15 Helpful Tips for First Time Amtrak Riders

by Sojourner

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Booking your first scenic train ride is so exciting! It’s a bucket list experience. And as someone who has taken multiple, I have many tips for first-time Amtrak riders and train travel hacks.

But first, I want you to take a deep breath. Riding a train for the first time freaks some people out if they’re used to flying. However, the extra hours are not as long as they seem.

Bringing things to do and understanding how to book the ride is critical to a great experience. I’m here to make your ride smoother. So these are the best tips for first-time Amtrak riders.

FAQs about riding Amtrak for the first time

What do you need to know for your first Amtrak trip?

The main thing you need to know about riding Amtrak for the first time is that it’s not as tedious as flying. It’s more calming.  Also, if you want Wi-Fi, you must bring your hotspot because most scenic Amtrak rides don’t have it! 

How early should you be for your Amtrak ride?

For first-time Amtrak riders, get to the train station at least 30 minutes to an hour beforehand. While you don’t have to go through the TSA line, if you want a good seat and you’re sitting in coach, you need to get there early. However, if you book a first-class or business-class seat, you board first in your respective area, so it’s not as big of an issue.

What side is best to sit on Amtrak?

The best side to sit on Amtrak varies based on the route, season and direction. However, many scenic trains have gorgeous views on both sides. When in doubt, ask the car attendants – they have the best insight.

Amtrak first-time rider tips and tricks

Research by route 

You need to use their website to find the best scenic routes on Amtrak. They have a list of their routes, which is much easier to use than putting them into random cities. If you do that, you will get a lot of trains with layovers – which can lead to more delays.

A few of the most scenic routes in the USA include the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, and Empire Builder. A lot of the scenic routes are also on the west coast. Yet shorter routes, such as the Adirondack from NYC to Montreal, are popular.

Bring a multi-port outlet

Outlets are limited on Amtrak rides. Thus, bring a multi-port outlet to charge all of your devices. This outlet is a train travel essential for cross-country train rides! 

Don’t be nervous or scared 

Sitting in one place for a long time can be nerve-racking. But do not nervous or scared on an Amtrak? They are pretty relaxing and friendly. If you engage, many love to make conversation to pass the time.

Train travelers are nicer than air travelers 

One of the first things I realized while riding Amtrak for the first time was how relaxed fellow travelers acted. Air travelers can be rude and anxious. However, train rides calm travelers and attract slow travelers who are not in a rush always to get somewhere. 

Plan for delays 

One of the most talked about tips for first-time Amtrak riders is to plan for delays. They are common and frequent on Amtrak rides since they share their tracks with the freights. Therefore, do not plan something directly after your train is meant to arrive. This may mean staying overnight in a different place from your final destination. However, if you arrive late, you will have a place to sleep. 

Sign up for Amtrak guest rewards 

Amtrak guest rewards are one of the most underutilized programs. If you want to find deals on Amtrak, you must join this list. It is one of the few ways to learn about discounts and promotions on the site. 

Talk to the car attendants 

The most knowledgeable people on an Amtrak ride are car attendants. For sleeper car travelers, an attendant is assigned to your car for the duration of your trip. They are one of the best people to talk to and get to know on the train as they ride it often. You can also speak to the dining car attendants as you eat your meals – they love to crack jokes. 

Pack snacks

Even though there is a cafe car in a dining car on Mini Amtrak trains, snacks are vital to surviving. You may get hungry between meals if you are in a sleeper car with meals included. And if you are traveling via coach, many travelers bring a cooler for the longer train rides. 

Get to the observation car early

On a scenic route like the California Zephyr, the observation car is a hot commodity once you reach Denver. If you want to leave coach or your sleeper car to sit in the observation car, get there a few stops before the most scenic part of the trip. But also, feel free to switch seats with other travelers!

Coordinate your itinerary carefully

When planning your Amtrak ride, logistics can be confusing. For many train rides, you will be required to fly one way and take the train the other way. Though it is possible to do a loop on multiple trains, that can take at least six days to complete.

If you need more time, consider which route makes sense. Should you fly first, then take a train back to your home destination? Or do you need to ask these questions when booking your Amtrak ride? 

Tips for traveling overnight on Amtrak

Invest in the roomette 

One of my top tips for first-time Amtrak riders riding overnight is booking the roomette.  Multiple days on Amtrak in coach may be cheaper. But a roomette is way more comfortable and includes all your meals and access to a shower.

Pack as light as possible

While it is uncommon for Amtrak to weigh your bags, still pack light. Only so many fits in your roomette (I would only recommend a backpack to stay in your sleeper car). And only so much can fit in coach, though you can check your bags if packing light is not possible.

Wear shower shoes (sleeper car travelers)

One of the highlights of having a sleeper car ticket is shower access. You can shower on the train when you book a roomette or a bedroom on Amtrak. However, shower shoes or flip-flops are necessary because they are shared showers. 

Noise-canceling headphones are a must 

For those Amtrak riders who want solitude, you need these headphones! Noise-canceling headphones make listening to music, podcasts, or movies easy while on the train. They completely block out the noisiness of the train and rattling at night.

Bring activities to fill your time 

If you are someone riding Amtrak for the first time solo, you will need activities. Bringing things to do is the best way to fill your time and avoid boredom. If you want ideas, check out this blog post for more. 

Is Amtrak safe to travel alone?

As a Black, solo female train traveler, I have taken many trains alone and share my best tips along the way. I always say that safety is relative. But in my experience, I have been 100% safe on Amtrak rides solo.

Train travel makes it easy because there are only so many places you can go! And if you book a sleeper car, you get an entire room to yourself. Therefore, it is one of the safest solo trips you can do. Though I will say most of my train travel experiences I’ve been in the US.

So book that solo trip! And if you use these tips for new Amtrak riders, let me know in the comments below. Happy train traveling.

Are you looking for more train travel tips? Check out the top four scenic routes I recommend!

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Ben Edmonson July 19, 2023 - 11:01 am

Having traveled coach overnight on City of New Orleans Memphis -Chicago & return I second your 1st time tips. Also on Empire Builder Chicago to Montana and back in Roomettes. Relaxing travel vs. airline.

Sojourner August 15, 2023 - 7:12 pm

Nice! And yes I definitely agree

Robert Vitray July 26, 2023 - 8:30 pm

Don’t forget to load some talking books on your phone. I get the discounted books from Chirp! You an listen to the book with your noise cancelling phones AND watch the scenery with both eyes.

Sojourner August 15, 2023 - 7:12 pm

Thanks for the tip Robert!


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