Note: This post was originally written in 2016, but has been updated as of July, 2021 to reflect changes in Amtrak policies, including current Covid-19 guidelines.
Like most little boys, my son became obsessed with trains from a very young age. It never mattered if it was Thomas the Tank Engine or the D.C. Metro, if the opportunity to ride one presented, the begging commenced immediately. One of the first picture books he remembers is The Polar Express. The Christmas he turned 3, Santa brought a hardcover copy of this treasured book, along with a silver bell. He begged for many years to be able to ride a train to the North Pole, and vowed never to stop hearing the ringing of that silver bell.
Sadly, I can’t make that dream come true, but in just a few months, he and I will be boarding a train for the trip of a lifetime. I have begun planning a road trip with an Amtrak Rail Pass.
If, like our family, you don’t live in a city or town serviced by Amtrak, you may not be familiar with the Amtrak Rail Pass. I wasn’t very familiar myself, until I began planning our upcoming vacation. The USA Rail Pass is an option for those who are planning to travel by train touring the country. For one price per person, you can travel 10 segments for a period of 30 days, across the U.S.
The cost for a USA Rail Pass is $499 for adults. Up to two children ages 2-12 per adult can ride for half-price (one child under 2 may ride for free per adult). Children over 12 pay the adult fare. Once your Rail Pass is purchased, you will have 120 days to begin your travel and 30 days to complete your trip once you begin your travel.
From the time you board a train until you exit it is considered one segment, no matter how long the distance. Our family will begin our first segment of travel in Chicago, aboard the California Zephyr. We will ride this train all the way to California, where we will spend the bulk of our trip, and then return to Chicago aboard a different train (and route), the Southwest Chief. During our trip, we will ride through the Rocky Mountains, stopping in Denver, CO and Salt Lake City, UT, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Sacramento, and the Grand Canyon, among other places. Planning a trip of this magnitude is no small feat, which means I have already been researching and planning even though we are several months from travel.
In my research, I have learned so much about how travel by train works: the benefits, possible pitfalls, expectations, a few tips and trips, and more. But, you may be wondering: Why travel by train? Before I get to all the must-have information for planning a road trip with an Amtrak Rail Pass, let’s talk a bit about the benefits of travel by train.
5 Benefits of Travel by Train
Comfort and Relaxation
Traveling by car is fine (especially if someone else is doing the driving), but it’s often cramped and the only time you get to stretch your legs is when you stop for a potty break or meal. On an airplane, the seats are small and the leg room is practically non-existent. Climbing over people to get to an even more cramped bathroom hardly qualifies as moving around.
With someone else doing the driving, comfortable seats, plenty of legroom, and the ability to move around at will, trains are one of the least stressful and most comfortable forms of transportation available. During the day, you get to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery from the observation car, instead of fighting the traffic and fiddling with maps or GPS.
Liberal Baggage Policy
For no charge, each traveler can bring 2 checked bags (up to 50 lbs each), 2 carry-on bags (up to 50 lbs each) and 2 personal items (up to 25 lbs each). If you’ve traveled by air recently, you’ll know what a deal that is, since some airlines are charging even for carry-on bags these days and nearly all charge for checked bags. If you need to bring even more luggage, you can check 2 additional bags for $20 each.
No arriving 2-3 hours ahead of your departure time; arriving 30 minutes before your train leaves is probably early enough. No worrying about how many ounces of liquids are in your shampoo bottles (there are no maximums with liquids like on airplanes). No long security line checks. No removing your shoes. No pat downs.
Train stations tend to be right in the heart of the city, so no long, expensive taxi rides to get to your hotel, but if you do need a taxi, they’ll be right there. Long-trip trains, such as the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief have special glass observation cars to watch the scenery and meet other travelers, dining cars, and showers.
Compared to air travel, travel by train can be very economical. When planning a big trip such as we are, it may even be cost-effective compared to the wear and tear on a car (or the cost of a rental), gasoline, and more frequent stops for meals and overnight at hotels.
For shorter trips, the cost savings can be even more dramatic. Also, you’re more likely to find cost savings with AAA discounts, half-price fares for children, student and military discounts, and other special deals that you’re not likely to find with airlines.
How to Plan a Road Trip with an Amtrak Rail Pass
I realize that travel by train may not be for everyone. But if this sounds like an exciting prospect for you, here are a few tips for planning your own road trip with an Amtrak Rail Pass, from the information I have gathered in my research.
The first thing to understand about the Amtrak Rail Pass is that it is not the same thing as your train ticket and it does not guarantee a reservation for a particular segment of your trip. You will still need to make reservations for each segment.
Choose Your Route
When planning a road trip, of course, you’ll want to decide where you wish to travel first. It might be helpful to look at a map of where Amtrak travels for ideas. Once you have matched up Amtrak’s maps with your travel destinations, you can begin your planning. The two routes we will be using both originate (or end) in Chicago. So we will also need to consider transportation from Kentucky to Chicago as well.
Decide the Length of Your Trip
Next, you’ll need to determine how long you want to be gone. Rail Passes are available for 15, 30 or 45 days. Once you have begun your travel, you will need to complete your travel within the time period of your pass. It will be important to carefully plan your trip to get you back to your final destination before your time is up.
Carefully count and keep track of your segments. It will be easy to get carried away with wanting to stop at many places, but if you have a 30-day Rail Pass, you are limited to 12 segments. Perhaps consider that as 6 segments coming and going if you’ll be doing a round trip.
