Tips, Tricks and Hacks to Riding the Train

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.

Amtrak sleeper roomette

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.

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  • Reply Joseph January 28, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    So… Amtrak’s website is super confusing.

    When you do this, are you buying a rail pass? Or just the tickets themselves?

    When I use the reservation feature on Amtrak’s site, sleeper rooms are priced between $800 – $1000 dollars, depending on where you’re going. (I’m mostly looking at San Antonio to Los Angeles, or SA to Chicago). So, are you buying a coach seat and then paying for an upgrade or something?

    I seriously want to do this – I am trying to get up to Baltimore and NYC to see friends and family, and totally hate flying. Your posts about train travel make me want to go that route (get it? route? never mind)

    • Reply hipstercrite January 28, 2015 at 2:16 pm

      Hey, Joseph!
      I have yet to buy the rail pass. The rail pass is for coach only. You will have to call Amtrak to add any sleeper car nights.
      No matter what, you’re always buying a coach ticket and the sleeper car price is added- rail pass or single ticket purchase.
      When you see the options for sleeper rooms, scroll through all the options. They should be cheaper than $800-$1000. That sounds like the price for the bedroom- not the roomette.

    • Reply live train status October 7, 2016 at 6:10 am

      Spot your train also supports the information of arrival and departure of trains as well as the time by which they are late or early so that you can easily travel knowing the whole route of your train.

  • Reply Meghan January 28, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    This is awesome, thanks! I have traveled shorter distances on Amtrak a lot and am looking to do a longer on in the future. Questions from a neurotic over-planner:

    1. Is there a way to tell if the train has the observation car beforehand? I really want one if I go!

    2. Do you have to fight others for observation space in the car?

    3. Where do you put your stuff while sleeping in the observation car? Or are people legit not thieves on Amtrak? Do you loose your original coach seat?

    3. Food cars: decent?booze?

    4. Who do you ask about the empty sleeper discount, at the ticket counter before boarding? A conductor on the train?

    Thank you!!!!

    • Reply hipstercrite January 29, 2015 at 4:13 pm

      Hi, Meghan!
      I love it!
      Here are my answers:

      1.) Here is a blog post that explains observation cars. They’re mostly on “long distance trains west of Chicago.”

      2.) Typically no. It’s never really full, and even if it is, there are seats available. I’ve been on packed trains and have never had a problem finding a seat in the observation car.

      3.) You don’t lose your original seat, especially if you leave a pillow or blanket in the seat (which is what I do). I ALWAYS bring my important bags with me. I put my most important stuff in a backpack and have it with me at all times. My clothing luggage I just leave in the bins above the seat and hope no one takes it. I’m more ok with losing my clothing. I’ve been on one train where some passengers stole bags and then got off. Most people are cool, but always bring your important stuff with you.

      4.) The food in the dining car is decent. It’s like slightly better diner food (steak w/ potatoes, chicken w/ green beans…); however, it’s costly. Full meals with drink, salad and entree typically run between $15-$25. That’s why the sleeper can be a good deal. If you’re on the train for awhile, you save $50+ each day for having free meals included. The food in the cafe is not good. They have microwaveable hamburgers and hot dogs. Though I’ll admit that I get the hot dog once in awhile. As for booze, I know they sell beer and wine and maybe liquor. You can totally bring it on the train though. Just don’t advertise that you are.

      5.) I’d ask both! I asked someone at the counter. They were nice but said no-go. They told me that the staff on the train used to offer discounted sleepers if they weren’t full, but they don’t do it anymore. I’d still ask!

      • Reply Meghan January 30, 2015 at 10:20 am

        Thank you, so helpful! Looking forward to booking!

        • Reply David March 6, 2018 at 3:36 am

          I gotta say, I never thought it possible that a microwaved hamburger could be good, but there is something about Amtrak’s jalapeno cheeseburgers, it’s killer, soooooo good!

  • Reply aneelee January 28, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    We have been thinking about going on a train trip this summer (maybe to the west coast). Thanks for the AAA membership tip!

    • Reply hipstercrite January 29, 2015 at 4:03 pm

      Awesome! I’ve also heard that the west coast train is awesome (if you have extra time)!

  • Reply John July 8, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Like you, I’m attracted to the idea of rail travel; however, (also, like you) I’m a Texan left with few options for short trips. Which leads to one of my many questions: the time….how do you justify the time spent on the track? Thirteen hours? TWENTY EIGHT HOURS? I’d have better luck suggesting to my wife that we try some of those storylines I saw late at night on the internet for our alone time rather than her sitting on a train for over a day…

  • Reply Lynne August 21, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    Caveat regarding bringing alcohol on the train if you’re not in a sleeper:
    If you’re caught, you’re OFF at the next station, no matter where or what time.
    I’ve seen it.

  • Reply 4 Ways To Get Where You’re Going (On Vacation) | Have Laptop Will Travel November 2, 2015 at 2:30 am

    […] adventurous that just hopping on a plane and being in a new place in a few hours time. Be sure to read tips for train travel before heading out though, as you don’t want to get caught by surprise with any of the timing […]

  • Reply Laura Cici October 5, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    Great info. The train from NY to Chicago has no luggage service. Is there usually space on trains to put 1 larger than carry-on bag? Even sleeper cars have no room. 🙁

    Also I have a 4 hour layover in Chicago b4 heading to St Louis. No baggage storage there either. Any idea of a way to kill 4 hours at/ near Chicago station.

  • Reply jerseyntx October 6, 2016 at 11:24 am

    If you are on a sleeper, you can check your bags to your final destination. The sleepers also have a baggage rack if you don’t want to check it. The roomettes have a VERY small closet (handy for wine bottles!). There are lockers in Chicago to stash bags (soft ones, anyway) so you can get out and enjoy the city before the next leg of your trip. I’ve done that more than once.

  • Reply Cara January 11, 2017 at 11:34 am

    Love your post! Great information. My husband and I are planning to do some traveling on trains. We rode a train through a part of Peru- awesome experience! And, we loved riding the Pacific Surfliner.
    But, I have a couple of questions. Maybe you will know the answers. We are eligible for the senior discount and we also have a AAA card. Can we get both? Also, if riding from Chicago to California on the Zephr… can you get off overnight along the way? Does that require a different kind of ticket? Thanks!

    • Reply hipstercrite January 12, 2017 at 2:05 pm

      Hi, Cara!
      That’s so exciting!
      Yes, I can help answer your questions.
      -I believe you can only get one discount at a time, but when you book, I’d call Amtrak and see what they can do.
      -Yes! The California Zephyr has sleeping accommodations. It is a separate ticket. You and your husband will pay for individual coach fare and then one price for the sleeper. So your price would look something like $200 (your husband’s fare) + $200 (your fare) + $800 (sleeper). (Those numbers were made up, FYI.) The sleeper includes free meals for you and your husband, which is a nice savings.
      -The discount you get for senior or AAA ONLY applies to the coach fare–not the sleeper fare.
      -I’ve been told by many Amtrak employees that the best Amtrak route in the U.S. is the California Zephyr! You picked a good one!

  • Reply Jennifer May 8, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    Hi there,
    This site is awesome! So many great ideas.

    So here is the plan: 2 Adults and a 15 year old, adult after looking at the Amtrak website and a 10 year old child traveling in June from Denver to San Francisco and back on the train.

    We are looking at getting two roomettes. After reading these posts I will renew my AAA.

    Any other ideas for saving money?

    Thanks Jen

  • Reply Kasper Raszczuk August 8, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    Why does not a woman have a socks on a car roomette photo, despite the photo taken in December

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