Amtrak is the national rail carrier of the USA. With 21,000 miles of track in 46 states (and three Canadian provinces), it services over 500 destinations with short commuter routes and long haul, cross-country journeys.
Why travel Amtrak?
There are practical reasons to choose rail over flying. If you’re travelling last-minute, you’ll likely find it more affordable, and generally there’s more flexibility for cancellations and rescheduling. Baggage allowances are more generous, especially if you want to carry a bicycle or other oversize luggage. And there’s more space, allowing you to stretch out and move around, and, if you’re on business, work in relative comfort.
Then there are the more romantic reasons. If you’re a leisure traveller, watching the grand landscapes of America gradually unfold outside your window is a travel experience in itself (and many of Amtrak’s long-distance trains have observation cars to enhance that experience). The pace of train travel has its own rhythm, allowing you to meet your fellow travellers, enjoy time in the dining car, read a book or let yourself be hypnotised by the passing landscape. Taking the train makes your trip as much about the journey as the destination.
Scenic and popular routes
The most popular routes are sections of the Northeast Regional (which runs between Boston and Virginia Beach), the Acela Express from Boston to Washington DC via New York, and the Pacific Surfliner from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via Los Angeles.
With services crisscrossing this enormous country, most of Amtrak’s routes have their moments of jaw-dropping beauty. The most renowned scenic routes are:
California Zephyr, Chicago–San Francisco – Amtrak’s longest route at 2,438 miles, the Zephyr follows the Colorado River for more than 200 miles and crosses both the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada mountains to reach the lowlands of the California Central Valley and on to San Francisco Bay.
Coast Starlight, Seattle–Los Angeles – Widely recognized as Amtrak’s most stunning long-distance route, this train takes you through the watery landscapes of Puget Sound with its breathtaking views of snow-capped Mount Rainer, and south into California, skirting long stretches of the sparkling Pacific Ocean.
Empire Builder, Chicago–Seattle – The star of this 2,206-mile journey, much of it close to the Canadian border, is the majestic wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. The route follows the mighty Mississippi for 140 miles, passes into Montana’s Big Sky country, and traces the historic path of Lewis and Clark through Glacier National Park.
Southwest Chief, Chicago–Los Angeles – A 2,256-mile trip through the vast expanse of the fabled American West, this route follows the famous Santa Fe Trail from the Colorado Rockies, passes through Arizona’s iconic red rock formations, makes shuttle connections to the Grand Canyon Railway and a takes the home stretch through the Mojave Desert.
Adirondack, New York–Montreal – At the right time of year, this is a fall foliage blockbuster taking in the Hudson River Valley, the shores of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. Some fall services feature the Great Dome Car (on a first come, first served basis), with an upper level surrounded by windows for panoramic views of the magnificent autumnal show.
Service frequency and cost
Most of the long multi-state services depart once a day, others depart three times a week. Popular commuter routes have multiple departures each day, with up to 20 for the Northeast Regional.
While many of Amtrak’s routes are long, multi-day trips, you can travel between just a few stations, or string several routes together to make a cross-country odyssey that ticks off all the places you want to visit.
It’s possible to break up longer journeys with overnight stops, but you’ll need to pre-organise this when you book by creating a multi-city booking. This will work out a little more expensive than booking the entire route as one trip, but it enables you to put together exactly the journey you want.
Traversing the USA by rail can be an incredible bargain. If you book far enough ahead you can get from New York to San Francisco via Chicago for under $200, if you’re happy to do the 70-odd hour trip in a coach seat. This rises to over $1000 for a two-person roomette with fold-down beds and all meals included.
Travel classes and seating types
Coach class is the cheapest way to travel but still comfortable (with reclining seats), especially on the long-distance Viewliner and Superliner trains with extra legroom and footrests. (The bi-level Superliner trains also feature panoramic views from the upper level.)
Some routes offer business class cars with additional legroom and complimentary non-alcoholic drinks. First class, available only on the Acela Express between Boston and Washington DC, is even more spacious and includes a meal service and access to ClubAcela lounges in several major stations in the northeast.
The real difference in your experience will be the sleeping arrangements. Apart from coach, long-distance services offer a range of sleeping options from a basic roomette for two adults to a more spacious bedroom including a toilet and shower, and bigger family suites. You can explore all the options with detailed 3D tours.
All seats have a fold-down tray, individual reading light and 120v electric outlet to charge your devices. Several commuter lines offer a Quiet Car where you can travel in peace.
Most long-distance trains include a dining car where you can sit down to a full-service hot meal. You’ll be asked if you want to make a reservation after boarding. There are usually lounge and café cars with more informal eating options. Lounge cars are also a free space for reading, playing cards, socializing, and on Superliner trains, enjoying expansive views from dedicated observation cars.
Carry-on baggage allowances are generous – each passenger can bring two pieces of baggage of 25 pounds and two of 50 pounds. In addition, checked baggage is permitted on most services.
An increasing number of trains offer (slow) Wi-Fi, many offer a bicycle transport service.
Getting the best deal
Tickets can be purchased online here at Rome2rio or via the Amtrak website and at staffed Amtrak stations. If purchasing online you’ll receive an email containing your eTicket as a PDF attachment, this can be printed out before you travel or displayed on a mobile device. Simply show the eTicket barcode and your ID to the conductor when travelling.
Most trains require reservations – don’t expect that you’ll be able to buy a ticket on board the train; it’s not always possible and you may be asked to get off at the next stop.
You have the best chance of getting the lowest price if you book in advance, online, at least 14 days ahead; bookings open 11 months in advance. See our step-by-step guide to the Rome2rio booking process. Roomettes and bedrooms book out quickly, so book as far ahead as possible if you want one.
Rail passes are available for a set price for 15, 30 or 45 days, allowing you to travel a certain number of travel segments within the set time. These can be a good deal if you’re planning lots of travel within a short time-span.
Discounted SmartFares are available on the Amtrak website from Tuesday to Friday each week, for travel the following month. Travel dates and routes are limited, so it’s not an option if you have an inflexible schedule – but if you’re open to going wherever the tracks may take you, you could get a great deal.
Children up to 12 years ride for 50 percent off (children under two ride free), there’s a 15 percent discount for seniors over 62 years and students. See more about discounts here.
If you’re planning to travel during a peak holiday period – Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekend and the weekend nearest the Fourth of July –book early and expect to pay a little more (or be flexible with your travel times).
Route maps and guides
Amtrak produce detailed guides for every route, describing each city, town, state line and point of interest along the way, including historical notes and geographical highlights of the route.
- If you’re booking a multi-city trip, be sure not to make your connections too tight. Many of these trains are taking long journeys over many days and sharing their tracks with mile-long freight trains – it’s almost inevitable that there will be delays along the way.
- Download the Amtrak app or sign up for email notifications to be informed of any delays or changes en route, and save yourself getting to the station early for a train that’s running four hours late.
- Consider checking large baggage for long trips – there is limited space in coach (and roomettes), and you’ll be free to get off the train at rest stops without worrying about your valuables. You need to check bags in at least 45 minutes before departure, and from 24 hours before.
- Seats are reserved but not assigned when you book, you’ll be assigned a seat at the station. If you want a window seat, ask for one.