You’re finally ready for your first Amtrak train trip. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed the first time riding Amtrak; there’s a lot to learn. How to book your reservation, what and how to pack, choosing a coach seat or overnight accommodation, dining tips and much more.
Traveling on an Amtrak train can be a bucket list experience for many people. Others simply want to try something different and see America like no other mode of transportation can offer.
Ready to be a first time Amtrak train traveler? I’ve put together this complete guide for your first Amtrak trip. Let’s get going!
15 Best Tips for Your First Time on an Amtrak Train Trip
I’ve been riding Amtrak since before it became Amtrak in 1971, beginning with a solo, cross-country trip at age 12! It’s the best and most relaxing way to travel in the U.S. You’ll see sights never visible from a car or RV. Go where no roads can go.
To help with your first Amtrak train trip, I’ve narrowed down the 16 most important things to know, regardless if you’re in a coach seat or your private cozy sleeping compartment.
These easy 16 first time Amtrak travel tips will really help you to get the most enjoyment from your trip. From finding the lowest fares, being comfortable, buying food and more these Amtrak tips will hopefully convert you into an Amtrak Addict like me.
Before You Go – Prepare for Your First Amtrak Train Trip
1. Buy Your Ticket as Soon as Possible
With a limited amount of inventory (seats and sleepers), it’s to your advantage to book your reservation as soon as possible. Amtrak allows you to book up to 11 months in advance of departure date.
Most first time Amtrak riders don’t know that Amtrak prices their seats and sleepers in a quirky way; what they call, (insider’s term) in buckets. There are three bucket tiers: lowest price, middle and highest price.
The earlier you book, the greater the chances of grabbing the lowest bucket fare. Of course, traveling over holidays or even the summer can see each bucket fare trend higher.
There are five different fare types from which to choose: Saver, Value, Flexible, Business and Premium Class. Premium Class includes the Acela high-speed train and sleeping accommodations.
2. How to Book an Amtrak Reservation
While it’s easiest to simply book your Amtrak tickets online or through the Amtrak App (more on that later), I prefer the old-fashioned way; by telephone.
Why? You get more information, can choose your actual sleeping compartment room number, understand the different coach categories, actual seat assignment location (when possible) and learn more of what’s offered on your train.
But if you’re in a hurry or don’t care, just book at Amtrak.com or on the Amtrak app and be done with it. No matter how you decide to reserve your seat or accommodation, always ask or look for any discounts.
Take advantage of the discount percentage off of your rail fare portion (not accommodations). There are student, senior, military, veteran, Rail Passenger Association discounts and more.
Speaking of apps…
3. Download the Amtrak App
For Android and iOS, the Amtrak app has a ton of useful information, aside from being able to book your trip.
Once you set up a username and password, you can fill in your profile, request special assistance, check your train status (really helpful!) and much more. There’s a ton of information on the App…you just need to dig around for it.
4. Join the Amtrak Guest Rewards Program
Like a frequent flyer program, the Amtrak Guest Rewards Program gives you points for every train trip. You’ll earn 2 points per $1 spent, a 25% point bonus for travel in Business class and 50% bonus points for Acela First Class.
Sign up for Amtrak Guest Rewards online or on the Amtrak app.
5. Understand Types of Seating and Sleeper Accommodations
Amtrak trains offer three types of seating choices: Coach, Business and First Class.
The least expensive is a coach class seat (amazingly roomy seats!), followed by Business Class and then First Class on Acela trains. A coach seat reservation (not the same as a seat assignment) is required on all trains except Capitol Corridor, Pacific Surfliner and Hiawatha.
For Business Class, a reservation is also required. What’s neat is that you can also reserve a specific seat in Business Class on several east coast trains and the Acela.
On the Amtrak Cascades in Portland, OR, you’ll receive a seat assignment when you check in at the information desk.
First Class seating, available only on Acela trains, includes at-seat meals and beverages brought to you by one of the First Class attendants. As in Business Class, you can also reserve a specific seat when you make your reservation.
And you can change your seat number, too, even after you’ve already booked, as long as it’s available.
If you want to purchase a sleeping accommodation, there are several types from which to choose. There’s the Roomette, Bedroom with ensuite bathroom, Bedroom Suite (really just two adjacent Bedrooms with a sliding door between them, a Family Bedroom and an Accessible Bedroom.
