Amtrak Travel Tips for Coach Passengers

To help you enjoy your travel aboard Amtrak, here is my list of Amtrak travel tips and advice for coach passengers.

Amtrak coach attendant, Joseph, asks coach passengers for dinner reservation requests aboard the Palmetto.
Coach attendant, Joseph, asks passengers for dinner reservation requests aboard the Palmetto.

Amtrak tips for Coach Passengers

You need to have a reservation to travel with Amtrak.  You can do this online, by phone or through a travel agent.  For short journeys or budget-conscious travelers, coach is your best and least expensive option.

Arrive at the station about 45 minutes before the expected arrival time.  If you plan to check luggage, the cut-off time is 30 minutes before departure.  The conductor will assign your seat to you when you board.

Be Courteous to Other Coach Passengers

Etiquette is an absolute necessity when traveling in coach. Yet it’s often overlooked.  Common sense should prevail, but sometimes not everyone thinks ahead.

Earphones are required for all devices.  And it’s nice if you keep your personal space tidy. Leave the tuna fish sandwich and dill pickles at home.  If you don’t want to visit the café car, pack a picnic lunch and snacks that won’t be offensive to others.

Using the Public Bathrooms in Coach

It’s a public bathroom, so clean up after yourself. It only takes a paper towel to wipe down the splashes around the sink or wherever. Your coach attendant can’t clean up after everyone so be considerate of the next person.  Ladies, if you happen to board the train at the very first or second station on the route, the bathrooms will be very clean.  If you need to “go,” visit the restroom earlier rather than later.  I guarantee it will be a much nicer experience.

Amtrak Luggage Restrictions in Coach

One of the best things about traveling on Amtrak is that you can bring your entire wardrobe. But there are some restrictions. There’s only overhead storage for small carry-on luggage, same size as the airlines.

If you’re traveling with a lot of oversized bags, you’ll need to check them at the station. While there’s a 50 lb. limit for checked bags, it’s free!  However, not all stations offer checked baggage, so inquire when you make your reservation. Here’s a list of Amtrak stations that provide baggage handling services.

Cozy in Coach on Overnight Trains

If you’re going on an overnight coach ride, it helps if you bring a small pillow and blanket.  If you can sleep with these in place, bring an eye mask and ear plugs.  Just don’t miss your station because of ear plugs!  For most coach passengers, a good night’s sleep isn’t really possible.  It’s lights-out in the coach at 10:00 p.m.  Plan your evening accordingly.

Dining Aboard Amtrak

Amtrak dining car is ready for dinner.
Dining car is ready for the dinner crowd.

The dining car is usually in the middle of the train.  Same for the Café car.  For lunch and dinner, the dining car staff member will walk through the coach cars and offer you three dining times to choose.  Lunch is usually from 12 until 2:30 and dinner is served around 5:30pm until 8:30pm.  Breakfast is open seating.

Here’s the dining car procedure

Step into the dining car and you must wait to be seated. It’s community seating, four passengers per table.  If you’re traveling with someone, you’ll be seated side-by-side, not across from each other. Remember to tip your waiter, just as you would at a “stationary” restaurant.

Amtrak snack bar aboard Southwest Chief.
There’s plenty to choose from at the snack bar if you don’t want to eat in the dining car.

There is almost always a snack bar available. Lines forms at peak hours, so again, plan ahead.  It’s appropriate to leave a tip for the always-busy snack bar attendant. Usually $.50 – $1-2 dollars, again, depending upon the purchase cost.

Sometimes the snack bar has to close, usually when passing through a “dry” county or when the attendant takes a meal break.  Closings are always announced and advanced warning given.

Read next:  Amtrak tips and advice if you reserve a sleeper

Arrival and Departure Times

Amtrak Southwest Chief made it through an overnight ice storm without delay in Kansas.
Southwest Chief made it through an overnight ice storm without delay in Kansas.

Ground travel comes with its inherent hiccups.  Weather is one of them, especially in winter. Ice storms, blizzards, sudden downpours in the desert, even remnants of hurricanes can cause disruptions.

Then there’s the Big Guys.  Except for tracks within the Acela network and the northeast corridor, Amtrak trains are at the mercy of the freight trains. Big railroads like CSX and Burlington Northern own the tracks and have right-of-way privileges over passenger trains. I give Amtrak a 60-minute on-time window before I consider the train to be running late.

Amtrak Observation Car on the Empire Builder.
The best views along the way are from the Observation Car. This was on the Empire Builder.  Remember: don’t be a chair hog and let others enjoy the view, too.

When a long delay happens, there’s nothing you can do except sit back in your seat, watch a video on your tablet or iPad, read a book, or get up and visit the lounge or observation car.

Amtrak is prepared for traffic delays and weather-related issues. Until Amtrak can finally own its own tracks, a cool head, calm demeanor and a few snacks and beverages from home will get you through these disruptive situations.

