Amtrak Travel Tips


Rail Travel Tips

Traveling with Children

Safety Tips

Bikes on Intercity Trains

Smoking on Amtrak

Pets on Amtrak



In issues of NARP News in 2004 and 2005, we began a monthly feature called “Rail Travel Tips.”  Below are a listing of the tips: 

Tip #1—Want to visit a college campus with your son or daughter? Take advantage of Amtrak’s Campus Visit program: code H459.

Students receive a discount and may bring a parent or guardian with them as a free companion in coach. Reservations may be made for travel through December 15, 2005 (blackout dates: February 18-21, March 24-28, May 27-30, July 1-4, September 2-5, and November 22-29). Not valid on Acela Express, Metroliners, Auto Train, the Canadian portion of the Maple Leaf, or 7000-8999 series Thruway buses.

Tip #2—When traveling alone in a Viewliner Roomette or a Bedroom, consider sleeping in the upper bunk. This will let you keep a sitting area for working (with papers, laptop, etc.) or to have your suitcase(s) open.

Setting up your room in this manner helps make it seem bigger and more user-friendly. It also makes accessing the toilet during the night more simple. You can ask your sleeping car attendant to only make up the upper berth and add the extra padding to the upper bed.

Tip #3—Amtrak passengers ride free on SEPTA commuter trains between Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, Suburban station, and Market East station. If asked, show the SEPTA conductor your Amtrak ticket, ticket receipt or eTicket Travel Document.

Useful for travel to or from Center City Philadelphia, including the intercity bus terminal adjacent to Market East. SEPTA’s regular fare currently is $3.50.

Tip #4—Pick up a copy of the New York By Rail Travel Guide for insight into attractions across the Empire State that are accessible by Amtrak train and Thruway Motorcoach connections.

This guide, published in September, has a wealth of information about attractions in New York State—some of which you may not have realized are accessible by train! The 2004 edition is available from travel agents, tour operators, “I Love New York” information centers, Amtrak stations (and 1-800-USA-RAIL), and hotels and attractions near the stations.

Tip #5—Baggage choices

Amtrak officially limits carry-on luggage to two pieces a passenger; bags may not exceed 28”x22”x14” and 50 pounds. “Personal items such as briefcases, purses, laptops, and infant paraphernalia” do not count against the limit of two. For some trains, the exceptions list includes winter recreational items (see page three). The list does not include “standard large-sized shopping bags of merchandise,” but you can combine “shopping bags, one inside the other, to count as one bag.”  Amtrak encourages you to have merchants ship your purchases. Large musical instruments may occupy a seat “at the applicable rail fare” if there’s no safety problem.

Where checked baggage is offered, up to three bags (size and weight limits as above) may be checked free [some special items have a $5 charge]; up to three more for $10 a bag. Also, where Amtrak Package Express is offered (over 100 stations), you can ship larger bags (up to 3’x3’x3’; maximum 500 pounds per shipment and, again, 50 pounds per bag).

That said, in markets without checked baggage service, unfortunately, Amtrak’s luggage policy is more restrictive than the airlines’.

Tip #6—Avoid Southern California traffic…use mass transit between Los Angeles Union Station (or other downtown points) and LAX International Airport.

While it requires three transfers, using Los Angeles MTA rail service between Union Station and LAX is much cheaper than a cab or shuttle—and could mean the difference between making and missing your flight: Red Line subway Union Station-Metro Center; Blue Line light rail Metro Center-Rosa Parks Transfer Station; Green Line light rail Rosa Parks-Aviation/I-105 station; free LAX Shuttle Bus. Total trip time: just under one hour; cost: $3.00.

Tip #7—Take advantage of the Amtrak / Continental Airlines partnership at Newark International Airport for travel to and from Northeast Corridor points.

When booking travel with Continental Airlines, you can connect with Amtrak at Newark’s Liberty International Airport. Four cities provide through reservations services (pickup Amtrak tickets at Amtrak station). IATA (airline booking) codes for Amtrak/Continental stations:

  • Wilmington, DE (ZWI)
  • Philadelphia, PA (ZFV)
  • New Haven, CT (ZVE)
  • Stamford, CT (ZTF)

The AirTrain monorail also gets rail passengers to airport rental car outlets, and helps link air travelers with any northeast rail station.

Tip #8—Book NOW for summer or holiday travel; trains (especially sleeping cars) sell out early!

Capacity is limited on most Amtrak trains, but especially on sleeping cars during the summer and around the Thanksgiving and winter holidays. Several trips of western long distance trains are already sold out.

Call Amtrak’s reservations center at 1-800-USA-RAIL (872-7245), go to Amtrak’s website or visit your local travel agent or Amtrak station.

