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Travel Tips

Last major update December 2012

On Track On Line - Amtrak Tips - On The Train

On the Train

Safety First: Trains are very safe places to be, but some simple safety steps should be considered. When you stow your luggage, especially in overhead racks, ensure that it cannot easily fall out of the storage space. Train cars move around (jiggle, sway, bounce) when in motion and in particular when stopping and starting, so keep a hold on something as you walk or be prepared to grab a seat back or handrail.

  • Use extra caution when passing between cars.
  • Always wear shoes when passing between cars.
  • Always use the red/white stripped handrails.
  • Be careful not to step directly on the joint between the cars.
  • Be careful of sliding doors which may not easily spring back if you are caught in them.
  • If they are moving wait till they close and then press or kick the marked "Press" plate and be careful where you put your fingers.

More about Safety: Watch your step when boarding and leaving the train. Be especially careful to step over the gap between a high level platform and the train door. Use handrails when boarding, detraining, and climbing stairs. Be mindful that there is often a big step from a low level platform up to the first step on a train car. Don't run, and be sure your children don't run also. Take time to review the Amtrak Passenger Safety Instruction card in the seat pocket, or on or near the table in sleeping compartments. If this card is missing, ask your car attendant.

Pack sensibly: Carry-on no more luggage than absolutely necessary; no more than you would or could carry on an airplane. Amtrak STRICTLY requires that individual bags (carry-on or checked) weigh no more than 50 pounds (federal requirement), and mandates no more than 2 carry-on bags per person. See Amtrak's Carry-on Baggage Policies page for more info, including what constitutes exceptions. Shoulder straps are suggested.

Additional baggage of up to 50 pounds each (up to 2 bags/passenger for free; 2 more paid) can be checked on most trains at and to major stations (but not between all stations, call Amtrak about that); checked baggage is definitely NOT available to you during your trip (just as on an airliner). Properly pack checked items. Do not check delicate items. They will not be handled as fragile! Be sure checked baggage is properly tagged. Baggage to be checked must be brought to the originating station more than 45 minutes before the scheduled departure time (we suggest allowing even more time at the busier stations). Note: Amtrak is serious about the 50 pounds; your bags will be weighed and you will have to repack if you are over the limit.

Baggage can be checked the day before departure. Baggage can also be routed differently to beat you to your destination or on a different train if your train doesn't have checked baggage. Baggage can be held at your destination for up to 2 days at no charge (minimal charge after that). However these rules are subject to change at any time, in part thanks to 9/11, so be sure to check with Amtrak about this before traveling.

Hint: On return trips, some people like to pack all dirty clothes in one bag and check that bag all the way home.

More about packing: If you have a sleeping compartment, carry only a small overnight bag as there is very little room in sleeping compartments for luggage, except for some under-seat room for fairly flat items and a small shelf above the folding seat in Bedrooms and a small shelf above the passageway in Viewliner rooms (see the Accommodations section of these Amtrak Travel Tips). Small roll-on-board airline cabin bags just fit under the Bedroom couch on Superliner II's (but you can't plan to definitely be traveling in a Superliner II). Superliner sleepers and coaches have a luggage rack downstairs, with no special security (but we've not heard of significant problems). Coaches have overhead racks for an overnight bag or two and some have a small area for hanging bags.

Bicycles: Call Amtrak at 1-800-USA-RAIL if you would like detailed info about Amtrak's policies concerning transporting bicycles; the rules vary by route and can be complex.

What to do on a train: Relax! Watch the scenery; that seems obvious but many folks forget to look out the window and miss some of the best parts of the ride. Take a pair of small binoculars if you have them; you'll find a use for them. Take reading material, particularly for evening use. During the day you can expect to be looking out those windows and "schmoozing" with those around you, but things quiet down after dark. AM-FM/CD/DVD/iPod players are desirable, but earphones/headphones MUST be used, and volume should be kept low in any case. A deck of cards is a good idea if traveling with others (some Amtrak snack bars stock cards). Avoid the urge to nap in the daytime -- you'll regret it about 1:00am when you're staring at the night light unable to sleep. Most important thing to do: Relax! That's what train travel is all about.

Keep a journal: It really helps to pass the time constructively and you'll be glad to have the info later. Some people like to use a micro-cassette recorder for this as they can dictate while doing almost everything else. Some like to record the day's events on a laptop computer. Some write up their adventures in a post-trip report. See our Trip Reports section for many of these reports -- we will be pleased to publish your comments too.

