Please hope me Amtrak rite!
December 7, 2009 8:19 PM   Subscribe

Travel trips? I have read the Amtrak archives for some great advice but I have some different detailed questions!

I'm taking my two teen age daughters to NYC for Christmas where we will be met with relatives at the train station. I have never taken Amtrak and have some questions about what to expect:

I understand there are no seat assignments. Should I be worried about being seperated from my daughters boarding an 8am train in Wilmington, DE on Christmas Eve morning? Similarly, on our return - we are leaving out of Penn Station on Sunday 12/27/09 afternoon for Wilmington. I'm assuming it will be very crowded but really have no idea and would like to be armed with more information.

Has anyone taken Amtrak from Wilmington to Penn Station (or similar route) that can tell me a little of what to expect?

Bonus help: I'm prone to mild claustrophobia (although I often fly on airplanes) and would like any travel tips for a happy Amtrak Adventure!
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There are no seat assignments but all seats are reserved. So you'll all get seats.

Southbound, a lot of the train turns over in New York (and usually the stop in NY is about fifteen minutes) so you should have no trouble getting seats together. (Be a bit early for the train if you can.) Northbound, you may have some trouble at Wilmington, but chances are something will open up when people get on and off the train in Philadelphia.

Although the train has a cafe car, the lines will be long and the food no good. You're better off eating breakfast at home on 12/24. (It may be possible to pick something up at the Wilmington station, but I've only been through that station once and I wasn't paying attention.)
posted by madcaptenor at 8:28 PM on December 7, 2009

The likelihood of finding three seats together at this time of year is very slim. Try to be the first people onto the train, and sit in the car furthest from the station entrance. That will up your chances. But pack entertainment for each of you separately, because it's likely that you'll have to sit apart, and you'll want something to do on the trip.
posted by decathecting at 9:04 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you've never been on a train and only on airplanes you are going to be pleasantly surprised about how much more space your seat has. If you are ok on airplanes you will be fine on amtrak. Also big windows to look out helps a lot.
posted by magnetsphere at 9:09 PM on December 7, 2009

I took a train from NH to Chicago, and then down to St. Louis (so almost 24 full hours of Amtrak) and was So Happy not to be on an airplane! Like, blissfully so! If you can do airplanes without being attacked by claustrophobia, you should be fin. You'have a lot of space, more leg room, more head room, lots of walking around room (though it will be more crowded, you should be able to walk up and down if you need to), and a big window to look out of. Plus if you're on a sort of fancy train, there are observation cars with wide open spaces and big glass windows. I had a lot of fun on the train - enjoy it!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:14 PM on December 7, 2009

I did a full cross-country Amtrak last summer. One overnight in coach, two in the littlest roomette. It's not as loose and free a trip as driving but was orders of magnitude more chilled out than flying.

The cafe car veggie burger surprised me by being pretty good for what it was! decathecting's advice on getting there early is a good tip. Consider that even if your seats are separate, you may be able to hang out together in the cafe car. (or observation car if there is one on that line)

There were lots of what appeared to be "regulars" who used the cafe tables for group card games the entire way with no problems. Walking around and using electronics is a lot less troublesome than on a plane. The seats recline really nicely. You might want to pack some thin blankets for napping.

Some of my neighbors on the train were a family of mom-and-two-daughters doing a national parks trip and the girls seemed to really enjoy the semi-autonomy that comes with being able to walk around a train. (and their mom liked not having to drive!)

Have a great trip! I'm looking forward to some more Amtrak rides after the holidays.
posted by clango at 9:56 PM on December 7, 2009

PS: Unlike flying, nobody's gonna dig through your food when you board. Pack whatever! Fluids are fine.
posted by clango at 9:58 PM on December 7, 2009

Haven't been to Wilmington, but I have taken Amtrak to Penn Station.

The seats are comparable to your average US domestic first-class seat. I'm 6'1" and have trouble sleeping in airplanes, but on Amtrak, I was well-rested when I got to New York.

I forget whether all the seats had power outlets or only a few. I don't recall having a problem getting one, though. My train wasn't that crowded, but I'd bet things are different during the holidays.

The diner-car food was . . . adequate. Nothing inedible, but there's a very good reason they don't have a Michelin Star. The train I was on also had a "snack car," which was open longer hours and sold the usual packaged snacks you see at gas stations and the like. Prices were decent.

This was in August 2001, so I imagine some things have changed.
posted by tellumo at 10:22 PM on December 7, 2009

In my experience, Amtrak lets senior citizens and families with young children board first from the originating station. You will wait by the gate while the young/ older board. After that, everyone rushes to line up outside the train. (If you aren't boarding at an originating station you can usually go out to the tracks whenever). You won't have a reserved seat, but a conductor will tell you which car to get in depending on your destination.

I've found that conductors are good at asking single travelers to pair up when the trains are full. This should make it a little easier to find seats together as a family.

Finding seats together may not even be a concern. The past few times I've ridden Amtrak (although not your train) the conductor gave me a seat number right before boarding. The seat numbers were given in consecutive order. If you are really worried about finding seats together I would call Amtrak to find out the policies for your particular train.

Bring a blanket and food. Also, I've never been in a coach car that didn't have a water dispenser and a toilet.

