Photo: listercz

Adventure Travel Tips for Riding the Rails Across the U.S.

But traveling by train isn’t about getting someplace fast, it’s about having an adventure on your way to your destination.

First thing’s first: Train is not the most efficient way to travel in the United States. You know this. Cars are faster, planes are faster, sometimes buses are faster. But traveling by train isn’t about getting someplace fast, it’s about having an adventure on your way to your destination. Amtrak, which is the only nationwide passenger train service in the U.S., has dozens of long-distance routes that offer the best chance to see some of this country’s most iconic landscapes.

Choose train travel and you’re essentially signing up for a hotel on wheels, as the long-distance routes offer private rooms, lounge cars, dining cars with three-course meals, even dedicated observation cars that maximize the view. And Amtrak has routes that access some of the country’s signature national parks, so you can tick off bucket-list adventures on your way to your destination. Bring a book, a board game, a bottle of wine (that’s allowed!) and relax as you slide through the countryside.  

In this guide, you’ll learn: 

  • Train trip planning tips 
  • Gear and baggage considerations 
  • What to carry on the train 
  • Train etiquette and what to expect 

Train Travel Planning Tips 

Amtrak’s website has an interactive route planner that will help you lay out your trip. Use it. And download the Amtrak app, which allows you to book your trip, updates you on train status, and provides details about each train station on your route. 

Show up early to the station, but not as early as a flight (Amtrak recommends 30 minutes ahead of departure). Plan for an hour if you need help with your bags. 

Check for COVID-19 protocol updates. Currently, Amtrak is booking trains to full capacity but requiring guests to wear masks in all cars (except private rooms) and in stations. Dining cars and lounges are open now, but have been limited in the past. 

Fares

There are three standard coach fares you can purchase: Saver, Value, and Flexible, the biggest difference being that Saver fares are cheaper, but non-refundable with no exceptions, while Flexible tickets are fully refundable, even at the last minute. Value Fares are refundable with certain restrictions. Beyond coach tickets, you can choose Business Class, which gets you extra legroom, free soft drinks and a dedicated car, and Premium fares, which include complimentary food and beverages and access to ClubAcela lounges (similar to an airline member lounge) at certain stations. 

Overnight Options

Most long-distance routes also offer Sleeper accommodations. You can purchase a coach ticket on an overnight train—it’s not as bad as flying coach. The train’s coach seats are much nicer than their airline equivalent, with plenty of room to stretch out and seats that actually recline more than a few inches. With a pillow, blanket and eye mask, you could rough it overnight in a coach seat and save some money. But Sleeper Cars will give you a private space to hang out and sleep, which could elevate your train trip significantly. You have two options on most trains, a Roomette or Bedroom, both of which include all meals and non-alcoholic drinks. Roomettes are smaller and occasionally have their own toilet. Bedrooms are bigger with more room to stretch out and bathrooms with hot showers.

If you’re looking at an extended train trip, or multiple trips within the same month, look into the USA Rail Pass, which will net you up to 10 journeys within a 30-day period for $499 (coach). This is a good option if you want to take a long-distance route and hop off at various destinations along the way. 

Gear and Baggage Considerations 

There are less baggage restrictions on trains compared to planes. You can carry on two personal items, like a purse or backpack (up to 25 pounds and 14x11x7 inches) and two carry-on bags (up to 50 lbs. and 28x22x14 inches) so if you pack light, you can have all of your bags with you the entire trip. Just keep in mind you’ll be carrying and storing those bags through the station, up steps, and down narrow aisles—meaning that a backpack with considerable internal volume will be your best friend. Large duffels with backpack straps can work too, though they’re less comfortable to wear for extended periods. Rolling luggage sized to airline carry-on specs is great because it will easily fit between aisles and in cargo spaces.  

If you need more gear, you can check two bags for free (up to 50 lbs. and 75 inches long) and bring two more bags for $20 each. Some stations have train-side bag checks where you take your own bags to the baggage car and get a claim ticket from an Amtrak crew member. Amtrak has also become increasingly accommodating when it comes to equipment like bikes, surfboards, skis and snowboards, which can be checked in lieu of one of your bags. Some trains even have train-side bicycle service with dedicated space on the cars for bikes that aren’t packed in boxes. 

Photo: Louis Arevalo/TandemStock

What To Carry on the Train 

If you’re traveling overnight, think of the train as a hotel on wheels, so you’ll need to bring your standard overnight kit with a toothbrush, medications, deodorant, body wipes, hand sanitizer, etc. From there, think about how you want to spend your time: You could watch Netflix on your phone the entire trip, or you could bring a book, a deck of cards, even a board game. Binoculars are smart too for peaking landmarks in the distance. Consider bringing a camera to take pictures through the window as well. For those devices: If you’re sitting in coach, bring an extra battery pack; some seats have power outlets, but not all. And while most trains have Wi-Fi, it’s not as fast or reliable as your home Wi-Fi. Download your movies and books before you board the train. 

Don’t forget: You can bring your own snacks on the train too, even alcoholic beverages if you have a sleeping car. 

Items You Can’t Take With You

The prohibited items list is a little more lenient than what you’ll find for air travel. For instance, you can take firearms on some trains, but hoverboards, canisters of gas and nunchucks are prohibited. Some trains allow small pets. 

Train Etiquette and What To Expect 

Walk Around Freely

You don’t have to stick to your seat all the time. Most Amtrak routes have café cars, and some long-distance western routes have dining cars. There are even dedicated observation cars on some routes designed for taking in the passing scenery, while others have a “Dome Car,” with seats facing out through panoramic windows. Most routes have a “Quiet Car,” where no phone calls are allowed and portable devices must be muted. Explore the train freely. 

Access the Parks

Particularly scenic routes also offer the Trails on Rails program, where guides ride the trains telling passengers about the national parks they can visit and the landscapes they’ll see out the window. Certain routes are particularly handy for park visits with Amtrak offering packages that include rental cars and overnight stays in park gateway towns. A package on the California Zephyr will have you hitting Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, Zion and Yellowstone as you make your way from Denver to San Francisco. The Empire Builder train, between Chicago and Seattle, will drop you at the doorstep of Glacier National Park. The options for visiting parks via train are numerous, regardless of where you’re headed.  

Dine In

If you’re on a long-distance route with a dining car, make reservations for a sit-down dinner early. Expect a three-course meal. If you’re traveling solo or with a partner, you might also be seated with strangers. Roll with it. You can also order room service if you’re not feeling social. 

Layer Up

Train cars are notoriously cold, so bring a comfy sweater and a blanket. Also, don’t be surprised if some people spend the entire trip in their pajamas. Comfort is king. 

Deal with Delays

They are inevitable. Amtrak uses the same rail lines that freight trains use, and those freight trains get priority when two trains are at a crossing or tunnel. 

Break Carefully

Trains can stop often. Make sure that you only get off at dedicated rest stops. Larger stations have lounges for business class and sleeper car passengers, offering Wi-Fi, drinks and snacks and can be a great destination for stretching your legs at rest stops. 

Tip Smart

If you booked a sleeping car, you’ll have an attendant who helps you with baggage and making reservations—make sure you tip that person at your final destination (at least $5 per person per night and 20% of meals if you ordered room service).

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.