USA by Rail travel tips

Tell us about your favourite routes and journeys or recommend hotels, sightseeing and restaurants along the way, especially those close to train stations. The most interesting, useful or amusing contributions will win a free copy of the highly addictive Railroad Tycoon II computer game.

Send your tips and travel experiences to trvl @ USA-by-Rail.com and best of luck!

USA by Rail
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Amtrak Acela train

USA by Rail

From James Wessex, Charleston, West Virginia, USA

Pack as lightly as possible, but useful things to take might include a pair of binoculars, a good book, a deck of cards, maps (preferably showing rail lines), a light blanket, a pillow or large pillow case, earplugs or an eyeshade if you are a light sleeper, bathing and grooming items, a pocket torch, sunglasses, a cheap digital watch with an alarm, a small first-aid kit, bottled mineral or spring water (which will probably taste better than that provided at the drinking fountain), fresh fruit, nuts and other snacks. Wear comfortable clothes, especially shoes. There are no places on board to get cash, except by cashing a travellers’ check, so take enough money to last the journey.

From Anita, Manila, Philippines

1. Try to relax due to the length of the travel. 2. Bring a portable CD or radio to listen while you enjoy your sightseeing. 3. Take with you emergency medicine when you travel. 4. Dont hesitate to seek help because the crew are well-trained, knowledgeble and friendly. 5. You always learn new things from people you encounter. Enjoy.

From Kate Schwarz, Virginia, USA

I used to take the train home for holiday breaks from college in Syracuse, NY to Croton-on-Hudson, NY. To ease stress, I traveled at off-peak times; the Tuesday before Thanksgiving or January 5 or later. Of course, this usually involved juggling exam schedules and asking professors for some special accomodations. I starting building my relationships with the class staff in September so that asking for a favor in November was usually accepted. This approach prepared me for a working lifetime of customer facing roles and using quid pro quo techniques for navigating negotiations. Who would have ever guessed that train travel would have such a significant positive impact on my professional life?

Be sure to arrive hungry at Union Station in Washington, DC. The downstairs food court features many local delicacies, with Vaccaro's baked goods among the highlights. Vaccaro's has been in business for many decades, and its dedication to solid quality goodies shines through. Be sure to pick up some Italian cookies before or after your next trip to Union Station. Remember, mom says it's rude to arrive empty-handed.

From Harry J. Atkins, Minnesota, USA.

My dad was a dining car waiter for the Great Northern Railway, working all during the Great Depression. My mother passed away in 1933, leaving ny dad with a two week old daughter and me who was three years old. By him working through the hard times of the 1930s, we were fortunate not have to wear hand-me down clothes or be in a soup-line. Railroading has been in my blood all of my life, it was like I was injected with steam engine oil. When I was 7 and 8 years old I would skip school and spend my time down at the large depot in St Paul Minnesota, servicing 7 railroads. Over the years I have been a hobo, and have worked on trains as cook, waiter, coach attendant and lounge car attendant. I have taken Amtrak to California and The Empire Builder to Chicago, then the Southwest Chief to Glendale. On my return I took the Coast Starlight from Glendale (a real great train) to Portland Oregon then on the Empire Builder to St. Paul,. Oh by the way, when my dad retired. he was #1 on the seniority list in the dining car department in St. Paul as well as the Seattle office. I still love train travel, the only way to go. I would lije to see the wait staff with more colorful uniforms rather than those drab ones they now wear.

From Pat Sorensen, USA

A couple of years ago I traveled to Portland, Oregon, by Amtrak and loved it. I went by myself and they were the most helpful and considerate train crews I have ever met. Due to a disabled locomotive in the Sacramento area, we had about a 2 hour wait before we could go again. One of the crew actually took me over to the railroad museum and explained some of the old time stuff. It was fantastic. My hat goes off to Amtrak.

