The M-Network Guide To Vacation – Riding The Rails With Amtrak.

This post is a part of the M-Network’s group project series on vacations. Check out the other M-Network blogs for more.

Ever since I was a child I wanted to take the train across the country. I imagined it was an old steam engine, chugging along slowly as it crossed the mountains and the plains, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean…which strangely enough I look at every day now. But I digress…with rising fuel prices all but prohibiting air and automobile travel, now might be the perfect time to look into traveling by train.

Photo Gallery From Our Trip, Click To See Full Size

My wife and I took the Amtrak Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago at Christmas time to visit her family. We did not do it because of gas prices, but rather as an adventure that we both wanted to experience at least once. Except now we want to do it again, but this time from New Mexico, our future new home, to Boston, MA to visit my family for Christmas. Because we have done it before, I am better prepared for what I want/need on this trip, and how to have the best experience possible. Here are 10 tips you can use for planning a train trip in a roomette or bedroom on Amtrak in the United States:

1. Plan and buy your tickets early. Trains are just like airplanes; they have only a certain amount of desired rooms available for different routes. Sure, you could probably always get a coach seat for any route, but we paid for our own roomette to really have the experience of staying/sleeping on the train. Since there are usually only 1 or 2 sleeping cars on each train, that means there are only 10-20 rooms that are available. If you want a roomette or a bedroom, the earlier you book it the cheaper it will be and the easier it will be to get what you want.

2. Enroll in the Guest Rewards Program prior to leaving. You belong to the airlines miles programs, right? Well, why not get some ground miles as well? If you like the train as much as we do, you will be back onboard at some point, so get those miles.

One going the opposite direction.

3. Check for any discounts available to you when buying tickets. Amtrak offers a ton of discounts to members of different ages and groups. As of this writing, here are some of the discounts available at Amtrak.com:

  • AAA members save 10% off ticket prices.

  • Children ages 2-15 ride half-price every day

  • Veterans with the Veteran’s Advantage Card get 15% off

  • NARP members save 10%

  • Active duty US military personnel, their spouses and their dependents get 10% off most fares

4. Pay attention to the baggage restraints. While they are nowhere near as strict as the airlines, if you have a roomette you do want to check your bags with the car attendant – you do not want your full size suitcase in the room with you! If you get a full size bedroom, there is room for your suitcases.

The site-seeing car.

5. If you are going to eat in the dining car, make your lunch and dinner reservations as soon as possible. You want to eat when you want to eat, not when they tell you that you can eat. Reserve early and reserve often. And remember, if there are less than 4 people in your party, you will be seated with strangers – so be nice! It was actually kind of fun meeting new people at every meal.

6. Pack earplugs and motion sickness medicine. Motion sickness doesn’t get to me, but the noise on the first night did. When you are used to a quiet, non-rocking bed to sleep in, the swaying could make you sick and the groaning of the train could keep you awake. After the first night I was fine, but I was so glad we packed earplugs.

7. If you stay in a room rather than in coach, you have access to a shower. As much as it might seem weird to take a shower on the train, I highly recommend it. So bring your toiletries, they have the towels already.

8. Be nice to your car attendant. They can be your best friend or your worst enemy for days. Our car attendant on the way to Chicago was only OK – but the bathrooms were clean and coffee was brewing 24 hours a day. On the way back, our attendant was incredibly nice, but the bathrooms could have been cleaned more often. Make friends, ask questions, let them know you care…hopefully they will return the favor by making your stay more comfortable. Also, you should tip them something – we gave $20 each way.

Old train turned into a station/restaurant in AZ.

9. You will not need as much entertainment as you think you will. Trust me, you won’t. You might think you will need 4 books, board games, a DVD player, your laptop, etc – but you won’t. With kids I suppose it would be different, but we found that staring out the window at the beautiful scenery took up a lot of our time and we brought way too much stuff with us.

10. Sit back, relax, and use the train ride as part of your vacation. Many people make the train their entire vacation – they don’t even have a destination, they are just riding the rails! We as a society rarely get a chance to just sit back and watch the world go by, and I found that sitting in my room with no TV, cellphone or anything else was just what I needed to recharge.

View out the window of our bedroom.

I really do suggest that you at least look into traveling by train for your next vacation – getting there is half the fun that way! Who wants to sit in traffic to get to the airport early, stand in line to get your ticket, stand in line to get patted down, only to get to the gate and find your flight has been cancelled? Not me, that’s for sure. Give it a shot, I don’t think you will be sorry.

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Comments (22)

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  1. Jeremy says:

    What an awesome post. The train system in this country has been an underused asset for years. Some of my best travel experiences as a kid was when we took the family vacation as a kid, and some of my best travel experiences as college student was taking trains around Europe.

