The Ultimate Guide To Cross-Country Train Travel

The Readers Have Asked, And So It Shall Be.

At your request in the comments of last week’s What I Learned From A 7,000 Mile Train Journey (wow, what a response!), I’ve written today’s Part 2 of the “Train Adventure” Series, The Ultimate Guide To Cross-Country Train Travel. This post is for those of you who are interested in taking your own train journey or those who are simply curious about the details.  As a bonus, I’ve added Insider Tips in each section based on our personal experience.

The Ultimate Guide To Cross-Country Train Travel, with Insider Tips, pricing details and things we'd have done differently. Click To Tweet

The Ultimate Guide To Cross-Country Train Travel

The first thing to decide when thinking about a train trip is where you’d like to go, and whether you’ll be overnight on the train.  By definition, you can only go where the rail lines go.  If you’re in the USA, your only choice for cross-country train travel is Amtrak (short for American Track), so this post will focus on the Amtrak system (apologies to my international readers, but I’m writing this from personal experience which was based in the USA):

As you think about various destinations, it’s helpful to click on the Amtrak Route Summary, which provides a detailed summary of each route and which train stations they’ll stop.

What’s With The Names?

I’m not sure of the history, but I love the way Amtrak has named their various train lines, and complimented each route with art deco artwork branding.  It can be a bit confusing at first, but think of each named route as an inter-state from which you can exit anywhere along the way.  For example, when we started our trip in Atlanta, we took the Crescent route from Atlanta to Washington, DC (The Crescent runs from New Orleans To New York).  In Washington, we made a connection to the Capital Limited which runs from Washington to Chicago.

** Insider Tip:  To enhance your journey, take time to enjoy some of the beautiful train stations along your route.  Most were built near the turn of the century, and have wonderful photography on their walls showing the station’s history.  Many cities have recognized the value of these magnificent structures, and are investing millions of dollars to restore them to their former glory.  Get off at any station with a depot, and take a quick walk inside to witness the unique architecture and local history.


“Roomette” Sleeper, in daytime configuration (www.Amtrak.com)

Should I Book A Sleeping Car? What Are They Like?

If you’re going to be overnight for more than 1 night, I’d strongly encourage you to book a sleeper car.  There are two basic types of sleeper cars on Amtrak (take a virtual tour here), and we tried a few nights in each:

  • Roomette: Pictured above and below.  Two facing seats, folding table between.  Seats fold flat to make the bottom bed, upper bunk folds down from the wall at night.  These rooms are SMALL, but sufficient for two passengers to sleep and have a private seating area throughout their trip.
Roomette: Night configuration
  • Bedroom:  The higher level of sleeper is the Bedroom configuration, which includes a private bath and toilet (public facilities exist for Roomettes down the hall in the same sleeper car, but aren’t private).  Bedrooms cost more, obviously, depending on the route.  It’s really a question of how much a private bath is worth to you.  The seating and sleeping comfort are comparable between the two options.

In addition, Amtrak offers a Bedroom Suite, which is simply two bedrooms with the connecting door opened.  This may be something to consider if you’re traveling with children.  The routes which use the “Superliner” cars also offer a Family Bedroom, which consists of one room with 2 adult berths and 2 smaller children berths.

** Insider Tip:  If you’re going to be on the train overnight, I’d encourage you to seriously consider a sleeper car.  The coach seating is comparable to an airline economy seat (with a bit more room below the rows) and does not “lay flat”.  For one night, the coach may be acceptable, but if you really want the full experience of a long distance train adventure with good sleep, you should consider “paying up” for the sleeper car.  The Roomette is a viable option to get some sleep without incurring the additional expense of the “Bedroom” upgrade with a private bath.  Finally, consider leaving excess carry-on baggage in the rack provided in the lower section of the sleeper car, it frees up valuable space in your room.


Are Meals Included?  What About Tipping?

If you book a sleeper car, 3 meals per day are provided.  The dining car staff will come through the train a few hours before each meal to take reservations.  Make a reservation, and keep your appointed time.  The meals were unrushed, and the food quality was very good.  Service is comparable to a restaurant, with a full-service menu and tableside service.  Non-alcoholic drinks are included, alcoholic drinks are available for a surcharge.

For tipping, we tipped 20% calculated off the menu pricing even though the meals were “Free”.

