boil water right at your seat as needed. Another insider train food tip: be considerate and don’t bring stinky foods like tuna fish, strong cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, etc.
6) Bring a credit card or debit card. At the moment, Amtrak is all cashless so if you need to purchase anything onboard or in an Amtrak station you have to use a credit card or a debit card.
7) Bring cleansing wipes to wipe down your seat, armrest, windowsill, tray tables, etc. when you board. This is good advice at all times, but especially during the pandemic.
8) Check any pieces of luggage you don’t need to access during your journey. It’s free and, in our experience, reliable. Bonus: if you’re switching trains in a station that has luggage service, the bags stay checked so you can explore the city and stretch your legs without lugging around your bags. For example, we left our bags checked during an hours-long layover in Chicago and used the time to explore the city on foot. If you have hand luggage you don’t want to carry around, you can check that for $10 per piece.
9) If you have any mobility issues, reserve a seat in the small downstairs seating area of the train. On most long-distance Amtrak trains passenger seating is in the upper level and bathrooms are on the lower level with a steep and narrow staircase connecting the two which can be tricky to navigate.
10) Speaking of bathrooms, you may want to use the bathrooms in the stations during longer station stops. Onboard bathrooms are cramped, old, and often (but not always) less than clean.
11) If you’re a light sleeper, bring earplugs and an eye mask. Snoring is common and coach passenger cars are never fully dark.
12) One of the benefits of train travel is the ability to get up and move around the train at will. Do it.
13) Be prepared for a very colorful cast of characters. Our motley crew of passengers included junkies, groups of Mennonites who couldn’t seem to keep their masks (aka bandanas) on their faces, and one angry neighboring passenger who threatened us with “stranger danger” when we asked him to follow Amtrak rules and use his headphones while he watched videos on his phone.
14) Be patient. Long-distance Amtrak train travel is not for those in a hurry. During our journey, we averaged 45 miles (72 km) per hour (with a top speed of about 100 mph on the leg between Albany and New York City). You can drive a direct route from coast to coast in as little as 42 hours without stopping, but sane people would plan on a minimum of 3 days, which is as long as the fastest route between New York and LA (with a transfer in Chicago would take. Taking Amtrak on tracks that meander north and south as you travel east to west (or vice versa) is never, ever faster than that and is certainly bested by a five-hour coast-to-coast flight.
15) Bring multiple masks. During the pandemic, masks must be worn all the time on all Amtrak trains, on train platforms, and in train stations. To remain hygienic and effective, most masks are meant to be worn for just a few hours before they are discarded or washed.
Here’s more about travel in the USA