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Forums Other Destination advice Trip report – travelling by train in the USA with Amtrak

  • Ant M 80 posts

    Probably a niche interest as most people on here will probably choose to fly, but I thought a few might be interested. I did a trip to the US at the end of April/first half of May travelling across the US by train. Rather than cover the cities I stayed in (which have their own topics on here already), I thought I’d do a report on the Amtrak experience.

    The first thing to be aware of is that although Amtrak has a loyalty scheme, it’s only open to US and Canadian residents which is a shame.

    For booking, I found their website to be a bit flaky with it crashing during payment on several occasions, so I opted to use their app instead. That works better and has a bonus – your orders and tickets show in the app even if you didnt receive the confirmation email (which happened with one of my bookings). The App also lets you save the tickets to your apple wallet (and presumably google equivalent).

    My original plan when booking my trip was to go coast to coast across the US, but it grew a bit from there and ended up with me travelling from Houston to New Orleans, New Orleans to Washington DC, Washington DC to Philadelphia and back, Washington DC to Chicago, Chicago to Portland (Oregon), and finally Portland to Seattle, with breaks at each of the cities listed. That’s a lot of travelling – 4600 miles involving 4 nights sleeping on trains, and given that I’d never travelled with Amtrak before, and havent used a sleeper train for several decades was a slightly daunting prospect.

    For the Portland-Seattle leg and the Philadelphia legs I booked a business class seat, but for the rest I opted for a small sleeping compartment, a “Roomette” to use amtrak terminology. For the Houston leg although I didnt need a sleeping compartment to sleep in as the journey was day time (12.10 to 21.40), I thought it would be a good chance to try out a Roomette prior to my first overnight trip. A bonus is that sleeping compartment fares come with meals included, so on that first train journey lunch and dinner were included in my fare.

    Despite warnings that the trains dont have wifi and mobile coverage can be poor, I had 4G or 5G mobile coverage most of the time on the trains with just a few patches with no signal, and the scenery in those places was so good you didnt miss being able to use the phone.

    I was a bit nervous beforehand having heard dire warnings of amtrak’s lack of punctuality and that the Sunset limited (my first train of the trip) is rated as having the worst punctuality of any Amtrak route but in the end the longest delay was 10 minutes on a 24 hour trip, and the other trains were early or on time. Wondering if I’d cope with around 100 hours of train travel was also a concern, mainly would I suffer boredom and whether I’d manage to get any sleep.

    Catering:

    For catering on board, Amtrak splits things between those long distance trains West of Chicago/New Orleans, and those to the East. The Western services have “Traditional dining”, whereas the Eastern ones have “Flexible dining”. The difference is that “Traditional dining” has a restaurant car with chefs on board to cook your meal and you eat in the restaurant car (if you prefer you can ask your sleeping car attendant to fetch your food so you can dine alone in your roomette), whereas “Flexible dining” is reheated food more like we’re used to from airlines.
    Surprisingly both types of food were good although Traditional dining is clearly better. There is also a Cafe car on board selling snacks, drinks etc and a few hot items, so is mainly used by passengers travelling in Coach (ie economy) – alternatively where Traditional dining is provided, coach passengers can opt to pay for a meal in the restaurant car.

    For my first journey I opted for the burger at lunch, served with “chips” i.e. crisps for British readers. It was a fairly good burger – nothing to rave about but certainly tasted good. Dessert was the healthy sounding Butter cake. Healthy or not it was very pleasant. For dinner on that train, I opted for the starter of salad with baby brie to start, the flat iron steak for the entree and the white chocolate blueberry cobbler cheesecake. The alternative entree choices were Pan roasted chicken breast, pasta primavera, and Atlantic salmon. This meal beat virtually any airline food I’ve had by a significant margin – the steak in particular was delicious and perfectly cooked, and the cheesecake was fantastic. Dinner also includes one alcoholic drink.
    On the New Orleans-Washington DC leg, it was flexible dining, so for my breakfast I opted for the buttermilk Pancakes and sausage. Your sleeping car attendant takes your meal orders ahead of time and either delivers the meal to your room, or you can opt to go down to the cafe car to eat it. I wasnt expecting much but it was hot, looked fine and tasted good too. For lunch I opted for Chicken enchiladas which came with a side salad and a bread roll plus my choice of non-alcoholic drink. While like most microwave meals it didnt look that great, it was delicious and a lot less bland than most microwave meals seem to be. Dinner on a flexible dining service is the same menu choices as lunch, so my options were Chicken enchiladas, Beef burgundy, chicken parmesan, Asian BBQ glazed salmon, or Kofta kebabs. I opted for the Beef burgundy and like the enchiladas earlier it didnt disappoint. Breakfast the next morning was a repeat of my choice of the previous day.
    On the Washington to Chicago train I found that the meal choices were the same as on the previous leg – all the flexible dining trains have the same menu. for a bit of variety I opted for the Chicken Parmesan and as with the previous choice it was a good choice.
    On the Chicago to Portland train, it was back to the traditional dining. The breakfast option of French toast (plus a side order of pork sausage) was an excellent choice. The French toast came with syrup, whipped cream and strawberries. In the evening, the Pan roasted chicken breast was very good.
    Really the flexible dining food is pretty good, and the traditional dining is excellent – way above airline food standards if you’re used to economy or even business.