Each sleeper car has a full-time attendant who turns down your bed at night, sets up your car in the morning, makes coffee (each sleeper car has a central coffee station), and answers any questions you may have.  We’re not sure what’s customary for attendant tips, so we went with $10/day/person (I hope that’s fair and reasonable.  It seems I paid a bit more than this blogger, who only tipped $5/day/person).

Louie, our best attendant. He got 2X our normal tip.

** Insider Tip:  Regardless of how you’re traveling, pack some snacks.  As a coach passenger, you can eat in the dining car (you’ll pay menu prices).  Everyone also has the option of buying meals or snacks in the “cafe”, which we found adequate but far inferior to the dining car.  We bought some snacks in the cafe along the way, but if we had to do it again we’d pack a few in our carry-on bags for convenience, and to insure we had our favorite snacks available.

Finally, if you’re having a meal in the dining car, don’t miss the Creme Brulee dessert.  It’s to die for (we ate it with almost every lunch and dinner).  It was more of a pudding than what you normally think of for Creme Brulee, but was absolutely fantastic.


Are Flexible “Rail Pass” Tickets Available?

Amtrak does off “Rail Pass” tickets (click here) which offer on/off flexibility as follows:

The Rail Pass covers coach travel only, although upgrades to Busines Class (larger, leather seats) or sleeper cars for an additional surcharge.  While This Guide To Cross-Country Train Travel is based primarily on our experience, I wanted to include the option of purchasing a Rail Pass, since it was specifically requested by a reader.


Can I Make Stops In Cities Along The Way?

We booked “traditional” tickets and scheduled two stops.  In Seattle, we stayed for a week to visit our daughter (the primary objective for our trip).  On the return leg via the Southern Route, we scheduled a stop in New Orleans for a day.  We arrived late in the evening from L.A. and headed to our hotel in the French Quarter.  We stayed the entire next day, a second night in the hotel, and caught an early morning train out to Atlanta.

In addition, we had several “long” layovers in Washington DC and Chicago.  In Washington, our “long” layover got squeezed by a late arrival, so we chose to stay in the lounge area.  In Chicago, we took an Uber down

** Insider Tip:  If your travel allows, plan a few stops along the way.  Our priority was to spend as much time in Seattle visiting our daughter and her husband as possible, so we intentionally minimized our stops along the way.  Were we to do it again, we’d plan a day or two at several more stops (Glacier National Park should be a “must stop”, as the wonderful National Park lodge is only a short walk from the train depot.  This makes sense, given that the rail companies built the original National Park lodges to encourage tourist to ride the trains.)

Glacier National Park, Montana.

Are The Trains On Time?

Unfortunately, that wasn’t our experience.  Of the 6 routes we rode, only 1 arrived on time.  We were told by fellow passengers that freight trains get priority on most lines (which sounds counter-interactive, until you realize that the rail lines are owned by freight companies), and Amtrak schedules are an educated guess at best.

It was a common occurrence throughout our trip to stop from time to time to “wait” for a passing freight train.  Fortunately, it seems that Amtrak plans several hours between most connecting trains, and we didn’t miss any connections due to delays.

You’ve been warned.  Plan accordingly.

** Insider Tip:  Download the Amtrak app for your phone, and use the Track Your Train feature to track your train while you’re underway.  We also found a great online link (https://asm.transitdocs.com/map) which lets you zoom in on your train and see how fast you’re going, as well as your train status:

The Coast Starlight is running 13 min late this morning, and going a slow 9.6 mph.

What’s It Like While You’re Underway?

Riding on a train for a long distance is a wonderful experience, but it takes some getting used to.  The motion is not as smooth as an airplane, and walking through the train takes some practice (my wife can FLY down those hallways!).  The side-to-side motion is unpredictable based on track condition, so keep your hands free if possible and grab on to walls and seatbacks as you make your way through the train.

The top sleeper bunk has a “cargo net” type safety harness which hooks from the edge of the bed to the ceiling to keep you in bed as you sleep.  Use it.  I don’t think you’d get shaken out of bed, but it’s reassuring to know that it’s there “just in case”.  Our attendant warned us on the first night that it would be rougher than we’d expect in the bed, which was helpful.  The first night took some adjustment, but by the second night, we found sleeping with the motion addictive.

 

** Insider Tip:  If you want some unique photographs (like the one at the top of this post), walk to the very back of the train during your journey.  There’s a window at the rear of the train which allows you to get some artistic shots, complete with rail tracks rolling toward the horizon. Tunnels also provide some unique photo opportunities:

The View From The Back Of The Train

Is There WiFi On Board?

