The USA is a spectacular country, but its vastness daunts many who’ve considered travelling it all. Greyhound discontinued their ‘Discovery Pass’, which was formerly the explorer’s choice, leaving the only option to buy single tickets in advance.
Amtrak, the USA’s national rail system, offers a unique alternative that is affordable and comfortable.
A little bit about Amtrak
Amtrak is the only nationwide passenger rail service in the US. It runs at a loss, and operates on privately owned freight lines. It historically has a reputation of being frequently delayed, although in recent years it has become more dependable.
Amtrak is predominantly scenic. The long distance trains all have an observation car with floor-to-ceiling windows that allow you to soak up the American countryside. As freight lines tend to be built in places with limited population, there are some incredible routes on which the train runs, that allow you to explore the country in magnificent fashion.
Amtrak is comfortable. In coach class, Amtrak is much more comfortable than a bus. The seats are airline ‘business class’ seats, which recline and have rising footrests. Amtrak provide pillows for sleeping overnight, although blankets are not provided.. The train is air conditioned, and you are free to walk around as much as you like. Every few hours there are ‘smoking stops’, which afford you an opportunity to descend to the platform and stretch your legs.
The train contains a restaurant and a café. The restaurant is better than can be expected for a train, although the café contains only unhealthy snacks. The pricing roughly 50% more than normal- $2 buys you a cup of weak coffee.
All the trains have power outlets at the seats. The trains do not have Wi-Fi.
With a top speed of just 79mph, and an average speed of 50mph once you factor in stops, the train travels at a leisurely pace- and indeed that is the purpose. Taking the train across America is an experience- one not to be rushed.
Due to the overnight nature of long distance trains- you will save money on hotel accommodation while you sleep en-route.
Step 1- The Amtrak Rail Pass
Travelling round the USA required an Amtrak Rail Pass. This comes in two flavors:
- $430 – 15 days – 8 segments
- $660 – 30 days – 12 segments
Due to time constraints, I selected the first option. This allows you unlimited travel on the Amtrak system, just so long as it’s completed within 15 days, and consists of no more than 8 individual trips.
The rail pass is not valid in Canada, except to visit Surrey, Richmond, Vancouver, Niagara Falls, Montreal & St-Lambert, as long as you start or end in the USA.
Buy it online at http://www.amtrak.com.
Step 2 – Devise a Route
The US is large. The Amtrak website has a route planner which shows you the major routes. If you have to change trains, that counts as a separate segment. Be aware that for some cities, such as San Francisco, the Amtrak service takes you only as far as neighboring towns, and you have to catch a ‘thruway bus’ to the downtown. These short bus trips count as separate segments; if you want to stretch your pass as far as possible, consider buying separate tickets for these buses (buy them in advance from Amtrak as the bus won’t wait for you).
Most Amtrak trains run only once a day, and some trains only run on certain days, so planning is essential. Using the timetables on Amtrak.com, and the route planner, work out where you would like to visit, and put together an itinerary with every train on it.
I started in Toronto, and visited Philadelphia, New York & Washington DC by bus. From DC I started my train travels, and did the following route:
Washington DC -> New Orleans -> Los Angeles -> San Francisco -> Portland -> Seattle -> Chicago
The train routes are named – I took the ‘Crescent Limited’, ‘Sunset Limited’, ‘Coast Starlight’ and ‘Empire Builder’.
Step 3 – Book the route
You cannot make Rail Pass reservations online or in person- you need to telephone Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL). Tell them exactly which trains you want to get and they will put it all together for you. They will send you the itinerary you have booked by email and give you a reference number. There are only a certain number of Rail Pass seats per train, so make sure you book in advance.
Step 4 – Pick up the tickets
You need to go to an Amtrak station and pick up the tickets in person. You can change your reservations at a later date, so long as you swap the tickets before the time of travel. You will need your passport to pick up the tickets.
Step 5 – Travel!
Travelling around the USA by train is an experience- something you’ll never forget. Once you’ve got your seat, you can go and sit in the observation car to make the most of the views. It’s likely your train will pass through many national parks, across incredible bridges and lakes.
The Observation Car
The Desert in Texas
Just outside Santa Barbara
A few minutes from Seattle – the train goes across a lake
Glacier National Park
The Amtrak Superliner Train
Tips and Tricks
- Bring your own food with you. The café is OK for short journeys but for 24 hours+, you’ll want something else. There is also a dining car, which serves good food but is expensive.
- The café gives out free ice cubes. Water is available for free from dispensers in the dining car and sometimes in the carriages.
- Bring a blanket or warm clothes. The carriages are air-conditioned and you may be too cold.
- If you are sleeping on the train, I recommend earplugs and an eye mask. You can also sleep in the observation car, where you can lay down across three seats.
- Be aware that the trains are sometimes delayed. Amtrak runs at the mercy of freight trains; if they have problems, you will be stuck waiting.
- Book accommodation near the Amtrak stations. This will make your life easier.
- If you are not from the USA and don’t have 3G on your phone, download something like CityMaps2Go (also available on Android).