A practical guide to riding the rails in the US, from train passes to delays

A practical guide to riding the rails in the US, from train passes to delays

There are dozens of epic train routes crisscrossing America — here’s everything you need to know about booking a slow Stateside odyssey.

Published December 4, 2023

5 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

For travellers with time on their side and a thirst for adventure, America’s old-school train network offers a charming way to see the country. Brought together under the banner of Amtrak services in 1970, rail tracks wind between almost every state. Travellers can chug through the Rockies, cross the Great Plains or skirt the Pacific Ocean in California, watching the US’s diverse landscapes unfurl from the comfort of a cabin. To get the best value, helpful booking tips and find out what facilities are on board, try this handy guide.

How do I book train tickets?

The US has just one train operator, Amtrak, a government-funded but for-profit company. Book tickets on Amtrak’s website or mobile app. The company also has a tour agency called Amtrak Vacations that offers package deals, including train travel, hotel stays, activities and a personal travel adviser to help you sort your trip. Another option is to use a third-party agency, such as Vacations By Rail, owned by UK-based Great Rail Journeys, which runs group train trips with a wide variety of itineraries.     

How far in advance should I book train tickets?

Book Amtrak tickets as soon as you decide the trip you want to take, ideally at least a few months ahead of time — especially if you’re reserving a room in a sleeper car. Like airlines, Amtrak uses dynamic pricing, so the cheapest tickets sell out first. But don’t panic if you’ve made a last-minute decision to ride the rails — tickets will likely still be available. If you’re not ready to book yet, you can still keep an eye on how quickly the route is selling. The Amtrak website has real-time seat availability to show you how full each train is.

Are there any train passes to help keep costs down?

For an Interrail-style adventure, buy a USA Rail Pass, which lets you take 10 journeys in 30 days for $499 (£410). These passes occasionally go on sale for $299 (£246), which means you could cross the entire country multiple times for under $30 (£25) a ride. There are caveats, though — for example, the pass covers coach seating only, no sleepers. It’s also worth checking Amtrak’s deals page, which often offers savings on group travel and discounts on specific routes at certain times, such as seeing autumn leaves in the north east. In March, Amtrak started offering $5 (£4.10) Night Owl fares on select East Coast routes, such as between Baltimore and Philadelphia, between 7pm and 5am.

What facilities are available on the trains?

Amenities vary widely by train route. Most trains have a cafe service, and anyone who books sleeper rooms receives complimentary three-course dinners with an alcoholic drink included, taken in the dining car with white linen tablecloths. Passengers are also permitted to bring their own food and drinks (no alcohol) on board. Some short- and medium-distance routes have wi-fi, but long-distance overnight routes don’t. The wi-fi is free to use but basic and doesn’t support downloading large files or streaming video or music.

What about train delays?

Amtrak trains are notorious for delays, most of which are attributed to freight train interference, when dispatchers allow freight trains to go ahead of passenger trains, despite being required by law to give Amtrak trains preference. In 2022, Amtrak trains were delayed by a total of 1.1 million minutes (over two years) by freight trains. Keep your plans flexible at the end of your journey, leaving at least 24 to 48 hours before any flights or other major reservations, in case your train arrival time or day is delayed. Unlike in the UK, there’s no compensation available for delayed trains.  

Published in the December 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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