Timothy is a frequent Amtrak train rider who has made many cross-country bus trips in the last 10 years. He currently resides in Montana.
Traveling on the Amtrak train is one of the best ways to see the United States. Not only are passengers treated to sights that can only be seen by railway, but the level of comfort on the Amtrak train is higher than can be found on the bus and on some airlines.
If you are thinking about taking a trip in the U.S. and are considering Amtrak as an option, then there are some things you need to know about the train. Listed below are 10 tips that will help you to get the lowest fare for your ticket, have the most enjoyable trip possible, and get to your destination with no issues.
1. Buy Your Ticket Early
Amtrak train tickets are sold in a unique manner that is great for early-bird travelers who buy their tickets well in advance. Instead of having a fluctuating price matrix like most airlines use, Amtrak instead sells tickets in 'buckets', with the lowest fares selling first. Once the allotted amount of tickets for that price in the 'bucket' are sold out, the next 'bucket' with a higher ticket price is opened up.
You can buy an Amtrak train ticket up to 11 months in advance. And since the cheap tickets on the popular days and routes go the quickest, it's best to book your travel as soon as possible.
Amtrak even has savings for all the way up until 2 weeks in advance. It is still possible to save up to 25% off your Amtrak ticket if you book 14 days in advance.
The best way to purchase your Amtrak train ticket is online via Amtrak.com. Or you can use the Amtrak mobile app. But if you are old school, or just like interacting with a human being, you can still purchase your ticket from the ticket counter at any Amtrak station.
2. Join the Amtrak Guest Rewards Program
Amtrak's free rewards program is a great way to earn free class upgrades, discounts on hotels and car rentals, and access to travel coupons. The program is free to join and it only takes a few minutes to become a member.
Even if you don't travel on Amtrak regularly, it's a good idea to sign up for Guest Rewards because any points you earn will not expire as long as there is activity on your account within a 2-year period.
3. Check Out All Seating/Schedule Options Before You Buy Your Ticket
There are a number of different seating options available to you on your Amtrak train trip. These include Coach, Business, First Class (on select trains), and Sleeper Cars. And there are a number of different sleeper car options as well.
Depending on the train you are traveling on you can choose between a Roomette, a Bedroom, a Bedroom Suite, a Family Bedroom, or an Accessible Bedroom. You can visit the Amtrak website to learn more about your seating options and to view pictures and dimensions of each seat or sleeper car.
There will also sometimes be a number of different schedule options available to you when you are purchasing your ticket. For instance, there may be one train going to your destination station that only take 10 hours and has no layovers. But there might also be a couple of other schedules available that have layovers and take 15 to 20 hours.
The ticket price can vary quite a bit between each schedule, so it's important to check out all your options before deciding on your ticket. Sometimes staying on the train a few hours longer can save you quite a bit of money.
4. Know Your Luggage Limits
It's important to know how much luggage you can bring on your Amtrak train trip before you arrive at the station to depart. That way, you avoid running into any issues or having to pay unexpected fees.
Each Amtrak passenger is allowed to bring 2 personal items (up to 25 lbs. (12 kg) and 14 x 11 x 7 inches each) and 2 carry-on bags (up to 50 lbs. (23 kg) and 28 x 22 x 14 inches each).
In addition, each passenger can also bring up to 4 checked bags on their trip. The first 2 bags are included free in the ticket price, while each of the additional 2 bags will cost a $20 fee. Checked bags can be up to 50 lbs. and 75 linear inches.
Keep in mind that not all Amtrak stations are equipped to handle checked bags. So be sure to check and make sure that your departure station and your destination station offer checked bag service before you start your trip. You can still bring larger luggage on your Amtrak trip even if your departure station does not offer checked bag service, you will just have to bring your bags on the train with you.
Oversize bags (50+ lbs and 76+ linear inches) are allowed for an extra $20 fee.
5. Get to the Train Station Early
It's important to always arrive at the Amtrak train station you will be departing from at least 45 minutes to an hour before your train is scheduled to leave. There are a number of reasons why you will want to do this:
- Arriving early gives you time to check your bags if needed.
- Arriving an hour before departure gives you time to check in at the ticket counter and make sure your train is running on schedule.
- Getting to the station early gives you a chance to find out what track your train will be loading from so you can get in line and be prepared to board.
You don't want to be one of those people who gets to the Amtrak station a few minutes before their train is scheduled to leave only to find a line for checking bags or some other time-consuming issue. This usually leads to them having to run for the train or, in some cases, having to take a later train. Avoid all this hassle by getting to the station early.