    With the traditional dining they tend to operate a turn up and be served system for Breakfast and Lunch but some routes ask you to book a dinner slot via your sleeping car attendant. If you’re travelling alone or in groups of less than four you’ll be seated with others at one of the available tables. This proved to be suprisingly enjoyable as you meet people from all sorts of places and backgrounds. There was a real mix – tourists and locals, people travelling to see family, people travelling for work, young and old, and all sorts of backgrounds from city residents to quite a few Amish on the Empire builder service.

    Sleeping accomodation:

    I booked Roomette’s for the long distance trains. During the day the Roomette has two seats facing each other with a top bunk folded up out of the way. The seats are wider than UK train seats and are comparable width to long haul Business class airline seats. They recline and are comfortable. In terms of luggage space it varies – double deck trains have virtually no space for luggage in the compartment so I put my case on the unused seat for the daytime journey I did. For the 48 hour trip I planned ahead and put my case in the luggage rack downstairs in the sleeping car and just kept a small bag in the roomette. The single deck trains have more space for luggage as there’s a space above the door which can hold a decent sized case. There’s plenty of space for one person but with two it might feel a little more cramped – but this would be far more noticeable in bed mode.
    The change from seats to beds is done by the sleeping car attendant at a time you agree. With just one person occupying the roomette, the seats are slid down and bedding is added on top to make a comfortable but slightly cramped bed. With double occupancy then the top bunk would be used too, and in that scenario you’d notice that the shelving type features by one of the seats are actually steps to climb up to the top bunk. Once the room is in bed mode the roomette is cramped – there’s barely space to stand up between the bed and the door so you stay on the bed except when taking shoes off/on. When you get up in the morning the sleeping car attendant will convert the space back to seats.
    The sleeping car attendants are with you for the entire trip – even if that’s a 48 hour train journey. They greet you when you join the train, show you where your compartment is, and explain things like meal times and ordering. As well as dealing with taking orders and delivering food (for flexible dining), converting seats to beds and vice versa, and putting an urn of coffee on in the mornings, they are responsible for opening and closing the outside doors plus lowering steps etc so if passengers are due to join or leave their sleeping car at stops during the night then they are working then – in fact they don’t get many breaks on some services and really do work hard.

    I found I slept pretty well on the trains despite the regular stops and the motion. I was glad that the sleeping cars were at the rear away from the locomotive, as every time they approach a level crossing, despite the lights and barriers blocking the road, they still have to hoot the train horn, and in some areas that’s almost constant. Thankfully the longer train journeys do travel through a lot of rural areas with less road crossings so even those nearer the locomotive get quieter times.

    So, how were the journeys?

    Taking the shortest routes first – Washington DC – Philadelphia and return. I’d booked a business class seat for both legs, outbound on the flagship Acela service and back on the northwest regional service. There’s little difference in journey time between the two, and I had a reserved seat on both. It felt like a typical UK train service really and being only 90 minutes or so it’s a short trip.

    Portland to Seattle: Only 3-4 hours long, this route does have some nice scenery as it heads between the two cities, although there’s a fair bit of built up area along the route as you approach Seattle. Seats on this journey were unreserved although if you get the coast starlight train rather than a local train it may be different. If you’re planning on visiting these two cities then the train is an easy way to get between them.

    Houston to New Orleans: It’s a roughly nine hour journey getting you into New Orleans after dark. The first part of the journey is very slow as the train crawls around tight bends as it winds its way out of the Houston area before the landscape opens up. There’s plenty of farmland on the way, with sugar and rice being a major crops.

    New Orleans to Washington: This was my first long journey, around 23 hours so I was a little apprehensive on how the time would pass but it goes quite quickly with the various meals and every changing scenery to enjoy. Part of the reason for travelling by train was to see more of the country outside of the cities and this definitely let you see a lot, whether it be different styles of houses, what sort of vehicles people drive outside the cities and of course the countryside.

