All Aboard: A Month on Amtrak

For those who like the idea of a leisurely, cross-country train trip, Amtrak offers a taste of the romanticism of olde-tyme travel.

Just outside of the Denver, Colorado Amtrak stop, the landscape is breathtaking.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

I have friends who just love Amtrak: the seats are comfortable–far more spacious than airline seats; there’s typically a snack bar, a dining car and an observation car; WiFi is frequently available for free, as well as electrical outlets; and the trip is indeed leisurely. Kerri Westenberg, travel editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune fully enjoyed her family trip aboard Amtrak. Yet passengers should be aware of limitations Amtrak faces that can make your trip challenging. My experience aboard the train has been mixed.

Amtrak offers 15, 30, and 45-day passes, called the USA Rail Pass, which cost $429, $649 and $829 for adults, respectively.

Passengers step out for a break at an Amtrak train station stop.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

It is a tremendous travel bargain, particularly when you consider what you would pay for plane tickets for the same option of unlimited travel for a month. I chose the 30-day pass. I was enchanted by the roomy seats in coach class, and the observation car was indeed a great benefit. The idea of having abundant time to watch the country pass by outside my window, relax and think, appealed to me.

Without exception, the staff were incredibly friendly and jovial–far different than my experience with some airline staff.

The observation car offers panoramic views of your journey aboard Amtrak.
Seems no one is enjoying them in this photo, though.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

With the USA Rail Pass, you can travel much of Amtrak’s rails for no additional cost. But travelers should be aware of a few pitfalls:

1. There are limited seats available on each train for USA Rail Pass users, which is not particularly user-friendly. If the seats on your chosen train are full, you either have to wait for a train with USA Rail Pass-designated seats available (which can take days, given the limited number of trains on some routes) or you have to pay an up-charge. There is only one train per day between Chicago and Minnesota, and it was full two weeks in advance. I therefore had to rent a car for that leg of my journey.

2. USA Rail Pass seats are in coach class. This means you don’t have a bed, and will need to sleep sitting up, or if the seat beside you is unoccupied, scrunched small enough that you fit over two seats. It is less than comfortable, and less than ideal.

A broken foot rest. When you can’t choose your seat, and spend days on the train,
it’s the little things that count. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

3. Amtrak is frequently late. If you are on a timetable, this is not the travel option for you. All but one of my trains were late, and by the end of my rail experience, if the train was only two hours tardy, I considered it to be on time. One traveler dubbed her journey from Chicago to Texas as “The Nightmare Express.” Her train was 10 hours late. This is due to a number of factors, the main one being that Amtrak rents freight rails, so freight trains get the right of first refusal, while Amtrak’s passengers wait.

A passenger naps outside an Amtrak station in Buffalo, New York, awaiting the
arrival of her train. It was three hours late at this point.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

4. The shower situation is weird. There are showers below the first class rooms, but not in coach, and I was never really clear on whether coach class passengers could use them. Journeys aboard Amtrak can take days, so you will probably want to clean up at some point, even if it’s just a sponge bath. (I would encourage it!)

5. You may not be able to choose your seats. I was often not allowed to choose a seat I would have preferred, even when seats were available in the car. This is an issue if you want a window or an electrical outlet, or don’t want to be near the bathrooms, which can have a strong, unfortunate odor.

Passengers can enjoy incredible views from the train.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.

In spite of these issues, I can understand why people would choose this mode of transportation for their journey. For travelers who want to see America with the help of the USA Rail Pass, here are some helpful tips:

  • Do your research on the terms and conditions of the USA Rail Pass.
  • Book your tickets on individual routes in advance. The USA Rail Pass is not an actual ticket. Due to the limited number of seats available to these passengers, it’s important to plan ahead. 
  • Pack some snacks, particularly if you’re on a budget. Food aboard Amtrak can get expensive, and leave something to be desired. coach class passengers can make reservations in the dining car only after first class passengers are done–which can make for some odd dining times. 
Breakfast in the Amtrak dining car: grits, scrambled eggs and a biscuit.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.
  • For comfort, bring an eye mask, a blanket, a pillow and ear plugs–in addition to your other travel essentials. The cars can get cold at night, the exit and some overhead lights can be bright, and stops are announced throughout the night. These items will help you get the best night’s sleep possible in coach. If you smoke, consider bringing nicotine gum or patches–smokers were often not allowed to disembark at stations when the train was running late.
Passengers disembark for a station break.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.
  • Be aware of which rails are out. Because the train tracks through New Orleans were not mended (years after hurricane Katrina–an ongoing issue), to head west, I had to first take a train from Charleston, South Carolina to Chicago, adding two days to my journey.
  • Be patient! Enjoy Amtrak for the experience it offers. If you are in a hurry, this may not be the travel option for you.
Would I take Amtrak again? Certainly, though in smaller doses. Through the month-long rail pass, I was able to explore many places including parts of Minnesota, South Carolina, New York, Washington D.C., Colorado and California as well as Montreal, Canada–all within the course of a month. The friendliness of the staff goes a long way with me, as does the legroom. First class would likely be an entirely different experience, so if you have the budget, you may want to splurge. 
Then, get ready for that thrilling announcement: All Aboard!

What has your experience with Amtrak been like? Would you recommend it to others? 

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Charish Badzinski is an explorer, foodie and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations. 

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
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Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.blogspot.com.
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2 thoughts on “All Aboard: A Month on Amtrak

  1. Love your tips Rollerbag Goddess! My favorite Amtrak trip is from La Crosse to Chicago with a group of girl friends. We bring our own drinks and treats and play card games in the observation car all the way down to Chicago! It's a fun way to travel with friends. No one has to worry about driving and no expensive parking fees in Chicago. Keep Rollen'!

    Like

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