From M. Steventon, Norwich, UK

I was going east from LA to Chicago on the Sunset Ltd and happened to mention to our car attendant that friends were meeting me in Jacksonville. Realising that it would be quicker and less trouble if we met up at Lake City, the attendant offered to telephone ahead from on board the train and arrange this with my friends. All went according to plan and our high opinion of Amtrak staff was again justified. It’s the only way to travel!

From B. Love, Dorchester, UK

Amtrak’s new Acela services between New York City and Washington, DC, are a massive improvement in terms of comfort and speed. The Acela Express should be even better!

Janet Pozycki, Vallejo, California, USA

First, never be in a hurry when you travel by train. Trains are sometimes not on time so now we plan our trips with that in mind as far as making connections and arrival times. We also travel with our grandson, who is nine years old now and started riding trains at the age of six months.His first long trip was to Vancouver, BC when he was three years old. The scenery from the Coast Starlight to Seattle was beautiful. The train to Vancouver at that time was called the Talgo train, now called the Cascades. I highly recommend this train. We always travel first class which includes your meals. The meals on the trains are excellent, so always go on first or second call. If you wait for last call some items on the menu may be gone.Booking first class should be done as soon as your plans are final, as compartments go fast and you may not get the one you want or the best price. Also, when making your reservations you can ask for the car next to the diner car and save walking through cars.If your trip includes several stops, always ship your large luggage ahead to your final destination. Carry a small bag for your needs when you stop over. Always bring a radio and headset. Our grandson brings books, cards and a game boy. And, of course, a must is a camera for all the beautiful scenery and places you will see.

From Diane Snell, USA

1. Always bring along reading materials, music, something to help make trip more relaxing - watch movie if available. 2. Slow down, relax, enjoy scenery. 3. Be prepared to meet new people and share your experiences and stories. 4. It’s ok to talk to strangers - it’s the best way to make new friends. 5. Respect other passengers privacy and space. 6. Thank those employees you come in contact with for doing a great job of getting you to your destination.

From Portia Thurman, USA

Always put your children next to the windows. By doing so you eliminate their feet in the aisle of the train and can always keep them entertained by showing them different sights out of the window.

From Denise A Jolly, Canby, OR

When traveling with children fill a small, carry-on case with quiet toys, crayons, colored pencils, black lead pencils, assorted stickers, paper with a grid of dots for playing "capture", blunt scissors. Only if your children are old enough to be neat: pad of colored paper, glue stick, white pad of paper, pad of heavy stock white paper (for making greeting cards), stencils, regular deck of cards for games like "war". Age dependent card games: old maid, UNO, Authors, Risk, Milne Borne. One-use camera(s). Play games like "I Spy" and "Twenty Questions".

From G. William, Cleveleys, UK

Check out the YMCA at 220 Golden Gate Avenue when staying in San Francisco. It’s a reasonable bus ride from Amtrak’s terminal (walking distance if you’re not too loaded up) and has good rooms, a swimming pool and free muffin breakfast included. The telephone number is 415-885-0460.

From Sarah Kie, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA

The route I would most recommend is from Chicago to Oakland. It's an amazing beautiful ride through the mountains. My tip for train riding is this: if you don't have a room and are planning on sleeping in your seat (which by the way isn’t all bad if you get 2 together) be very conscious of where the children are on the train and attempt to not sit near them, because it would seem that there's a train requirement for all children at 6.30 am to run up and down the aisle as fast as they can, smacking every seat along the way. Also, take the bulkhead seats, it's much more room to stretch out and the extra noise is easily taken care of by a pair of headphones.

From George McDowell, Los Angeles, USA

I have been an avid train buff virtually all of my life and have found that train travel is more enjoyable during the off peak seasons - preferably the Fall when it doesn't get too cold or too hot. I have also found that train travel during the Summer months involves more rail traffic and delays. If you are making connections between trains, it is always wise to allow at least 4 hours from your arrival to your connecting train's departure.

