After selling our Oliver Travel Trailer, and spending a month transitioning our travels in a borrowed Le’Sharo motorhome – we purchased a month long Amtrak Rail Pass to continue our vintage bus hunt.
We thought we’d share what we learned about traveling via a rail pass and life aboard Amtrak.
About the Amtrak USA Rail Pass
If you’re contemplating more than a couple segments via Amtrak, it might be worth looking into at least a 15-day rail pass to save money and potentially open up new adventures. Individually purchased fairs on Amtrak are generally not competitive with airfare. Amtrak currently offers 3 different rail passes, and unlike in the past, they are available for purchase by anyone :
- 15 -day/8 Segments – $389 ($194.50 for kids 15 and under)
- 30-day / 12 Segments – $579 ($289.50 for kids 15 and under)
- 45-day / 18 Segments – $749 ($374.50 for kids 15 and under)
The pass is good for all Amtrak routes within the USA, and can include their buses and alternate transportation methods. The passes are for a set length of time, with a maximum number of segments. A segment is defined as anytime you get on a train and then switch to another.
So if you’re booking a cross country journey from Savannah, Georgia to Eugene, Oregon – it’ll count as 4 segments. You’ll change trains in Washington, DC, Chicago and San Francisco (or Seattle/Portland if you take the northern route). If you decide to stop along the way for a night or two, say in Denver, that would count as an additional segment.
You can purchase your pass either online at Amtrak’s website, or from a travel agent. You can not purchase the passes onboard a train, over the phone or at a station. When purchasing, you’ll need to supply Amtrak with the date and Amtrak ticket location that you’ll be physically picking up your pass at – which can be at the same time as your first day of travel.
Hint: After you purchase your pass, you’ll be issued a reservation number – keep this number handy, as it’ll become your identifier within Amtrak’s reservation & ticketing system for all of your routes.
Technically, your travel must be completed by the end of your pass expiration – and Amtrak’s reservation system will enforce this. However, the pass documentation we were issued had old rules on it, which just specified you had to be onboard your last train before the pass expired. Amtrak was extremely accommodating in honoring this when we inquired about it.
Reservations and Tickets
A Rail Pass does not entitle you to just hop on any train you want at any time – you must make a reservation and then pick up a physical ticket for each segment. Unfortunately, Amtrak does not have a way for you to book your Rail Pass routes online, so you must speak to one of their agents to make your reservations. We did encounter some long waits on hold when we needed to make reservations, but every Amtrak reservation agent we spoke with was extremely friendly, competent and helpful.
Hint: To verify accuracy of your reservations, ask to have your new itinerary e-mailed to you.
We did heavily use Amtrak’s website and Interactive Route Atlas to plan our routes. Don’t feel you have to be tied to their defaults for getting from Point A to Point B, you can totally piece together segments however you wish.
Be aware that passes only cover the lowest priced coach class ticket on each route, and many popular routes may already be sold out at this level. We highly recommend that if you have a specific route and day you want, speak to an Amtrak reservation agent to enquire about availability on the pass before purchasing and/or making firm plans.
Should a route be sold out at the lowest ticket level Amtrak will allow you still use your Rail Pass and just pay the difference between the ticket prices.
Hint: If rail pass travel isn’t available for your desired day, try alternative days.
As we were frequently making last minute changes to our routing, we found that ticket price differences were small ($20-50) – which was cheaper than extending our stay in a location while waiting for a ‘free’ day. If you have a lot flexibility in your travel, or can pre-plan your trip at least a couple weeks in advance – it is entirely possible to not need to pay extra while riding on a pass. We typically found that even making reservations a few hours in advance, we had good luck getting our desired routes with no upcharge.
Oh, and speaking of changes – Amtrak allows you to make an unlimited number of changes to your itinerary with no change fees. They recommend that you pre-book all of your segments upfront so you have guaranteed seats. But as we were following our interests in specific buses, we booked (and frequently changed) our trip as we went. We loved that flexibility, and always were able to get to where we wanted.
Before you can get on a train, you must pick up a physical ticket at an Amtrak ticket counter. You can pick up as many tickets from your itinerary as you want at one time, and you can pick them up at any staffed ticket counter (which may not necessarily be one you are traveling out of). However, once you pick up a ticket, if you want to make a change to it – you have to physically swap them at a counter again. As we were making frequent changes, we opted to only pick up our next batch of tickets for routes we knew we were for sure taking.
Hint: Not all Amtrak Stations have ticket counters!