In my experience, Amtrak usually leaves the originating station on time and reaches its final destination roughly on time. Don't be surprised if the train is late for stops along the way.
posted by oceano at 10:44 PM on December 7, 2009

Seats are unreserved. Everyone (always) tried to get a seat by themselves. It'll be harder to get 3 seats across an aisle (and each car may have some facing seats. If you get on the Cafe car - you very well may be able to get a table.

Since you're traveling with kids and bags here's how to get to the platform early:
Get a redcap to take down your bags. For a small tip, you'll end up avoiding the lines all together - and be waiting directly on the platform.

In NYC this gets you way early on the train. Wilmington this may not help much (if at all) - people will mostly be getting off in philly - meaning that you should just get a quick seat near each other and then try consolidating in philly.
posted by filmgeek at 10:49 PM on December 7, 2009

I've traveled a bunch on Amtrak between my boyfriend (Wilmington) or my family (NYP) or college (Boston).

I don't know how crowded the train will be during the holidays, but unassigned seating should also mean that it's easier to ask someone to move to accommodate the family sitting together (I find mostly singles/pairs traveling on Amtrak rather than larger families for some reason).

Compared to airplanes, there's pretty much no one fussing around you. No one will check your bags or make you empty your pockets! Instead, it's just like waiting for and boarding a bus or something.

Wilmington is a pretty small station, so I don't think you'd have a problem with long lines, and you'll be before the Philly & NYC rushes so I think you'd probably be able to find good seating at 8am! There is only one track going North towards Boston/NYP. Business class gets it own car (they'll tell you where if you have business class tix). There's a separate quiet car. The arrangement is reasonably comfy, seating is arranged in pairs or groups of 4 (2 pairs facing each other), every seat gets its own outlet. The cafe car is not that bad but is overpriced, so feel free to pack your own food if you want. It's easy to get plastic utensils, napkins, and condiments from the cafe car if you forget them. The bathrooms, which are at an end of the car, are usually pretty clean and even spacious. The ride takes about ~2.5 hours to NYP I think? Half of the people on the train will probably get off here.

NYP however is a BIG station, with many tracks as it serves other train systems as well. Sunday afternoon will probably be super crowded. Amtrak gets a separate waiting area in NYP, with seating and water fountains just for you. When your gate is announced there'll be a mad rush to it and everyone will likely clump together by the gate entrance instead of lining up properly, but once you get through that (have your ticket on hand to show) you're once again free to choose your own seating. You'll have to make sure you don't all fall asleep right before your stop at Wilmington or else you might miss your stop, since the train doesn't stay in DE for long!

Good luck!
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 12:30 AM on December 8, 2009

At NYP it is definitely a mad rush to the escalator once they announce what track your train is departing from. It will probably be crowded during the holiday travel season, so your best bet is just to ask some single strangers to double up so you can put your kids together, and then sit next to/behind/in front of/nearby them. The train ride is awesome compared to flying though, for all the reasons mentioned above.
posted by kenbennedy at 7:00 AM on December 8, 2009

I've taken Amtrak between NYC and DC dozens of times. Traveling by train is so much more comfortable and easy than flying these days. How old are your teenage daughters? If they're more on the 13 years (rather than 17) end of the spectrum, you might be able to board early, or you can probably ask someone to move so at least your daughters can sit together with you nearby. Usually during the holidays they reserve the end seats (four facing each other, so someone has to ride backwards) for family groups, so try to snag one of those--might be helpful to ask the conductor as you're boarding if there are any open. It will be more crazy leaving NYC--they don't call the track ahead of time, so when they finally do there's a huge rush (no real line, it's a mob) to get down to the track. This would be the ideal time to ask a redcap for help if your daughters are still young enough. If they're older teens, just walk as far down the platform as you can before boarding and there will be more empty seats. If you folks are quiet and plan to just read or sleep the whole trip, you can also try the quiet car (usually just after business, which is the first car)--but keep in mind there is no talking on the quiet car, watching movies/playing electronic games is discouraged (noise bleed), and other passengers or the conductor will ask you to move if you break the rules. But it's great if you are looking for a peaceful ride.

There will be power outlets at all the seats, and definitely bring your own water! The free water is pretty gross tasting and the bottled is expensive.
posted by min at 7:01 AM on December 8, 2009

I'd say it takes a bit less than two hours to NYP from WIL, but otherwise would second The Biggest Dreamer's advice, inclyding the stuff about the Philly and the NYC rushes and not sleeping through Wilmington, which I've done.

My gut feeling is that you won't have to worry too much a crowded train at Wilmington, particularly if you linger a bit further from the entrance. Most of the Amtrak passengers boarding or leaving Wilmington are business people and college students; you probably aren't going to get too much of either on the morning before Christmas Eve, as most students will have been on break for a few days by then, and few business people will be traveling for work.

On the other hand, even if you guys can't sit together due to an unexpected, it won't be an issue with teenagers. You should be able to sit in the same car if you're willing to split up, and you can get up to visit each other from time to time. Amtrak is a pretty sedate crowd. Your biggest annoyance is likely to be either a chatty person on a cell phone or an inconsiderate such-and-such who falls asleep on multiple seats.

NYP is going to be a madhouse on Sunday. Arrive early, get a notion of the layout of the station, and then retired to the separate waiting area.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:08 AM on December 8, 2009

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