My wife and I always travel in Sleeping Cars, which must be booked months in advance. My advice to anyone who travels first class and making connections is to lay over in the city where the connection is to be made overnite. This October, we will be travelling on the Sunset Limited to New Orleans with a connection on the Crescent to Birmingham en route to New York. The connection will allow us enough time (approx 12 hours) to make our connecting train the following morning. There is a multitude of hotels in the immediate area of the train station making accessibility easier than having to travel by taxi for 20 miles- the Hyatt is 2 blocks. Allow yourself time to breathe between connections - especially during peak season. If travelling First Class, do not expect your accommodations to be available if you miss your connecting train and reschedule on the next train leaving.

From Rose Morgan, Boston, USA

A friend and I took a trip last August with the North American rail pass - from Boston as far out to California through Colorado back up through New Mexico to Chicago to Toronto, to Montreal, and back to Boston. There was so much to do and see on the trains making sleep almost impossible. Seventeen and eighteen at the time, it didn’t matter much if we slept little. We stayed up all night having a grand old time for days, cat napping here and there, until we reached Denver where we stayed overnight in a little motel in Boulder catching up on sleep.The next day I went down to the observation car with my pillow and a gallon of water and layed down on the floor for a good night’s sleep. The conductor came through and turned the light out for me when he saw how much I needed the rest. He even came by in the morning to wake me up before getting mobbed by the breakfast crowd. Very nice man - I thank him for that. My traveling partner told me of how she slept that night on the luggage rack above our seat. I tried it out the next night and I highly recomend it. Just make sure you go up after lights are out and majority of people have gone to bed. I don’t think its a common or allowed practice on Amtrak. So if traveling though the Rockies beware of the altitude. I highly recommend this type of travel for young people who have the urge to take a trip. It’s very safe, inexpensive and relaxing. No driving involved - get off anywhere you want.

From Michael Hardy, San Francisco, USA

If you belong to the AAA (Automobile Association of America) or NARP (National Association of Rail Passengers) you are eligible for a discount on ticket prices. Make sure you tell the booking agent when you make your reservation, and have your card number handy.

From Mrs. James Osburn, Riverside, California, USA

Took a trip on the San Joaquins last September to Sacramento from Riverside. The bus wasn’t too bad going up but on the way back it was crowded. Amtrak people were great they were very helpful and polite.  When we got to the Bakersfield station we boarded the trains and up until this time I had only been on the Southwest Chief. The train was very clean and comfortable, the cafe car was attrative, the food good. When we reached Stockton we took the bus to the Sacramento station. We stayed at the Vagabond, which picked us up at the station and their rooms were clean and kept up nicely (not shabby). From here we were walking distance from Old Town, Train Museum, a mall as well as a bus ride from the Capitol building. In Old Town there is a paddle boat permanently moored which is now a hotel. They were nice enough to let us look around. They said on weekends during the dinner hour they have a Murder Mystery type dinner theater where the audience gets involved. (one day I am going to do this!). So much to do, so little time to do it in. I will definately be returning to Sacramento.

From Marjorie Preston, Archer, Florida, USA

Often one of the great pleasures of train travel is the history and atmosphere you find in railroad stations along the way. Many have been expensively refurbished, including the magnificent Union Station in Washington, DC, and Grand Central in New York City, probably the finest train station ever built. I love the small ones too - sometimes no more than a one-room building - which you often see in out of the way places such as the Texas rangelands and the plains of North Dakota. Keep your eyes open and if you have time between trains try to do a little exploring. You’re sure to find something interesting.

From Dick Hamilton, Stratford, Ontario, Canada

Funniest thing I ever saw was a guy hitch-hiking with a canoe. It happened on the Ontario Northland Polar Bear Express near Moosoonee. The train just pulled to a halt when the man flagged it down from the side of the track. He climbed on board like it was the most natural thing in the world, luckily leaving his canoe in the baggage car.

