Cross-country Amtrak advice
August 14, 2017 1:03 PM   Subscribe

I am flying out to Portland OR for the eclipse and then taking Amtrak back to NYC with a bunch of stops to see friends and family along the way. I'm so excited!!! What can I prepare to minimize the inevitable discomforts and maximize the awesome?

I used to take the trains pretty frequently so I am fine with the general trials and tribulations of Amtrak but it's been almost a decade!?!? since my last overnight train trip.

I got a USA Rail Pass and my route is currently as follows:
- Coast Starlight PDX-LAX (overnight)
- Texas Eagle LAX-DAL (longest stretch, Fri 10PM - Sun 3PM)
- Texas Eagle DAL-STL (overnight but short)
- Texas Eagle STL-CHI
- Capitol Limited CHI-WAS (overnight)
- NE Regional WAS-NYP

I'm pretty good at sleeping anywhere and expect to be in standard coach seats the entire trip. I'm traveling on my own and will have a medium sized duffel bag and a messenger bag. I've got an arsenal of snacks and will probably have a sleeping bag with me. Any other suggestions for the comfort/logistics/safety side of things, particularly for the overnight portions?

I'm not at all worried about passing the time in general but would love to hear about any specific recommendations or highlights from Mefites who enjoy Amtrak and/or have taken these particular routes.
posted by yeahlikethat to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I am extremely bitter right now, because I wish I got to do this on trains instead of buses, but I am going to be the bigger person and tell you that over the ear noise cancelling headphones (preferably bluetooth) and a sleep mask or even just a hoody with a roomy enough hood to pull over your eyes and accommodate the headphones can really help when you have to sleep on public transportation. Make sure you keep your valuables tucked in with you so they're not accessible while you're sleeping, of course.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:15 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you can afford it do let the conductor know you'd like to be on the list for any sleeper upgrade that comes available.
posted by sammyo at 1:26 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ahhhhh so jealous.

Layers, layers, layers. You can never tell how frigid it will get. For that long a trip I would probably try to bring a small pillow, as well.
posted by praemunire at 1:31 PM on August 14, 2017

Amtrak is famous for delays, so bring lots of snacks, books, movies and baby wipes. Think zombie survival kit without the weapons.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:37 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Can you pack a small cooler along with belongings along with a refillable bottle? On each stop, load up on healthy and portable snacks for the next leg of the train trip. It will be so much better than being forced to buy the limited unhealthy and expensive snacks in the café car. Nothing like jamming to good music, snacking on yummy cheese and crackers with your favorite drink while watching the world go by. You can make friends offering any extras to those around you.
posted by IndigoOnTheGo at 1:45 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

It has been, admittedly, many years since I rode Amtrak, but back then there were only plug-ins on the East coast legs and none for West of Chicago. So I'd check to make sure either you have plug-ins on your trains for those legs or that you have enough battery backups to make it the whole way.
posted by jillithd at 2:35 PM on August 14, 2017

Decide where you want the sun to be in relation to your body/ eyes. Choose your seat accordingly.
posted by bilabial at 2:38 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just got off the phone with one of my BFF's who is coming from TX to LA next week. She doesnt fly and is a frequent Amtrak user. I'll cover what hasn't been mentioned here.

Most important: lock all items not on your person, keep money and valuables in a travel wallet

1) in coach you won't have a shower. Bring enough wipes or whatever to include washing up.

2) bring nonperishable food with you and buy fresh when you can

3) headphone/eye mask

If you can afford it do let the conductor know you'd like to be on the list for any sleeper upgrade that comes available.

She told me to call Amtrak ASAP and see if an agent can do it now, but also try on the train. Ask if they have partial upgrades, too, so you might get one night to sleep and shower.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:50 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Don't be surprised to discover that the observation car is full of people sleeping at night...on the other hand, be happy you have the option of sleeping in the observation car at night.

And as mentioned above, valuables must be kept tight. If you find a place to plug in your phone for charging while you sleep, plan on curling up around it.
posted by davejay at 3:03 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just completed LAX-Chicago in June, and it was my 7th cross-country Amtrak experience.

If I were you, I would bring (besides clothes and toiletries):

1) a warm blanket or sleeping bag, socks, a sweatshirt, long pants, including for sleeping
2) tiny pillow
3) earplugs
4) eye mask or other face cover
5) personal wash cloth or hand towel for bathroom use (so you can wash and dry your face without using paper towels)
6) chapstick and lotion (it gets dry on there)
7) cash
8) more books/entertainment than you think you need
9) surreptitious tiny alcohol if you want to drink

Be sure to actually request and read (or download beforehand) the route guide so you have some context/info about the scenery.

Take advantage of "smoke break" stops to stretch and walk around.

Don't order rice as a side dish in the dining car (inedibly salty) or the shrimp (inedible in general).

The quesadilla in the dining car was good.

If there's a ranger on there (Trails and Rails) take advantage. They also have a stamp for your National Park Passport if you're into it.

Do some research about Amish people and their customs. They're gonna be on there and I really enjoyed learning more about why they rode the train on this particular trip.

Get ready to meet a bunch of people!

