You’ll find many different types of people on Amtrak trains, from oil workers commuting to remote areas for work to families traveling to visit relatives to high school and college students with a lot more time than money. Of course, you’ll also likely meet travelers from both the US and abroad who are traveling the train’s entire multiday route more as an experience than as a form of transportation.
My husband, JT, and I certainly fell into the “traveling for the experience” category when we decided to book travel on the Empire Builder Train 28 from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago, Illinois during Amtrak’s buy one, get one roomette sale last fall. We both enjoyed the 45-hour train ride — but it can be a long ride if you’re not prepared or have incorrect expectations.
Regardless of why you’re traveling, here are some mistakes people make when taking a cross-country Amtrak as well as how to avoid making these mistakes yourself.
Choosing the Wrong Route
Amtrak travels to over 500 destinations in 46 states on 33 train routes, some of which reach into Canada. Not all of these routes are cross-country routes though, and some travel much farther than others.
Before booking, take a look at the route schedule in your direction of travel. Scan the stop names and check that you’re scheduled to reach any stops or scenic areas that you want to see during the day. After all, you don’t want to sleep through the most scenic part of the trip!
And, if you’re looking to book accommodation in the sleeper car, know there are two types of Amtrak long-distance trains: Viewliner and Superliner. Single-level Viewliner trains are usually on long-distance routes to/from New York City, while two-level Superliner trains are usually on other long-distance routes. Viewliner and Superliner trains offer many of the same amenities, but some passengers believe the roomette on the Viewliner is more comfortable due to a more spacious upper bunk that has its own window.
Booking the Wrong Class
If you decide to take a long-distance Amtrak train, you have an important decision that will impact your comfort during the journey: whether or not to book accommodations in the sleeper car. And, if you decide to book a sleeper car accommodation, you’ll need to decide between a roomette, bedroom, bedroom suite and family bedroom. Some of these rooms even include a toilet and/or shower, so consider your options carefully if having your own shower or toilet is important to you.
Coach seats are relatively spacious and recline substantially. But, coach passengers don’t have access to a shower and only have access to general-use toilets — so be aware of this if you opt to travel in coach. If you’re traveling in coach overnight, you’ll want to bring your own blanket, pillow, earplugs, eye mask, toiletries and body wipes.
Passengers in the sleeper car have meals included, except on Silver Star trains between New York City and Miami. So, if you’re debating whether to buy-up to the sleeping car accommodation, be sure to account for your meals being included if you do so. Plus, sleeper car passengers often don’t need reservations for the dining car — and when reservations are required, the sleeping car attendant will organize the reservations for you.
If you aren’t traveling in the sleeper car, you’ll need to pay for your own meals in the dining car or at the cafe. Although prices in the dining car may seem high to some travelers — and can certainly add up for a family on an extended trip — eating in the dining car is an experience that you’ll want to do at least once.
If you’re sitting in coach and want to eat in the dining car, be sure to inquire whether reservations are required for certain meals and make the necessary reservations as soon as possible.
Regardless of your class of service, you’ll want to heed announcements regarding dining car service. The speaker in the sleeper car wasn’t functional during most of our Empire Builder journey, so we almost missed meal service a few times — even though we arrived well within the time we’d been told the dining car would be open.
Not Bringing Snacks and Drinks
Even if you plan to eat in the dining car for every meal, you’ll want to bring a few of your favorite snacks for between meals. Although Amtrak can accommodate some diets with prior notice, you may want to bring more substantial food on board if you have restrictions on what you can eat or simply don’t want to eat in the dining car for every meal. You’re welcome to eat food that you bring on board at your seat, in your private sleeping car accommodations or on the upper level of Superliner sightseer lounges.
Experienced Amtrak riders know that you can bring alcohol for private consumption on board the train. However, Amtrak regulations say you aren’t allowed to consume your own alcohol in public areas. So, the best place to consume your alcohol is in your own sleeping car accommodation — although my brother-in-law frequently travels between Birmingham and New Orleans on the Crescent and has never had issues discretely drinking his own stash of alcohol at his coach-class seat.
Not Bringing Layers
Amtrak trains can vary in temperature, so it’s best to dress in layers. Many passengers on long-haul routes bring comfortable clothing such as a sweatshirt and athletic pants to change into on board. Not only is this more comfortable, it also means you can change back into relatively clean clothing shortly before departing from the train.