A reader specifically asked this question, and it’s a good one.  I was surprised by the lack of WiFi on most trains.  Amtrak claims that most of the Eastern routes have WiFi, but we struggled to ever get it to work on our phones or computers.  We relied exclusively on our cell signals throughout the trip and were surprised to have a signal for the majority of the journey. There were extended sections, however, where no cell signal was available.

** Insider Tip:  Plan on using your phone as a “Hot Spot” if you absolutely must hook your laptop to the internet.  You should also consider downloading some movies before you leave home (we did, but never got around to watching them).  Ideally, you should prepare yourself to enjoy the train as one of the few remaining places in society where you can truly disconnect.  Take advantage of it, and plan on engaging in real conversation as a break from your addiction to the phone.  In hindsight, being disconnected was one of the true pleasures of train travel.


Is It Easy To Book Your Trip?

If Amtrak reads this, here’s some friendly “user advice” – improve your website’s user-friendliness.  We found the site very difficult to use for multi-leg trips and ended up giving up.  That said, their Customer Service folks were good to work with, and provided us with all of the suggested routing and sleeper car options in a clear and helpful manner.  We were able to book our entire trip with one phone call.

** Insider Tip:  Join the Amtrak Guest Rewards Program BEFORE you book your trip.  We didn’t, and had to scramble after the fact to get credit for our trip.  Also, bypass the online system, and call the Amtrak Customer Service folks @ 1-800-USA-RAIL to talk through the options for any trip you’re considering.


How Much Did Our 7,000 Mile Trip Cost?

Ok, the BIG question!!  Let me start by saying train travel is NOT inexpensive.  If you’re looking at the train as a viable option to flying, you’ll be disappointed.  It takes longer and will be more expensive (excluding, perhaps, coach seating), and you’re likely to be delayed en route. The reason for taking a train trip is not for efficient transport.  Rather, it’s the enjoy the experience of slow travel across a beautiful and diverse country. In our case, the cost/benefit analysis justified the trip.

For us, the value was in the experience.  Cross-country via train. Wow, what an experience.  A true “trip of a lifetime”, and worth every penny.  Given that it was a Bucket List item for us, we were willing to pay the price.  In our case, that price was $4,542.

Gulp.

Granted, we went with sleeper cars the entire route (excluding our last “day leg” from New Orleans, where we traveled coach), and splurged for the full Bedroom experience (ah, private bath) on the entire Empire Line from Chicago to Seattle.  We went large, and we loved it.

As a personal finance blogger, I hesitate when I see that number.  However, I have absolutely no regrets, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend train travel to folks who are considering the experience and have the means to afford it.  It’s Time To Live Like No One Else, after all, and we had room in our budget for the trip (we bought the tickets prior to my retirement, and paid for the expense via free cash flow).   Further, when you consider that the cost includes 8 nights of accommodations, and 48 meals (8 Days X 3 Meals Per Day X 2 People), it’s not as outrageous as it may initially seem.

** Insider Tip:  Check the Amtrak Discounts page before booking for current discounts, and consider coach for any portion of your trip which doesn’t include an overnight stay.


Any Other Tips For Us?

As a matter of fact, my wife has one to add.  She chimed in as I was writing this post to remind folks to “bring something warm”.  We were surprised how cool Amtrak keeps their trains and were fortunate to have some warmer items to wear.  Bring along a sweatshirt and/or a blanket, you’ll be glad you have them.

Also, plan on bringing some slip-on shoes.  You can take off your shoes in your sleeper car but must wear shoes whenever you leave your room.  You’ll be coming and going frequently, so it’s easiest to have some comfortable slip-on shoes for your time on the train.


A Serious Note On Pedestrian Fatalities

45 Miles from our final destination, our train ground to an urgent stop.  Having spent 8 days on the train, we knew something had gone wrong but had no idea of the severity of the situation.  As the emergency personnel arrived on the scene, we knew it was bad.

Turns out, a pedestrian had trespassed on the tracks, using a small shortcut trail from a neighborhood to a store on the other side of the tracks.  The 26-year-old man had his earbuds in and was walking with his back in the direction of the train.  He never saw it coming.  It turns out, he wasn’t alone.

