Train travel is the ideal getaway for slow, mindful travelers. The journey is as much a part of the travel experience as the destination itself. The speed of the shinkansen in Japan or the convenience and cost-effectiveness of Eurail in Europe easily evokes admiration and wanderlust. But train travel in America rarely gets the same kind of love from even its own residents. The length of the journey and cost certainly play a big part in this equation. American train journeys are often much longer than a drive and costlier than a flight. Why then should a road-trip-loving, jet-setting nation, or its tourists book Amtrak to explore the country?
Spending over three days traveling from coast to coast on Lakeshore Limited and California Zephyr may not be your idea of a perfect vacation (although that sounds like an amazing trip to me). But there are several ways to incorporate train travel into your trips without losing too much time and gaining more comfort and facilities in the bargain. Short journeys within a state, into neighboring states, exploring the stunning coastline, or America’s unique national parks are all possible aboard the Amtrak train. Read on for 13 reasons why you shouldn’t dismiss booking Amtrak for your next American adventure.
1. Baggage allowance
Amtrak offers the most generous baggage allowance so you can pack everything you need and then some. This is such a refreshing change from air travel where all airlines except Southwest charge for check-in baggage and many fares don’t even include carry-on items.
Book Amtrak and bring as many as two personal items and two carry-on items on board. The personal items can weigh 25 lbs. (12 kg) and measure 14 x 11 x 7 inches each. The carry-on items can weigh 50 lbs. (23 kg) and measure 28 x 22 x 14 inches each.
Checked luggage services are also available at many stations. This allows you to check in two bags weighing up to 50 lbs. and 75 linear inches (length + width +height). You can also check in two additional bags at 20$ each. Oversized luggage measuring 76-100 linear inches is also permitted for 20$.
Amtrak has the added advantage of traveling alongside or near your items. There’s enough room in the overhead compartment to store even large luggage pieces. Plus there are several racks throughout the train to store larger items. Rest assured that you will not be waiting at the baggage claim dealing with delayed or lost luggage on vacation.
2. Quick check-in
Train travel allows you to skip the early arrival and long security queues at the airport. This is especially helpful for the early morning journeys. Airlines recommend you reach the airport two hours before departure if you are planning to check in any bags. Or you’ll need to arrive at least one hour early even if you’re traveling with only carry-ons. These times can vary depending on the size of the airport and how busy it is during that time of the week.
Amtrak recommends arriving 45 minutes early if you are checking in bags and 30 minutes early if you’re traveling with just carry-on baggage. If you’re traveling with only carry-on bags, you could easily stretch that to 15-20 minutes prior to departure and you’d still be golden. Mostly you’ll be waiting in the lounge or in the queue by the tracks awaiting the train’s arrival. The tickets are briefly checked as you embark on the train and scanned by the ticket checker after you are seated inside. This eliminates the need for long wait times before departure and the stress of being late for the flight.
3. Large windows and great views
There’s an adrenaline rush on seeing an entire city zoom in and out of view from the small rounded windows on airplanes. I love window seats as much as the next person. But the views in flights are mostly limited to take off and landing, with a few beautiful glimpses of clouds and outlines of continents along the way.
If you are willing to trade the airborne views and book Amtrak, you’ll be rewarded with large windows giving you a peek into the outside world every minute of your journey. Views aren’t limited to taking off and landing on the Amtrak.
These views also feature an important ingredient that is missing from you’re looking down from the air – people, flora, and fauna. People lend an interesting perspective to the landscapes and cityscapes that pass before your eyes. You might see birds along the coast or animals in the forest that you would have missed if you were flying high above in the air.
One of my favorite sunsets is the one I saw from the large windows of Pacific Surfliner when traveling from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. Pelicans, cormorants, and Western gulls circled the ocean and dipped in the water to catch fish. The sun started out bright yellow and then changed colors to darker hues of orange. All I could do was just set everything aside and admire the beauty right before my eyes!
4. Comfortable seats
On one hand, consumer groups like FlyerRights have to push FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to prevent airlines from shrinking seat sizes more than they already have. On the other hand, even Coach Class Amtrak seats are spacious and allow room for movement. There’s ample leg room with footrests on most trains. There’s no middle seat so you’re always guaranteed the proximity to the window or convenience of the aisle.
What’s more, is that you aren’t required to stay put in those seats for the entire journey unlike on an airplane. The aisles are wider and there is a separate dining car on most trains. You are free to move around, stretch your legs and grab a bite to eat. Several long-distance routes are also equipped with observation cars featuring floor-to-ceiling windows. This easy mobility makes a huge difference, especially for older passengers or those with posture-related pain.
You can upgrade to Business Class which has wider and more comfortable seats, even more legroom, and complimentary snacks or beverages. The upgrade costs vary by route but they are certainly not prohibitive like the cost of upgrading on flights. Acela train along the east coast even includes First Class with added premium features like adjustable headrests, lumbar support, and on-seat complimentary dining.
5. Private space with sleeper seats
Have you ever yearned to lie flat and sleep on those early mornings and late-night flights? Or wished you and your companions had some private space? Amtrak trains offer rooms and roomettes for a higher price tag on long-distance journeys. Amtrak points provide a great value for splurging on rooms and roomettes. The Amtrak credit card is currently not accepting new applications as they are in the process of switching banks. But I would highly encourage you to take a look at their new offers with sizeable signup bonuses when they open again.
