Looking for tips on how to ride Amtrak? Traveling by train in America is actually a viable option – this is what you need to know to survive it.
*Suggested listening while learning how to ride Amtrak with ease: “City of New Orleans” – Arlo Guthrie
European train stations are both architectural wonders and hubs for commuters, locals, and tourists alike. I once met a girl from Belgium whose dad commuted via train weekly to work in Luxembourg. He felt that Belgian schools were better and wanted to keep his family around Brussels. Luckily for him, it didn’t mean he had to compromise his career.
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In the good ole’ US of A, the story is different. Many times (especially in smaller cities) train stations are far from downtown and sometimes in areas that most people would otherwise avoid. You could say that in addition to this, the USA is so large that trains are inefficient and antiquated. But I want to challenge that idea!
I’m not saying that taking the train from New York to LA is the absolute best way to travel, but traveling by train in America can be done. Follow these tips and you can survive anything Amtrak throws at you.
Here’s how to ride Amtrak with ease:
Always Be Early.
Since there is no required arrival time and no extensive security line at a train station, you might think you can just waltz in whenever. While officially that may be true, you want to be early if you want your trip to go smoothly.
Early arrival means you can board before the rest of the herd (a perk for those trying to save by traveling in coach) and can get your pick of seats.
This is also helpful since Amtrak cars still only have outlets along the window-side walls. You don’t want to have to awkwardly reach across someone you don’t know to charge your phone.
Book Tickets for Amtrak in Advance.
Many people think of train travel very informally and don’t think they need to book tickets as far in advance as they would for a plane.
Some do get lucky doing this, but a solid money-saving tip is to always book as soon as you can. Amtrak ticket prices skyrocket closer to departure time. Additionally, some special deals (such as AAA discounts for Amtrak) are only good if you book a certain amount of time before your trip.
Very few Amtrak lines have checked baggage options. Additionally, the usually limit passengers’ allowed baggage.
This is for your own good, as it difficult to make it through a busy station – let alone the train itself – if you have too many things to carry. A good example of how to pack for the train would include a backpack and/or a small rolling suitcase.
Prepare for Delays on Amtrak.
Unfortunately, one of the real truths about Amtrak is that delays are common.
While they are obligated to help you out if you miss a connection because of them, it’s always good to take this into account at the outset so you can try to avoid it as much as possible. Make sure you have enough time between connections (I prefer an hour because it’s not too much, but not too little either) and pack lots of snacks!
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Bonus Tips for How to Ride Amtrak:
- If a train seems crowded, take the first open seat. If you pass one up, you could end up on the floor.
- If you have to change trains, always charge your electronics at earliest convenience, even if your battery is still pretty full. You never know when the next charging opportunity will be. You can also purchase a portable charger.
- If you have a smartphone or tablet, opt to store your ticket there. iPhones will automatically prompt you to store your ticket in iBooks. This way, you can never misplace your ticket and its one less piece of paper to worry about.
- Pack a sweater or blanket, and wear warm-ish clothes when you travel. I have worn my Patagonia fleece on Amtrak even in the brutal heat and humidity of Washington, DC in August. The AC is freezing after you’ve been sitting in it for a while.
So now you know how to ride Amtrak! Go forth and conquer (and let me know if I missed anything in the comments).
A newly-minted Mount Holyoke College Alum, Abby is never happier than when she is headed some place new.
This is likely why her dream (and current career goal) is to join the Foreign Service. After studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, she decided that the best kind of weather is a rainy day in the city. A native of northern New York State, she now lives in Washington, DC.
You can follow her on Twitter here.
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