Enjoy the ride. :)
posted by Temeraria at 3:19 PM on August 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

I used to take surreptitious tiny alcohol but I think they can actually make you get off at the next station for it. It may be worth just spending a few extra bucks and getting overt tiny alcohol in the cafe car.

If you have the funds to spring for a sleeper for one leg of the trip, some routes are not so direly expensive as others, and it comes with dinner. (Which, in turn, comes with the opportunity for awkward dinner with surprisingly not that friendly people, I have found. I still adore train travel but I sometimes dine in my sleeper.)

The LA to Dallas route is a favorite of mine. There's lots of great scenery and you pass through little towns like Alpine, TX where you probably won't otherwise ever end up. Places in the middle of nowhere have their own feel to them. Step off the train for ten minutes (or however long they're there) and wonder what it's like to live there!

I don't seem to have lots of practical advice you haven't thought of except do plan for some non screen entertainment because once in a while the outlets don't work.

Oh and here's my one great piece of advice. Never, in trying to make conversation with strangers on the observation car, ask anyone "so why -do- you want to live off the grid?"

Um and the bathrooms are gross so if you're at a stop where they don't forbid running in, go in and use a real one.
posted by Smearcase at 3:52 PM on August 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh and on routes without assigned seating make a mad dash to get a window seat so you can lean and sleep. It's still fairly uncomfortable but a little less so.
posted by Smearcase at 3:54 PM on August 14, 2017

I've done the Empire Builder (PDX-MSP) twice. There were power outlets in coach, but not enough for every seat. If you've got the space in your suitcase, a power strip can be helpful to allow you to plug in a few things and still have a outlet for your neighbor. (I've found it's helpful when staying with friends who may not have enough outlets in a guest room, too, but I generally travel with too many electronics...)
posted by yuwtze at 4:10 PM on August 14, 2017

The four day train trip I did was Viarail across Canada, not Amtrak in the US, but here's my $0.02CAD anyway... Bring pyjamas! I changed into PJs to sleep in my seat every night and put on fresh clothes in the morning, and it always felt so good. Nobody else in the train did it and they probably all thought I was a nut, but I was a very comfortable nut.
posted by snorkmaiden at 4:44 PM on August 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

Have entertainment that isn't dependent on electricity and/or Internet signal.

I find those Penny Press puzzle books that you can find in drug stores fun and entertaining.
posted by spinifex23 at 5:57 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also - while you can't/shouldn't bring on your own booze, you can bring on your own food, to eat at your seat.
posted by spinifex23 at 5:58 PM on August 14, 2017

If you eat in the dining car, you will usually be seated with other people, at a table for 4.

Generally, you can meet some very nice folks and have lovely conversations. But, in case you want to finish your meal and leave, it helps if you are sitting on the aisle side on the table.

On a train from Chicago to Minneapolis during the last administration, I had the window seat next to a gentleman who was convinced that Obama was not born in the US, and wanted to convince me. That was a long meal.
posted by The Incredible Gnome at 6:39 PM on August 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Toilet paper. Passenger trains are at the mercy of the freight trains so if anything goes wrong, you may be stuck on the rails somewhere/anywhere. The toilet paper can run out really fast in the bathrooms (ask me how I know). Baby wipes already mentioned as also useful.
posted by MovableBookLady at 8:25 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm normally a short-distance rider, but I can guess at a few suggestions.

A water bottle or gallon jug of your favorite bottled water might be nice. (I get mildly paranoid about their water storage tanks, but buying small bottles of water would get expensive.)

Headphones have already been mentioned.

Most seats have just one electric plug, so if you think you'll be wanting to charge a phone and laptop at the same time, you might want to bring a splitter.

Baby wipes and waterless shampoo might be nice. The lack of a shower might be your biggest source of discomfort if you truly do have an easy time sleeping in these situations.

I don't know how standardized the meal options on these routes are, but I think their food could get really old. I'd come on with food and take every opportunity to buy food NOT on the train. (LA Union Station, for one)

And definitely bring a camera if your phone doesn't take good pictures! Should be a great trip.
posted by slidell at 9:00 PM on August 14, 2017

One quick thing about alcohol, it looks like you can bring it as long as you don't drink in public areas. And, just for the record, there will be drug dogs at a few stops.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:06 AM on August 15, 2017

Oops, that's only in sleeping cars.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:07 AM on August 15, 2017

So my outbound connection to Portland was cancelled, and what was supposed to be an easy fifteen minute cab ride to LGA turned into a frenzied crosstown sprint to get to Newark. Also meant I was stuck in the middle seat all the way to Phoenix, and to top it off, the lady in front of me spilled her entire drink on my bag and shoes. I had a lovely time camping outside of Portland for the eclipse but one of our drivers lost his keys in the John Day River. Our other car couldn't fit everyone and priority went to someone who had a flight to catch so a couple of us were left behind at the campsite with no cell service and crossed fingers (but plenty of box wine) while the rest of the party battled post-eclipse traffic to get to a Chevy dealer. Spoiler alert: We did not have to eat each other and I didn't even dip into my freeze-dried biscuit supply.

Needless to say, I am very happy to be headed home on the train and currently sitting in the observation car on the Coast Starlight in my pajamas.
posted by yeahlikethat at 11:52 PM on August 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

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