Carry-on Luggage for "Non-Commuter" Amtrak Trains
September 17, 2019 6:45 AM   Subscribe

I will be taking Amtrak's Texas Eagle line from Chicago to Austin, Texas next month to start a week-long bicycle tour with full camping gear. I have made a reservation for my bicycle on the train. But will I have trouble carrying on all my bike bags and camping gear?

I'll have six separate, small items that could qualify as luggage: four panniers (bike bags), a small tent, and a duffel bag. This will exceed the number of bags that, per Amtrak's website, I am allowed to carry on. However, these items are all small and will probably take up about as much space as the permitted carry-on limit. (When I fly with this stuff, it all fits into two checked suitcases, but because I'm biking to and from train stations, I don't want to bring actual suitcases with me.)

My only experience with Amtrak is on a commuter line (Milwaukee to Chicago). Almost no one brings significant luggage, and there's plenty of space to store whatever you bring, so I'd have no concern if this were my usual train. However, I would imagine that luggage storage might be more of an issue on longer journeys, and I'm wondering if anyone has any first-hand knowledge here. Will I be hassled if I try to carry on all six pieces of luggage? Will I be able to find storage on board?

Another option might be to check some of my gear. However, I have a transfer in Chicago, and I am nervous about my gear not being transferred. If I could transfer the gear myself, I would be okay with that. I am responsible for transferring my bike, so maybe the conductors would also allow me to transfer my own bags. But if I have to check my bags in Milwaukee and hope they make it through to Austin, I won't be able to relax.

I would call Amtrak, but I'm pretty sure the phone rep would just read me the baggage policy. I'm interested in knowing what might actually happen on the train.I would appreciate any insights by those who've taken long Amtrak journeys.

posted by crLLC to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have not taken that particular Amtrak line. I do frequently take Amtrak in the Northeast. I've never seen a conductor hassle people about the number or size of the bags. I have seen them insist bags be stowed under the seat or overhead, not in the aisle or even in front of your feet. Once you and your gear are settled, you are unlikely to have any issues.

Getting on is the question: are you boarding at a large station where multiple train doors will be opening? If so, board where there's no conductor in the doorway. Get your gear stowed, get your seat. If it's a small station and only one or two doors open, there will be a conductor there. Whether they will fuss or just want to get everyone on board to leave on schedule is not a question I can answer.
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:57 AM on September 17, 2019

these items are all small and will probably take up about as much space as the permitted carry-on limit

Could you use a very thin, light tote bag (like a grocery or shopping bag or this reusable bag from Baggu or one of those big IKEA totes) and package the smaller items together? You can fold up the carrier bag for when you want your things unbundled.
posted by sallybrown at 7:03 AM on September 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

Can you bring a light dufflebag that you can carry the smaller items in when you carry them on the train? You could then just stuff it into one of the bike bags when you ride.

Edit: what sallybrown said.
posted by bondcliff at 7:05 AM on September 17, 2019

Or even just a garbage bag, honestly. Stuff it in a pocket for deployment in the event of hassle.
posted by teremala at 7:08 AM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Chicago and Austin stations both offer checked baggage. Your are allowed two checked items free, and your already checking the bike. Why not pack your smaller bags into a larger bag or box and check it. A box would work because you could dispose of in Austin then get a new one on your return trip. A collapsible duffel might work.
posted by tman99 at 7:18 AM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've not taken that particular line but I've taken long-distance Amtrak in the Northeast which can be very busy (all seats sold out). I've also never seen a conductor hassle anyone about the number of bags but they are very firm about seats and aisles being clear, and everything being properly stowed under seats and contained within luggage areas. Other passengers also get cranky if you're taking up more than your fair share--this seems to be a particular problem with people who bring those huge suitcases that wouldn't meet airline carry-on requirements. If your bags are mostly small and you stash them properly I think you'll be fine.
posted by epanalepsis at 7:49 AM on September 17, 2019

This really sounds like a job for red, white and blue bags. Get a few, stuff everything into one or two for the journey out, throw them away, keep the nicely folded ones (so they take up less room in your packing) for the journey back. People use these for air travel all the time, and while they aren't sturdy enough for long term use or super-heavy contents, they should do in this context.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:51 AM on September 17, 2019

