Empire Builder train in Minot, North Dakota. Image by the author. Image by the author.

If you can spare the time, a long distance trip on Amtrak is a relaxing way to see the nation’s beautiful landscapes without the perils and costs of driving. After having ridden most of the Amtrak system on half a dozen long distance sojourns, I’d like to share some tips for getting the most out of your vacation.

The lines

The observation car on the Southwest Chief. Image by the author.

Many people have ridden Amtrak Regional trains such as the Northeast Corridor, Illinois Services, Empire Services in New York, Keystone Service in Pennsylvania, Amtrak Cascades in the Pacific Northwest, Amtrak California, and the Missouri River Runner. These trains are a more comfortable, cheaper, and often faster option than flying between regional destinations such as Chicago and Milwaukee or DC and New York.

They also usually run several times a day instead of just once like the longer routes. Unlike other forms of transportation, passengers are free to walk about the car and enjoy the cafe —perfect for a weekend getaway or a trip home from college.

Accommodations

Dining car on the Coast Starlight. Image by the author.

Amtrak also criss-crosses the country with a series of long distance routes with much more spacious coach seating, full dining facilities, and sleeper accommodations. Many train sets include two-story superliners with observation cars.

These trains are well suited for overnight trips with fully reclining coach seats. The sleeper accommodations, which include two-person roomettes or family-sized bedrooms, include access to showers and all meals in the dining car in the cost.

The views

The Colorado River as seen from the California Zephyr. Image by the author.

What would you like to see? Portions of the Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle/Portland) offer idyllic views of heartland farm country fit for a John Deere commercial. If it’s mountains views you fancy, the California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco) winds through Colorado River canyons for almost a full day. The next day it passes through the Sierra Nevadas and the Donner Pass. The Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles) passes through the high deserts of New Mexico, and the Sunset Limited (New Orleans to Los Angeles, three times a week) passes through Texas prairie country.

A perennial favorite is the Coast Starlight (Seattle to Los Angeles) which offers views of the Cascades, the Central California hills, and the Pacific coast. Even some of the shorter lines, such as the Empire Service (New York to Niagara Falls) offer scenic views of the Hudson River Valley.

Getting to the transfer point

Amtrak Hiawatha, a regional train connecting Chicago and Milwaukee. Image by the author.

Most cross country trips require a stopover in Chicago. There are three options to get there from DC. The fastest is the Capitol Limited, which passes through the scenic upper Potomac valley on the way to Pittsburgh. The overnight train takes about 17 hours.

Next is the Cardinal, which only runs three days a week but passes through some of the New River valley of West Virginia. It’s about seven hours longer, but far more scenic. The third option requires a transfer in New York to the Lake Shore Limited, which offers those Hudson Valley views.

Destinations not accessible by train

Trinity Railway Express train at Fort Worth Intermodal Station. Image by the author.

Is there a destination you seek that’s not accessible by train? Chances are Amtrak offers a Thruway Motorcoach service connection. These buses are often operated by Greyhound or other regional carriers, so comfort and services may vary. Amtrak also offers connections to Canada with trains to Montreal and Toronto from New York and Vancouver from Portland/Seattle. Almost every VIA Rail (the Canadian national rail system) train is accessible from one of these three cities.

Many cities offer their own regional rail systems such as Metrolink in Los Angeles, Railrunner in Albuquerque, MBTA Commuter Rail in Boston, or Trinity Railways in Fort Worth that offer additional destinations as well. Separate fares will apply.

What to pack

Throwing a snowball on the 4th of July. Image by the author.

When packing for a long journey, be prepared to layer up. I’ve thrown snowballs in July and worn shorts in January. The trains pass through many microclimates, particularly in the Rockies and points west. The trains are climate controlled, but that can mean chillier-than-expected trains in the summer and vice versa in the winter.

And then there is baggage. Amtrak allows two carry-on bags, stored above the seat or near the entrance to the cars. And of course up to two more bags can be checked to your final destination. I personally recommend backpacks for carry-ons, as they are much easier to get on and off the trains. A neck pillow is also a must have no matter your sleeping arrangements.

More on accommodations

Interior of Chicago Union Station. Image by the author.

If you are traveling coast-to-coast in coach, showers can be hard to come by. Most cross-country journeys will require a few hours layover at Chicago Union Station, which offers shower facilities in the Metropolitan Lounge. The lounge is free for first class (sleeper) tickets, otherwise it costs $25 for a day pass. The lounge also offers snacks, coffee, bar services, wifi, and plenty of comfortable seating.

If you like to meet new people, check out the dining car. No matter the size of your party you will sit four to a table and most likely enjoy a meal with a few new friends. The observation car is another place to people watch or chat with the unique cross-section of riders you’ll find on the train.

Multi-passes

Amtrak rail pass and tickets. Image by the author.

If you really want to see as much as you can, Amtrak offers 15 day/8 trip, 30 day/12 trip, and 45 day/20 trip rail passes. Sleeper accommodations and meals are not included, but they pay for themselves after just a few trips. Book in advance, because trains may fill up, particularly on well-traveled routes, around major holidays or on weekends.

Also, there are some notorious delays on many of the routes, but Amtrak is pretty good about rerouting people to their destination if a connection is missed.

This past thanksgiving on my way to Los Angeles I was rerouted to the Sunset Limited because my first choice was sold out. Not that I'm complaining. Image by the author.

There are amazing landscapes in every state, and Amtrak is one of the best ways to see many of them. Fortunately for local residents, DC’s Union Station is a hub that offers easy connections to get just about anywhere on the Amtrak system with minimal transfers.

Have you taken any long journeys on the train? Then please share any tricks or tips we missed. If you haven’t, I hope I’ve encouraged you to consider going by train next time!

Born in DC and a lifelong resident of the area, Dave Murphy currently resides in the Rosedale neighborhood of Ward 7 where he coaches a championship youth football team in the DC DPR League. He is an Army veteran and a medically retired DoD geographic analyst.