From Vangie Liepa, Elkhart, Indiana, USA

When you travel in Amtrak sleeping car accommodation - highly recommended, by the way - you should take only a modest bag of essentials into the compartment with you. A shoulder bag with a strap is the most convenient. Compartments are comfortable but generally not too spacious, especially if you’re traveling in company. Best to check your main baggage at the departure station and pick it up at your destination. Amtrak takes good care of it. You’re allowed up to 150 pounds in weight free (more if you pay a fee) and there’s free insurance in case it gets lost or damaged (unlikely).

From Herschel H. Luce, Jr, Lantana, Florida, USA

I have three train trips that come to mind every once in a while. In the Army Air Corp back in 1944, I was flown to Bicycle Lake California aboard a B-17 along with about fifteen other people. We were given the choice of flying back to Colorado Springs, Colorado or returning by rail. We chose the train ride. What a time we had. We were sixteen young people in a GI Pullman car attached to the rear of a regularly scheduled passenger train with no officer supervision. We were not rowdy or anything like that. Just a group of young boys enjoying a train ride.

In 1945 the outfit I was in while a member of the Army Air Corp, We were heading out to Okinawa. The first leg of the trip was a rail trip from Colorado Springs to Seattle, Washington. The most memorable part of this trip was the ride along side the Arkansas River through the Royal Gorge. I stood on an open platform soaking in the wonderful sights and listening to the great sounds of the steam locomotive echoing off the sides of the canyon. It was winter time, and I caught a bad cold but the experience was worth it.

The return trip from Okinawa brought us back to Seattle, Washington, There, we were put on an all Pullman car train and traveled all the way across the United Sates to Fort Dix in New Jersey. What a wonderful treat this was for a group of folks returning to this great country enjoying the sights it offered and the sounds of the steam locomotives.

From Reggie Atwell, Kern County, USA

Hi to all you rail travel lovers out there. I am probably one of the biggest fans of rail travel there is. 1st my favorite routes & very important the preferred direction of travel. California Zephyr westbound - the reason for this is that the best scenery in the rockies is viewable even if the train is very late. The Coast Starlight north bound - the best scenery along the coast & north of Klamath Falls is traversed in daylight. The best idea is to detrain in Portland overnight then continue on to Seattle the next day to view the Columbia River & Puget Sound in daylight.

There are several day trains from Portland to Seattle each day. The Empire Builder east bound, either from Seattle so as to travel through the Cascade Tunnel & the best views of the Cascades, or from Portland to view a good deal of the Columbia River. Both trains join in Spokane & travel on to Chicago. You will have the best views of Glacier Park even if the train is late and  in fact you will see more if it is late. Just a moment to talk about sleepers. On the Empire Builder from Portland you will not have a dining car till you reach Spokane & join with the train from Seattle. The cold meal service was quite good though the last time I  traveled the route. You also have to walk through several coach cars & the lounge to get to the diner due to the consist of the train once it is joined in Spokane. My pick is to take the E.B. from Seattle.

One more pick is the Cardinal from Chicago to Washington DC eastbound. You witness some of the most beautiful country in Kentucky & West Virginia. If you book a sleeper on superliners (2 level trains) don't book the A bedroom as it's smaller than the others & is arranged differently. All of the trains I have mentioned are superliners.

Please contact me with any questions you have & I'll try & answer them for you. Although I work in the pharmacy at the Kern County jail fulltime I find time to conduct 2 rail tours every year departing & returning to the Los Angeles area. One is a foliage tour in the fall & the other a trip across Canada in the spring. If you'd like more info on my trips please contact at reggierail@cs.com. Thanks & I hope some of my tips will be helpful.

From Geoff Mayo, UK

I was working on a summer camp in Connecticut when I decided I would use my earnings to travel by train. After camp I bought a 15-day Eastern rail pass which covered all the eastern routes across to Chicago and New Orleans. I didn't really have much of an idea where to go, so I just planned a circular route starting from New York and travelling to Washington, D.C., Chicago, New Orleans, Orlando, and back to New York. As soon as I boarded the Cardinal from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, I knew I was hooked on rail travel in the USA!

