USA train travel with Amtrak

Take the train with Amtrak and immerse yourself in America’s natural beauty from the comfort of your own seat. Rome2rio shares the most jaw-dropping scenic routes, compares coach seats vs business class, and explains how to find and book the best value Amtrak tickets.

Coast Starlight Amtrak train

Amtrak is the national passenger railway service for train travel in the USA. With 21,000 miles of track in 46 states (and three Canadian provinces), it services over 500 destinations with short commuter routes and long-distance, cross-country journeys.

Why travel by train in the USA?
Scenic and popular Amtrak routes
Amtrak train route map and schedule frequency
How to choose between Amtrak’s coach class, business class and first class
Amtrak amenities, dinner reservations & baggage allowances
Getting the best value Amtrak train tickets
Route guides by Amtrak
Amtrak travel tips

Why travel by train in the USA?

There are practical reasons to travel by train instead of flying. If you’re travelling last-minute, you’ll likely find it more affordable, and generally there’s more flexibility for cancellations and rescheduling.  Amtrak baggage allowances are more generous, especially if you want to carry a bicycle or other oversize luggage. And there’s more space, allowing you to stretch out and move around, and, if you’re on business, work in relative comfort.

Then there are the more romantic reasons. If you’re a leisure traveller, watching the grand landscapes of America gradually unfold outside your window is a travel experience in itself (and many of Amtrak’s long-distance trains have observation cars to enhance that experience). The pace of train travel has its own rhythm, allowing you to meet your fellow travellers, enjoy time in the dining car, read a book or let yourself be hypnotised by the passing landscape. Taking the train makes your trip as much about the journey as the destination.

Looking for a spot in the observation car | Photo: flickr – m01229

Scenic and popular Amtrak routes

The most popular routes are sections of the Northeast Regional (which runs between Boston and Virginia Beach), the Acela Express from Boston to Washington DC via New York, and the Pacific Surfliner from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via Los Angeles.

With services crisscrossing this enormous country, most of Amtrak’s routes have their moments of jaw-dropping beauty. The most renowned scenic routes are:

California Zephyr Train

California Zephyr Train Route: Chicago → Denver → Glenwood Springs → Emeryville (San Francisco)

Amtrak’s longest coast to coast route at 2,438 miles, the Zephyr follows the Colorado River for more than 200 miles and crosses both the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada mountains to reach the lowlands of the California Central Valley and on to San Francisco Bay.

California Zephyr
California Zephyr | Photo: Amtrak

Popular California Zephyr Train Routes
Chicago → San Francisco | Find Amtrak tickets
Chicago → Denver | Find Amtrak tickets
Omaha → Denver | Find Amtrak tickets
Denver → Salt Lake City | Find Amtrak tickets

Coast Starlight Train

Coast Starlight Train Route: Seattle → Portland → Los Angeles

Widely recognized as Amtrak’s most stunning long-distance route, this train takes you through the watery landscapes of Puget Sound. Take in the breathtaking views of snow-capped Mount Rainer from the observation car as you travel south into California, skirting long stretches of the sparkling Pacific Ocean.

Amtrak Coast Starlight Train
Coast Starlight,Oregon | Photo: Bruce Fingerhood

Popular Coast Starlight Train Routes
Portland → Seattle | Find Amtrak tickets
Seattle → San Francisco | Find Amtrak tickets
San Jose → Los Angeles | Find Amtrak tickets
Sacramento → Portland | Find Amtrak tickets>
Los Angeles → San Francisco | Find Amtrak tickets

Empire Builder Train

Empire Builder Train Route: Chicago → St. Paul/Minneapolis → Spokane → Portland/Seattle

The star of this 2,206-mile journey, much of it close to the Canadian border, is the majestic wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. The route follows the mighty Mississippi for 140 miles, passes into Montana’s Big Sky country, and traces the historic path of Lewis and Clark through Glacier National Park.

Amtrak Empire Builder Train
Empire Builder | Photo: Amtrak

Popular Empire Builder Train Routes
Minneapolis → Chicago | Find Amtrak tickets
Spokane → Seattle | Find Amtrak tickets
Chicago → Seattle | Find Amtrak tickets
Seattle → Glacier National Park | Find Amtrak tickets
Chicago → Glacier National Park | Find Amtrak tickets

Southwest Chief Train

Southwest Chief Train Route: Chicago → Kansas City → Albuquerque → Flagstaff → LA

A 2,256-mile trip through the vast expanse of the fabled American West, this route follows the famous Santa Fe Trail from the Colorado Rockies, passes through Arizona’s iconic red rock formations, makes shuttle connections to the Grand Canyon Railway and a takes the home stretch through the Mojave Desert.

Amtrak Empire Builder Train
Southwest Chief | Photo: Wikipedia

Popular Southwest Chief Train Routes
Albuquerque → Los Angeles | Find Amtrak tickets
Kansas City → Chicago | Find Amtrak tickets
Chicago → Las Vegas | Find Amtrak tickets
Chicago → Grand Canyon | Find Amtrak tickets

Adirondack Train

Adirondack Train Route: Montreal Albany New York

At the right time of year, this is a fall foliage blockbuster taking in the Hudson River Valley, the shores of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. Some fall services feature the Great Dome Car (on a first come, first served basis), with an upper level surrounded by windows for panoramic views of the magnificent autumnal show.

Amtrak Adirondack Train
Adirondack Train | Photo: Amtrak

Popular Adirondack Train Routes
Montreal → New York | Find Amtrak tickets
Plattsburg → New York | Find Amtrak tickets
New York → Saratoga Springs | Find Amtrak tickets
New York → Albany | Find Amtrak tickets

Amtrak train route map and schedule frequency

Most of the long multi-state services depart once a day, others depart three times a week. Popular commuter routes have multiple departures each day, with up to 20 for the Northeast Regional.