A potential hassle to keep in mind – not all Amtrak stations have ticket counters! When we decided to route to Arizona, the closest station to our destination was Needles, CA, which doesn’t have a ticket counter. When we made our reservation, we were encouraged to go ahead and also pick up a departing ticket out of Needles. As we had no clue what would be next, we ignored this advice and took our chances. During our Arizona bus shopping via rental car, we had to route to a staffed counter in Maricopa to pick up a ticket back to Los Angeles, to give us the greatest exit flexibility if we didn’t find a bus.
The key to enjoying your Amtrak travels is to be flexible. Train travel in the USA is by no means the quickest form of transit, but it is incredibly relaxing and a great way to see parts of the country that you can’t otherwise access by other modalities.
That is.. when everything is going well.
Amtrak is a privately held company, but its single shareholder is the US Government. It’s also the only interstate passenger rail service. Created in the early 1970s as a way to save passenger rail in the US, its formation was intended to be a temporary couple year solution at best. Despite this, Amtrak has hung on by a thread for 40 years and is heavily subsidized.
Except for in the Northeast, it owns none of the rails it depends upon – they’re all privately owned freightlines that are mandated by law to give priority to Amtrak for its scheduled routes. If Amtrak is running late leaving the station it looses that priority, and now has to wait to be shuffled into heavy commercial traffic.
And being a kinda-sorta government entity, Amtrak has lots of the bureaucracy and grandfathered in labor laws from the old railroad days.
Train travel isn’t like plane, bus or boat travel where a quick re-routing or easy re-booking in a couple hours can happen when things go wrong. There is typically one physical rail leading between any two locations, and one train a day (if that). If anything goes awry, there are usually no alternatives for Amtrak to offer.
Bad weather, flooded rails, accidents, broken down trains, staffing shortages, paperwork – these can all cause serious delays and/or route cancellations.
During our time on the rails, we experienced 3 out of the 4 cross country routes being shut down due to flooding and fires. Don’t depend on Amtrak to give you much, if any, notice about these. After being in a check-in line behind someone being told their Empire Builder trip in 2 hours had been canceled, we made it our mission to keep on top of the news. We were often better informed about route closures than Amtrak employees and did our best to stay a step ahead of the game.
Hint: Book at least a couple hours of layover time between trains to account for likely delays.
Aside from the route closures that we successfully routed around, we didn’t experience any major delays that impacted our travels. We did have one route that was running 2-hrs behind schedule, which just meant we missed the most scenic part of the route before sundown.
Hint: Follow the keyword ‘Amtrak’ on Twitter and frequently Google for news about Amtrak for alerts of what is going on system wide.
That said, following Amtrak on Twitter, had us in the know about other trains that were stopped on the tracks without air conditioning for hours, severe delays and rude encounters with Amtrak employees. And there have been 2 major Amtrak accidents (one on the California Zephyr that we were recently on) since we ended our rail tour. Our hearts go out those affected by these horrible accidents.
Once you are onboard the train, it’s an incredibly relaxing experience. It’s almost freeing to realize you’re riding interstate transit without going through a long security line and no one is telling you when you can get up and walk around. You can even bring a bottle of water and your shampoo!
It’s also incredibly quiet! Now that the rails are welded together, there’s no more of that distinctive clickidity-clack sound.
Coach class is nothing like coach on an airline. You have a big seat with a folding leg extension, foot rest and tray table. And there is ample leg room, even the tallest of the tall would be hard pressed to complain. You’ll also have a 110v electrical outlet at your seat for charging laptops, cell phones and other gadgets.
The downside to coach seats is there are no arm rests between the seats – so if you’re not traveling with someone you know, you’ll have no division of personal space with your assigned seat-mate.
You are not assigned a seat until you board. They load up the cars keeping passengers getting off at similar destinations together. At most stations, this happens trainside – you just stand in line and go where they tell you. At Los Angeles at least, this happens at a special check-in counter in the station – and had we not noticed the line forming, we might have missed getting a seat assignment.
On a full route, there may be little room for accommodating seat change requests. Which can be annoying when you invariably get seated next to neighbors not to your preference.
Hint: Get up from your seat and visit the lounge car!
Sightseeing Lounge Car
The best way to deal with this? The sightseeing lounge car! Located just behind the dining car, is a full train car with open seating and lots of touring windows. There are tables for dining, computing or gaming at – and scattered seats for taking in the scenery. This is a fantastic opportunity to get up, walk around and meet other fellow train passengers. When touring through popular routes and public lands, volunteers from the National Park service come aboard to answer questions.