During our two hour delay awaiting the NTSB investigation, I did a bit of research on my phone. I was shocked to find in this article that pedestrian fatalities are shockingly high, with 888 folks being killed by trains in 2017. Most, as in our situation, were caused by trespassers illegally crossing the tracks.  As sad as this situation is, I don’t think a viable guide to cross-country train travel would be complete without mentioning the reality of this risk.

Take this lesson to heart – never risk it.  Never race a train across a RR crossing in your car, and never use a “shortcut” along the tracks.  His life wasn’t worth it, and neither is yours.


Conclusion

Hopefully, this Ultimate Guide To Cross-Country Train Travel has been helpful if you’re considering an Epic Bucket List Transcontinental Rail Journey.  Based on our experience, it’s a trip I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.  While the fatality was a bit of a downer at the end of the trip, at least it gave me the opportunity to share with you the seriousness of crossing train tracks, and the shocking frequency at which pedestrian accidents occur.

I’d strongly encourage any of you who are considering a trip to pursue it.  It’s an experience like nothing else you’ll ever do, and it’s an amazing way to see the country en route to your destination.  For more on our actual experience, please read my first post in this series titled What I Learned From A 7,000 Mile Train Journey. 

60 comments

  1. Wow – thanks for putting together such a great resource for others who may be considering riding the rails.

    Quick clarification question – was $4,542 the cost per person or for both you and your wife?

      1. I’ve got the Amtrak credit card for the primary goal of taking a trip like this one day. If you use it for everyday purchases, you will cut out a HUGE portion of the cost of this trip (and the points are worth more, on a dollar for dollar basis, than airline miles.)

    1. My husband and I use an Amtrak credit card for all our daily purchases and even some monthly bills. We have earned enough reward points to take a yearly trip in a sleeper or bedroom for free. We’re saving points to take our bucket list cross country trip as well.

  2. Thanks for all the info. When you’re so accustomed to doing the driving it must feel amazing to sit back, watch the scenery go by, and let someone else take the helm.

    I had NO idea about the bedroom/private bath arrangement. When I imagine train travel all I muster up is images of Ethel and Fred each time Lucy pulled the emergency brake, especially when Ethel ended up with pie on her face.

    BTW $10/day per person could be high but what the heck. In the scheme of how much you’re spending, it’s little to you and most likely, very meaningful to someone else (and Louie must have been ecstatic!)

  3. Wonderful! We are definitely doing this…thanks for lighting a fire under us…we have been considering for years. My question also is was that price pp?

    Thanks!

  4. My parents rode Amtrak several times across the country and I wanted to add a couple of things. As they were up in age, they got the handicap sleeper and I believe it was fairly reasonably priced and more spacious, without a need for one person to get to the top bunk. Also, they saw the delays you experienced, but when it caused them to miss a connection they got a voucher for a future trip. It was actually a reason they kept going by train. The observation car is the best spot during the day. I love your tip on the photogenic back window. Thank you for such details. When we get to this item on the bucket list, I’ll definitely reread your post. Awesome trip!

    1. GREAT addition, Susan, about the potential issues of older folks (or “less mobile”) traveling in sleeper cars. It would definitely be a challenge for some folks to climb into that top bunk, great tip for folks to consider the handicap car if they don’t have mountain goat agility). The handicap sleepers are also on the lower level of the sleeper car, so it minimizes the needs to climb the steep steps up to the 2nd level (tho you’ll still need to climb them to move back to the dining car).

  5. Great post and tips. I love traveling by train. It’s pretty expensive, but the roomette is worth it. Really neat.
    Sorry to hear about the high fatality. It’s pretty crazy. You’d think people learn not to loiter on the rail by now.

  6. I found this comment on the wapo web site for a story related to this issue of whether Amtrak has priority over freight traffic. Nothing is simple anymore. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/04/29/getting-there-on-time-who-goes-first-amtrak-or-a-freight-train-a-court-rules/?utm_term=.4e7f20b4b73b

    My son-in-law is an engineer on a major Class I railroad. His explanation is that there is a “window of opportunity” for Amtrak trains to pass through without delay. This “window” follows along the track according to the Amtrak schedule. If Amtrak is on time, then everybody is happy. However, if Amtrak falls behind and becomes late for any reason, then the freight trains may have priority. The Amtrak “priority window” closes. Once late, it is very difficult to make up lost time since a variety of freight trains will always be on the tracks ahead of it. In one notable instance, an Amtrak train departed Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal and the engine “died” (broke down) before reaching the outskirts of town. From that moment on, all the freight trains had free roam of the tracks ahead for the rest of the day. All of the above is documented in written contracts between Amtrak and the owners of the tracks. Nothing illegal about it. It is just another business contract. I am surprised the reporter missed describing this arrangement and mislead the readers to think that someone was doing unfair bad things. In some countries, freight trains can only operate at night. In other countries, freight trains operate on a different set of tracks from passenger trains. This is a common problem with a variety of solutions.