Tip: Once you have your route planned out and know how long you will be gone, make all of your reservations for your segments of train travel before making hotel, rental car, or sight-seeing reservations. The further you plan ahead, the more likely it will be that you can get reservations for the days you wish to travel. This is especially important if you have overnight segments and want to consider upgrading to a sleeping car (which are very limited).
Packing Tips for a Train Trip
Wear comfortable clothes. The dress code is casual. Also, wear comfortable shoes (they are required at all times).
You won’t need to bring towels or linens if you have a room for overnight, but if you don’t, do pack along a small blanket and travel pillow.
Don’t forget charging cords for your devices (there will be outlets at your seat to charge them). Be sure to download any books, audio-books, movies, or podcasts you want because wifi and phone service are sketchy.
Don’t forget noise-canceling headphones and a sleep mask if you will be sleeping in your coach seat.
Tip: Bring along a power strip if your family has lots of devices to charge.
Private Rooms are available on the long-distance routes, but they are limited in quantity. All customers in private rooms receive complimentary lounge access at major stations, priority boarding and complimentary meals onboard.
Private room accommodations include roomettes (2 adult beds, no private bathroom or shower), bedrooms (2 adult beds, in-room toilet and shower), bedroom suite (4 adult beds, 2 in-room toilets and 2 showers), and family bedroom (2 adult beds, 2 child beds, no in-room toilets or showers). You can usually find one accessible bedroom per train (2 adult beds and in-room toilet, but no shower). There are restrooms and showers available in the same car for the rooms that do not have them in-room.
Turn down service, electrical outlets, reading lights, fresh linens/towels, and windows for watching the view are included for all of these rooms. Many people just sleep in their coach seat and use the public bathroom.
These rooms are not included in the Rail Pass price, but in the past you could upgrade for an additional charge. Upgrades to private room accommodations are not available at this time for USA Rail Pass holders.
Tip: Skip the private rooms. Wait until everyone goes to bed and then stretch out in the observation car.
As an exclusive, complimentary offering for customers traveling in private rooms, traditional dining service is provided in the Dining Car on the Auto Train, California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle. Know that you’ll likely be dining with new friends at your table unless you choose the complimentary room service.
Café service is also available to all customers along these routes, offering a variety of meals, snacks and beverages for sale.
Tip: Pack some snacks.
More Tips for Travel by Train
- The quietest seats with the best views are at the tail end of the train.
- July and August are the busiest months, so definitely make reservations as far ahead as possible if you’re traveling during those months.
- All Amtrak trains, buses, and stations are 100% non-smoking. Some trains make smoking stops where smoking is allowed on the platforms next to the train.
- One you purchase a Rail Pass, you must use it within 120 days. You can choose when to travel within that time period, but once you use it the first day, you must complete your travel within 30 days. You do not have to travel every day.
- Rail passes are refundable, as are Amtrak tickets. Refunds may be subject to a fee in some cases. You cannot receive a refund for a Rail Pass once your travel has begun.
A few of the negatives that I’ve read about (but don’t deter me):
- Apparently the bathrooms can get pretty disgusting. I guess moving trains and men aren’t a good combination.
- The wifi and phone service is sketchy at best. Even though this is maybe the worst news for a blogger, traveling across the country on a train (I was at least hoping for an Instagram journal), I am looking forward to conversations with Ben and other travelers, and getting caught up on my reading (must remember to pack my Kindle).
- Most of these trains run daily, as in once a day. If you miss your train, you’re gonna be delayed for 24 hours.
- It can get noisy (so pack some noise-canceling headphones if you need peace and quiet).
- Amtrak is not always reliably on time. So don’t schedule an expensive tour for 2 hours after you’re supposed to arrive. I’ve ready that the long-distance trains can often be many hours late. If you have a guaranteed connection, apparently they will take care of you somehow, even if it means an overnight hotel stay.
We are looking forward to our trip by train and hope you will consider travel by train too!
Need help planning your Amtrak vacation? Here are some packages and deals.
Amtrak and Covid-19
Since this article was originally published, the world has been in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. This has affected a few things with Amtrak travel. You can read all of the Coronavirus Amtrak updates on their website, but here are some of the highlights as of July 2021:
Face Masks: Federal law and Amtrak policy require all customers and employees to wear a mask or face covering at all times while onboard trains and in stations, regardless of vaccination status or state or local laws.
Seat Availability: Amtrak is no longer limiting capacity. When searching for travel, the percentage of seats sold displays next to each trip option and adjusts as more reservations are made, which gives customers the opportunity to book a train that is less crowded. If capacity exceeds comfort levels, customers can change their ticket without incurring a fee (a fare difference may apply, but Amtrak is waiving all change fees for reservations made by September 6, 2021).
Before traveling on Amtrak, review state-specific travel advisories and restrictions that may be in place for travel to your destination.
Your Amtrak Guest Rewards Points: To allow you more time to use your points and to keep your account active, Amtrak is has paused the expiration of points through September 15, 2021. If you are an Amtrak Guest Rewards Mastercard® cardholder, your points will not expire as long as your account is open. Learn more about the important Amtrak Guest Rewards updates that have been posted in response to COVID-19.
Have you ever taken a road trip with an Amtrak Rail Pass? What’s your best tip?