    As gas prices increase, the use of trains seems to be as well. Hopefully people will sit back and relax and enjoy a trip, instead of only seeing the inside of several airports before they get to the final destination.

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  3. PT says:

    Great post, David. I feel as if I’ve gone on the trip with you. Very fun article.

    Inspired me to look into a possible trip of my own…like you say, for the adventure of it all.

  4. Great post! I, too, loved riding trains in Europe and hope our system grows. Just curious. . . how long did your trip take?

  5. david says:

    40 hours each way from Los Angeles to downtown Chicago. Our trip from ABQ to Boston is going to take about 50.

  6. Mrs. Micah says:

    My most recent train ride (not counting DC metro) was from Hamburg to somewhere in Tyrol in 2003. I spent so much time looking out the window…I think a lot of people do. I had a Discman, sometimes it was nice to listen to the music and look at the scenery together. Anyway, it was a beautiful trip.

    Fortunately we had some kind of roomette. One thing about sleeping on trains…if you have the top bunk (mine was the 3rd!) you have to relax and make sure the restraints are arranged to catch you. Otherwise you panic. I barely slept on the train down but back up I was so tired from traveling during the summer’s heat wave that I slept like a baby. I just had to do a quick survey of why I wasn’t going to fall. Helped that I didn’t fall last time.

    It was a fun experience, if Micah and I go to NYC (and we’re still living here) we’ll probably take the train. Not overnight, but still fun.

  7. […] Riding The Rails With Amtrak at My Two Dollars […]

  8. Wil says:

    Funny thing. My wife and I had originally planned a cross-country train trip (with a destination of Disney World) for our honeymoon. Because of timing issues, that trip hasn’t happened yet, but my parents went on that very trip a few years ago. They still talk about how that was the best vacation they ever took. My mom is miserly, so I’m sure it was a great savings compared to their normal vacations.

  9. david says:

    Everyone I have talked to who has done it says the same thing – we had the best time last year and I am buying our tickets this week for our ABQ-Boston run this Christmas!

  10. wow, great post!

    I didn’t know they have bedrooms!

  11. Emily says:

    I’m going on vacation for 6 weeks this summer and am taking a vacation from my vacation by taking a weekend alone and taking Amtrak and ViaRail (Canada’s train system). I’m excited! Thanks for the great tips!

  12. Sarah F. says:

    Great post! I have always wanted to ride the rails, and this article really piqued my interest again. I have a friend who lives in the LA area, and am thinking about riding the train from New Orleans to there when we go to visit her.

  13. David says:

    Emily – I expect a report!

    Sarah – You definitely should, it is so worth it!

  14. MoneyEnergy says:

    I’ve been on many trains… Amtrak and VIA. Another thing that’s important is proper cell phone etiquette. Don’t use your cell phone in the viewing deck or “cafes”. I was on one trip between Minneapolis and Chicago (I think that was the trip); I wanted to sip my morning coffee and read the paper while watching the scenery. But some man had to yell out his really important phone conversation across the tiny aisle. Didn’t take the hint when I gave him a quick “can you please take your conversation in the hallway” look. I’m sure many others are on there for a relaxing vacation too, and don’t need to hear the usual cell chatter.

    Unfortunately, though, North American trains just can’t compare to what they’ve got in Europe. I’m shocked that our own engineers and planners don’t try to match their system. It makes ours look like a joke!

  15. david says:

    So very true MoneyEnergy, luckily we did not run into that too much!

  16. […] – My Two Dollars – Riding The Rails With Amtrak […]

  17. […] M-Network Guide To Vacation – Riding The Rails With Amtrak. […]

  18. […] Riding The Rails With Amtrak at My Two Dollars […]

  19. Jerry says:

    I am taking my family (wife & two teen girls) for our first train trip. We are leaving from New Orleans going all the way to LA!!!!
    It is a surprise for our girls and I hope they enjoy this experiance. My wife & I have talked about taking a trip via the train but just never commited to it, we felt this was the prime opertunity to try it out.
    I am going to blog my trip experiance if for nothing else just for us to rmember by later!

    Wish us luck!!

  20. Jerry says:

    Oops…..trying to go to fast and had to correct my typo’s….

    I am taking my family (wife & two teen girls) for our first train trip. We are leaving from New Orleans going all the way to LA!!!!
    It is a surprise for our girls and I hope they enjoy this experience. My wife & I have talked about taking a trip via the train but just never committed to it, we felt this was the prime opportunity to try it out.
    I am going to blog my trip experience if for nothing else just for us to remember by later!

    Wish us luck!!

  21. David says:

    Jerry, please let us know how it is – we loved our trip and have already booked this year’s Christmas trip from NM to Boston!

  22. Jerry says:

    Will do David and thanks for the response!!!