I don't think it will be a problem but for ease of carrying, can you lash your tent bag (narrow, drawstring?) to lay between the handles of your duffel bag?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:38 AM on September 17, 2019

Why not leave your panniers on the bike? Then you have 2 carry ons. Easy.
posted by AugustWest at 9:50 AM on September 17, 2019

I took the Texas Eagle from Chicago to Tucson in May, and I moved a friend from Seattle to Chicago on the Amtrak the previous year, so I've got some experience with Amtrak and weird freight. I totally understand your concern about checking through on the transfer, so I would take your stuff from Milwaukee however you feel comfortable. (For all my train travel and living in Chicago for 20 years, I've never taken that train.)

After that, I would check things in Chicago if you already have to go to check your bike. At least in Seattle, we were able to purchase a cardboard box (because stuff we'd packed was over the weight limit) and send it through as one of our checked bags. It should count as your included checked items.

I think probably even if you went the route where you put all your bike gear in a trash bag you'd taped up, you'd be fine. However, I found it easier to have "just the stuff I need" available as my carry on for overnight trips and not have to worry about the rest.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:34 AM on September 17, 2019

I went DC-->Pittsburgh via train for a bike tour. I wouldn't sweat it overly. I was equipped somewhat similarly (maybe a bit lighter) and I'd bet at least some of your stuff, you could even leave on the bike that you check in. If it's anything like that route, you're really just locking your bike up in a fancy rack.
posted by Vhanudux at 11:29 AM on September 17, 2019

Is your bike getting packed in a box or does it go on a hook in the baggage car (that's been my only experience with taking my bike on a longer Amtrak trip, but that was in the Pacific Northwest)? I think the idea of putting a couple of panniers on your bike is a good one (because then you will essentially transfer your bags but won't have to bring them on the riding car), but it might get awkward if your bike will be on a hook and those panniers are super loaded. (In Portland, I think I actually got onto the car and put it on the hook myself, which might make it easier.)

I think I'd be inclined to trust the transfer, really. I might get one very large, lightweight, colorful duffel whose only job is to hold your smaller bags on the train. I'd get it in a very bright color so I could eyeball it during the transfer (if I was worried). Like maybe this sort of thing?

You could also use a similar system to reduce your overall number of bags and carry your bags onto the passenger car with you.

On an unrelated note: I love that you're taking the train with your bike to bike tour! I'm not quite there yet with camping, but I love to hear about folks doing this! Have fun!
posted by bluedaisy at 11:34 AM on September 17, 2019

Response by poster: Why not leave your panniers on the bike? Then you have 2 carry ons.

Just to address this suggestion: Amtrak requires all panniers to be removed. I think the bike is hung from a hook on the wall by the front wheel.
posted by crLLC at 11:43 AM on September 17, 2019

I think the bike is hung from a hook on the wall by the front wheel.

Yes, this is how it is on the Vermonter at least. There is a vertical bike rack in a space near the bathroom that several bikes can hang from. Panniers would not work in that arrangement.
posted by epanalepsis at 1:01 PM on September 17, 2019

I think the bike is hung from a hook on the wall by the front wheel.

That is how it works on the Lakeshore Limited, at least. On that line, the hooks are in a baggage car, and I was allowed to head there early to get my bike loaded. One of the baggage car people actually hung it for me, though, so I would not have been able to get away with leaving a lot of stuff on the bike. (Bikes stored this way don't count towards the normal checked bag limits.)

More broadly, I've never run into conductors actually counting my carry-on bags, and I've definitely pushed it (particularly when moving from Chicago with my bike, where I also ran into the pannier/saddlebag/etc. issue.) I do think the cheap lightweight duffel bag is worth it, but mostly because it will make it easier for you to carry your stuff when parted from your bike, and to keep track of all the small pieces of luggage.
posted by ubersturm at 10:42 PM on September 17, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. The duffel bag idea is a good one, and I will test-pack to see if I can fit everything in a couple that meet the carry-on maximum dimensions. Also, I read the Amtrak carry-on policy more carefully and realized that that they will let me carry on two extra bags if I pay $20 per bag. I called them to confirm that that is indeed the policy. So, worst case scenario is that I fork over a few extra bucks to take on all six pieces separately.
posted by crLLC at 6:25 AM on September 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

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