Knowing the most brilliant train travel hacks makes planning those scenic sleeper train trips easier! As someone who has taken cross-country train rides solo all over the U.S., they are one-of-a-kind experiences. But making them more comfortable and affordable is a top priority for many travelers.
Yet, they are not as overwhelming as they might seem. For example, taking the 52-hour California Zephyr, the ultimate train ride from the Midwest to the west coast, means taking advantage of those fresh air stops. And footies? A must to keep those feet warm at night. Here are more train travel hacks for your next scenic train trip.
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Train Travel Hacks FAQs
How do you pass the time on a train ride?
Some of the best train travel hacks involve the activities you bring. Getting a journal, a book/Kindle, a laptop or iPad, and noise-canceling headphones for music and podcasts to pass the time on the train. You should download any media you want before you go because there is no Wi-Fi on many scenic trains.
Do you get lonely on train rides?
There are many opportunities to meet new people, especially on Amtrak trains. My best train travel hack is hanging out in the observation car to converse. Another way to meet people is during meals. For all meals on Amtrak trains, they sit you with other people at a table, so chances are you’re always meeting someone new. A deck of playing cards is also an excellent icebreaker to have people join you in a card game.
How comfortable are long train rides?
On long, scenic train rides, comfort is typically determined by the class of ticket you have. Coach-class travelers only have access to their seats. Therefore, riding coach can be uncomfortable if you are on the train for multiple days.
I always recommend splurging on the roomette if you can. And if you are traveling with two or more people, the bedroom is also worth the splurge. Paying for extra comfort on a rocky train is worth the investment.
Top 5 train travel essentials
(FYI: many of these essentials you can find in my Amazon Storefront Train Travel Essentials)
Multi-port power strip
On Amtrak trains, there are few outlets. So buying a power strip with regular and USB outlets is highly recommended. A power strip means you can quickly charge your laptop, iPad, phone, and other devices.
Hotspot or portable wifi
One of the biggest complaints about Amtrak trains is the lack of Wi-Fi. Yet, there is a way around it if you want some data for your technology. A device like Travel Wi-Fi’s Universal Global Hotspot or Sapphire portable Wi-Fi is ideal.
Sleeping mask & slippers
Of all my train travel essentials, these two are my best train travel hacks. On Amtrak trains, the light in the hallway of the sleeper car stays on all night. Thus it can creep into your room! Therefore, it is essential to have a sleeping mask if you have sensitive eyes. And as you go to and from the shower or the bathroom, I find it more comfortable to wear slippers than my regular shoes.
The best train travel hack I can recommend is noise-canceling headphones for all my light sleepers. The train can get bumpy and loud at night, quickly waking you up. So while you should also pack earplugs, these headphones do the trick.
How to get comfortable on a long train ride
Even if you stay in a roomette, you still want to pack light. Unlike planes, there is no TSA (though you don’t want to carry a bag of more than 50 pounds because some stations do weigh luggage). However, it is still lovely not to travel with so many things to watch out for during your train ride. You also have to carry everything you bring. Therefore packing light is just an easier way to travel.
Wear comfortable clothes
Packing your most comfortable outfits is the way to go on a long train ride. Although this is one of the many train travel hacks people overlook, it is the most important. You will be sitting for long periods, and you will be uncomfortable if you wear bulky clothing. Leggings, breathable clothing, athleisure, sweatpants, etc., are the way to go when preparing for your train trip.
Is a trip complete without snacks? Dried fruit, trail mix, and other candies are essential for a cross-country train ride. Many travelers who ride in coach also save money by bringing a cooler instead of buying from the cafe car. With a cooler, your food can also be fresher than the options available. And even if you book a room with meals in the sleeper car, bringing treats between meals is a good idea.
Take advantage of fresh air stops
One of my biggest mistakes on the 52-hour California Zephyr was not getting off during the fresh air stops! I sat down for most of the train ride and felt it in my body afterward. On scenic train rides, they intentionally plan these 30-minute stops for you to stretch your legs and go outdoors. Just don’t go too far, or the train will leave you.
