How to Travel by Train: My Best Amtrak TipsApril 27, 2017
A lot of people ask me about train travel, and they usually have stars in their eyes, just like I did. Let’s be honest: When we’re imagining traveling on Amtrak, most of us are really imagining the Hogwarts Express, right? We want to sit in compartments and buy chocolates from the Trolley Witch and stare outside at gorgeous scenery while composing novels or songs or poems in our heads. I used to think that was just me, but I’ve had enough people ask me about it that I’m convinced it’s actually a pretty common fantasy.
I do think Amtrak has a certain kind of magic, but it’s not exactly the Potter universe variety. It’s more gritty and scrappy and sometimes uncomfortable. And while that’s not really the stuff English boarding school novels are made of, it can still be special on its own. My first train ride was quite lovely — I went to New Orleans with my friend Anna, and she packed a homemade picnic in a real picnic basket, complete with champagne (!!). We talked and drank coffee and played cards, and on the way home we each had sacks loaded down with king cakes. Perfect.
I’ve had dozens of train rides since then — one this week (also to New Orleans). Some of them were magical, and some were a little rough. What they have in common is that someone almost always asks me what I think about traveling by train, and if I have any tips.
Well, I do have thoughts, and I do have tips — a lot of them, as it turns out. If I were a genius marketer or something, I’d put these into an ebook and have you give me your email address to download them … but that’s kind of a pain for both of us. So instead, I’ve collected my thoughts in a very, very long blog. I tried to edit, but a lot of this is stuff I wish I would’ve known before I took my first train, so I finally decided to just leave it long and let you sort it out (i.e. skip to the parts you like and stop reading wherever you feel like it).
I hope these tips help you feel more comfortable about embracing Amtrak and the train (although not literally; that sounds uncomfortable).
Don’t Be in a Rush
Trains are late pretty often. They’re late getting to the station, and they’re late getting to their destinations. Planes are late a lot too, if you think about it, so I don’t think this is a huge issue, but it’s helpful to know, especially if you’re planning a short trip or a connection — if you can build in a buffer of a couple of hours, you’ll probably be less stressed out.
When you book your Amtrak ticket, you’ll have the option to get (free) text alerts if your train is late. I recommend that you do it, because that can save you hours of waiting for departure. You don’t have to get to the train station early like you do for a plane. (I think they recommend 30 minutes before departure, but I try to get there between 45 minutes to an hour early to be safe — you’ll definitely want to arrive early if you’re checking bags, but I’ve never checked anything, so I don’t know specifics.) Another great way to save time is to check your Amtrak app, which leads me to my next tip …
Download the Amtrak App
The app is free, and it’s incredibly helpful and accurate. I use this mostly to check the time of departure and arrival. Once you’re on the train, the staff will almost never predict an arrival time for you (I assume because people get really angry if the estimate turns out to be wrong, and you don’t want to be trapped in a train car with a belligerent passenger), but the app is incredibly accurate (like, down-to-the-minute accurate) and it’s updated constantly to reflect gains or losses in time. If I’m getting picked up by a friend, I usually ask them to download the app and check the arrival time to be sure they’re not waiting for me at the station if the train happens to be late. (They’ll need to know your train number to get this information — they can get this from the train schedule, but it’s also on your ticket, so it’s easy to give to them.)
You can also view your tickets using the app (train staff scans your ticket from your phone; I haven’t traveled with a paper ticket for a year or so), and you can even change your tickets from the app if your plans change.
It’s Easy to Change Your Ticket
Another pro of Amtrak over train travel? It’s generally super easy to change your ticket if your plans change. Check the fine print on this one because I think it varies a little, but usually it’s pretty simple to swap your ticket for another day or even another destination as long as you do it 24 hours in advance. (This came in really handy on my book tour, since I added cities and dates halfway through the tour and had to change my travel plans quite a bit.) I’ve even had to cancel tickets altogether, and Amtrak refunded my money pretty easily. I don’t think that’s policy, so I wouldn’t count on it — but if you absolutely have to cancel, give Amtrak a call and see if they can help you out with a refund or a credit.