    1. GREAT addition to the story, Chris. Thanks for “fact checking” my comments, I was reporting based on what I’d been told on the train. Your comment is clear, and helps shed light on the complexity of rail scheduling dynamics. Thanks for the detailed explanation, much appreciated!

    2. Isn’t there also the possibility that freight trains can break down/end up behind schedule and thus cause Amtrak also to get behind schedule? I was on an Amtrak train trip one time where a freight train derailed and so, instead of leaving at 9:30pm as scheduled (train was beginning there so would be on time), we didn’t get to leave until midnight if we were going beyond the site of the derailment. Plus, we had to take a round-about route instead of the normal one because of the derailment. Other factors can also cause Amtrak trains to be running later than scheduled, such as reduced speeds because of days with hotter than normal temps (which could possibly also affect any freight trains on the same line). This has happened a lot this past summer on several routes. Also issues with signals not working or things like bridges getting stuck open…. Not trying to dispute what you’ve said – just think that it is somewhat of a ‘two-way street’ as to reasons why Amtrak can be running late. In spite of all this, I STILL much prefer train travel to any other form!

      1. Interesting point about “hot rails”, I wasn’t aware of that one. And I agree, I’m sure there are many reasons that cause rail delays, and I’m sure there’s a contractual agreement between Amtrak and the freight companies (rail line owners) on how to handle the most common situations.

  7. Thanks for the great info. My wife and I have always wanted to do a cross country train trip and slow travel.

    Couple of questions:

    How crowded were the trains? Lots of people pushing and maneuvering or semi ghost town with minimal peeps?

    If one was to stay in a city for an extended stay, were there car rental places close by?

    How is the sleeper and diner cars for large people or oversized or xxxl ok for fat people? It is difficult for me to sit at a booth with a fixed table is there pull out chairs available? Is the private bathroom the size of a restroom stall? Sorry for the questions and you probably didn’t really notice since you and your wife don’t have that problem but any info from observation is appreciated.

    1. Couple of answers (wink):

      – The trains were more crowded than we’d expected, but very manageable. Some routes had higher “capacity utilization” than others, but it was never a problem.

      – I suspect most have car rental places nearby. In Seattle, we simply Googled it and chose the closest rental company. We still had to take an Uber over to the rental place, but it was only ~$10.

      – For XXXL, there’d definitely be an issue. See the comment from Susan above about the option of using a Handicap sleeper. Great addition to the post. I don’t think there’d be any issues in the dining car, but the sleeper cars are definitely not designed with “large” or “handicapped” folks in mind. There is a need for quite a bit of agility to climb into a “normal” bunk, and they’re small for even averaged sized folks. I’d suggest you talk with Amtrak about the specifics of your situation.

  8. Another great post! Thanks so much for providing this information. A long trip is very high on my bucket list now. In the mean time I plan to test the waters with a shorter trip. I live in Salt Lake City, so maybe a quick trip to Denver or San Francisco for a long weekend. It would be a great surprise for my wife, and the NFL plays in both cities. 🙂

  9. My family has traveled on Amtrak 4 times (different routes). We booked the family bedroom when the kids were small. It is located on the lower level and spans the width of the train – it sleeps 4 but 2 of them must be short. There is even some floor space for playing. It does not have a private bathroom, but it is close to the public restroom.

    Also, I would recommend doing a train trip only in the summer. We traveled once in December and with the early sunset, most of the trip was in the dark.

  10. Thanks much for the info. One additional question, are you required to sit in the sleeper during the day or can you also sit elsewhere on the train other than meals. My wife is social and I think the idea of sitting in a small room with me for days would be a great concern for her. :~).

    1. For her, or for you? Wink. No worries, you can walk all around the train. We sat in the observation car frequently, I also did some work on my blog in the dining car between meals. Plenty of options, your marriage will likely survive your time on the train. Smiles.

  11. Great summary for the train trip, and what a wealth of information! Thanks for putting all of this together! It doesn’t seem too pricey when broken out per person and considering the meals. Would it be difficult for someone that is vegetarian or chicken/fish only sort of restrictive diet to find good options?

