Photo: Ken Wolter/Shutterstock

7 Things to Know Before Riding Amtrak Across the Country

Train Travel Insider Guides
by Tiffany Verbeck Sep 11, 2019

When our train chugged out of Union Station in Washington, DC, our month-long planning process was in motion. My then-boyfriend, now-husband Joe and I were set to ride across the United States with nothing but two backpacks and a couple of rail passes. The plan was to spend 16 days in August 2017 rolling from the East Coast to San Francisco via train.

The two of us had been dreaming about a cross-country trip for years, and we figured the train would be easier than driving. In some ways, the train was a more leisurely way to travel. Riding Amtrak allowed us to play rounds of hangman while enjoying the distant mountain view instead of navigating, and to savor a mini bottle of red wine while stretched out in the dining car rather than staring at the open road for hours.

But in other ways, riding across the country on Amtrak was more taxing than we had imagined. All of the articles I had read praised the charm of the train and the stunning landscapes we would see. But we would have appreciated some warning about the bad and the ugly.

If you are drooling over those social media posts about taking the train trip of a lifetime, make sure you read these seven tips before you hop on board.

1. Your train will arrive late.

Every single train we took arrived at least five hours late. This appears to be typical. In 2014, The Washington Post broke down the percentages of on-time arrivals, and the California Zephyr, one of the trains we took, arrives on time for only 34 percent of its trips. After our first leg, we had planned to spend 10 hours touring Chicago, but were so delayed that we only had 45 minutes to run and grab lunch from a nearby French market before dashing back to catch our next train leg.

Not all of the delays are Amtrak’s fault. Amtrak shares many of its lines with freight trains, which have priority over passenger cars. Amtrak has taken a more aggressive approach this year, tweeting when freight trains cause delays. Amtrak itself has said that the worst offending freight trains regularly cause delays of up to three hours or more.

Early one morning around 3:00 AM, we woke up somewhere outside of Omaha and noticed the train had stopped. We stayed put for several hours to let a freight car pass by; and it’s a real challenge to fall back asleep when you know you aren’t making any progress. We had been planning to rent a car halfway through the trip to visit the Tetons, but picked up a car in Denver — several days early — because we became frustrated with the lag. Be ready for Amtrak to test your patience.

2. You will feel claustrophobic.

Before we had experienced a 24-hour train ride, it was easy to tell ourselves that at least we could get up and walk around. We hadn’t expected to feel quite so cramped. Sure, the viewing car is great, and it was very cool to check out the 360-degree view of the passing horizon, but that car is often crowded, making it hard to find a seat.

And, like on an airplane, you won’t sleep well in standard seats. We had packed sleeping bags and spread them out on the floor, but even then we didn’t get much shut-eye. You’ll likely feel a little grouchy and also tired of having so many strangers around you. Some advice: Even if the train stops for just a few minutes, step out for a breath of fresh air.

3. Sleeper cars are 100 percent worth it.

For the last two segments of our trip, we decided we needed a sleeper car for our sanity’s sake. It cost a couple of hundred more dollars each time, but we got a lot for that money: a private space with a table and two chairs that fold out to two full-length beds at night; a quieter segment of the train; a less-crowded bathroom; and attendants who pay special attention to you.

After spending so many hours trying to get comfortable in an upright position, the sleeper car felt like a luxury suite. I would absolutely recommend saving up for that upgrade.

4. It’s cheaper (but a pain) to upgrade your ticket once onboard.

We had read that it was less expensive to bump up a standard ticket to a sleeper car once the train gets rolling. It makes sense — if no one is using the rooms, Amtrak might as well sell them for a lower price.

However, we hadn’t known about a few factors that made upgrading a hassle:

  1. The conductor on the train can’t adjust your ticket. Instead, you have to call the 1-800 customer service number to make changes. Not once, but twice. First you call to switch the ticket class, and then, after obtaining approval from the conductor, to make the purchase.
  2. We made these calls at 4:00 AM because the train had left at 2:00 AM instead of the scheduled 11:00 PM.
  3. Cell service was spotty because we were in the middle of the desert.
  4. The call dropped twice before we were able to give our credit card number to the customer service agent.

If we could do it over again, we would make our lives easier and spend a little more money to reserve the sleeper car before leaving. Not to mention that the sleeper cars were booked up on one of the legs. For the leg that the sleeper car was not available, we did upgrade to first class, so while we still had upright seats, we were almost alone in the car, which made it more bearable.

5. Train food is surprisingly decent.

The food in the dining car exceeded my expectations. I can’t say it was delicious, but it wasn’t bad, even though it was prepared in a microwave. If you have a first class or sleeping accommodation ticket, meals are included, and some trains offer options like salmon or steak. There’s also wine, which is helpful for those long nights.

One warning: You don’t get to pick your dining companions if there are fewer than four of you. You may end up sitting next to a woman who complains about her lack of sleep and sends her meal back twice, or you also might sit next to a lovely couple who has been traveling via train for their anniversary every year since they got married. It’s the luck of the draw.

6. The onboard staff will treat you like family.

Every employee we met on the trains treated us extremely well. Most of the staff were working 12-hour shifts on their feet but managed it with grace and laughter. The employees were the most impressive part of our Amtrak experience.

When the conductor couldn’t help us change our ticket, he made sure to check on us. The attendants who worked in the sleeper car section were thoughtful and funny. The wait staff smiled even in the face of ridiculousness. We felt welcomed and accommodated by everyone.

7. The experience is once-in-a-lifetime.

Would we do it again? Maybe, but not in the same way. If we were to take another extended US train trip, we would start in Denver and go West. Sitting at a standstill in the beige plains of Nebraska was a bit too demoralizing for us.

However, we fulfilled our mutual dream of traveling across the US. And the best part of the train is that the experience involved other people rather than being isolated in a solitary vehicle. Strangers became neighbors after sitting beside them for a full day.

And when I was able to nab a seat in the train’s viewing car, it truly was perfect to sit with my journal while the rust-colored cliffs of Nevada passed by. Plus, it was the ideal launch point for our lifelong adventure together: Joe and I got engaged while playing hangman as the train slumped into Chicago. Now that’s a story to tell the grandkids.

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