We travelled along the New River Gorge, past lengthy coal trains and some spectacular scenery. I ate dinner on the train that first night - it was absolutely superb, everything cooked fresh on board at a reasonable price. I did wonder about sleeping as I can't sleep on any other transport, but I needn't have worried. The haunting sound of the engine's whistle and the gentle swaying of the coaches sent me to sleep pretty quickly. The next morning we awoke to fast running through flat Indiana farmland followed by a slower arrival into the much-filmed Union Station in Chicago. The City of New Orleans from Chicago to New Orleans was equally good. With weather that got hotter the further south we went, a jazz band playing live in the lounge car, a volunteer from a wildlife trust with a live baby crocodile and various fossils, and a relaxed atmosphere, it was a truely marvellous journey!

The Sunset Limited, on arrival from Los Angeles, was around 3 hours late but we were provided with free snacks and drinks while we waited and had a movie to watch. It finally arrived, we boarded, and were off. The scenery was less interesting because of the deep forestation around the tracks. Once we got into the main part of Florida more could be seen. For the return journey back to New York I picked the Silver Meteor. Although fast and efficient the service was not so good as on the previous journeys. Also, the train is a single decker (all trains using New York are single decker) which is less interesting.

The following year I returned, this time to see more. I travelled from New York to New Orleans on the Crescent (very friendly train), New Orleans to Los Angeles on the Sunset Limited (long but remarkable - also 5 hours late!), Los Angeles to Chicago on the Southwest Chief (tour guide on board pointed out the sights through New Mexico, stop in Albuquerque with market stalls on the platform!, great scenery), Chicago to Washington, D.C. on the Capitol Limited (which is the same train as the Chief, nice river scenery), and finally back to New York. Next year I will be returning to do the rest of the Western routes - Texas Eagle, Californian Zephyr, Empire Builder, and Coast Starlight. Try it - it is well worth it!

From Ivor Timcke, Bromley, UK

In the past month my wife and I have ridden the “Sunset Limited” from New Orleans to El Paso and the “Southwest Chief” from Albuquerque to Chicago. Over the past few years we have taken the “Pioneer”, “Coast Starlight”, “Desert Wind”, “Empire Builder”, “Lake Shore Limited”, “Broadway Ltd” and “International” between Chicago and Toronto, as well as the “Maple Leaf” between Toronto and Syracuse. We are, as you can see, true Amtrak people. For this reason I find it sad that Federal funding cuts have forced the curtailment of some routes. I believe the “Desert Wind” between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City is no more, and the “Pioneer” has gone. Not sure about the “TexasEagle”. [Still operating four days each week - John Pitt].

From P. Wilson, London, UK

We started our vacation in Orlando, Florida, but had agreed to meet a friend in Richmond, Virginia. The Silver Star was the obvious answer, especially as my partner was still dazzled by a trip on the Orient Express a few years before. The luxury wasn’t quite the same but the privacy of the toilet in each slumbercoach and the ingenious packing of so much into such a small space impressed us both.

As the slumbercoach only gave a view on one side of the train we preferred to sit in the parlor car as much as possible. We had a feeling sitting in there that we were seeing the real USA. We found a tendency to wake up whenever the train stopped but that became part of the fun, peering out to find ourselves in the main street of Carolean towns with a surprising number of people coming to meet the train even at 1.30am. The wailing of the horns as the train rolls down various main streets must be one of the most evocative of all experiences.

But the greatest fun of all was reading Winnie the Pooh to our three year old, ensconsed in the bottom bunk but with the cabin door open. An appreciative crowd gathered to hear of the expotition to find the North Pole. The parlor car attendant told us a new train is on order to replace the present one. It will probably be more comfortable but it couldn’t be any more romantic than the present one. Ride it now before they scrap it.

From Simon Weatherley, UK

When staying in New York I have had the good fortune to travel through North America at least a dozen times. These experiences have all been totally different due to the time I have been able to spend there and the few dollars I been able to save. Last time we went for a friend’s wedding in Ohio. Now flying directly to Ohio is costly so we flew to NY and then travelled across but had to stay in the Big Apple.