    Thanks again for putting this together it sounds like a great way to do some slow travel and see a lot of the country.

      1. Menus in the dining car include fish & vegeterian options and are generally available to view online at amtrak.com. Special dietary needs can usually be arranged in advance by calling Amtrak.

  12. Fritz, my friend, your two posts on riding the train have me all hyped up and I now have made reservations for two of us, both seniors, to travel from Orlando to New Haven, accommodation Bedroom with private bath from Orlando to New York, and coach for the short trip NY to New Haven. Grandson is being awarded a doctorate at Yale in May and want to be there for it. Have been in a Roomette a few times from Orlando to Washington, DC and eager for the Bedroom. In my 33 years in the Air Force I had two troop train rides, one from Biloxi, Ms to Fort Myers, Fl and the other from Oakland, Ca to Great Falls, Mt. Both pulled by coal fired engines and they were dirty. Keep up the good work, Fritz.

    1. Don!! Great to see you on here again, and happy to hear I’ve motivated you to take a train trip to your Grandson’s Doctorate graduation at Yale (Wow, congrats!). Glad to know that you’ve had a roomette before, so you know about the gymnastics required to get in that upper bunk! If there’s any 90+ year-old who could make that climb, I know it could be you! Enjoy the train journey and the graduation, no need to worry about dirty coal on today’s trains! Thanks again for your service, and thanks for stopping by!

  13. Hi Fritz, Thanks for some great information. We need to seriously consider doing something like this. Your quite the motivator. Never made it to Glacier when we were RV’ing, what a great option to do so.. Hey to Jackie and come see us at HHBC when you can.

  14. Thanks for posting this along with the helpful hints. We looked into it last month and got spooked by the complexity of the booking, options and the sticker shock. You’ve boosted my confidence to have another look at this.
    The interesting part of the train ride is that it can be done during any season. Fall and late winter might be a picturesque time to ride the rails.

    1. The only caution about winter, as noted in one of the above comments – the shorter hours of daylight would diminish some of the sightseeing. Valid point. I can see how the complexity “spooked” you, we felt the same when viewing the website, so just picked up the phone. It worked well, and I’d encourage you to do the same.

  15. You can pay for trips with Amtrak points. I just paid for two tickets to NYC from DC with points and have done so in the past. You can earn points by train travel and Bank of America has an Amtrak Rewards Travel card (there is an annual fee) but it has some great perks like a free companion fare once a year. You may get one upgrade per year also. The highest reward I have seen is 30,000 points. I think you can use Ultimate Rewards points to buy tickets but you have to call. You cannot do this online on the portal.

  16. Thank you so much for the article about your cross country train trip. We live in Pittsburgh, PA and have only taken the Pennsylvanian in business class to NYC a few times but a cross country trip is on our bucket list. I retired last December and my wife retires next June so it won’t be before then but you gave some great advice for when our planning time comes around. I noticed you traveled counter-clockwise when looking at the US map. Was that intentional or just convenient for your Seattle stay?

  17. Thanks for getting me motivated to ride the rails again. I agree that it’s wise to check the deals and discounts offfered. They have had some 30% off fares recently so, if your time is flexible, you might luck out.

  18. Great descriptions of cross country train travel. My husband and I have crossed the country 4 times by train plus have traveled up and down both coasts. Just to add a few other fun facts. On the coastal starlight we watched a movie in the theater below the lounge. During the day there were wine and cheese events while traveling through wine country. While traveling through national parks on the California Zephyr experts came on board in the observation car to narrate and explain all the important sites. The southwest chief connects to the Grand Canyon railroad.
    Our trips have been fantastic and we hope to plan many more.

    1. Wow, I should have talked with you before we booked our trip! A true expert in the house!! We also had an expert on board for our leg down Washington and across the Columbia River. It was a nice addition to the ride. Maybe we’ll see you on the rails someday…

  19. I’ve travelled extensively on Amtrak in the past. I’ve been on every long distance train except the Sunset limited from San Antonio to New Orleans.

    I think your post is excellent. You’ve hit all the major points.

    I would add that the upper bunk on the Superliner sleeper cars (double decker cars used mostly in the west) is VERY small. It also takes some agility and the ability to lift yourself.

    Also, a roomette is one price and can accommodate two people. So your fare is the room price + the fare for each person. Roomettes and bedrooms include meal service.