6. Bring a Jacket or Blanket
Temperatures on Amtrak trains tend to run a little on the chilly side, so be sure to bring a light jacket or a blanket so that you have a way to stay warm. There is nothing worse than spending the better part of a day on a cold train, freezing and shivering, because you wore shorts and short sleeves and no jacket.
Bringing a blanket on your trip will not only ensure that you stay warm, but it will also come in handy for sleeping if you have an overnight trip. If you are traveling in a sleeper car, then you will already have sheets and blankets at your disposal. But if you are traveling in Coach or Business class, no blankets are provided. So plan ahead and either purchase a cheap travel blanket online or stop by a store before your trip and purchase one.
Some of the larger Amtrak stations have stores on the premises where you can buy travel blankets, pillows, and other items for your trip. Just keep in mind that the prices at these shops will probably be higher than you would pay elsewhere.
7. Bring Your Own Food
On most Amtrak routes there will be food offered in either the dining car, the cafe car, or both. However, these food options are not cheap! A meal in the dining car is probably going to cost you around $30 per person on average. And a microwavable burger, a soda, and some chips from the cafe a car will cost you $10 or more.
So if you are traveling on a budget, you will probably want to bring your own food and drinks on the train. Just keep in mind that you cannot bring your own alcoholic beverages on the train, and you won't have access to a microwave or an oven.
So only bring food that does not need to be warmed up or cooked. And make sure you only bring soda, water, or juice on board with you because you can be removed from the train for having alcoholic beverages in your possession that you did not purchase from Amtrak.
The one exception to this rule is passengers who are traveling by sleeper car. Passengers in these cars are allowed to bring their own alcoholic beverages on the train as long as they keep them in their roomette.
Meals are also included in the ticket price for all passengers traveling via sleeper car. So this is something to consider when purchasing your ticket. Sometimes paying a little extra for a roomette might be worth the additional cost when you factor in the 3 free meals per day in the dining car.
8. Pay Attention to Stops/Stations
The rhythmic motion of the wheels on the Amtrak train makes it very easy to doze off and fall asleep. And while this is great for getting some rest and making your trip more relaxing, there is always the risk that you will be asleep when the train reaches your final destination.
The train attendants do their best to make sure everyone gets off at the correct stop, but ultimately it's your responsibility to make sure you leave the train at the right destination.
During the day, the stops are called out over the PA system in advance of arrival and when the train pulls into the station. At night, however, after 10 p.m., quiet hours are in effect and the stops are not announced. It's especially important during these times to make sure you are awake or alert enough that you don't miss your stop.
Amtrak will not pay for your ride back to the correct station if you miss your stop for some reason. So just make sure you know when and where you are getting off the train and be ready to disembark when the time comes.
9. Take Advantage of the Observation Car
Most trains you will travel on with Amtrak will have an Observation car somewhere on the train, usually near the middle. This is one of the best reasons to travel via Amtrak.
The Observation car is open to all passengers and has seats, tables, and power outlets. The windows in the Observation car are larger than in the standard cars and the seats face the windows so that you can get a great view of the country as you pass through.
The Observation car is open 24 hours a day, so it makes a great place for night owls to hang out if they still want to talk, interact, or play games after the lights have been dimmed in the passenger cars.
If you are a photographer or videographer, the Observation car is one of the best places to ride to capture great images and videos!
10. Bring Headphones or Earbuds
Please be considerate to fellow Amtrak passengers and bring along headphones or earbuds if you are planning to use your phone, tablet, or laptop for entertainment. None of the people sitting near you really want to hear your music or the Netflix show that you are binge-watching.
You can purchase an inexpensive pair of disposable earbuds just for your Amtrak trip from pretty much any store these days. This is a great idea if you own a more expensive pair of headphones and don't want to risk them getting damaged, lost, or stolen on your trip.
Having earbuds or headphones will also allow you to drown out the noise of fellow passengers (e.g. babies crying, people talking, or loud snoring).
Your first Amtrak train trip will be an experience that you never forget. And using the tips outlined in this article will ensure that it will be unforgettable for the right reasons. So go ahead and purchase your ticket and start getting ready to travel the country and see the sights aboard America's favorite train, Amtrak!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Timothy Ward
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 19, 2020:
I used to love travelling by train when I was a child and teenager. I haven't been on a train for a long time, though. Reading your article has made me wish that I could take another trip. Thanks for sharing the information.
Liz Westwood from UK on January 19, 2020:
These are great tips for anyone planning a trip on Amtrak. Do the observation cars get very full? I imagine they must be popular.