Over the holidays, I took my sixth domestic train trip. Since my fear of flying creeped on strong about two years ago, my modes of transportation are now the car, the bus and for long distance, the train. (I don’t recommend taking the bus; it can be a sad and disorienting place.)
I’ve learned a great deal about American’s great passenger train, the Amtrak, over these past two years. A lot of friends have said that my journeys have inspired them to take the train themselves, which makes this blossoming rail nerd very happy. In case you’re interested in traveling via the train yourself, here are some tips, tricks and hacks for getting the best out of your Amtrak adventure.
1.) Spread yo’self out
During the slow season, you can easily claim yourself two coach seats and sprawl your fine ass out during sleepy hours. This is not frowned upon. However, if the train car does fill up, you gotta give up that extra seat. Don’t be the dick that pretends to be asleep when someone is looking for a vacant seat.
2.) Be nomadic
If your coach car is full and you want to stretch out while you sleep, head to the observation car with your pillow and blankie (note: not all trains have an observation car). Right before nighttime hours, when they turn off the lights and PA system, I pretended to fall asleep in the observation car and waited until someone kicked me out. It never happened. In fact, a few other passengers shuffled in with their bedding, and one of them told me that sleeping in the observation car is a trick known amongst professional train travelers.
3.) Is that a tequila bottle in your pocket or…?
Bring as much food and drinks as you can carry onto the train. Unlike the plane, your food and liquids are not checked. You can probably bring twelve bottles of moonshine and a pet monkey name Dahlia on the train too. I dare you.
4.) Potty time!
Your coach train car might have a bathroom and that bathroom might be tiny. Don’t be afraid to peruse the other coach cars in search of a larger, most likely handicap bathroom. It’s much nicer not to have your bare ass thrown against walls while trying to hover over the toilet.
5.) Free foodz
If you rent a sleeper car, all your dining car meals are free. That is about $50+ savings a day.
6.) Who runs Bartertown?
Resources on the web say that you can typically negotiate an empty sleeper car for a lower fare. I have not had luck in this department. In fact, an Amtrak employee told me that Amtrak stopped offering discounted sleeper fares (they’d rather leave the room empty than offer it for less). However, don’t let that stop you from trying. Don’t be afraid to ask; maybe someone will cut you a deal.
7.) Big Poppa
If you have a sleeper car or executive status, this enables you to hang in the executive lounges at select stations. The lounge offers free drinks and snacks, and you get to skip the boarding line. You can also pretend that you’re a rich oil tycoon who likes to say “Good day, sir!” to staff.
8.) Sleep Far Away From Strangers
Sleeper cars don’t have to be expensive. Every train offers a different price. For example, my 28-hour trip from Austin to Chicago offered a roomette for $150 (in addition to the coach fare you also pay). My 13-hour train from Chicago to Syracuse offered a roomette for $250 (lamepants). I was told that the two-day train from Chicago to Portland offers roomettes for $200. Roomettes sleep two, so you can split the cost, but I gotta tell you, the roomettes are pretty tight quarters.
9.) Friends with Benefits
Sleeper car rooms get cheaper the more people you have in them. Consider inviting friends on your journey with you. Or complete strangers. You’ll get very close, very quickly.
10.) Train > Plane
The train is often cheaper or comparable in price to airplane travel. For instance, a coach train ticket from Austin to Syracuse, NY, is a little over $400 roundtrip, which is similar to the cost of airfare. However, a coach train ticket from Austin to Tucson and back typically runs $180 (cheaper than most flights). A coach train ticket from Austin to LA runs a little over $200 roundtrip (cheaper than most flights).
11.) Renew your AA membership. I mean AAA
If you think you’re going to be traveling by train a lot, buy yourself a AAA membership. I bought a membership solely for my Amtrak travel and my savings on ONE train ticket nearly paid off the membership fee. Of course there are other great savings with AAA, in addition to the automobile services.
12.) Get them points!
Sign up for Amtrak points. You can rack up points quickly, which leads to free trips or upgrades to sleepers. After a few trips, I’m already close to having “Select” status. “Select status” means I can pretend I’m a clothier or garment factory owner from Brooklyn. I haven’t reached oil tycoon status quite yet.