Maps and Guides: Knowing where you are and villages you're passing through adds to the enjoyment. The best railroad route maps of which we know are in the multi-volume SPV Railroad Atlas of North America. If you prefer a computer version for your laptop, then consider North American Railroad Map. You may also wish to take a good road atlas with you, even if it doesn't show the rail lines; e.g., the Rand McNally "Road Atlas and Travel Guide". The Amtrak Web Site has basic route guide information for every Amtrak route.

TrainWeb has Amtrak route information on-line here.

Also, some trains may have paper route guides on board, though these aren't actually maps. Be sure to ask for one if you don't see them. See our tips about books in these Travel Tips for more route guide suggestions.

If you plan to use a Global Positioning System receiver to keep track of your location, see our GPS Train Tracking page.

Sleeping in coach: If traveling overnight by coach, definitely take a light blanket (we suggest a dark color as it may get a little soiled over several days). An "army blanket" is ideal. A heavy beach towel may be a fair substitute and may be useful at your destination. Amtrak will usually sell you a small blanket for about $15 on board. The train often gets a bit cool at night, even in summer. Many people suggest that you take a pillow as well. Some suggest taking a pillowcase and asking for two of the small pillows. Another pillow for the lumbar region is desirable, but the car attendant is likely to balk at providing two or three pillows!

More About Sleeping: Especially in coach, take disposable foam rubber or silicone ear plugs -- they'll help in a variety of social and sleep situations. Those who have trouble dozing off may wish to take some over-the-counter medication with sleep inducing side effects, such as Benadryl. Discuss the use of any such medication with your Physician and/or Pharmacist. You may wish to try using Breathe RightTM nasal strips (available in pharmacies and drug stores) which are said to improve night time breathing and reduce breathing noise (snoring).

Bathing and Grooming: The ability to wash up varies from the private facilities including a shower in a Bedroom on a Superliner or Viewliner (see the Accommodations section of these Tips), to the unisex, closet sized rest rooms in some coaches. Some people like to take a small can of Lysol spray for the restrooms and shower. For a long trip, a bottle of skin moisturizer is a good idea. And you'll find a travel pack of moist towelettes invaluable. Frequent travelers have suggested taking a small tote bag with toothbrush, floss, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream, hair brush/comb, aspirin, etc. Flip-flops for your feet can come in handy too!

For those in sleepers, soap & towels are provided. Ask your attendant if you don't see them. The attendant is also normally given a very small supply of shampoo in hotel sized bottles; but it is best to bring your own. But please don't plan on taking a shower too often, as both water in general and especially hot water is limited Note: On the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight, sleeper passengers are provided with a small cloth bag containing shampoo, conditioner, and moisturizer.

For those in coach, take a wash cloth for sponge bathing and a zip-lock bag to store it in. You may also wish to pack a super absorbent backpacker towel to dry off after a sponge bath. Take a bar of soap (in a sealed up soap dish); hotel bar soaps are ideal.

Walking the train: Don't stay glued to your seat. Walk around. Meet people. Enjoy your travel mates. "Schmooze!" This is a "required" part of the Amtrak Experience! Generally you can safely leave your possessions on/above your seat while you wander. We always carry our cameras and scanner radios with us, even to the rest room, unless we have someone to watch them (or they are well packed away). You don't have to be paranoid, but simple security considerations should be followed. Of course, considerably more caution is called for at stations and terminals, off the train.

Entertainment: Amtrak has by and large eliminated the practice of showing movies on it's trains, the exceptions being on the Auto Train and the Cascades service. On the Cascades Service you must either buy headphones for a small fee or bring your own to hear them. On the Auto Train movies are shown on TV monitors in the cafe cars. Other entertainment events will be announced on some trains. Several of the long distance trains also have National Park Service Trails & Rails guides or other guides that give a talk during the day as you travel through certain areas. More information on the Trails & Rails program from Amtrak can be found here and from the National Park Service here. Trails & Rails programs for the Sunset Limited & Texas Eagle can even be download as a Podcast here. A service crew member may organize games in the Lounge car also.

