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Amtrak tips

Here is a bunch of stuff I have learned on my Amtrak travels. Traveling by train is the only way to travel — if you’re not in any particular hurry and have a few bucks to spare :) No hectic airport, no need to hurry-up-and-wait, no strip-search, no x-rays, no narrow uncomfortable seat in a claustrophobic tin can, no aircraft engine whine, no thin dry air.

These tips should really help you if, like me, you have some disabilities; I have PAH, a heart/lung condition that makes it difficult for me to breathe, so I travel with a small electric oxygen concentrator. I need help getting from place to place if there’s much walking involved.

Two top tips:

1) BE FLEXIBLE: One of my trains ran three hours late; one ran four hours late; one leg of the journey was impassable due to flooded tracks so they put us on a tour bus for a couple hours. (Syracuse to Albany). I was lucky that I had multi-hour layovers in Chicago so I never missed a connection, but it could happen. Amtrak will make sure you get where you’re going eventually, though. :)

2) TEMPERATURE WARNING: trains can vary wildly between freezing cold and boiling hot, so bring enough layers so that you can strip down or bundle up!

My Amtrak history so far: I traveled coach class on the Coast Starlight from Oakland to Portland overnight, and took a sleeper home (roomette). I traveled coach from San Jose to Santa Barbara (Coast Starlight) and then Santa Barbara to San Diego (Pacific Surfliner) and back again. My recent Big Trip was on the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago (two nights in a roomette), then the Lakeshore Limited from Chicago to Rhinecliff NY (one night in a roomette) and back again.

Coach Class:

Coach class is absolutely fine if you aren’t traveling overnight. The seats in coach are wide and comfy. There are two seats on either side of the aisle, and one electrical outlet per seat. There’s no armrest between seats so if you have no seatmate you can curl up or spread out, and the seats are wide enough that even with a seatmate you won’t be squished up against each other. Seats recline, and there’s a ton of leg room. There are plenty of toilets (downstairs, in double-decker trains). You can leave your seat any time and walk through the train. You can explore the observation car, the dining car, the cafe car, the lounge.

There are overhead compartments for small carry-ons, and you can also keep a bigger bag at your feet. Every car has a large luggage rack (downstairs) for any carry-ons that you don’t need at your actual seat. In theory there is a size restriction for carry-ons but I saw people with BIG bags.

Food/drink is bring your own (no restrictions!) or buy it from cafe car or dining car (on long-distance trains). If you’re on a train with a dining car, do try it out! Fresh-cooked food, real chairs and tables, a menu, expensive but tasty food. There are several options for each meal, including always a vegetarian/vegan option. I love the Entree Salad, which has good lettuce, onion, dried cranberries, nuts, grapes, and your choice of dressing. It’s filling as-is but you can also have them add grilled chicken. The Angus Burger, Salmon, and Steak were also delicious meals. Remember to tip your server.

Now, if you’re young and have no sleeping issues, you can sleep in coach class. The seats don’t recline flat but they recline a lot. The whole train has Quiet Hours between 10pm and 7am.

If you have any special needs, coach can be tricky because there isn’t a dedicated attendant to help you wrangle your gear or take care of you.


If you’re traveling overnight and are older, disabled, have sleep issues, and/or need the best quality sleep you can get, book yourself a roomette! This is a tiny room, a bit wider than a wide seat, with two seats facing each other in front of a big window. There’s a sliding door and curtains for privacy from the corridor. The two seats can recline or pull out flat to make one bed and there’s a bunk that folds down above the seats so that two slender friendly people can travel together in one roomette. If you’re traveling alone, your roomette is just for you — no stranger to share with.

Book your tickets with Amtrak over the phone. Their ticket agents are really nice. Make sure you let them know any special needs that you have — I let them know about my oxygen machine, that I need assistance in stations, and that I needed my sleeping car attendant to being me my meals. More about that further down.

Your roomette will have ONE ELECTRICAL OUTLET. One. So if you need to plug in more than one thing, and especially if you’re traveling with a friend, bring a splitter! Roomettes have rudimentary temperature controls, but I found them always to be a choice between cold and very cold OR hot and very hot. Pack your layers! In one much-too-hot room I got washcloths from the shower room, dampened them, and stuffed them into the uncloseable heating vents.

People traveling in sleeping cars are considered First Class Passengers so you will have much more help than the commoners in Coach. Your sleeping car attendant will look after you on your journey and will make sure you have Red Cap assistance at stations if you need it — just ask. Sleeping car people get first dibs for dining car reservations. The sleeping car in a Superliner (double-decker) has toilets and a shower downstairs, and a toilet upstairs. Your attendant will make your bed for you with sheets and blankets and pillows and will fold it all away again in the morning.

Meals are included in your sleeping car ticket which is a HUGE HELP, I mean that’s like $75 a day you’re not spending if you want three hearty meals. (you still need to tip your server, so bring cash)

On my first trip I discovered that I have trouble walking through several train cars to get to the dining car, especially at higher elevations, so when I booked my tickets to NY I asked if my attendant could bring my meals to my room. No problem at all! Johnny (eastbound) and Tony (westbound) brought me all my meals with a smile.

You must tip your sleeping car attendant! The Internet suggests $5 per night per traveler as a minimum. I tipped $20 per day, because I needed extra help and I figured Johnny and Tony deserved the tips I wasn’t giving a waiter.

Chicago’s Union Station is huge and confusing. If you’re in a sleeper, though, they make it easy for you. A Red Cap will take you to the First Class Metropolitan Lounge on a cart. There you can lounge on a sofa, have some coffee, take a shower, or stow your luggage if you have a long layover and want to go exploring. I listened to podcasts and knitted and the time flew. When it’s time to catch your next train, the loudspeaker will tell you where to stand so a Red Cap and cart can take you to your platform. Easy, and almost no walking for me!

There are several different types of trains depending on route. The longest routes have the nicest trains, the best seats, real dining cars, showers, etc. The Coast Starlight and the California Zephyr were super-nice double-decker Superliners.

The Pacific Surfliner is a shorter-distance train, so no sleeper, no dining car, SLIGHTLY less cushy seats (still super comfy). Double-decker, so if you have trouble with stairs be sure to book over the phone and ask for a downstairs seat, which are reserved for the elderly and disabled.

The Lakeshore Limited (Viewliner type) is an overnight train so it has sleepers but no proper dining car with a chef — meals are pleasant but microwaved. It’s a single-decker train. And, oddly, there is a toilet and sink in each roomette. I don’t know if there are showers.

I might think of more to add to this post later, but I will now take questions from the class. :)

Question from Susan: Is there wifi 100% of the time?

NO. There is wifi 0% of the time! (The Surfliner offered onboard wifi but it was a crummy unsecured network… no thanks.) The long distance trains offered no wifi, and there were hours on end without even any cell service! It was delightful how much of the route was through the middle of nowhere, scenery-wise, but yeah, that means no cell service. Take your knitting and download your audiobooks ahead of time!

Category: Blog 3 comments »

3 Responses to “Amtrak tips”

  1. Soozan

    OK teach, is there WiFi 100% of the time?

  2. kara

    Excellent question! I have added my answer to the bottom of the post. (Short answer: NO!)

  3. Mike Wilson

    This sounds pretty neat! I’ll check out where they go.

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