No Security Check & Loose Baggage Requirements
I think Amtrak does reserve the right to put you through a security screening if necessary, but I’ve never been checked by security, and I’ve never seen anyone else screened, either (including a guy with two big martial arts-style weapons strapped to his backpack). The threat level on trains just isn’t as high as on planes, so you’re not subjected to the same level of scrutiny.
The luggage requirements are pretty lenient: You can carry on two bags PLUS a blanket, a lunch bag and a laptop bag. Beyond that, you just have to check your bags (a pretty simple process, evidently). Lots of people (including me) routinely ride with more carry on luggage than you’re supposed to be allowed without a problem; the only time I’ve been challenged was in Atlanta, where I had three bags and was told to check one — I made the argument that one was a laptop bag (it was) and they eventually let me on the train with all three bags unchecked. The lesson: Try to follow the baggage requirements to the letter of the law, but the law is pretty lenient, so that shouldn’t be too hard.
Bring Your Bike!
An exciting addition to the Crescent Line (the train that runs back and forth from New Orleans to New York) is the ability to bring your bike without boxing it — the train now has a bike rack, so you can park it in a train car without disassembling it. I haven’t done this yet, so I don’t know the particulars, but I think you need to indicate that you’re bringing a bike when you buy your ticket, and try to arrive in plenty of time to stow your bike (I think you’ll be fine if you arrive at the time they suggest for checked bags).
Food, Drink and the Café Car
One of the best things about the train is that you can bring your own food and drink — even alcohol! I definitely recommend that you do bring a train picnic. It’s fun, and it’ll be nice to have options when you get hungry during your trip. I always bring food I pack my own snacks for the trip (here’s an article I wrote for Shipt about train snacks), and I always get jealous looks from fellow passengers sadly holding their soggy microwave pizzas.
There are two places to buy food on the train — the dining car and the café car. The dining car serves full meals, and you have to make a reservation and order ahead (train staff comes around asking about reservations while you’re riding; you don’t have to order before your trip or anything). I’ve actually never eaten in the dining car, mostly because I usually miss the call for orders because I’m wearing headphones and not paying attention to announcements.
The café car, on the other hand, is open without reservation most of the trip (not early in the morning or late at night), and they serve coffee, drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and snacks. The snacks are things like pre-packaged hummus and pretzels, Doritos and the aforementioned microwave pizzas. None of it’s been very enticing to me. To visit the café car, you don’t have to buy anything, which I think is nice — but you can’t bring your own food to eat in the café car. If you’re eating your own food, you have to be in your seat. In the café car, it’s either their food or nothing. But it’s nice to have the option of sitting at a table and/or escaping your seatmate even if you’re not buying anything.
I almost always buy a coffee from the café car, and I buy a little carton of milk to mix with it. It’s basically diner coffee, so it’s nothing to write home about (although I do Instagram it because the cups are cute), but I think it’s perfectly fine with milk. If you’re dedicated to craft coffee, you’re in luck — they’ll give you free water in the café car, so as long as you pack an aeropress or something like that, you can make your own cup of excellent coffee. You’ll have to do that in your seat, though, because you can’t bring your own food into the café car, remember? I’ve definitely made coffee in my seat before — on my book tour, I packed my hand grinder, beans and my aeropress. It was a wonderful way to meet people, because basically half the train car was crowded around me checking out what I was doing. (I’m “wonderful” sarcastically; the people were nice, but it was a lot more attention than I wanted and I felt weird about it. I ended up just buying Amtrak coffee most of the time.) The café car will also give you hot water and/or ice for free, so I like to bring teabags with me and add them to hot water, and sometimes I get a cup of ice to turn my coffee/milk mix into an iced café au lait.
Expect to Talk to People
The thing about Amtrak is that it can show you both the very best and the very worst of humanity. People are free and open on the train, and you’ll most likely run into a lot of chatty strangers. If you hate this, you can limit it by wearing big headphones and by staying in your seat, but it’s kind of fun just to embrace it. You’ll hear crazy stories and meet some fascinating people this way. In areas like the café car especially, it’s common for lots of strangers to be carrying on a conversation between tables. (They serve alcohol in the café car, so … you know.)