    Lastly, for the best scenery it is widely acknowledged in the Amtrak fan community that the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville, CA (just across the bay from San Francisco) has the best. Specifically going through Glenwood Canyon just west of Denver and Donner Pass west of Reno, NV. I find the vast flatness of Illinois and Iowa to be quite relaxing. Other scenic routes are the Empire Builder (mentioned in the article), the Coast Starlight (California Coast and the Cascades are very picturesque) and the Vermonter during the fall).

    BTW, I tipped $5 / person / night.

  20. While I’ve traveled numerous times out east (from the Detroit area), occasionally with our young granddaughters, my husband and I have not traveled together. We booked a trip in October, 2018 to visit our brand new grandson (not yet born as I pen this!) and his older sister who live in North Dakota. We were able to book a roomette quite unexpectedly when Amtrak offered a buy 1 get 1 free sale on roomettes early this summer! We are certainly looking forward to the trip!!

    Thank you for all the great hints!

  21. This is awesome & perfectly timed as I plan my x-country rail ride to DC. I live in Hawaii – no trains – so this is a huge treat for me. Budget-wise I’ll have to do Roomette because round trip Bedroom for one person is double the price at $3,300!!! Yours was so much cheaper for a longer journey & I don’t know why! Seems I should do the northern route for my first trip, scenery wise. Agree?

    1. See Jeff’s comment above about Roomette pricing for one, likely explains the difference between our $4k price for 2 folks vs. your $3k price for 1. The northern route is definitely scenic, sounds like that route one way and the Zephyr the other direction (see Jeff’s note) would make a great round trip. Enjoy your journey!!

  22. Great summary of Amtrak travel. My wife and I have taken the Lakeshore Limited, California Zepher, Empire Builder, City of New Orleans, Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief, and Coast Starlight. Most of these we have ridden multiple times. Our experiences mirror yours. I’ve found that over the years, the sleeper cost has gone up quite a bit, but agree that if you are going to spend more than one night on the train you really want a sleeper. I’m a 2XL kind of guy, and we’ve done both roomettes and bedrooms. Getting around in the roomette at night is challenging for me (easy for my diminutive wife), but doable. Menu variety had declined some over the years. For instance, Amtrak used to have a different menu on east vs. west bound trains, and from route to route. Last few years, we’ve found the same menu on all trains. It can get boring after a week or more on the train.

    I have always considered the cost to be somewhat comparable to what I’d spend to fly/drive across the country after accounting for hotel accommodations, restaurants, and other miscellaneous items.

    We like the relaxed experience, the opportunity to meet new people over meals, and the view out the window. One thing to note is that since the trains do not stop at night, there are sections of the country that you’ll never see from the train because the train always passes through there after dark.

    Again, excellent summary.

  23. I have ridden the Empire Builder from Albany, NY to Seattle, WA with a bus to Vancouver and then in reverse. This was my graduation gift to myself after receiving my MSW degree at 52 y/o and thought it would be my “big splurge” during my lifetime. Little did I know that I’d remarry my husband (10 years after we divorced) and heloves trains too. We live near Rochester, NY and our “big trip” was from Rochester to Portland, OR on the Empire Builder, the Coast Starlighter to Emeryville, CA and the California Zephyr back to Chicago & then home on the Lake Shore Ltd. We only got off the train in Portland and Emeryville to stretch our legs between train changes. We always take advantage of the Metroliner Lounges where available as we can wait in comfort with upholstered seats, snacks, beverages, bagage check and early boarding. We’ve flown to San Diego and traveled by train up the coast to LA and taken the Southwest Chief back to Chicago. To visit family in TX, we traveled from Rochester to Chicago to San Antonio & back. Our honeymoon included the Auto Train from Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL with our car. We’ve also traveled from Rochester to Montreal; to Boston; as well as to NYC with connections to Philadelphia one time and to Colonial Williamsburg another time. We usually travel coach from Rochester to Chicago as we board at 11pm and arrive in Chicago at 9:30am so it’s pretty easy to sleep in coach that one night. Especially knowing we’ll have either sleeper or roomettes after that. The meals are excellent, the vista dome cars are amazing and the sleeper and dining car attendants have always been amazing. Our upcoming trip is to Denver so we can visit their Train Museum with a rental car so we can ride the Georgetown Loop Train, the Royal Gorge Train and the Cumbres & Toltec Train (on which my cousin is an engineer!). I guess you can say we’re true railfans!

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