Roomettes offer private seating that converts to two beds at night if you’re ready to share showers and restrooms with your car mates. Bedrooms are twice in size with extra seating and in-room shower and restroom. There are even bedroom suites, family rooms, and accessible rooms available to accommodate the varied needs of your group.
6. Larger restrooms
The tiny restrooms in airplanes make us want to delay or entirely avoid using them as much as possible. Every inch on a flight is premium space that can be used towards adding another seat. Add to that the long queues that form in the aisle when everyone wants to use the restroom just before landing. Then you also have to worry about avoiding drinks and food carts to avoid aisle traffic.
Amtrak restrooms on the other hand are pretty spacious even in coach class. Every car has a restroom so it’s very unlikely that you will run into any lines at all. The cleanliness is great at the start but of course, things may change further along. It depends on how far the train has traveled and the occupancy in your car. But I’ve never run into bad bathroom situations so far on my Amtrak travels and the staff seems to be really good about keeping things in check.
7. Free Wifi
Amtrak provides free basic Wifi on most trains and stations. This is more than enough for general web browsing, checking emails, and getting your work done on the go.
Keep in mind that this won’t allow for streaming video and music or large file downloads. You will be using your phone data if you perform these actions.
8. Food options
Most Amtrak routes include a cafe car with a decent selection of meals and snacks. Items like breakfast sandwiches, hot dogs, and tamales are heated before serving. Alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are available for purchase as well. You might want to come prepared with some food of your own though if you are vegetarian, vegan, or have food allergies.
Business class tickets on certain routes like the Pacific Surfliner also include complimentary snack boxes. On a recent ride on the San Joaquins, the train was not equipped with a cafe car but they provided complimentary snack boxes to all passengers. These boxes feature locally grown or made products creating a positive impact on local businesses.
There’s traditional dining for passengers in private rooms on long-distance routes like California Zephyr and Empire Builder. These include nicer meals including a three-course dinner with a dessert!
Airplanes aren’t set up for group travel but trains are. Amtrak is a great way for families and large groups to travel together and make an experience out of it. It has tables in every car with two pairs of seats facing each other, making it a perfect gathering space for people to enjoy each other’s company. I’ve seen many card games and meals unfold on these tables just by this simple design decision.
Even passengers not traveling in the same group are often interested in engaging with fellow passengers. Don’t be surprised to hear lingering conversations against the backdrop of passing mountains and farmlands.
10. Environment friendly
Actions speak louder than words when it comes to displaying our concern for the environment. The 2021 U.S. Department of Energy Data Book shows that Amtrak is 46% more energy efficient than traveling by car and 34% more energy efficient than domestic air travel. We need to put our money where our mouth is if we claim to care about the environmental impact of our travels and protecting Mother Nature.
Passengers on the Northwest Corridor can now see a section on their ticket that shows the percentage reduction in greenhouse gas emissions based on their journey compared to flights and cars. Amtrak is continuing to make energy efficiency upgrades and efficient locomotives to reduce fuel and energy consumption every year.
Amtrak offers a kind of connectivity that is unmatched by airways. Small cities, towns, and rural communities likely have an Amtrak station even if they don’t have an airport. Even in places where a train doesn’t go all the way to the destination, Amtrak enables you to book a journey with a connecting bus. You can’t fly into Yosemite National Park, for example, but you can take a train to Merced and connect with the YARTS bus that runs up the winding mountain roads. Although there’s no Amtrak train station in San Francisco, Amtrak takes you as far as Emeryville on the train followed by a half-hour connecting bus ride to bring you to downtown San Francisco.
The other good thing about Amtrak stations is that they are right in the heart of the city or town, as opposed to airports that might be on the outskirts. This makes it easier and cheaper to get to your accommodations from the train station than it would be from the airport.
Last-minute air travel is often impossible since flights may be full. Even when space is available, the costs are prohibitive. Amtrak, on the other hand, usually has great availability to book even on short notice. This allows you to take those spontaneous last-minute trips without fretting. The website and app show real-time availability while booking so it’s possible to know if you can risk a late booking for that journey.
Booking in advance can save up to 20% but that price difference isn’t too bad at least for shorter journeys. On a recent trip, I saw a man walk up to the ticket counter at Merced and purchase a ticket for a train scheduled to arrive 15 minutes later. That’s the kind of scene that you’d never see at an airport!
13. Slow travel
Train travel isn’t just a mode of transportation, it is a vibe. Slow travel lovers like me particularly enjoy the pace at which time unfurls on a train. When notions of efficiency and productivity are set aside, you can really enjoy a journey with the people and your surroundings. There is time to read, engage in conversation and linger over a meal when you know the journey is going to last for a little while.
Those are my 13 reasons to consider and book Amtrak for your next adventure. As I mentioned in the beginning, the length of the journey and higher costs definitely prevent people from opting for train travel in America. The purpose of this post is not to suggest that every flight journey should be swapped for a rail journey. Or that there is no joy in a coast-to-coast road trip.
The main reason I wrote this post is that often times we take default actions without pausing to think about alternatives. I’ve automatically opened Google Flights to check for flight tickets every time a new trip is on the horizon. It was only in the last year that I actively considered swapping out some of those flight journeys within the US for their rail counterparts. And I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. So much so that I’m now contemplating specific train journeys like seeing the fall foliage or pulling up into a national park aboard the Amtrak.
Have you booked Amtrak for traveling in the US and Canada? I’d love to know what your experience was like in the comments below. If not, would you consider taking the train on an upcoming vacation?