Traveling on Amtrak: 5 things to know

Coach Amtrak Car

New to traveling on Amtrak? The U.S. passenger rail service provides a variety of train routes that can be used for commuting or long-distance trips. Since funding for train travel hasn’t been a priority in the United States, Amtrak has its pros and cons, but it still offers an old-fashioned, adventurous and sometimes easier way to travel. To make your experience better, here are key things to know:

1. Fares

The cheapest Amtrak tickets are coach seats, which are not assigned seats, rather you find an open seat or seats in the coach or quiet car once on the train. Some regional Amtrak trains also have first class or business class tickets that are more expensive, but offer some additional amenities. On the overnight trains, you will also have the option to book sleeping accommodations, which are the most expensive ticket option. Note that meals are included when you book a roomette or bedroom.

To save money on Amtrak tickets, sign up to get an email when sales are announced. You might also qualify for everyday discounts. And if it works with your travel plans, buying in bulk or purchasing a USA or California rail pass might reduce overall cost.

If possible, book your tickets in advance (refunds apply in some cases if you need to cancel). Amtrak fares usually get more expensive the closer you are to the travel date, largely because cheaper fares sell out.

2. Frequency

Amtrak routes can be grouped into two categories: long-distance trains and regional trains. As you might expect, the regional trains, or trains that travel in just a few states, are more frequent, with multiple train departures each day. On the other hand, long-distance routes usually only have one train per day in each direction. In general, the most frequent trains are in the Northeast, around Chicago and in California.

View the list of Amtrak routes with sleeper cars to learn about the long-distance trains that are less frequent than other routes.

3. On-Time Arrivals

Because regional trains don’t travel as far as long-distance trains, they are more likely to be on time. Long-distance trains can have delays due to yielding to freight trains across the country (sometimes delays can be more than an hour). For that reason, don’t book an Amtrak trip if you have a very time-sensitive schedule unless you are traveling in the Northeast corridor or on a regional train. In terms of punctuality, here are the most on-time routes based on 2017 data:

Lastly, don’t forget to look at Amtrak’s new train tracker. You can see where your train is and view estimated real-time arrivals if a train gets behind schedule.

4. Baggage

You can check bags at some, but not all, Amtrak stations. Fortunately, you can bring personal items and larger bags on the train as long as you follow Amtrak’s carry-on baggage policy.  View the Amtrak timetable for your route to see if checked baggage is an option at your starting station (look for the suitcase icon). You can also look up station information on the website.

For your carry-on items, luggage racks are above and under the seats in coach, and there are other storage areas for luggage, including in the sleeper cars. Be sure to pay special attention to baggage guidelines if you are crossing into Canada on a train.

Lastly, if you are traveling in a large group or need luggage assistance, look for the “red cap” desk or an Amtrak staff member wearing a red cap before your train arrives. They can help you find seats on the train and bring your bags on board (suggested tip between $10 and $20).

5. Food

Amtrak trains have a cafe car where you can buy snacks and light meals. Additionally, overnight trains have either a dining car available to all passengers or a flexible meal service available to sleeper car passengers only. Learn more about Amtrak dining options on the different routes.

Otherwise, bringing food on the train is a good idea. A small cooler counts as a carry-on bag, and you can bring snacks, meals, take out food from nearby restaurants and even alcohol on Amtrak (note that to consume alcohol, you must be in a roomette or bedroom).

Special Diets: You can request kosher meals with 72 hours notice on overnight trains and 24 hours notice for Acela Express first class. Amtrak also provides some vegan meals on a first-come, first-serve basis (you only need to request a vegan meal if you are riding on Acela in first class). Note that peanut-free or allergen-free food cannot be guaranteed so be prepared with medication and/or your own food if you have a severe food allergy. Learn more about special meals.

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