Make the most of your next Amtrak overnight train trip.
Not everyone can afford to spend their train journey in a private sleeping compartment. While these tips are aimed at those in a sleeper, almost all of these tips will apply to overnight coach passengers as well.
I just completed a circle America Amtrak train journey that included seven overnight trains. From my experience, here’s my list of what I hope will help you on your Amtrak overnight train trip.
1. Pack a roll of tearable duct tape.
Let’s face it, unless the train is moving at a snail’s pace as it climbs up and over mountains, there are bound to be some bone-rattling moments. Old equipment plus freight line maintained tracks can cause sliding doors and various in-room mechanics to loudly clank. Using a wash-cloth or towel plus duct tape can help ensure a better night’s sleep.
2. Bring rubber flip-flops
Whether it’s for the public bathroom and shower room or your en suite bathroom shower, you’ll be glad to have them.
3. Bring fives and ones for tipping in the dining car.
Suggestion per person: $2 breakfast, $3 lunch and $5 dinner
4. Have one bag as a designated overnight bag
In here you’ll pack only what you’ll need for your overnight journey; toiletries, meds, clothes, computer/iPad etc. It will make searching for items so much simpler.
For a two-night train trip, bring at least two extra tops. Only one extra pants, really – depending upon length of trip. Leaving on an Amtrak overnight train from Montana to sunny Florida in the winter? You’ll want to put a change of summer clothes in your overnight bag.
6. Contact lens wearers
If you will need to remove or insert contact lenses, do it at a station stop. Don’t poke your eye while going 80 mph.
7. Washing/make up removal before bed
Again, plan ahead and do this at a station stop. It’s much easier than trying to get ready for bed while the train is in motion and your bed has been turned down.
8. Bring Clorox wipes
For wiping down tray table, door handles, toilet seats etc.
9. Download any videos before you leave home
Internet on a moving Amtrak train isn’t always possible. Besides, most long-haul trains don’t even have wifi. You will travel through No Service areas quite a bit. Tethering to your mobile network isn’t speedy enough to download videos. Even if it was, you’d probably exceed your hotspot roaming plan.
10. Try to plan your meal times not to conflict with longer station stops
The conductor will announce “Fresh Air Stops”. These are longer station stops so you can step off and walk a bit outside. Read your timetable carefully. Check to see if any long station stops coincide with your dining time. The dining car manager will hand out reservations for dinner. If you know when you want to detrain for air, request a non-conflicting dinner time.
11. Keep a sweater or light fleece handy
In case the A/C is blasting in the dining car. Temperatures fluctuate between train cars as well as in geographic areas. Freezing at dinner isn’t fun.
12. Understand accommodation size
Two large-size people may be uncomfortable in a small roomette with an upper and lower narrow bed. If you can book your accommodation way in advance, you might be able to snag a deluxe bedroom at a lower rate.
13. Know the dining car seating procedure
It’s community seating in the dining car. Wait at the entrance for the dining car attendant to seat you.
Be ready to sit backwards. Don’t bring your backpack or large purse…there may be very little room between you and your table mate.
14. Remember to tip your room attendant
Depending on your needs, $10 – $20 per night is thoughtful.
15. Take lots of photos
Turn off the camera/smart phone flash. I see people shooting photos through the window and have the camera flash turned on. Photos are a great way to share your cross-country photo with friends and family and spread the word. It’s the only train system we have…let’s keep ridership on Amtrak overnight train trips growing!
16. Order room service in your sleeper
Sleeping car passengers can order room service. It’s complimentary, too! Simply ask your room attendant. He or she will deliver your meal direct from the galley. When you place your order, try to include everything you want so your attendant doesn’t have to run back and forth.
17. Reservations are taken for lunch and dinner in the dining car
The good news is that sleeping car passengers get first dibs on dining times. Be sure to leave your compartment door and curtain open. The dining car manager doesn’t knock in case someone is sleeping. If you miss getting a reservation, a wait list will be announced for sign-up.
18. Social gatherings
The best we can do now is to head up to the observation car or find a booth in the other half of the café car, where you can play cards or board games.
19. Etiquette in the observation car
If you have an observation car on your train – Empire Builder, California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle – know that seats are first come, first served. Sometimes coach passengers will try to spend the day in the Observation car…but it’s not the place to bring a pillow and sleep. The conductor will ask loiterers to return to their seats. And similarly, since seats are at a premium, be sure not to overstay too long and give others a chance to experience this window to the world.
20. Yes, you can take a shower
Sleeping cars are equipped with a communal shower at the end of the car and are remarkably well maintained. Deluxe bedrooms feature an en suite combination toilet and shower stall. Towels and soap are furnished but there isn’t a hair dryer, so B.Y.O. if needed.
21. Pack an extra pair of socks
You might want to bring a pair of running socks to wear in your room. More cozy and you may not want to walk barefoot in your compartment or in your “good” socks. I bring a pair of hotel slippers (still in the cellophane). Shoes are required to be worn when walking through the cars.
22. Dietary or medical needs
You will need to bring your own cooler. Amtrak cannot heat or store personal items. Your room attendant can get ice for you to replenish as needed.
23. Mobility limitations
Amtrak has lifts for wheelchairs or if you are unable to climb the steps onto the train. Make sure Amtrak is notified that you’ll need lift assistance. Lower level accommodations include roomettes and a wheelchair accessible room with en suite facilities.
24. Staying charged
There are electric outlets in every room so you can keep your phone etc. charged.
25. Waiting in line for dining in the dining car
If you’re waiting in line to be seated in the dining room and the line is too long, do not stand in the vestibule. It’s way too dangerous. Just wait in the previous car until you can safely cross into the dining room.
26. B.Y.O.B. – Yes, you can
If you’d like a cocktail before dinner in the comfort of your room, you can bring your own booze. Just ask your room attendant for a cup with ice. Or you can buy beer, wine and spirits in the café car. You can’t bring your own alcohol into the dining car, but you can order it.
27. Ask your attendant for a second blanket
You never know how cold or drafty it might get during the night. The new blankets are thinner and each one is cleaned and sealed in plastic. Don’t open the second blanket unless you need it. Keep it clean for the next passenger. If you’re in coach, it’s wise to bring a small, warm throw blanket.
28. Take advantage of the longer train stops
What used to be called “cigarette stops” are now called “fresh air breaks.” You can get exercise walking the length of the train. For me, a train car length is about 35 steps. If an average Amtrak overnight train is 10 cars (not including the engine or baggage car) then I can walk about 1500 steps in a 10 to 15-minute stop (dodging other passengers and smokers slows you down). To make the most of your Fresh Air Break, be ready to detrain as soon as departing passengers have stepped outside.
29. BONUS TIP!
If there happens to be a long stop that coincides with meal time, call ahead and order train delivery! Yes, you can! For example, in Havre, MT, you can order a Domino’s Pizza and they’ll deliver it when your train arrives. Just quickly hop off the train and look for the delivery person.
Sit back, take a nap, read or gaze for hours at the changing scenery. You’re finally off the grid…enjoy it!
I hope that I’ve covered everything you need to know for a fabulous Amtrak overnight train trip. If you think of something I’ve missed, please let me know. I’ll share it with others.