Traveling with Children: You will be able to devote much of your attention to the kids because someone else is doing the "driving". Kids do very well on trains. If old enough to wander on their own, they will quickly meet other kids their age and "socialize" as only kids can do. Usually the Lounge Car will become their social center, particularly on Superliner trains. Left to their own devices you may not see your kids for hours at a time, but it is a good idea to check on them periodically. One trick to traveling with children is to have them pack a small carry-on case with their books, game-boy, iPod or similar device, simple non-noisy toys and games, etc. Children quickly tire of just looking at scenery, no matter how spectacular you find it, though they will flock to windows to see wildlife that they would yawn over at a zoo. Small children may wish to bring along a favorite stuffed animal and/or blanket, which will often help them sleep better. A sleeping compartment provides a place for quiet time (or time-out if needed). More about sleeping compartments in the Accommodations section of these Tips.

Clothing: Wear comfortable, casual clothes, the sort you would wear around the house. Most of your fellow travelers will be dressed the same. A jogging outfit is perfect, particularly at night. Comfortable shoes are a must. You can take off your shoes while in your seat or sleeping compartment, but they are required when passing from one car to the next. Some like to take soft hard-sole moccasins, which meet the requirements but are the next thing to no shoes at all.

Dining: Long distance trains will have a snack bar and almost always a dining car. The Timetable shows this info in the "Service" section on the page for each route. Eat at least one meal in the dining car if your train has one. It's fun, only a little more expensive than the snack bar (for equivalent items), good food -- and an "obligatory" part of the Amtrak Experience. Don't be in a rush. Eating in the dining car is often going to be leisurely. Patience is really a virtue here. Seating is 4 to a table so you'll be meeting new friends at each meal unless you are a part of a fixed four-some. By the way, the staff will request that couples sit alongside, not across from each other since many people are uncomfortable sitting side-by-side with a stranger. Reservations are normally taken for lunch and dinner, breakfast is first come first served. Listen carefully for announcements; usually sleeping car (first class) passengers get first choices. Also, sleeping car passengers receive meals as part of their accommodation -- no charges in the dining car except for alcoholic beverages.

Dining Car Summary:

Amtrak has five different types of dining cars that one may encounter during a journey.

  • Superliner Dining car: A full length dining car with the service area in the center of the car. These are the original bi-level dining cars that can seat up to 72 people at one time. They can be found on the Auto Train, Capitol Limited, California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, and the Sunset Limited.

  • Cross Country Cafe (CCC): A recently refurbished Superliner bi-level dining car that has been modified to perform a dual role, that of both dining car and cafe car. One side is devoted towards being a dining car, while 4 tables on the other end represent the cafe/lounge area. The cafe service area is offset to one end of the car and separates the cafe seating area from the dining area. At present Amtrak is not using this car in its dual role; it currently functions as a dining car only on the City of New Orleans and the Texas Eagle. The cafe side is unused or when needed used as overflow seating for the dining car.

  • Heritage Dining cars: A historic single level dining car built before Amtrak even existed found only on select eastern routes. They seat either 40 or 48 people at a time. They can be found on the Crescent, Lake Shore Limited, Silver Meteor, and the Silver Star.

  • Viewliner Dining cars: A single level dining car currently found on select eastern routes. They seat 48 people at a time. Currently only one prototype is in use. However Amtrak has 25 new dining cars currently on order and they should start entering service in 2013. At present, it can be found only on the Lake Shore Limited.

  • Diner-Lite car: This is a converted single level cafe, which has been updated to perform a dual role of dining car and cafe car similar to the CCC. Unlike the CCC however, the Diner-Lite does not have a full kitchen. There is no grill or standard ovens in this car, so no food can be cooked to order. Everything is reheated in a convection oven or a steam table. For this reason, these cars use a slightly modified menu from the sample linked to below. They can be found on the Cardinal where it performs its dual role of cafe & diner. Finally they serve as a cafe car on the Crescent, Lake Shore Limited, Silver Meteor, and Silver Star.

Dining Car Food: Amtrak has posted their latest Dining Car menus on-line here. The special menus for the Texas Eagle and the City of New Orleans, which use the CCC, can be found here. Adobe Acrobat Reader is required; it can be downloaded free here. The listed prices are subject to change of course. Each train has its own menu; however many of the items are similar from train to train. In an effort to provide some additional variety for those traveling on multiple train Amtrak relies on the Market Place Special, the Seafood Selection, and other specials for lunch & breakfast to provide some variety for those on multi-day trips.

