Travel Tips & Prep, USA

USA Train Travel: How to Survive and Even Thrive

June 8, 2015

Amtrak train
USA train travel is massively underrated. You may have heard that America’s train system isn’t the most comprehensive in comparison to that of Europe’s. I would be lying if I said this wasn’t true, but travellers should be giving it more credit.

The USA train system is run by Amtrak and can pretty much get you to any major city across the country. The train routes are quite specific so it’s worth planning your trip before you go. Check out The Man in Seat 61‘s guide to USA train travel it’s really helpful and gives you all the relevant route maps, booking info and advice you’ll need.

We bought the 45 day (18 segment) rail pass online at Amtrak and picked it up on our first journey. The trains themselves are huge double-deckers! Pretty cool huh? Sleeper cars are available to book but there’s so much leg room in the standard seats that we never needed to get one, just slept in our seats.

Riding the Amtrak

On our trip to the USA we managed to travel the whole of the country by train with the occasional bus thrown in, which was included in our rail pass. It is so doable and the number one seller is it’s cheap! Our trip involved 10 train journeys across the USA and cost around £590 ($899) each.

Sounds like a lot at first, however that worked out at £59 ($90) a journey! Much cheaper on average than flying between all the cities or renting a car. If you’re interested in seeing our route check out Tips For The First Time Traveller.

By the time we reached the end of our summer adventure we were absolute train travel pros! We would have definitely appreciated knowing lots of things we’d learnt along the way before so we hope these tips help you thrive rather than just survive!

Amtrak train

1. Time

One thing that’s worth noting before embarking on your great train trip across the USA is time. Train travel isn’t the quickest way to get across so it’s worth considering your priorities before you book. We were aware that most of the journeys were quite long but weren’t as aware of the delays that can happen as well. Our longest journey was from San Diego to San Antonio and was supposed to be 30 hours but turned in to a lengthy 37 hours.

2. Food

You’ll realise after a few journeys it’s best to stock up and take loads of food. All of the long distance trains have cafe cars where you can purchase snacks and drinks and also restaurant cars where you can sit down for a full table service meal. We tried both multiple times but realised pretty quickly that every single Amtrak train serves exactly the same limited selection of foods on every journey. After your first couple of journeys you’re going to get bored.

If you do try out the train food avoid the tempting turkey sandwich. It’s wasn’t tempting and probably wasn’t turkey either and was very very soggy from being frozen. Mmm delicious! Save yourself the suffering and stock up at the supermarket before.


Exhibit A: The not so tempting turkey!

3. Grab seats in the Observation Car

The best way to see the sights on the USA rail network is from the observation car. These cars have huge windows, a sunroof and outward-facing seats so you can sit back and take it all in, day or night. They’re usually filled with other travellers and it’s generally very sociable so it’s a great place to meet new people and swap travel advice. We met the saxophonist for one of David Bowie’s albums!

We’d recommend picking up the journey guides from the station or download the pdfs to find out some great facts, figures and history about the places you pass along the way.

View from the train of Utah desert. View of Rocky Mountains and Fraser River from the train Observation car on the Amtrak Observation car on the Amtrak

4. Take a backpack

Taking a backpack means you can probably keep it with you. Those who take big suitcases have to leave their luggage on the lower level whilst those with carry on bags can store their luggage in the overhead compartments. It makes your life easier having all your stuff with you and means it’s safer than being left unattended.

5. Flexible

It’s really easy to move journeys around once booked. We left New Orleans a day earlier than planned and it was really straightforward to move the train journey. All you have to do is phone up station you’ll be travelling from and arrange it with the staff there.

Would you use train travel for your USA trip? Let us know your plans, stories and train travel tips in the comments below!

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  • Reply Emily Ray August 18, 2015 at 00:26

    This has got me so excited for my train trip later this year. I’ll be going up from LA to San Francisco, and I can’t wait – hope I’m able to bag a seat in the observation car! (Also, I’m VERY jealous you met one of Bowie’s saxophonists! How cool!)
    Emily Ray recently posted…How to Plan Your Bank Holiday Staycation (+ My Perfect Weekend!)

    • Reply Lucy August 18, 2015 at 20:51

      You’ll love it! I’m so glad I went by train, best decision I made. Do you know what train route you’re travelling on? I think we went on the Coast Starlight and the views of the coast were really beautiful so make sure you’ve got your camera ready 🙂

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