The USA‘s national rail operator won’t get you everywhere you want to go, but it’s an excellent way to explore this vast country on a budget. Incredible landscapes will zoom by and you’ll see a slice of real Americana as you slow through quirky little towns dotted along each route, plus, there’s no better way to meet the locals.
Research your rail passes
If you’re planning a seriously long-distance trip, it may be worth looking into getting an Amtrak Railpass. These start from $459 for a maximum of eight journeys (also known as segments) taken over 15 days, right up to $899 for 45 days of travel over 18 trips. Otherwise you can buy individual tickets a few weeks in advance for all but the most popular routes. Amtrak’s interactive route planner will help you choose a route.
Buy your tickets in advance – but forget about reservations
You can easily buy tickets on Amtrak’s website which offers mobile ticketing and handily puts multiple journeys on the one ticket. You can’t usually reserve coach seats in advance. If you’re travelling in coach, Amtrak staff will allocate your seat on the platform. Seats are configured in pairs facing towards the direction of travel, with doubles always put aside for those travelling in pairs or groups. Solo riders are slotted into wherever there’s space, but don’t worry, there’ll always be a seat kept free even if you won’t know exactly which coach it’s in until you board.
Sleep on it: coach, roomettes & bedrooms
Travelling overnight presents you with a few accommodation options: you can book a roomette or bedroom, or you can rough it in coach.Roomettes are fairly compact double cabins and some even boast an interesting in-cabin toilet – only for those who are particularly well acquainted with their travel partners. Bedrooms are noticeably larger with more room to stretch out when the seats are arranged for day travel.
They have a more conventional, private enclosed toilet and some even have showers. Coach seats, despite being the cheapest option, have generous proportions, ample legroom (often superior to many airlines’ business class seats) and recline quite far back. Plenty of people do sleep in coach cars and it’s perfectly safe to do so; you’ll see whole families boarding and preparing to camp down with their own duvets and pillows.
Plan for delays
Amtrak trains often share their tracks with massive, mile-long freight trains, which get priority. This means that delays on longer routes are inevitable. To be notified of delays on the move, get the Amtrak App or sign up for email notifications, which could save you from kicking your heels at your departure station. Remember also that your two-hour journey might just be a small section of a much longer, multi-day route, so try to avoid any tight connections. continued below