There’s also a snack bar in the lounge car, where you can grab a drink (including alcohol), chips, sandwich or other such food. We went to the lounge car late at night a couple times to discover spontaneous music jam sessions going on.
We found that sleeping in coach for one overnight at a time was not a big deal and very do-able as the seats recline pretty far. For multi-night routes, we found it very worthwhile to splurge and upgrade to the Sleeper Car.
It was pricey (~$600 for a tiny ‘roomette’ that barely accommodated 2 people for 2 nights) – but having a private quiet space to retreat to and work during the day, and access to showers was worth it. The rooms also included all meals in the dining room, which was a nice perk.
We splurged on our two night trip on the California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco), and then planned all other routes to not exceed one night.
Hint: It can be considerably cheaper to pick a stop over point along a route, grab a hotel room for a night or two to get a break, and then continue the route.
Dining & Food
We gave the snack bar cafe a try, and honestly weren’t impressed. All of the hot meals were just pre-packaged microwave food, which weren’t overly tasty. There were also very limited vegetarian options.
However, we did very much enjoy the Dining Car. This is a sit down service with a waiter, and the food was substantially better. Reservations are taken at your seat shortly before meal times, and the prices are pretty reasonable. The best part about the Dining Car for us was the community seating. As space is limited, you get seated with other passengers, which is a great social opportunity.
Hint: We found the lunch service to be the best balance of price and food quality.
The downside to the meals aboard Amtrak for passholders is the very limited menu that doesn’t change much from route to route. After our first couple of segments, we had the menu memorized and got bored with it.
So we often opted for bringing food aboard and dining on our own. Which is a good idea in general, as there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually be served a meal onboard. On one route, they actually canceled half of the dining because of a staffing shortage.
Hint: Bring at least some snacks to tide you over should there be a delay or meal cancelation.
As we work as we travel full-time, it was essential to us that we could get online and as we rode the rails for an extended amount of time. You’ll see that Amtrak is offering wifi, and get all excited! And then you’ll be disappointed to learn that wifi is only available on select routes (the Coast Starlight and some Northeastern high speed rail) in select cars (generally only available to non-coach class passengers). And even if you have access to those cars, the wifi might be down when you need it.
We never depend on public wifi for our meeting our needs of connectivity. So, we bring our own.
For internet, we’re currently carrying a Verizon USB dongle that we subscribe to via Millenicom (which gives us 20 GM a month of data for $59.99 per month without contract – they are constantly changing their plans around, and you have to call and ask what provider each is on, as they can’t advertise it) and we use personal hotspot via one of our iPhones on AT&T (you get 4GB of data a month for $20, and then just $10/GB after that). When you’re traveling cross country frequently, you realize that neither carrier is sufficient enough, and each has its weak and strong spots. But combining the two, you significantly up your ability to stay connected.
Since you’re in pretty much constant motion while on the train, we did encounter a lot of dropped signals as we switched towers and moved in and out of coverage zones. All and all, we guess we were able to maintain a useable signal about 70% of the time we desired one. Which is pretty darn acceptable for us!
Hint: Use our Coverage? app to help you know when you’re most likely to have cellular signal!
And this is where our iPhone/iPad app Coverage? came in incredible handy (yes, we’re pimping our own app.. even we were impressed with how useful it was!). By using the app, we were able get a good idea if the signal should be improving or getting better ahead. This allowed us to avoid a lot of frustration of trying to keep online, and realizing when was a good time to close the laptop and concentrate on enjoying the scenery.
As there is power at every seat, we knew we’d have good odds of keeping our laptops powered up. We were disappointed to learn that the roomettes in the Sleeper Cars only provide one power outlet, which would have been challenging had we not brought an extension cord.
Hint: Bring an extension cord to turn one power outlet into multiple.
Should the power go out in your car (which can happen), don’t be afraid to seek power out at other places. Some lounge cars have been converted to have lots of power outlets, and sometimes an empty seat on another car can help the situation.
All and all, we loved our time riding the rails across the USA.
We ended up traveling only 6 segments(Savannah, GA to Oregon, and then Oregon down to Los Angeles and over to Needles) over 2 weeks before finding our bus. While we could have saved a bundle by only getting a 15 day pass, we really appreciated not feeling pressured to make a decision because our pass was about to run out.
We were considering continuing our travels for pleasure after purchasing our bus, but our most desired route – the Empire Builder – kept getting canceled due to flooding. We still ended up way ahead financially compared to individually purchasing train fares, and we had a great time traveling the country by rail!
It’s so much fun to choose a route and just go.