Whether or not you’re a participant in the train conversations, I guarantee you’ll hear them, because people get loud on trains. (The trains themselves are quieter than planes, so I don’t really understand this phenomenon.) If you’re on a train to New Orleans, people get very loud (and often very drunk). I have a special talent for sitting near that guy who thinks it’s totally fine to jam out to music that’s playing out of his phone speakers without using headphones at all. If you’re taking the train to try to get work done, you’re going to want to bring headphones. Preferably noise-cancelling ones.
Dress in Layers/Bring a Blanket
I’ve heard that the heating and air conditioning on the train does not have levels — it’s either on or off. I don’t know if this is true, but it seems true, because sometimes the cars can be uncomfortably cold or warm (not always, but maybe 25% of the time). You don’t really know what you’re going to get, so dressing in layers will really boost your comfort level. I also almost always bring a simple fleece blanket — blankets don’t count against your luggage, and they’re really helpful to have to keep warm or to use as a makeshift pillow. If you forgot your blanket and you’re desperate, the café car sells a little train kit that includes a blanket and headphones.
Sleeper Cars Are Expensive
I would loooooove to get one of those little cabins (I think they call them roomlets — so cute!) where I could be alone, stretch out, dream and basically write the great American novel. (I’m pretty sure this would happen naturally if I had a roomlet.) I’d hoped to get one on my trip back from NYC to Birmingham, but they cost a bunch of money, and although I raised money from my Kickstarter, I did not raise THAT much money. So I have no reviews on the sleeper cars. If someone wants to buy me a ticket to get a review, I’m totally up for it!
Traveling Alone vs. Traveling with Others
Seats on Amtrak trains don’t have much in common with compartments on the Hogwarts Express — they’re pretty much just like airplane seats, except they’re a lot bigger. Each seat has a lot of elbow room and tons of leg room. There’s enough space to put a bag at your feet, but there’s also plenty of room in the overhead compartments to stow your bags, so you can use the space to just stretch out if you’d rather do that. Each seat also has a tray table, so you’ll have a place to put your computer or your lunch if you’d like.
The seats on trains aren’t assigned, but if you travel with another person, they’ll sit you together. They keep groups together, too. If you’re traveling alone (like I do most of the time), they’ll make you wait until last to board the train. This is a good thing, because they’ll give singles seats by themselves (with no one in the neighboring seat) if they possibly can. Often, though, the trains are too full for that, so there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be sharing, at least at some point (you might have a seat by yourself at the beginning of the trip and have to share later when more people board). If you’re seated by someone who won’t stop talking or smells strongly of cough drops or something (I’m speaking from personal experience, of course), you can always head to the café car for a break.
To Leave Your Stuff at Your Seat or Not To Leave Your Stuff at Your Seat
Whether or not you leave your stuff at your seat when you go to the café car or the bathroom (there are two bathrooms in every car) is up to your personal comfort level. Personally, I take the stuff that I’d be lost without (wallet, phone, laptop) with me wherever I go when I’m traveling alone, and I leave everything else at my seat. I’ve never had anything stolen, but security on the train is mostly just the honor system unless something serious goes down, so use good judgment. If something serious does happen and it’s your fault, they’ll eject you from the train at the next stop, so try to avoid doing anything illegal. I’ve seen people ejected for soliciting other passengers, panhandling for money to buy Bacardi, and for smoking on the train (both regular and ecigarettes are illegal onboard), so try to avoid doing those things. If you’re a smoker, you will be able to hop off the train for 10 minutes or so to smoke at designated smoking stops, but these can be as long as seven hours apart, so if that’s too long for you, wear a patch or pack some gum.
Will You Miss Your Stop?
It would be really tough to miss your stop on an Amtrak train. For one thing, they usually seat you around other people with the same destination, so it gets pretty obvious that something’s going on when everyone around you gets their stuff together. Also, it’s not in Amtrak’s best interest to be giving people long rides for free or to deal with hysterical people who’ve missed a stop, so they’re pretty diligent about keeping up with who’s supposed to be leaving. I’ve even seen train staff go around and waking people up a few minutes before their stops so they could get their stuff together and get out. So, while you should still do your best to pay attention, you’re probably not going to miss your stop.
