Tips for Amtrak travel

A Northeast Regional train car.

My parents recently took their first trip by train, using Amtrak to get to a Canada/New England cruise that departed from Montreal and ended in Boston. And helping them prepare got me thinking about what I've learned over the years in taking the train.

So here are 10 tips for enjoying Amtrak travel. These apply to short- and middle-distance trips (I ride the Northeast Regional frequently, and have also ridden the Acela, Carolinean, and Downeaster). I haven't done any of the long-distance routes like the Empire Builder or City of New Orleans, although I'd like to someday.

1. If it's called a "Snack Car," don't expect gourmet meals

It's "snack" for a reason. If you want a bag of chips or a cookie, a glass of wine or a beer, you are in great shape in a snack car. Do NOT think that you are going to get a gourmet meal here, although it will be better than what you'd get on an airline. My preference is to purchase my meals at the train station beforehand, or pack a lunch/dinner, and bring it with me. For me personally, I have a hard time leaving from Union Station in DC without a Corner Bakery Chop Salad. Yum.

2. Yes, it is slower than the ideal plane time, and yes, there are delays.

Note, IDEAL plane time. That is assuming your flight isn't delayed, and you don't have some sort of ridiculous connection to make, which you then miss because your flight was delayed. This year, I've flown six times and had a delay of more than an hour three of those six times. So when you compare your Amtrak train against a plane, be sure to factor in potential delays there, as well as the time it takes to get to the airport and get through security, so you can sit there waiting for your delayed flight.

I've only twice EVER had delays on lines Amtrak owns (Northeast Regional/Acela), and the one I knew the cause of was an equipment issue. I travel on Amtrak more frequently than I fly, so that's a pretty good track record. On tracks Amtrak doesn't own (such as the Carolinian's route), you do see more frequent delays due to yielding for freight trains. But you don't have to sleep overnight in an airport for one of those.

And yes, on any train, anywhere in the world, if someone jumps on to the tracks, you are screwed, because there will be police, and they will take their time to do what they need to do. This is the one thing that can bring any route, no matter how usually on-time, to a halt. So if that's what happened, you need to be looking into alternatives immediately. Fortunately, incidents like this are few and far between.

3. Chemical toilets get gross after a certain amount of time.

On a lengthy train ride, don't expect to use the toilet in the 10th hour of your ride and have it smell like a rose. Obviously, this is different on long-distance routes where they have points to refresh the toilets. But on routes like the Carolinian, it seems there is a certain point where they stop servicing the toilets, and aside from you not being able to use them, things can get a bit smelly.

Lessons here — don't take a seat near the toilets, and don't chug water near the end of your train ride. Two or three hours toward the end of your trip, hit the restroom whether you need to or not. The good news on Amtrak is that if the restroom in your car fills up, you can walk down the train and probably find another that's not full yet.

4. Yes, you're on a train for a long time. Deal with it, accept it, and then embrace it.

Do you want to compare this to being on a plane? Because really, let's. So after opting out of a body scan because you don't want cancer 5 years from now, necessitating a pat-down, you and your quart bag and your carry-on bag are waiting for your delayed flight. Eventually, they start boarding the flight, but because all the people in line in front of you have brought their ginormous carry ons due to the checked baggage fees, the overhead bins fill up and they need to start gate-checking bags. This takes extra time as there are people in the middle of the plane with their giant carry-ons who need to work their way upstream to get them gate-checked. So your flight is ready to leave 20 minutes later than it could have been, when the airport you're flying to issues another ground-stop due to weather, and you sit there on the tarmac, buckled in to your tiny seat and unable to move, until you're finally able to take off. Then once your ears stop popping, you can move around and use approved electronic devices until it's time to land. That is, assuming that the weather issues that caused the ground-stop have cleared up -- otherwise, you're sitting on the tarmac somewhere else. Oh, and I forgot to mention that there's another seat half an inch in front of your knees.

To sum up, the train is the tortoise, and the plane is the hare. While the plane is filled with drama and delay, passengers on the tortoise are siting in their nice big seats and stretching out their legs, walking up and down the train with no thought to a seat belt light, stopping in to the cafe car for a drink if they're so inclined, and using the restroom whenever they want to. Yeah, they might be delayed, but they're delayed in a not-altogether unpleasant place to be (as long as per #1 they brought sufficient food). So whatever it is in this world you need to keep yourself occupied and happy over the course of a long train trip, whether it's a Kindle, regular old book, iPod, or something else (aside from the scenery, which may distract you from whatever you bring, anyway), bring it. If it's a book, try to bring something special -- something you know you won't want to put down. I did a day trip to New York on Amtrak once and brought Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Played With Fire," which I ravenously finished that day.

5. Remember the Quiet Car. Love the Quiet Car.

The Quiet Car is the best thing about both the Northeast Regional and the Acela. Basically, it's a car in which you cannot have cell phone conversations, and must talk in a whisper. It's meant to be a library-style environment. I'm not going to lie -- once I was on the Acela where a really drunk guy was on the quiet car next to me and kept making cell phone calls, despite all of the other passengers' attempts to police him. (Some sociologist is definitely missing out in not doing a study on the dynamics of quiet car passenger policing.) Generally, though, this is an uber-quiet bastion of the train where you can work, read, or sleep with no interruptions.

6. Don't stay in your seat.

Yes, in even coach it is the size of a business-class plane seat, and yes, you have business-class leg room, and you should enjoy these things. But also enjoy the fact that unlike a plane OR a car, you can get up out of your seat and walk around anytime you want. Take advantage of this. Walk the length of the train if you're feeling restless.

7. Train naps are the best naps.

There is something about the motion of a train that has lulled me to sleep on countless trains, both here and in Europe. If you're feeling sleepy, go with it. And if you've chosen to follow the quiet car advice, you might be asleep for quite awhile. Don't worry about missing your stop, though, because the conductors put a piece of paper on the luggage rack near your seat noting where you're supposed to get off, so they'll warn/wake you if they need to. You can also set the alarm on your cell phone for extra security.

8. The piece of paper is a bit mysterious, so take precautions.

That piece of paper that the conductors put on luggage rack near your seat...I've heard that you are supposed to take it with you (leaving yourself open to having your seat taken if you choose to sit in the cafe car for awhile), but it'a all a bit mysterious. I personally usually leave the paper, together with some sort of cue that my seat is taken (a book, sweater, or Corner Bakery salad on the seat will do the trick). But then I'm sure to carry my ticket stub for the train on me, so that if a conductor stops me, I can show that I'm supposed to be on the train and I've already had my ticket looked at.

9. Travel light, and be ready for stairs, but don't worry about exact dimensions.

When you travel via train and public transit, you do want to make sure that you're using light baggage (in wheeled baggage, the latest Skyway carry-on is my favorite when airline rules aren't a factor). Amtrak has extremely liberal guidelines for carry-on luggage, but what you don't want to do is be like the French girl on one Regional I took, who had a giant (29"+), heavy roll-aboard, and when our Regional departed from a platform where you needed to walk up a few steps with your luggage, was screwed to the point where another man had to carry her luggage up the steps for her.

So on Amtrak, no one is going to make you put your bag in a sizer. But on many routes without checked baggage, you will be responsible for all of your luggage. So learn light packing techniques. Everyone should actually be able to live out of a carry-on-sized bag for an indefinite amount of time with a little learning and advance preparation. As for stairs, in addition to any legitimate stairs you think you will encounter, plan on at least one escalator being broken during your trip. On Amtrak, you can carry a tremendous amount of baggage without having to check it, so make sure you're ready for the amount of baggage you bring.

10. Remember that the snack/cafe car has seats.

A couple things might happen. You might have chosen to sit in the quiet car, but since had a call that you need to follow up on. Or you might be seated in an area with rambunctious people or kids (usually it's the kids...I'm just sayin'). Or you might just have gotten on the train with timing that made it impossible for you to sit together with the rest of your party. Regardless of what your driver is for not being happy with your present seats, remember that you might have other options. Check out the Cafe (Acela) or Snack (other short/middle-distance routes) Car, which has seats in addition to a booth for food sales, to see if there might be a better spot for you to sit, at least in the interim. And if you have a glass of wine while relaxing and enjoying the scenery, well, more's the better.

And a bonus tip for those leaving from or going through New York...

11. Penn Station is a hole.

Blame this one on New York, not Amtrak, will you? New York had a beautiful Penn Station which trains came in to, but it chose to castrate it for the space Madison Square Garden is in now. This is exceedingly unfortunate. I feel sorry for people who start their Amtrak trips here instead of somewhere like DC's lovely, organized Beaux Arts Union Station. But they're still probably better off than they would be if they had chosen to fly or take the bus, so don't feel TOO sorry for them.

So in Penn Station, do still follow my earlier tips and make sure you have a decent lunch from here or nearby before you board your train. Just don't expect it to be as lovely as boarding a standard Amtrak train in a decent station. And keep in mind that there is an Amtrak waiting area, although it's a bit hidden. So grab your food and hang out here until a track is posted for your train.

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