6. Pay Attention to Schedules and Timetables
If you’re booking long-distance travel online or through the app, pay attention to the scheduled arrival and departure times for connecting trains. Never book an onward train with less than two hours between the first and second (or third!) train.
Amtrak trains tend to run late, although I’ve been on plenty of trains that actually arrived a few minutes early at its final destination.
Some trains, like the Texas Eagle, allow overnight passengers to remain on the train if they’re continuing on, aboard the same train, while the train waits for another train to connect to it before it leaves the station.
7. Pack or Wear Your Most Comfortable Clothes
Whether or not you’re traveling in a coach seat or your own private accommodation, the fact is that for the most part of your trip, you’ll be sitting. Anything comfy is acceptable.
Except for walking to the café car or dining car, to the Observation car or just stretching your legs at a long station stop, anything with a tight waistband is sure to be uncomfortable.
8. Watch Your Luggage Weight and Bag Size
To avoid any issues at check-in (yes, you have to check-in if you board at a staffed train station), follow the Amtrak baggage policy. Plan ahead how much luggage to bring, how much each suitcase weighs, and your carry-on baggage.
You may check your baggage (what you won’t need during your train trip) at many Amtrak stations across the U.S. This information can be found when you make your reservation and read about Station Services, either online or on the app. Not all train stations accept checked baggage.
Unlike the airlines, Amtrak is extremely generous when it comes to luggage allowance. Each passenger is allowed to check up to two bags for free. The bags must not exceed 50 lbs. each.
Each additional bag is $20 and any bag over 50 lbs will cost you $20 each. Be sure to attach a bag tag with your name and address on the outside of each bag. If you don’t have any bag tags, they are available at all Amtrak stations.
In addition, you’re also allowed two carry-on personal bags up to 25 lbs each and 14 x 11 x 7 inches each.
You don’t have to check your luggage. Most trains have a small storage area at the entrance to each car. The same weight rules apply, though. Over 50 lbs. and you’ll pay extra. Boxes are available if you need to repack.
9. Download Videos, Music, Books Before You Leave Home
Even though some Amtrak trains offer WiFi, downloading a movie, book or music can be a tiresome wait. Streaming really isn’t efficient, either, with almost everyone onboard trying to get or already online.
Plus, there are dead zones when you’re traveling through the middle of nowhere. No cell service or WiFi.
Load up your Kindle, tablet, laptop or phone with as much as you think you’ll need. Then delete when done and free up space if needed.
Remember to be considerate of your seat mates and those around you. Bring earbuds or headphones! Noise-canceling headphones might also come in handy if you’re a light sleeper and you have a coach seat.
10. Arrive at the Station Early
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rushed to the Amtrak station within minutes of train departure. Not only did I begin my train trip as a nervous wreck, I also wasn’t able to check my luggage.
Amtrak suggests arriving at the station at least 30 minutes before the train’s scheduled departure time. If you have luggage to check, plan to arrive one hour before departure.
At some stations, like Chicago’s Union Station, the checked baggage line is the same line for those buying their tickets. This can lead to a much slower moving line and you don’t want to be late.
If your train departs at a starting point, like Chicago, New York or even Seattle, expect to depart on time to the minute. Barring any equipment or freight delays of course.
When boarding mid-route, always check the train’s arrival time (“Amtrak Train Status” on the app) to plan when you need to get there. If the train status shows the arrival into your station is two hours late, there’s no need to get there three hours early.
However, trains have been known to make up time along the way, so don’t plan your station arrival too close to what you think might be when the train gets there.
When your train is running late, it’s going to be “All Aboard” as soon as everyone is on the train. The train is not waiting for you if you’re making a mad dash through the station because you thought you’d have plenty of time.
11. Get Assistance from Amtrak’s Red Cap Service
Unknown to quite a few Amtrak travelers, there’s a wonderful free luggage assistance provided by the Red Cap service team. These are Amtrak employees who help passengers with luggage, mobility assistance, and help you get to your correct train!
While it’s a free service, tipping is greatly appreciated. I usually tip $5.00 per bag depending on its size, not including what I carry.
Red Caps not only load your luggage onto their little tram, you ride along until you reach your designated car. Red Cap service also includes your luggage hand-carried into your sleeping compartment or to your seat and your bags placed into the overhead storage area.