    Washington to Chicago: There are two Amtrak routes – the Capitol Limited which goes via Pittsburgh and Cleveland and the Cardinal whch takes a more Southerly route via Cincinatti and Indianapolis. I took the Cardinal which is slower by a couple of hours than the Capitol limited but has the advantage of going via some beautiful countryside in West Virginia, with the railroad winding along river valleys so you’re able to look up at the hills/mountains and down at the white waters of the river below.

    Chicago to Portland: This was the big one – a 48 hour trip to the west coast. There are a couple of other notable routes from Chicago – The California Zephyr to Oakland/San Fransisco and the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles are both supposed to be a great experience. The Empire Builder heads North to Milwaukee before heading Northwest to the twin cities of St Paul & Minneapolis. From there it continues up till North Dakota before heading pretty much due West not far south of the Canadian border. You cross vast expanses of flat land but as you cross Montana the scenery changes as you see mountains in the distance getting closer and closer. The train heads along the southern edge of Glacier National park and you get some stunnning scenery to enjoy – as it’s getting late when you reach there, a trip in Summer is recommended so the daylight continues as late as possible. The observation car does get quite busy for Glacier National park but I still managed to get a seat without much of a wait.
    At some point in the night the train arrives at Spokane, Washington, and that’s where they split the train in two – half going to Seattle and half to Portland.
    In the morning the Portland train heads west along the North bank of the Columbia river with great scenery including some Waterfalls on the opposite side of the river valley, before reaching Vancouver (oregon) and heading south into Portland.

    This was a big trip for me – the first time in a decade I’ve had such a long break from work, and the choice of train travel might be one that doesnt appeal to many people as flying is so much quicker but I found it a really good way to see more of the country. Yes I could have driven but I’d have to concentrate on the roads rather than being able to relax and concentrate on enjoying the views. On this trip I got to see a wide variety of landscapes and found it a lot more relaxing than I’d expected.

    MattB 267 posts

    I’m quite interested on the cost of some of these trips?

    We’ve done a few train journeys in the US (Washington to NYC, Boston to NYC and LA to San Diego) and was pleasantly surprised with the space and comfort even in standard class.

    I find we are using car hire less and less these days as it always works out cheaper to take a few lyft/uber trips per day rather than pay for the car and the crazy parking costs in many cities.

    Man of Kent 78 posts

    Thanks very much, as someone who enjoys visiting the US this was a very interesting read. Would be interested to know what the bathroom arrangements were on the longer trips?

    Ant M 80 posts

    The longest journey, Chicago to Portland (Oregon) on the Empire builder was 48 hours and cost me around $1200. With two of you sharing a roomette then the total price wouldnt be that much more. While that might sound expensive at first, that’s 2 nights accomodation and meals on the train and when compared to US hotel prices seems a bargain.

    The Houston-New Orleans leg was 9 hours and around $260

    Those fares are for sleeping accomodation (Roomette) and include your meals. There’s also an urn of coffee in the sleeping cars.

    Seat61.com is a great site for information on rail travel including the US

    Ant M 80 posts

    Thanks very much, as someone who enjoys visiting the US this was a very interesting read. Would be interested to know what the bathroom arrangements were on the longer trips?

    Each of the sleeping cars has several toilets. I always found them clean, plenty of toilet paper etc, and never busy – I didnt have to queue once. There are also showers.
    Bedrooms are larger than roomettes (and more expensive) but have their own en-suite toilet and shower.

    There are also toilets along the train for passengers in coach (they arent able to use the ones in the sleeping cars)

    Lady London 2,139 posts

    Thank you.
    How would you calculate a tip for the sleeping car attendant?

    Ant M 80 posts

    Thank you.
    How would you calculate a tip for the sleeping car attendant?

    Good question – I’ve seen suggestions of $5-10 per night. I opted for $10 on each of the 24 hour trips and $20 on the 48 hour one. Most of the time in the US I felt tips were expected even when the staff did very little, but with the sleeping car attendants I felt that while tips arent actively sought, they were some of the few who really deserved a tip as they work hard and make a big difference to how enjoyable the trip is.

    Ladyshopper 121 posts

    Thanks for this. My son is working at a camp in New York in the summer, then travelling afterwards. His flight home is from San Francisco, so he’s considering Amtrak for some of the journey. He would be in the cheap seats though, so need to break it up a bit!

    Skywalker 745 posts

    A really great read – thanks for sharing @Ant M!

    Ant M 80 posts

    Thanks for this. My son is working at a camp in New York in the summer, then travelling afterwards. His flight home is from San Francisco, so he’s considering Amtrak for some of the journey. He would be in the cheap seats though, so need to break it up a bit!

