The #Amtrak rail pass starts at $459 for 15 days and up to 8 trains and transfers. It is good on any route that has seats available and some of those routes can cost just as much as the rail pass for a round trip ticket. We found that a person could travel around the perimeter of the U.S. and then cut across the middle of the country on the cheapest rail pass. My mom just retired from being a computer programmer from the beginning of computers. She started out as a key punch operator and kept her education growing as the computers were introduced to the world. She didn’t want a big fancy party just lunch with her co-workers from all of the different facilities she worked at and a chance to travel. She spent her last week at work having lunch each day with a different group of co-workers and then we got a 15 day rail pass to see the east coast. My mom lives in Seattle and through the years has seen most everything west of the Rockies via motorcycle rides. In her last 10 years of working she travelled around the U.S. for X12 conventions, but never really had the opportunity to really see the country or cities she was at. I moved to San Antonio three years ago and so the plan was she was going to take the train L.A. and then to New Orleans and I would meet up with her when the train passed through San Antonio. Because this is something neither of us has ever done, she was afraid of being on the train alone for the first three days. Instead, she flew down to San Antonio and spent some time with my daughter and granddaughter before heading out from San Antonio. Since we now had an extra train and three days we decided to add Providence and Boston to our Itinerary. Now we had finalized our plans we were going to travel from San Antonio to New Orleans to Washington D.C. to New York to Providence to Boston to Buffalo to Chicago and then each to home. There is few tips and tricks and info we learned from our first time using the rail pass.
First, if you want a sleeper car or roomette get it early. The rail pass is only for a coach ticket, anything else and it will cost to upgrade. We were told that if booked early enough the upgrade price could be as low as $182, but we were quoted over $500 anytime we tried. But we did wait until the day of to try. If the train is going to be longer than 12 hours then the $182 is a good deal. For $182 a person gets a roomette, which is a private room with two seats facing each other and a bunk bed. The two seats fold down into a bed also. It also includes meals and drinks (about a $100 savings per day on the train). We did find that coach was very comfortable. There is plenty of leg room, but another trick we found is that people who took the front seats of the car had a lot more leg room. This is because large luggage can be stored there, or in some cases the space is designated for a wheel chair. We saw people lay out there large luggage and use it as an extension of the reclined seat to make a comfortable bed. The only draw back is that there isn’t any trays to eat or work on, and this eliminated many people from wanting the seats. I personally don’t like working on the tiny trays anyways, I prefer to go into the lounge car and have a full cafeteria table to work on with full size panoramic windows to look out. Even at night this is where I went to do work on my photos. Some of the east coast trains have business class and it is not much of an upgrade charge. It is completely worth it. The seats are so plush that they can only fit three instead of four across and includes non-alcoholic beverages.
Second, is the food situation. The food in the café is pre-packaged and if it needs to be warmed up (hot dog and cheeseburger) it is microwaved. It is not bad in flavor, but even with special steam type packaging, buns still get hard in a microwave. Its $2 cheaper in the café for hot dogs and cheeseburgers than in the dining car, but I think the dining car includes a drink. The dining car serves actual cooked food, and it good quality. The prices are around $12 for breakfast and $25 for dinner with lunch priced in the middle. Prices don’t include beverage but they have a couple of specials at every meal, and many of those specials include beverage. I wouldn’t ever buy bottled water on the train, since every car does have a water dispenser and cups, you just have to look around for it. My mom and I are coffee snobs, we are from Seattle, and we started off with coffee that we thought was pretty bad. Funny though, by the third cup we were thinking its not bad. On longer trips the train will usually have one stop where it be stopped for 30-60 minutes, and this is the perfect time to run into the train station and load up on food from a vendor inside. I picked up salads at deli in one area and got subs from Subways at another. Train travel is nothing like an airplane, you can bring your food along with you. The seasoned travelers brought a cooler with food and beverages as one of their carry-on items. A single experienced train traveler will do what they call nesting. The best example I saw of this was a man who went straight for the front seats of the car. He set up his luggage as a work area and put his cooler on the floor where it was easy to get to. Then he reclined both seats wrapped himself up in a sleeping bag and fell asleep in both seats. This is not allowed, and people are warned that they will be billed for both seats if they don’t give it up. But this person got away with it from Chicago to Temple Texas. During our many trains I saw many people doing similar things.
Third, some people never even stay in their seat, they go to the lounger car that is supposed to have swivel seats and camp out. My entire trip I only had one seat that actually swiveled. But, the views are much better from these seats. The seats face the windows and the windows continue all the way up the roof of the car. These are only available on the double decker trains. On the trains that run the east corridor they are single level trains that run on electricity and don’t have the same viewing car. They still have a lounge car, but it is cafeteria style seating with the café in the middle. While on the subject of these smaller trains, baggage is a bit tricky. They don’t have checked baggage, so now all of your luggage is considered carry-on. You are still allowed 2 carry-on and 2 personal items per person. But, I got suckered out of $20 in Washington D.C. by an Amtrak employee. I was told I needed to get a tag for my larger piece of luggage. I went to the desk and the man acted confused as to why. He then counted our bags 4 between the two of us and I had my camera in a small tote bag for a personal item. He charged me $20 for what he called extra carry-on. I could have easily just put my camera into any one of our luggage bags, but I thought the charge was for the size. The size doesn’t matter at all on these trains, they have luggage racks to accommodate any size luggage. The larger trains also have them if a person doesn’t want to check any baggage. So I was charged $20 for an extra carry-on even though I only had 2 carry-on and 1 personal item. Be aware of this when you switch to the smaller trains and just carry your larger luggage on the train with you. Nobody is going to check, unless you are in the way and slowing people down. Also, if you do check baggage make sure and get to the train station an hour early to ensure you get your baggage checked. If I had to do it again, I would just carry-on all my luggage. This saves a half-hour of waiting for checked baggage once arriving at the destination.
Fourth, use your rail pass for the expensive routes. We found that we needed to use more than our eight allotted trains to complete our trip, because of a transfer in Albany NY. The east coast has so many commuter trains that from Virginia to Boston train travel is very cheap. We took the commuter train from Providence RI to Boston for just $11. Its a 2 1/2 hour ride. Its the same train we took to go from our hotel to downtown Providence the night before. We asked the conductor if bringing our luggage would be an issue, and she informed us as long as it wasn’t during the main business commuting times it wouldn’t be an issue. When we hopped on there was a conductor on each car, and he had us place our luggage on the floor near the exit. He sat next to the luggage while the train was moving and watched over it as people entered and exited at each stop. When we arrived in Boston, the female conductor that talked to us the night before saw us walking with our luggage and made a point of greeting us. Train travel is the easiest most friendly way to travel.