The Coast Starlight also offers a special dining experience in the Pacific Parlour cars that are found exclusively on this route. This car is available only to sleeping car passengers and is setup as a half lounge/half dining car. Seating is very limited for the meals, typically around 10 to 12 people per meal, so make your reservations early! But it is well worth the effort, as the meals served are very different from Amtrak's traditional dining cars. The northbound menu, the southbound menu, and the special bar menu.

Typical Hours of Service (may vary depending on route):

Dining Car
Breakfast: 6:30am-9:30am (board by 9:00am)
Lunch: 11:30am-2:30pm (board by 2:00pm)
Dinner: 5:00pm-9:00pm (board by 8:30pm)
6:30am-Midnight (most routes; attendant closes periodically for breaks)

Snacks, etc.: Almost all Amtrak trains have a Snack Bar with typical snack bar food such as sandwiches, drinks, candy, and so on. The national cafe menu can be found here. The national menu is used by most long distance trains. Additional menus for short haul/corridor services can be found by selecting your route from the route listing page found here and then clicking the appropriate link on the page. Prices are also subject to change of course.

You can also bring your own food aboard. However, you may not consume your brought-aboard food in the dining car or lounge car -- only at your seat or in your sleeping compartment (this is not just policy; federal regulations apply). There is room for a small ice chest/cooler between coach seats; this will save quite a bit on drinks and food; but remember that you have to carry it around with you when off the train.

Soft drinks are sometimes cheaper in depot vending machines than in the lounge car, so be alert for the longer stops with correct change (do not detrain at the short stops!). Lounge attendants will sometimes give you a little of their limited supply of ice -- if you ask nicely (i.e., beg well). Bottled spring or drinking water is nice to have and will often taste much better than Amtrak's tap water, and the bottle will be convenient to have at your seat. Sleeping car passengers are provided with complimentary bottled water that should be found in your room when you board. Additional bottles can usually be obtained from your attendant. For those who enjoy an occasional glass of wine and are traveling by sleeper, take a corkscrew and your own bottle of wine. And everyone should bring along some non-perishable munchies as well for those late night, or just about anytime, snacks.

If you are traveling during the busier holidays (e.g., Christmas or Thanksgiving) on trains such as the Northeast Regional or California corridors, then certainly consider bringing your own food with you. The lines for the snack bar can be very long and the wait can be 30 minutes or more.

Special Meals/Diets: With 72 hours advance notice, some Amtrak trains can accommodate certain dietary needs, including kosher and vegan meals (there is always a vegetarian selection on the regular menu), as well as reduced-sodium or reduced-cholesterol selections. Such meals are pre-plated prior to train departure and held until serving. More details can be found on Amtrak's Special Dietary Requirements portion of their general page about meals. Special meals cannot be provided on all trains, nor on connecting Amtrak Thruway buses, nor on buses substituting for trains when such substitution is required. Check with Amtrak for the more specific information.

Wine Tastings: Selected trains also offer wine tastings to those traveling in sleepers. The Empire Builder does it on the second day of travel in the dining car. Your sleeping car attendant will come around with a sign up list. The current menu describing the cheeses and the wines can be found here. The Coast Starlight holds one each afternoon in the Pacific Parlour car and again, reservations are required. The current menu for this can be found here.

The Auto Train does a less formal wine tasting prior to departure in the cafe car and is open to all. On busy trains it can be a bit of a free for all, and seating is limited so you may wish to just bring things back to your room. The Lake Shore Limited also holds a less formal wine tasting for those leaving Chicago going eastbound only. There is no wine tasting for westbound passengers.

Smoking: Amtrak eliminated smoking on board all Amtrak trains other than designated areas on the Auto Train. Occasional longer "smoking stops" on overnight trains will be announced (except during sleep time at night). Persons caught smoking on a non-smoking train will be at least threatened with expulsion at the next stop -- and some conductors we know will give no warnings.

The indoors area of all Amtrak Stations and all dedicated Amtrak "Thruway" buses are also non-smoking.

First aid: First aid kits with all the routine items can be found in most drug stores for less than $5.00. The train crew has first aid materials too, but you may wish to take a small kit for those little cuts or bruises that you don't want to make a big deal about.

On the Train The crew members you will meet, and who you might consider tipping -- and how much.

Amtrak does not endorse this page and other associated On Track On Line pages, nor does it sponsor this or any other On Track On Line page. Amtrak sources were used to compile or confirm some of the information here, but this does not represent official Amtrak information, nor is this information endorsed by Amtrak.

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