Connections Are Tricky, and Spending the Night in the Train Station Sucks
Finding a trip that makes sense on Amtrak isn’t always so easy. Live in Birmingham and want to head to New Orleans, Atlanta, Charlotte or New York City? Great! The Crescent Line runs directly through them. But try to get to Chicago or Austin — or even Durham, North Carolina — and you start to see crazy travel times like 24 or 48 hours. That’s because you’ll have to wait for a connecting train if your destination isn’t on the train’s exact route. This is just like needing a connection in an airport, except there are way fewer trains than planes, and each train only goes through each city once a day in each direction, so layovers can be really long. (If your destination city doesn’t have an Amtrak, part of your trip could be by bus; if this bothers you, check carefully when you’re buying your ticket to be sure your entire journey is by train.)
Here’s an example: When I go see my sister in Durham, I leave Birmingham around 2 p.m. and get to Charlotte, North Carolina around midnight. It’s only another two hours by train to get to Durham — not so bad. The trouble is, the train from Charlotte to Durham doesn’t run until 7 a.m., which means I’m stuck in Charlotte overnight. This particular case works out well because a) we have an incredible friend in Charlotte who picks me up and hosts me overnight (Hi, Curt!), and b) there’s a wonderful 24-hour coffee shop in Charlotte that’s about a 2 minute Uber from the train station (Hi, Café Amelie!).
If you have a layover that’s over two hours, I’d recommend doing some online research ahead of time to see if there’s a bar/restaurant/library/café that you don’t mind dragging your luggage to. Think twice about just hanging out in the station all night (although you can do that), because Amtrak stations are really hit-or-miss: Union Station in Kansas City is gorgeous. Most of the stations in the Northeast are lovely. San Antonio’s Amtrak station is serviceable; New Orleans’ is clean and bright; Mississippi’s stations are surprisingly cute. But Birmingham’s Amtrak station is the pits. (It’s actually, literally, located in a pit.) The 20-year-old couches have all lost their springs, rodent awareness signs line the hallways, it smells like a mix of urine and incense, and the whole thing is underground, just like a dungeon. You don’t want to spend any real amount of time there. (Birmingham’s building a new station that’s supposed to be running trains sometime summer 2017, and I’m so incredibly excited about it. I’m not sure what they have planned, but the only way to go is up.)
Yes, You Can Use Your Computer on the Train
I get so much work done on the train; it’s incredible. I’ve actually booked trips just because I had a tough deadline, and a lot of The Localist was written on the Crescent Line to New Orleans and the Sunset Liner to San Antonio. I’m a huge fan of writing and reading on the train, and I know lots of other writers feel the same way. (So much that Amtrak runs a Writers in Residence program, and I’m so disappointed that they’ve never chosen me. WHY, Amtrak? I’m such a nice person! I would Instagram so may positive things!)
Each seat comes with its own outlet, and each café table has outlets, too, so charging is really never a problem. (The window seats have two outlets and the aisle seats have none; you’re supposed to share.) All the Amtrak trains I know of have wifi now (the Crescent Line JUST got it), and it works decently well, but it can be kind of patchy in spots. I don’t count on having working wifi, and I see it as a bonus if it does work well. The wifi is free, but you can’t use it to stream because of bandwidth limitations, so if you’re planning on watching movies or whatever, download them before or use your own hotspot.
Enjoy the Ride
I know that sounds trite, but the best thing about Amtrak is that it’s an interesting experience — so my best advice is to let it be. Bring a good book, good music and some favorite snacks. Stare out the window and ask yourself questions about life (silently, hopefully), or sit across from a stranger and ask questions about theirs. If you’re an Amtrak veteran and want to share more tips, I’d love it if you’d leave them in the comments. And if you have a question I didn’t get to, feel free to share it. You can find lots of pictures from my train rides on my Instagram at @crollwagen, and you can search the hashtag #carrietraintour to check out my book tour ride up the east coast.
Carrie Rollwagen is a book reviewer for Southern Living and BookPage. She’s the author of The Localist, and she traveled on Amtrak for the book’s East Coast tour. You can find Carrie on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter @crollwagen.