Amtrak for Family Travel

An Amtrak train ride in coach can be a fun and interesting experience, especially for families.  Kids love it because they can stand up at their seat and stretch. Or stretch out and doze on an empty seat.  When they’re bored, depending on your route, head to the Observation Car.  And besides, what kid doesn’t love trains?

Read More:  The Complete Guide to Plan Your Amtrak Train Trip

Travel Cheap in Coach

While overnights in coach can mean a not-so-perfect night’s sleep for some, it’s still the best value for your travel dollar. With lights-out at 10PM, the coach car quiets down and it becomes peaceful and calm.  Save more money when you bring your own food and beverages.  Dinner in the dining car for coach passengers isn’t cheap.  Though meals are included for those in sleeping accommodations, coach passengers can easily pay $25 for a steak, salad and dessert dinner.

I hope these coach tips and advice are helpful.  Know what to expect when traveling in an Amtrak coach seat.  You’ll save money, see gorgeous scenery and meet interesting people from all walks of life.  Enjoy the journey!

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25 thoughts on “Amtrak Travel Tips for Coach Passengers”

  • Hi Dennis,
    Thank you for your question…very good one, too. The train from Atlanta to DC is a one-level train – one less concern. Here is what I would suggest. Each train car has one wheelchair accessible compartment. Amtrak stations have lifts to carry a wheelchair passenger from the station platform to the car level. Once up there, the wheelchair accessible room is the first one. Your car attendant can bring your meals to your room, so you don’t have to worry about trying to get to/from the dining car. This should work out very well for you and your wife. When you call Amtrak, or go through your travel agent, be sure to inform the Amtrak reservation person that you will need wheelchair assistance at both stations. You may need to be flexible with your travel dates to be sure and get the wheelchair accessible room. Thank you again for reading my article and taking the time to write. Have a wonderful train ride! Sherry

  • Suppose two people deaf in their 70s took around trip from Atlanta Ga to Washington DC. Rent a room for two not coach. Wife has bad leg and can’t walk and tries to avoid stairways. Is a wheel chair possible with train moving? We want to ride train instead of me driving all the way. What are your suggests ?

  • Hi Dana,

    I would think that yes, you can get ice for your drinks as needed. I can’t promise, but I think you will be able to get ice. Have a nice train ride. Thank you for your question.

  • I am traveling from Sanford, Fl to Lorton, Va. If we’re sitting in coach and bringing our own snacks and beverages, will they give us ice for the beverages?

  • Hi Linda,
    Congrats on your decision to travel on the California Zephyr for the entire route. The train trip actually ends in Emeryville, CA, across the bay from San Francisco. But transportation is provided or you can spend a couple of days in Emeryville and go into San Francisco as you’d like.

    The route scheduled is already planned so that you’ll see the most beautiful scenery during daylight hours (especially before the fall time change). For someone tall like your brother, a deluxe bedroom would provide a much better opportunity to “stretch out” than a coach seat. You’ll also have a private bathroom and shower for the two-day trip. In my opinion, two people in a roomette (the smaller sleeping accommodation) for two days, especially with someone as tall as your brother, would be a little cramped.

    If budget prohibits traveling in a deluxe sleeper, then ask the reservation agent or your travel agent to book lower-level coach seats. It’s much less crowded and you’ll have more leg room.

    Have a wonderful train ride!


  • My brother and I would like to fulfill a “bucket list wish” and travel from Chicago to San Francisco, hopefully in September. How do you plan this ttrip so we are awake during the best views? Since he is 6’5″, he thought taking coach might be better for leg room (sleeper might be too cramped for him), any suggestions? I enjoyed your article and now Im anxious to take this trip.

  • Hi Kathy,

    Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry you had such an awful experience. Let’s hope that Amtrak gets the necessary funding to purchase new equipment.


  • I just came back from a trip recently on the Amtrak.. I went from Cincinnati to Chicago from Chicago to Cincinnati because my train was cancelled going to Colorado and the trip back couldn’t be guaranteed that I would be able to reach my destination home on the time that I needed to be. The restrooms on the train to Chicago were very disgusting when you walked through the car you just smelled urine permiating throughout. The staff in Chicago or extremely rude not helpful at all and yelled at me and also disregarded the fact that my sugar was dropping and I had to leave to get food and George told me do you want to see the manager or do you want to eat …totally disregarding my hypoglycemia. This of course was after waiting 5 hours to see the manager. I wouldn’t write another Amtrak train if they were free. Amtrak travel should be a thing of the past. The trains are severely outdated dirty and unkempt. Customer service in the Chicago Union station need to be replaced . I witnessed total disregard and the uttermost disrespect towards the elderly and handicapped. Thanks but no thanks.

  • Hi Julie,
    Thank you for your suggestion. I didn’t know there was such a thing. Great to know.

  • Silicon earplugs work MUCH better than the foam ones. I buy them from my local Kroger before a trip. About $2 for 4 plugs.

