Amtrak tips from a 30-day USA rail pass traveler

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I’ve just finished my 30-day, 12 segment USA rail pass from Amtrak, hitting Chicago, Syracuse, Boston, Portland, Trenton, and D.C.

3740 miles by train. 3740 long miles.

Hopefully these tips help a future 30-day rail tripper improve or avoid their own trip. Overall, I’m very happy with my trip, and thoroughly enjoyed travelling independently through the northeast. However, sometimes trains suck here in the States.

My itinerary: NEW-Kansas to CHI (Southwest Chief), CHI to SYR (Lakeshore Limited), SYR to BOS (Lakeshore), BON-Boston North to POR (Downeaster), POR to BOS (Downeaster), BBY-Boston Back Bay to TRE (Northeast Regional), TRE to WAS (Northeast), WAS to CHI (Capitol Limited), and CHI to NEW (Southwest).

Top Five Lessons of a Amtrak rail-pass (or Amtrak in general):

1. Trains will be late. You will be late. The longer the trip, the later you’ll likely be. My first train was a whopping 5 hours late. Another was 3 hours late, and one more was a full hour late. Most were 30 min late, and some were nearly on-time. Even if the train is late, you cannot be late since they shorten stops to make up time. There is an app for smartphone you can download to track your own lateness (also,1-800-872-7245 can tell you). Your ride from the station will thank you for the heads up.

2. Be prepared. Just as there are some “airplane essentials” to bring on board long trips, there are some “train essentials” as well. Overnight trains are rough in general, so don’t take them lightly.

  • Blanket and pillow. It gets COLD in those cars overnight. I brought a bed sheet (small to pack, big to cover my toes), and it was nearly warm enough. They do provide pillows, but I’m fairly sure that’s how I caught my wicked cold (they only change the flimsy cover between uses). I got an inflatable pillow with cover, chucked the insert and stuffed t-shirts into it. Worked pretty darn good.
  • Water. Unless you like buying $2.00 bottles often. I found the air to be very dry, and was significantly more comfortable when I was more hydrated. At the minimum, bring a bottle on board to steal water from the bar in the lounge car. You can only fit a dixie cup in the water source they provide, and it is maddening to fill that up again and again.
  • Food. Their cafe car food is great, but it is overpriced and nothing too special (college student fare). Everyone I met was disappointed by the fancy dining car, so don’t bother. Every city I visited had some very unique food, and it was great fun to pick some up and bring it on board to make everyone jealous. Chips are not a great idea for quiet cars though. Snack-y foods were better than whole meals for me (granola, nuts, cheese sticks, fruit (from city markets for cheap!), junk food).
  • Hand sanitizer (tons of it). Lots of people, and a “moving target” in the restrooms. Save yourself from the plague I caught if you can.
  • Flip flops – I can’t stand shoes when sleeping, so I had to buy some flip flops for bathroom trips and elsewhere, as shoes are required (and recommended). Made it easier to curl up on the footrest too.
  • Charger with at least 5 ft reach (in case you are the aisle seat). My one charger worked well since both devices took the same charger, but more cords might take a new answer.
  • Easy toiletries. Facewipes, lotion with subtle perfume, gum, toothbrush and toothpaste, tylenol, etc. It gets nasty in coach. Need I explain?

3. Amtrak customer service can sometimes be…frustrating. Personally, I only met a few rude individuals (and they were clearly overworked). But the system is outdated and inelegant. First, many employees haven’t seen a rail pass in years. You’ll need to pick up your pass at a manned station, meaning I had to drive 2 hrs to get a hold of it (don’t count on small stations actually being manned, despite the promises). To get a ticket, you first make a reservation with the 1-800 number. The menu is insane, but if you ask for “reservations,” then “I already have a reservation,” then “it’s something else,” I believe you get to a perfectly nice human. That human will need to know your reservation number, which will be your rail pass number (top right of rail pass). The most vital information they need to make a reservation is the train number and the date of departure. With a reservation, you then bring your rail pass to a MANNED station early (1 hr before train) to pick tickets up. A physical ticket is necessary to board the train, no matter what may happen, promises you’re given. You’ll need to make ticket reservations a week early, but it is very easy to change. I’d recommend picking up the whole trip at the start, and trading in as you change. If there isn’t rail pass room left on a train, it is about $30 to get the ticket.

4. Coach is comfortable. The reserved coach seat is rather wide with abundant legroom and plenty of reclining ability. Each seat reclines about 30° or more, which feels like a pretty good amount. Longer trains also come with a footrest that swings out from the chair, much like the footrest on a reclining chair. This was my favorite amenity, as it made it comfortable to cross my legs and sit up. When deployed, it is difficult to get in and out of the seats then, so be ready to move when your seat-buddy needs to go to the bathroom. There is also the standard kick-down footrest bar from the seat in front of you on all trains. A table from the seat-back in front can extend out towards your seat, and does not move when the seat reclines. All in all, a magnificent coach seat, but still a bit difficult to sleep in. Bring your liquor OR tylenol PM. This service pup popped out from under his owners seat to beg for chicken. He is showing off the ample leg room of each row.

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5. You’ll need a purse (or whatever equivalent for men). With few shady characters, I never felt unsafe on a train. However, I still took my valuables with me to the tiny bathrooms, which was easy with a moderately large purse. Some people were determined to take all of their luggage to the bathroom, and I am sure that was unpleasant. Let’s just say that your knees barely fit into those toilets, let alone baggage. I would guess that locks on luggage are beneficial, but as my grandpa always says, those just “keep honest people honest.” I figured that if somebody really wanted my dirty laundry and toiletries, they could have them. Number of pieces and size of luggage was not regulated, so I’d suggest you carry on everything. My reusable grocery bag that stuffs into a pouch was very handy, and managed to hold two 6-packs of beer very nicely (another advantage of no TSA liquid checks). I liked my standard backpack as my main luggage as well (really, you don’t need that much, just your favorite 2-3 bottoms, 3-4 shirts, really).

Bottom line: I wouldn’t recommend a rail pass for everyone. You need to be an adept traveler, ready to fight to get what you need, and alright with having things go wrong. I don’t think it is as “affordable” as billed, since my total of buying tickets separately day-of would have been very close to price of the rail pass. Think it over hard, and understand that it is an adventure, not a cake-walk.

Happy travels!

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