    Quite a few people were sleeping in coach on the trains I was on. They seem to group people together so those going to a particaular destination are seated in one area so they dont disturb passengers heading further on as they get off (particaularly when those stops are at night or early hours of the morning).

    For one night it’s probably not too bad especially when you’re young as the seats are quite wide and do recline, but breaking it up is probably a good idea – I’d suggest New York-Chicago, overnight there then take the California Zephyr to San Francisco, probably breaking the journey somewhere like Denver. That’s supposed to be a very scenic route going through the rockies.

    peterH 11 posts

    Great read, thanks for posting. I’ve done New York to Washington DC, and Seattle to Vancouver, and during lockdown watched countless of the video reviews you can find on YouTube, so definitely have the Empire Builder and/or Zephyr on my to do list. Really do like the idea of combining with another route and going coast-to-coast by train.

    runnerbean 58 posts

    We did Chicago to San Francisco on California Zephyr. It was one of our best trips. Excellent scenery, great train.

    NigelHamilton 224 posts

    Excellent read – thanks for sharing!

    On a slightly related note, I also blogged about a Canadian Train Trip (business class is excellent)

    http://www.gingertravel.co.uk/blog if you want to read it (it’s long!)

    Ant M 80 posts

    Excellent read – thanks for sharing!

    On a slightly related note, I also blogged about a Canadian Train Trip (business class is excellent)

    http://www.gingertravel.co.uk/blog if you want to read it (it’s long!)

    Will definitely have a read – I was wondering about a Canadian rail trip sometime.

    The Savage Squirrel 594 posts

    Excellent read, thanks! I have no experience of Amtrak so this was fascinating.

    One thing I didn’t really grasp was the daytime arrangements. If you book a roomette (or cabin), is your roomette also your designated seat, or can you spend the daytime in the diner car (i.e. use it like a lounge)? Sitting in my own little mini-cell all day except for meal times would put me off; being somewhere social would be far more interesting…

    Ant M 80 posts

    Excellent read, thanks! I have no experience of Amtrak so this was fascinating.

    One thing I didn’t really grasp was the daytime arrangements. If you book a roomette (or cabin), is your roomette also your designated seat, or can you spend the daytime in the diner car (i.e. use it like a lounge)? Sitting in my own little mini-cell all day except for meal times would put me off; being somewhere social would be far more interesting…

    Your roomette is your own private seating but you’re free to wander around the train, and the longer services such as those going between Chicago and the west coast, have an observation car (top deck is observation car, downstairs is a cafe/onboard shop), so you can relax in the observation car with bigger windows, and there are always people in there.

    ed_fly 235 posts

    Really interesting, thanks for sharing.

    HertsSam 21 posts

    Over 30 years ago, I travelled around America on the train after working in a summer camp. I bought the equivalent of a rail pass which allowed so many rail journeys within a 30 day period. I don’t remember the number of journeys I potentially could have taken. You have to travel in coach and there were no upgrades to a more comfortable way of travelling. The same or similar rail pass is available at the time I am writing this.
    Don’t remember much except the views when crossing the Rockies.
    In my 30 days I covered a bunch of cities on the East Coast, then headed over to Chicage, Colorado Springs, LA, Seattle and then back to New York or could have been Boston for my flight home. The return flight was on Virgin and there were 2 novelties on that flight that impressed me and made me loyal to Virgin for many years; a tv in the back of the seat in front and an amenity kit. The tv was the first time I saw that on a flight and I think the amenity kit was new to me as well.
    I did meet one very interesting guy. In the early 80’s, I heard about how in India medical information and medical related storylines had been introduced into radio soaps, and this addition helped improve the health of the country.
    On the leg from LA to Seattle, I (apparently) met the father of the radio producer who had introduced this innovation. I don’t remember the detais, but I think they came up with the idea together. And passing through Oregon he pointed out where llamas were being farmed which for the early 90’s was novel to me.

    I did think about getting an air pass but you tended to land outside a city, so you had to make your way into the city. For a poor student living on this earnings from working at the camp, this seemed like a lot of money. Also you were flying standby. With the train, I think you were pretty much guaranteed a seat. With the train you ended up in the middle of the city when you arrived, so one less cost.

    masaccio 770 posts

    I’ve been starting to mull on retirement travel and specifically travel with dogs. Looks like Amtrak is pretty anti-dog in that they need to be sub-20lbs, in a carrier, and not in sleeper cars (which is odd as that seems where they would be best under control).

    Still, a great post. I hadn’t realised you could cover these distances in the times you mention as I’d always read Amtrak was slower than this.

    Erico1875 150 posts

    That was a brilliant report.
    I’m a big fan of Youtuber “Trek Trendy” who has lots of train content

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