  • Hi Joy,
    If someone is being a chair hog in the observation car (and it does happen quite often), my advice would be to tell your room attendant that you’d like to speak with the conductor. He or she is the only person who can remedy the situation. I’ve been on trains where the conductor has announced over the PA system that no sleeping is allowed and to please leave the observation car if you’ve been there for a few hours so others can enjoy the experience. Bottom line, ask the conductor and don’t get involved in asking someone to move…that’s my suggestion. I hope it all works out for you on your next train trip.

  • If you’ve checked the Observation Car several times and someone seems to be “camped out” there, can you ask them when they plan to leave so others can get a chance to see the views. Or, is that too aggressive?

  • Hi Kathleen,
    That’s a fabulous idea to head over to the Observation Car during a station stop. I will definitely try it soon. Your early morning suggestion is also a good one. Thank you for sharing!

  • I’ve had luck going to the Observation car as soon as I get my stuff settled on board or real early in the morning. You may also want to try during a Station stop when a lot of people get off to smoke.

  • Hi Emily,
    Thank you for sharing your experience. Unfortunately, there are some changes happening with the new Amtrak president (from the airline industry) that is upsetting to many dedicated Amtrak passengers. Glad to know you’re sticking with the train despite the miserable time you mentioned.

  • I just took a trip on the LakeShore Limited from Chicago to Buffalo, which departs at 9:30 p.m. The lights were so bright in our car all night long!
    We departed right on time, with the announcements beginning a few minutes in to the trip. One of the announcements stated that soon the lights would be dimmed. I waited…and waited….and waited, but it just stayed bright in the car. Finally, at 10:50, I got up (carrying my very sleepy child) to look for someone who could help. I found two conductors in the cafe car (I think they were conductors, they had on white Amtrak shirts instead of blue Amtrak shirts I usually see). I asked if the lights in my car could be turned down, and they informed me that they had been turned down already, at 10:00. I explained that the car closest to the cafe car was dark, but the one I was in was still bright. One of the conductors then got up and to check things out, mentioning to the other conductor that some of the cars had recently been upgraded to LEDs. Yep, that’s what happened in our car. They were the bright LEDs. I overheard another passenger ask our attendant if he could turn down the lights 30 minutes later.
    My five-year-old finally fell asleep, but I could not. It was bright enough to read a book without the aid of the personal reading light above. After a few hours, the idea came to me to attach our blanket to the overhead luggage rack and pinning the other sides to the aisle chairs in front of and behind us. This worked amazingly well to block out the light and I was able to get some sleep after all.
    I have taken many trips on Amtrak, all of them on coach prior to becoming a mother and all but this one in roomettes since traveling alone with my young son. We were returning from Flagstaff, AZ, having a roomette on the Southwest Chief.
    I do not ever plan to switch away from train travel! But this change is detrimental and even dangerous. Thanks for giving me the chance to explain. I’m copying this and sending it to Amtrak!

  • Hi Renate,
    No…all you can do is to keep calling or looking online. Accommodations sell out way in advance for sure. I’ve been told that cancelled reservations go back into inventory overnight (EST) so you may have a chance if you call Amtrak very early in the morning. Good luck!

  • Was unable to book sleeping accomadations as all booked. Amtrack dies not have a waitlist. Any advice on getting a cancellation besides just calling everyday?

  • Hi Carolyn,

    I totally. On my last long-haul ride, the conductor had to announce over the PA system that sleeping in the observation was not permitted. Thanks for your comment!


  • hmmm I am investigating train travel and wondered about getting seats in the observatory. Perhaps they need to install timers on the back of the seats, maybe even coin operated. Then you could say “excuse me but your time seems to be up, scram!” ?

  • Hi Cecilia, I’m glad all went well. I totally understand your frustration about the observation car. Unfortunately, there always will be inconsiderate people who homestead instead of sharing. It’s a lot like lounge chairs on a cruise. At least you enjoyed your trip. By the way, did you take the train home and if so I hope you were able to get seats in the observation car. Thanks for your comment.


  • We had a sleeping car for 4. We took our granddaughters from Texarkana to San Marcus. Everything was fine except we could never get even 2 seats in the observation car. The older women stay put during our entire 12 hr trip!!! How can we ever get a seat in observation?

  • Hi Lydia and Jim, I totally agree! It’s a wonderful way to travel cross-country. Thanks for reading and commenting.


  • There’s nothing like taking the train…we’ve taken the Empire Builder from Chicago to Washington State many times…always a relaxing and fun way to view the country we pass through. Meeting the other passengers is the best part…we’ve met some mighty interesting folks this way. You won’t be able to do that on an airline trip!

    And the coach car does quiet down nicely, often before 10 p.m. You make yourself comfortable and the train kind of rocks you to sleep. Don’t get caught up being so curious about what’s outside the window!

    The food is actually not so bad and the snack bar has good snacks…maybe not the massive selection, but hey, there’s bound to be something there to drink and eat happily.

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