5 Amtrak Tips for First-Timers
Ever wonder what it's like to travel on an overnight train? This past Christmas, Grant and I hitched a ride on Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which runs daily between Los Angeles and Seattle. Here are our top tips for Amtrak first-timers! Scroll down for a short video walk-through of the Coast Starlight.
1. Expect delays. We'll start off the list with the most useful tip for first-time train riders. Expect delays for every aspect of your trip: departures, sit-down meals and arrivals. If you're on a tight schedule or if you're traveling to attend a specific event (e.g., a wedding, concert, meeting, etc.), consider another mode of transportation. If you have the luxury of time, try to build in a few buffer hours or even half a day before your scheduled event to accommodate for train delays. Grant and I were scheduled to leave on our Portland-bound overnight train at 10:46 p.m. The train did not arrive to pick us up until 12:30 a.m. On the other end of our trip, we were supposed to arrive at Portland at 3:32 p.m. the next day. We didn't pull into the station until 6:30 p.m. By the way, we were anxiously trying to catch a Portland Trail Blazers game at 7 p.m. Luckily, the train station was just across the river from the Moda Center, so we made it to our seats with three minutes before tip off! If you're curious about how often Amtrak delays occur, you can check on-time performance rates for each route.
2. Book a sleeper compartment, which can range from the basic bunk-bed configuration for two to a family bedroom for four. Grant and I went for the basic bunk bed option, which Amtrak calls a "superliner roomette." By day, the 3.5' x 6.5' compartment is configured as two seats facing each other, with a foldout table and a picture window in between. By night, the attendant converts the two seats into a lower bunk and pulls out an upper bunk. The price for a sleeper compartment will probably run more than $100 on top of the basic fare per person, but I think it's well worth it for overnight trips. You get to sleep in comfort and the fare includes sit-down meals in the dining car. The Coast Starlight route additionally used to offer sleeper passengers a free wine and cheese tasting. We were told by the attendant that the wine and cheese tasting was no longer complimentary. However, Amtrak does still offer a free coffee station for every sleeper car. Bonus tip: If you're prone to motion sickness, consider sleeping on the lower bunk or bringing medication. If you sleep on the top bunk, you'll feel every bump and turn. Here's what the compartment looks like:
3. Prepare to be sociable. Each table in the dining car seats four, so if your party is smaller than that, the staff will seat you with strangers. Grant and I found that meeting new people was one of our favorite parts of the trip. At breakfast, we met a young couple from San Louis Obispo. The husband and pregnant wife were on their way to a Christmas family reunion at a cabin in Montana. At lunch, we met a couple from Ohio en route to visiting a grown son and daughter in Portland.
4. Pack your own entertainment. Certain train cars do come with Wi-Fi (which can be spotty sometimes), but I think part of the fun of train travel is unplugging for a bit. It's a great opportunity to dive into that book you've always wanted to read or catch up on some good old-fashioned written correspondence. If you don't feel like reading or writing, bring your laptop and a few favorite DVDs. I bought Grant Star Wars: Episode Seven for Christmas, so we re-watched it on the train.
5. Be on the lookout for gorgeous views. Don't forget that one of the advantages of riding a train versus an airplane is that you get to enjoy some pretty spectacular landscapes. Grab a cup of coffee and snag a seat in the observation car, where you'll be treated to some magnificent views you won't find anywhere else.
Even considering the delays, Grant and I loved our trip on the Coast Starlight. If you haven't experienced it already, riding an overnight train is something you should definitely add to your bucket list!
Here's a walk-through sneak peek of the Coast Starlight: