There are many ways that Amtrak is different from UK trains and I shall list the main ones here. Some are important, others less so. I purchased a 45-day, 18-segment rail pass which turned out to be hugely good value – the more long journeys you make, the bigger the savings.
Updated (17th August 2016)
A few people have asked how much it costs to do something like this trip but it really will depend how long you are in the States, where you choose to get on/off and which routes you take. The rail pass is available in 15 days (8 journeys), 30 days (12 journeys) or 45 days (18 journeys). Journeys are determined by where you get off. So for the California Zephyr, I went from Chicago to Denver (1 journey) and then Denver to San Francisco (1 journey), even though it is the same train and route. And if you cannot get between two points directly and have to change trains, that will be counted as 2 journeys.
One of the big advantages of being on the train overnight is that you don’t have to pay for accommodation, which is a large saving. So the more overnight journeys you can take, the more you’ll save.
If I had to make a recommendation, I would suggest that you fly into Chicago (the transport hub of the States), choose which long distance train to take (you can get to most of the big cities from the Windy City – San Fran, LA, Seattle, Portland, New York, Boston, New Orleans), and then fly home from the second city. You wouldn’t need a rail pass for that, as the individual fares are relatively cheap.
- You must book in advance – unlike the UK, you cannot just buy a ticket and get on a long-distance train. You must have a reservation so that Amtrak can allocate you a seat of your own. You are not allowed to stand (compare to the UK where they will happily overbook trains and you can find yourself sitting on the floor next to the loo.) With only one train a day on the long-distance routes, your options are limited and trains can sell out, particularly around holiday periods.
- You (generally) have to sit in the seat they give you – not always a problem, but they tend to seat people travelling to the same destination in the same carriage as it makes it easier for the conductors to manage. On some trains I got great seats, on others, I wasn’t happy but you are not allowed to move.
- Trains are slow moving – they are not nearly as fast as trains in the UK, hence the long journey times. This is often due to the terrain or weather conditions – when you’re perched on the side of a mountain several thousand feet above sea level, it makes sense to go slow. The same goes for torrential rain or extreme heat, which affect how fast the train can go. The train often has to wait to let freight trains go past.
- Smoke stops – all trains are non-smoking but every few hours at one of the larger city stops, the train will stay at the station for up to half an hour. This allows people to get off the train for a cigarette break, or in some cases – for people to walk their pets and allow calls of nature.
- Many stations are tiny with no facilities – so tiny in fact, that I noted several didn’t even have a sign saying which station it was. There would just be a slab of concrete next to the tracks and maybe a small hut of a building for shelter. If you only stop in the cities, you won’t have this problem but worth remembering that many stations have zero services.
- Best for people with time to spare – trains can be delayed by hours – if you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, it is probably best not to take the train. Great for scenery though, and a hugely relaxing way to travel. Take books and board games and anything else which will keep you occupied.
- Take your own food and drink – the food service on Amtrak is surprisingly good. You can have snacks and drinks from the cafe bar or proper food on a plate from the dining car and I found it reasonably priced. However, it’s always good to have a few bottles of drinks with you, and some nibbles – you can’t get off anywhere to buy food and journeys can take days.
- Take a blanket and pillow if you’re in coach class (many people bought entire duvet sets!) – The trains are air-conditioned but this can feel very cold after several hours, especially at night. The majority of people weren’t afraid to bring blankets, multiple pillows, sleeping bags and full-on duvets.
- YOU MUST BE ON TIME AT THE STATION – for the simple reason that with only one train a day, if you miss it – you will have to wait until the next day. Amtrak advises you should arrive at the station at least 45 minutes prior to departure time.
- Few long-distance trains have Wifi – the only two trains that had it were ones going in and out of New York (I imagine city people kicking up a stink if there wasn’t wifi.) For the majority of journeys, no wifi is available or even a phone signal – you are travelling through incredibly remote parts of the country. I found it blissful to be cut off from the world for periods of time, but if you aren’t prepared for this it can be disconcerting.
- You can have a private room if you upgrade – and this includes all meals, so can be good value if there are two of you. You are also treated like first class passengers if you have a private room and are allowed to get on the train first ahead of coach passengers. I didn’t have a room on any of my journeys, as it isn’t cost effective for a solo traveller, but I understand they are a good experience.