Riding an Amtrak Train Overnight: Tips for First-Time Rail Travelers
Planning a trip on an overnight Amtrak train? Or maybe thinking about it? Maybe even considering traveling more than one night?
Many people like to travel on Amtrak—even though long-distance train trips take longer than flying. After all, there's much less hassle, and it's a lot less stressful than driving. Besides, train travel has some special attractions; just for starters, here are a few:
• You can read, watch a movie on your DVD player, work on your laptop, or just plain relax in a spacious, comfortable seat while interesting and often gorgeous scenery passes by outside your window.
• You can walk through the train, between cars, stretching your legs, and grab a snack or beverage or eat a meal in the diner; you can also step off at stations, breathe some fresh air, or even have a smoke (if you're a smoker).
• You have lots of opportunities to chat with friends, or meet people and make new friends, often in the lounge or dining car.
If you're traveling overnight, the most comfortable way to go is to reserve a sleeping car room. The most affordable is a roomette, which can accommodate two people (in individual bunk beds)—so it's more economical to travel in a sleeper with a companion. This typically costs about two to three times the price of two coach tickets, but keep in mind that all your dining car meals are included in your sleeper fare—plus, you're paying for a lot of extra comfort, relaxation, and perks.
Considered First Class sleeper travel is even more comfortable as it also includes a hot shower, complimentary bottled water, soft drinks and ice, and hot coffee—all managed by your sleeping car attendant. (If you opt to travel this way, be sure to tip your car attendant about $10 per night of stay. Also, in the diner, be sure to tip the table service personnel about 15-20% of the menu price of your "free" food orders.)
Traveling overnight in coach class is also attractive (and more affordable) to many people—Amtrak seats are much larger and more comfortable than those in airliners or motor coaches (intercity buses), and they recline comfortably with full leg rests, somewhat like home reclining chairs. There are also large tray tables, handy for snacks but also useful for setting up a DVD player or laptop, or for use as a writing desk. In coach you also have the option of sitting at a table in the lounge car to write, work at your laptop, or just chat with other passengers.
If you opt for Amtrak coach for overnight travel, you might consider being prepared with several extra items:
• Bottled water. Unless you want to pay for pricier bottled water from the snack bar, bring enough water for your trip.
• Travel blanket. Even in the summer, with A/C, it can get cool (even cold) at night, so packing a light travel blanket is smart. Also, if you like to take your shoes off overnight, some heavy socks to keep your feet warm may prove useful.
• Pillows. Amtrak's reclining coach seats are comfortable, but for sleeping, you'll probably want small pillows (or something cushy) for both your head and the small of your back.
• Change of clothing. You might want to change into some clothes suitable to sleep in, then have better clothes on hand to change into in the morning.
Here are some more factors to consider when you're making an overnight trip by Amtrak:
• Railcar comfort. In general, the long-distance routes out West use double-deck Superliner cars, which provide more restroom facilities and are a bit more spacious than the Viewliner equipment used on most of the routes in the East.
• Washing up. Amtrak's restroom facilities are small but clean, and provide a place to wash up and change clothes after an overnight sleep.
• Food services. You can get meals in either the snack bar (cheaper) or dining car (pricier). Amtrak's dining car breakfast choices are delicious, and lunch is several dollars less expensive than supper, so taking your evening meal from the snack bar (where choices usually range from hamburgers and hotdogs to soups and salads) might be a smart, cost-conscious dining plan.
• Baggage. You can check your baggage (currently at no cost), but it's probably more convenient to just carry on your luggage—you're allowed two large bags, each 50 lbs. or less (three bags if you're in a sleeper), plus a "personal items" bag for toilet kit, extra clothing, laptop, etc. The big bags can be stowed in baggage storage areas on your coach (lower level in Superliners, one end of coach in Viewliners).
Especially when you're trying out a new mode of travel, it's important to be aware of safety.
• Amtrak and their onboard personnel are extremely safety-conscious, so obey the rules.
• Watch your feet when walking between cars—safety plates on the floor sections where cars meet end-to-end tend to shift and "pinch" when the train's in motion.
• Be sure to keep your shoes on when you're away from your seat.
• Learn to keep your balance by adjusting your movement to the lurching of the car as you walk through.
• At station platforms, be careful stepping on and off, and stay near the door of your car.
• And cross tracks only where it's permitted—and always look both ways before you cross!
Bottom line: Traveling overnight on an Amtrak train can be an unusual, enjoyable, and even exciting adventure. Hopefully, some of these tips will be helpful if and when you decide to try this unique travel experience.