We were on a very tight budget and found after an hour of phoning round from the Port Authority a hotel called "the Herald Square Hotel" - $119 per night for four of us with four beds, A/C, Cable TV and a safe. One block south of Empire State, this hotel is a secret find and a steal, beating previous experiences of NYC which include sleeping in central park (this should be avoided at all costs). Also camping in the US is great, cheap and well facilitated.

From Lyle Pulvermacher, St. Catharines, Canada

Back when I was seventeen, some fellow I just met convinced me to drive down to Los Angles. Since I had never been out of Canada I decided I would go, thus starting my journey through a great part of the United States.

On the way down to Los Angles, we ran out of money, the car broke down and was abandoned on the side of the road and we ended up hitchhiking the rest of the way, but so far we were having a great time. After spending a couple of months in Los Angles, I decided to hitchhike to Florida. I wasn't getting very far, very fast, It was slow in getting rides. I made it as far as El Paso, where I met someone who suggested that I try hopping a freight. He told me the best ways to catch a freight train, how to avoid the railway police and that the engineers and other railway personnel are usally very helpful in finding the right train to catch, in the right direction.

The first time I hopped a freight I was scared, excited and my mind was racing faster than any of the trains. But I was on my way! The first nite I had a hard time getting any sleep, it was noisy and smelly ( I think I picked the wrong boxcar ) but the second nite I found I could get to sleep by listening to the click clack of the wheels. I ended up travelling over 7 states. A few times I ended up taking the wrong train, headed north instead of east. I rode and slept in all sorts of boxcars, flat cars, and even slept in a new car on on a auto carrier.

With the radio on and the heater going, was great for a good nite's sleep. On really cold nites would sleep in one of the engines, comfortable chair, water, washroom facilties, and the engineers didn't care as long as you didn't mess with any of the controlls, but one did mind and called security, they stopped in the middle of nowhere, escorted me to the nearest road and waited till the train left, I went on my way, caught a ride to the next rail line and I was off again.

My last ride on a train started in Jacksonville Florida, a couple of rail workers told me which train to take south, the train was made up entirely of piggyback cars but I decided to go anyway. I spent the entire day riding in between two containers, it was the most beautiful site - I saw miles and miles of orange groves, orchards and little towns. I even jumped off and picked oranges when the train stopped for a short while. I remember those rides I took so well, even though it has been so many years ago, and I must say they were some of the best times in my life.

From Suzanne Marie Leavitt, Albuquerque, USA

One of my most memorable train experiences was travelling across the country from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Williamsburg, VA. I was a young child on this trip, about 8 years old. I had a lot of fun going through the doors to the different compartments with my little brother. I loved the feel of the rumble of the train, I had fun with my older brother, who was playing Bingo, and won a soaps and cosmetics set. This was my first real experience with Coca Cola, and I loved being able to drink Cokes and look out the window at the scenery passing by. I liked listening to the stories of the various people on the train as they talked to my mother. I liked the food and the time to sit and read. I had a lot of fun on this trip.

From Eileen Smith, Bradmore, UK

If you are planning to sleep on board in coach class, take a jacket or small blanket with you because the air-conditioning can be chilly at night. Amtrak sells souvenir blankets on board most long-distance trains.

From Scrappy, USA

My dad has worked for the railroad for about 26 years now and I have been around trains my whole life. He used to take me to work with him when he was a train engineer. I even got to drive it. My dad works at the railroad yard in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I didn't leave the city or anything. My dad and I just switched cars in the yard to make trains that travel out of town. Only employees are allowed on the engines so my dad snuck me on the train. He worked midnights so it was kind of easy. I worked with him from like 11 at night to 6 in the morning and every time there was a camera to see the car’s identification number I had to duck so no one saw me. It was exciting going to work with my dad and I had an experience  not many kids have had.

 

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