With the price of airfare rising faster than the inflation rate, it might be time to consider other ways to visit the country for your next trip. One frequently overlooked mode of transportation is passenger rail service. Taking a trip train is not only more affordable than a plane ride, but it’s also far more eco-friendly and there’s far more legroom. To get better acquainted with Amtrak, the nation’s railroad service, here’s a simple yet very helpful guide to understanding how to get onboard a passenger train.
Providing passenger train transport in America for more than 40 years, Amtrak serves over 500 destinations from more than 30 routes, including 15 long-distance routes. The only high-speed intercity rail service in the country, Amtrak serves 46 states and Washington D.C., in addition to the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. Amtrak operates more than 300 trains daily, with some routes reaching a top speed of 150 miles per hour. Last year, Amtrak carried nearly 32 million passengers, the 10th ridership record in the past 11 years.
Planning a Trip
Amtrak’s online trip planner makes it very easy to determine the route, duration and price. First select a departure and arrival city using the “Find a Station Link.” The next step is to enter departure and return dates in the appropriate boxes and if desired, a preferred time. The last step is to enter the number of travelers, defined as Adults ages 13-61, Senior 62 years old or older, Children ages 2-12 and Infants under 2 years old. After all the pertinent information is entered, press the Find Trains button to view trip options. The trip planner also offers information for passengers with a disability and children ages 13-15 years old who are traveling alone. No child 12 years old and under may travel alone.
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How to Purchase Tickets
Amtrak offers a number of ticket options, including fare savers, one-way, round-trip, multi-city, multi-ride and USA Rail Passes. Functioning much like a Eurail pass, USA Rail Passes are available in three travel durations and specified number of travel segments. Passes can be purchased for 15-, 30- and 45-day durations for eight, 12 or 18 segments. A single segment is described as anytime a passenger boards and deboards a vehicle, such as a train or bus. Amtrak also offers vacation packages and a California Rail Pass, which allows up to seven days of travel in California over 21 days for $159 for adults and $79.50 for children. Another online service through Amtrak is SmartFares, featuring weekly special discounts on select trains.
Train tickets may also be purchased via Amtrak’s free mobile app, designated Amtrak station ticket offices, at Quik-Trak kiosks, by phone, through a travel agent or for most Amtrak trains, onboard the train.
All passengers on board Amtrak trains must present evidence of a paid fare when requested by a conductor or authorized representative. Tickets can be voided if there is evidence of alterations, if the receipt is detached or if presented by someone other than the original purchaser. In the event of lost, stolen or destroyed ticket, travelers must fill out a Lost Ticket Refund Application Form, then mailed to the address listed. No online refund requests are accepted.
A variety of discounts are available for Amtrak passengers, including 10-percent savings for active military personnel, AAA members and students. Travelers 62 years old and older can receive a 15-percent discount on most Amtrak trains and travelers 60 years and older can receive a 10-percent discount on cross-border services into Canada. Some restrictions may apply to any of the discounts, with more detailed information available online.
Seating and Sleeping Accommodations
Seating and sleeping accommodations are available on Amtrak trains, in addition to provisions for accessible seating. The most affordable way to travel on Amtrak is Coach Class, although for longer, overnight trips, reservations in a sleeping car will certainly be more comfortable. A basic Roomette on either the Amtrak Superliner or Viewliner has a recommended capacity of two adults whereas a Bedroom Suite has a capacity of up to four adults. Meals are included with any sleeping accommodation.
Depending upon the type of seat and the length of the trip, passengers can dine at their seat or dine at one of three types of dining cars. The Café Car is available on many short-distance trains, selling carryout items such as snacks, sandwiches, salads, soft drinks, premium spirits, beer and wine. On most medium- and long-distance trains, the Lounge Car offers casual seating for breakfast, lunch and dinner. On any of long-distance routes, passengers can enjoy Amtrak’s best dining experience in the Dining Car. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Dining Car’s menu may include vegetarian pasta, specialty sandwiches, roasted half chicken, a seafood catch of the day and the Amtrak Signature Steak, in addition to soft drinks, premium spirits, beer and wine.
All passengers can bring up to two carry-on bags or checked bags not exceeding 50 pounds at no extra cost. Additional checked bags up to a limit of four cost $20 per bag. Some items like medical devices, prescription medications, small electronic devices and small bags are exempt from the carry-on policy.
Selected Train Routes
Travelers can enjoy the beautiful Pacific Northwest on this route connecting Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia. The 10-hour, 25-minute trip connects several important cities, like Salem and Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Seattle and Bellingham, Washington. Pacific Coast Thruway buses on this route makes connections to other cities and major attractions, such as Boise, Salt Lake City, Crater Lake, Spokane and Whistler, British Columbia.
With service between Seattle and Los Angeles, this route is one of Amtrak’s most scenic. The 35-hour route travels along portions of the beautiful California coast as well as redwood forests through the Cascade Ranges and Mount Shasta and breathtaking Puget Sound in Washington. Among the Amtrak stations served along the way are Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, San Jose, Oakland, Redding, Eugene, Portland and Tacoma. Amtrak Thruway buses make connections to other important cities, including Carmel, Monterey, San Francisco, Medford and Corvallis.
The Maple Leaf train provides service between New York and Toronto. After departing from New York’s Penn Station, the route passes through upstate New York, with stops including Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo and Niagara Falls, before crossing the U.S./Canadian border. Any traveler 16 years old or older must carry documents bearing proof of citizenship and identity. Acceptable forms of identification are listed on the Maple Leaf train schedule. Only carry-on baggage is accepted on this route. The entire one-way trip is 12 hours and 30 minutes.
As part of the Atlantic Coast service, this scenic route connects New York City and Miami, Florida. The southbound service originates from Penn Station and then serves many important cities along the Eastern Seaboard, such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. Of the multiple daily services, only the Silver Star and Silver Meteor provides service to New York and Miami. The Palmetto route only connects with Penn Station and Savannah. Other routes with service along the Atlantic Coast are the Carolinian, connecting New York and Charleston, and the Piedmont, connecting Raleigh and Charlotte.
The Southwest Chief is a daily service between Los Angeles and Chicago. Notable stops along the way are Flagstaff, Las Vegas, Dodge City, Topeka and Kansas City, Missouri. Connecting buses provide service to other prominent cities or attractions, such as Denver, Phoenix, the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe. The length of the entire trip is estimated at over 40 hours.
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Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.