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.

Portland Union Station Amtrak travel tips

Lovely Union Station in Portland, Oregon where our Amtrak cross-country train travel adventure began.

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.

Amtrak travel tips superliner lounge car

The Coast Starlight making a stop in Eugene, Oregon during our Amtrak journey.

2) Open an Amtrak Guest Rewards account to accrue miles that can be used toward future train travel, car rental, and hotel stays.

Amtrak Coast Starlight California

The golden hills of Central California near San Luis Obisbo.

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.

Amtrak Pacific Surfliner california coast

A moody sky over the Pacific north of Santa Barbara, California.

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.

Amtrak west texas

Just part of the scrubby vastness of West Texas.

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.

Amtrak travel tips mexico border el paso

At certain points, the Amtrak rails pass within feet of the border between the US and Mexico.

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.

full moon over texas amtrak

A nearly full moon over Texas.

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.

Amtrak travel tips station santa barbra

The historic train station in Santa Barbara, California.

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.

Prada marfa Amtrak travel tips

The train tracks pass right by the famous “Prada store” art installation near Marfa, Texas.

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.

red river oklahoma amtrak

Sunset over the Red River in Oklahoma.

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.

iowa cornfields amtrak

Cornfields for miles in Iowa.

11) If you’re a light sleeper, bring earplugs and an eye mask. Snoring is common and coach passenger cars are never fully dark.

mendota illinois amtrak

Corn silos in Mendota, Illinois.

12) One of the benefits of train travel is the ability to get up and move around the train at will. Do it.

Erie canal NY amtrak

Glimpses of the Erie Canal in upstate New York.

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.

Amtrak travel tips manhattan hudson river

As we entered New York City along the Hudson River we got views of New Jersey and the George Washington Bridge.

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.

Amtrak travel tips Moynahan train hall penn station NY

The brand new Moynahan Train Hall is absolutely beautiful and light years better than the dungeon known as Penn Station.

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


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