Bring a neck pillow & blanket
If you decide not to book a room, bringing a neck pillow and a blanket is vital for train travel. Coach seats are uncomfortable, and even in the roomette, you may want extra comfort around your neck. Keeping yourself warm and cozy on a long train ride is all the better.
How to save on train tickets
Similar to air travel, train travel requires booking early. Reserving three to four months in advance is good for cross-country scenic train routes like the California Zephyr. Leaving on a Thursday is generally better than going on a Friday. However, depending on the train route’s availability, this varies.
Sign up for Amtrak’s newsletter
Joining any travel newsletter is a general best practice. But it is also one of the top train travel hacks too! Amtrak does post deals on its website. However, the best ones are shared when you create an account and sign up for their emails. Amtrak’s email list is where they usually send their buy one, get one free deal which is a great money saver if you want to book multiple roomettes.
Buy an Amtrak rail pass
One of Amtrak’s train travel hacks and the best-kept secret is their rail passes. They provide three types of passes for train travel: Multi-Ride Passes, USA Rail Pass, and the California Rail Pass. And each one is based on their own specific needs.
For the Multi-Ride Passes, prices vary based on the locations and if you purchase a monthly, 10-ride, or 6-ride trip. But on this pass, travelers can commute between two locations, ideal for planning multiple trips to one destination. The $499 USA Rail Pass allows coach train travelers to hop on/hop off ten segments in 30 days. Then finally, the California Rail Pass is to hop on/off select California trains for $159.
Scenic train trip ideas
El Chepe Express in Mexico
Finding scenic train rides worldwide is one of my train travel hacks! And the El Chepe Express ride through northern Mexico was the best surprise ever. Riding through the Chihuahua and Sinaloa regions, train travelers spend 10 hours riding through Copper Canyon and the hilly, green, and slightly mountainous parts of Mexico. From coach to first class, you have various options on this ride.
To make the most of the El Chepe Express, one of my train travel hacks is to know a little Spanish. The majority of travelers on the El Chepe Express are Mexican nationals. While it may not be possible for you to become fluent, knowing a few words or phrases, or having a translating device, can make mingling with other travelers easier.
Amtrak California Zephyr
Often called the most scenic train ride in the United States is the California Zephyr. This route starts in Chicago and ends in Emeryville, California. Many people start in Denver because that’s where the most scenic part begins.
My best train travel hack for this ride is to grab a seat in the observation car early! At that Denver stop, it gets very crowded. Therefore, if you are already on the train, snag a seat to get the best view.
For a shorter, more scenic ride in the United States, take the Amtrak Cascades. This train ride from Portland to Vancouver, Canada, is only 8 hours long. Take advantage of the fresh air stop in Seattle, as it is the only one on this train. However, the view from Seattle going through Puget Sound, and ending in Vancouver, are some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen on a train.
Why you should take a scenic train ride once
A scenic train ride needs to be on your bucket list! No questions asked. While they seem a bit out of the ordinary when we have the option to fly, there is something magical about sitting and enjoying the view on a train.
Scenic train rides are also great trips for people across interests. For travelers who love adventure and the outdoors, but want to avoid hiking, many of the views trains go through are the same scenic sights. As a solo traveler, I get the solitude I want, but I can also mingle with others.
Cross-country train rides are also fun for couples and families! It is an excellent time for a family to bond with their kids because you have nowhere else to go. And if you have a romantic partner, it is also a cute trip to spend time together, cuddle, and enjoy each other’s company.
On your travels, it is always nice to switch it up. What better way to do that than with a long, scenic ride through part of a city, town, or country you would not have seen otherwise? With these train travel hacks, you can also enjoy a scenic train ride!
Need help with your options for train travel? Check out these four USA scenic train trip ideas!