You can find Red Caps at either a designated Amtrak Red Cap Service stand or ask an Amtrak ticket agent. They’re very visible in their bright red shirt and cap.
12. Pack a Small Overnight Bag with Toiletries
Whether in a seat or a sleeper, it’s helpful to have a small bag to take to the bathroom with your toothbrush and toothpaste, floss, comb, little essentials. Even if you’re in a sleeper, it’s nice to have all those little bathroom items handy in one place. This is the toiletry bag I’ve used for years.
13. Bring a Travel Blanket or Sweater and a Small Pillow
Amtrak cars, both coach and sleepers, are notorious for being either too cold or too warm. There’s nothing worse than spending a long cold night in a coach seat, trying to stay warm and comfortable. If you’re in a coach seat overnight, pack a pair of slippers or have slip-on shoes for that midnight bathroom run.
If you’re traveling really light in coach, a zippered sweatshirt with a hood is helpful. You can always put it on backwards and put the hood over your face if you really want to be in the dark!
When I travel long distances in coach, I always pack a light small travel blanket or a throw. For women, a tightly woven pashmina could be helpful, too.
If you’re in a sleeper, no need to worry. Amtrak has brand new linens including a wonderfully cozy and soft new blanket. Ask your room attendant for an extra blanket if it’s really chilly.
14. Bring Some Food and Water
There’s a Café Car to purchase beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) food, from bagels and snacks to microwaved pizza and burgers.
You will be removed from the train if you bring alcohol so leave it at home or buy it onboard.
Buy all your meals and drinks on the train and it can get expensive. Some of the Café food isn’t the most healthy, either. Bring a bag with snacks and non-smelly food (leave the tuna sandwich at home, please).
Pack bottled water, too. You don’t want to use the potable water from the dispensers, unless you’re desperate.
The Café attendant cannot microwave any food that you bring from home. Some people pack small coolers. I’ve brought a $2.00 styrofoam cooler and filled a couple of bags of ice to keep yogurt and cheese cold. Then I left the cooler on the train when I reached my destination.
Need to bring medication? Amtrak has specific guidelines on how to pack medication in dry ice. Info is available on their website.
When you are in a sleeper, all of your meals are included. Considering the cost of eating in the dining car with the cost of a sleeper. it’s a definite perk and possible savings.
Even then, it’s nice to have some snacks from home. Bottled water is included with each room and extra water and coffee is available just for the asking.
There are times when trains are really delayed and the café and dining cars can run out of food. This recently happened to me aboard the Silver Star.
The train was 14 hours late and ran out of food. In Jacksonville, one of the longer station stops, the crew ordered delivery pizza for the sleeping car passengers. We were each given two slices and a beverage at 10 P.M.
15. Get Up and Walk Around
If you’re in a coach seat, you can walk through other coach cars just to stretch your legs. Westbound Superliner trains have a glass-domed Observation Car that’s available to everyone. The upper level has a few tables and seats and benches that face the windows.
There are also electric outlets so you can charge your devices as you gaze at the incredible scenery.
The lower level of the Observation Car is the Café where you can get the aforementioned snacks and beverages.
The Observation Car is a great place to watch the world go by, meet other passengers and pass the time. You’re not allowed to sleep in there, however. Be courteous and don’t be a seat hog. Let others enjoy the view, too.
16. Set an Alarm to Wake You For Your Stop
For those in a sleeper, your car attendant will knock on your door about 30 minutes prior to your destination. However, they’ve been known to forget. I always set an alarm for about 40 minutes before arrival.
Coach passengers have quiet time from 10 P.M. until 7 A.M. No station stop announcements are made during those hours. Again, your car attendant may roust you as you near your destination but don’t rely on it. Set a device to remind you of your stop.
These are the basics of what you need to know for your first Amtrak train trip. It’s really not as complicated as it seems. There’s a ton of information on Amtrak’s website, too.
RELATED: For even more Amtrak travel tips, whether you’re experienced or a newbie, check out my 29 Best Tips for an Amtrak Overnight Trip.
I’m the editor and creator of CruiseMaven.com, a solo traveler cruising the world on waves and wheels, collecting recipes along the way. I hope my articles and photos entertain, advise and inspire you to travel the world without flying. Take a breath…stop for a local meal and a glass of wine along the way.