While many of Amtrak’s routes are long, multi-day trips, you can travel between just a few stations, or string several routes together to make a cross-country odyssey that ticks off all the places you want to visit.

Amtrak route map showing major train station stops, service types and frequency of short and long-distance train services.  Map by PerryPlanet

It’s possible to break up longer journeys with overnight stops, but you’ll need to pre-organise this when you book by creating a multi-city booking. This will work out a little more expensive than booking the entire route as one trip, but it enables you to put together exactly the journey you want.

Traversing the USA by rail can be an incredible bargain. If you book far enough ahead you can get from New York to San Francisco via Chicago for under $200, if you’re happy to do the 70-odd hour trip in a coach seat. This rises to over $1000 for a two-person roomette with fold-down beds and all meals included.

The differences between Amtrak’s coach class, business class and first class

Coach class is the cheapest way to travel but still comfortable (with reclining seats), especially on the long-distance Viewliner and Superliner trains with extra legroom and footrests. (The bi-level Superliner trains also feature panoramic views from the upper level.)

Routes that offer business class cars have additional legroom and complimentary non-alcoholic drinks. First class, available only on the Acela Express between Boston and Washington DC, is even more spacious and includes a meal service and access to ClubAcela lounges in several major stations in the northeast.

The real difference in your experience will be the sleeping arrangements. Apart from coach, long-distance services offer a range of sleeping options from a basic roomette for two adults to a more spacious bedroom including a toilet and shower, and bigger family suites. You can explore all the options on Amtrak’s detailed 3D tours.

Business class seats Amtrak
Business class seats on selected Northeast and Midwest Amtrak trains (Credit: Amtrak)

Amtrak amenities, dining reservations & baggage allowances

All seats have a fold-down tray, individual reading light and 120v electric outlet to charge your devices. Several commuter lines offer a Quiet Car, although on busy routes it can get quite crowded. An increasing number of trains now offer (slow) Wi-Fi.

Most long-distance trains include a dining car where you can sit down to a full-service hot meal. You’ll be asked if you want to make a dinner reservation after boarding. There are usually lounge and café cars with more informal eating options. Lounge cars are also a free space for reading, playing cards, socializing, and on Superliner trains, enjoying expansive views from dedicated observation cars.

Amtrak’s carry-on baggage allowances are generous – each passenger can bring two pieces of baggage of 25 pounds and two of 50 pounds. In addition, checked baggage is permitted on most long-distance services.

Getting the best value Amtrak train tickets

Most Amtrak trains require ticket reservations – don’t expect that you’ll be able to buy a ticket on board the train; it’s not always possible and you may be asked to get off at the next stop.

You have the best chance of getting the lowest price if you book in advance, online, at least 14 days ahead; bookings open 11 months in advance. Roomettes and bedrooms book out quickly, so book as far ahead as possible if you want one.

Amtrak passes are available for a set price for 15, 30 or 45 days, allowing you to travel a certain number of travel segments within the set time. These can be a good deal if you’re planning lots of travel within a short time-span.

Discounted SmartFares are available on the Amtrak website from Tuesday to Friday each week, for travel the following month. Travel dates and routes are limited, so it’s not an option if you have an inflexible schedule – but if you’re open to going wherever the tracks may take you, you could get a great deal.

Children up to 12 years ride for 50 percent off (children under two ride free), there’s a 15 percent discount for seniors over 62 years and students. See more about Amtrak discounts here.

If you’re planning to travel during a peak holiday period – Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekend and the weekend nearest the Fourth of July –book early and expect to pay a little more (or be flexible with your travel times).

Amtrak train tickets can be purchased online here at Rome2rio – see our step-by-step Amtrak ticket booking guide or via the Amtrak website and at staffed Amtrak stations. If purchasing online you’ll receive an email containing your eTicket as a PDF attachment, this can be printed out before you travel or displayed on a mobile device. Simply show the eTicket barcode and your ID to the conductor when travelling.

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Greyhound bus travel in the US
Thanksgiving Travel: How to travel stress-free

Amtrak route guides

Amtrak produce downloadable detailed guides for every route, describing each city, town, state line and point of interest along the way, including historical notes and geographical highlights of the route.

Amtrak travel tips

Make the most of your USA train journey with these Amtrak travel tips:

Tip #1 – Plan the timing between your train connections wisely
If you’re booking a multi-city trip, be sure not to make your connections too tight. Many of the Amtrak passenger trains are taking long journeys over many days and sharing their tracks with the super-long freight trains (sometimes 1.5 miles long) – it’s almost inevitable that there will be delays along the way.

Tip #2 – Download the Amtrak app
The Amtrak app allows you to purchase, modify and store eTickets. Sign up for email notifications to be informed of any delays or changes en route, and save yourself getting to the station early for a train that’s running four hours late.

Tip #3 – Use Amtrak’s checked baggage services where available
Consider checking-in large baggage, now offered on some long-distance journeys – there is limited space in coach (and roomettes), and you’ll be free to get off the train at rest stops without worrying about your valuables. To use Amtrak’s checked baggage services you’ll need to check bags in at least 45 minutes before departure, and from 24 hours before.

Tip #4 – Request your seating preference
Amtrak seats are reserved but not assigned when you book, you’ll be assigned a seat at the station. If you want a specific seat such as an aisle or a window – just ask.

USA train travel with Amtrak was originally published 23 May 2017.

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