Tip #9—Train riding with small children is more fun when you have a “survival bag.” Here are some ideas for what to include.

  • Moist towellettes (such as Wash ’n’ Dries)
  • Sippy cup to reduce spills—you can’t get lids on the train.
  • Easy-to-carry snacks in case the snack bar runs out
  • Small pillow. (Amtrak provides these on long-distance trains.)
  • Paperback story books
  • Magnetic games
  • Drawing pad and colored pencils or crayons
  • Deck of children’s playing cards, such as Uno
  • Real or toy camera, to encourage watching out the window
  • Earphones and extra batteries for portable game systems.

Tip #10—If you own a cell phone, be sure to give that number in addition to a home or work number to Amtrak when making a reservation.

It is important that Amtrak be able to contact you not only at your destination (for a round trip), but potentially enroute as well. If your Amtrak reservation has only a home or work number in the record, you cannot be contacted in case of a service disruption or very late train. When either the Amtrak website or an Amtrak agent asks for your phone number, provide a cell number, even if they specifically request your home phone number. 

Tip #11—For a smoother, quieter ride, sit near the center of a passenger rail car or—when possible— reserve sleeping car accommodations in the middle.

If you’re traveling in coach, either chose a seat or, if seat assignments are given, request to be seated as close to the center as possible. This will avoid the possibly irritating sounds and smells of the lavatory (on Amfleets) or end door, and will situate you away from the noise of the trucks (the wheel sets at either end of the car). If you’re traveling in a roomette, try to reserve Roomettes 2-6 (Superliner), or 3-6 (Viewliner), or Bedrooms C-E (Superliner).

Tip #13—Use Travelers Aid.

TA works to reunite families separated in transit, give food or shelter to those stranded without cash, and provide emotional counseling. TA is in 23 airports; train stations in Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Toronto, Washington; and in or near 10 bus terminals. An “e-help” feature at their website lets you type in a problem and get an individualized response.

Tips for traveling with children on Amtrak
By Louise Capon, wife of NARP Executive Director Ross B. Capon
(And mother of three!)

1. Pack light. The trip is more fun if you are not encumbered with too much luggage, especially when you are at stations, or even just deciding to change seats on board.

2. Have the kids bring their own back packs, whose contents include things that will help keep the kids amused. (Very young children may not bother to look out the window, and even older ones tire of the scenery after awhile.)

3. Older kids need notebooks in which they can record things of interest, even locomotive numbers if they are so inclined.

4. Take wash’n’dries and Kleenexes for spills and emergencies.

5. Wear sturdy shoes in which you can chase the kids. (They like to run down the aisles, although running is a no-no.)

6. Non-flash camera. (Some cameras have a flash that turns on automatically, but the reflection on the window makes it impossible to take good shots out the window.)

7. Take drinks in bottles with lids, or buy same on the train. Don’t rely on those paper cups and the water coolers in the train cars—the kids will spill the water, and you probably don’t want to drink it anyway.

Safety Suggestions

Americans for generations have been familiar with the railroad industry slogan, "Safety First." Passengers likewise should keep some common-sense, simple safety suggestions in mind when they are traveling. Train travel is very safe, but it's in your interest to avoid opportunities for accidents and injury that can arise.

At the Station...

  • Leave yourself plenty of time. Passengers who are running with luggage risk injury from falls, from tripping on escalators, or by colliding with baggage carts.
  • Be careful of slippery conditions. Many Amtrak platforms are outdoors and can be slippery in snowy or icy weather.
  • Be careful around tracks and platforms. Assume that a train may be coming at any time. Cross a track only where directed by railroad personnel or in designated locations, and never cross when a moving train is in sight. Never step on top of a rail. Keep yourself well away from the platform edge. Keep small children by the hand - they may be excited by being so close to the train and not realize the danger from running on the platform.

On the Train...

  • Watch the platform gap. In places where the platform is even with the train floor, be sure to step over any gap between the train and the platform.
  • Use handrails when boarding and exiting. Many platforms are low enough below the floor of the train to require going up and down the train steps. They can be steep, so use the handrail to steady yourself.
  • Use handrails when passing between cars. A moving train could hit a bump at any time. To reduce your risk of falling when passing between cars, always hold the handrails to steady yourself (on Amtrak trains, they have red-and-white stripes).
  • Do not stand in the vestibule (or car ends) while the train is moving. Enter the vestibule only when passing between cars.
  • Familiarize yourself with emergency procedures. On Amtrak trains, there are information cards in seat-back pouches and sleeping car rooms. Pay particular attention to the location of emergency windows and how to operate them.
  • Stay in your seat as much as possible. If you need to stand or walk through the train, especially when it is moving, steady yourself by holding seat backs or the edge of overhead luggage racks. There are handrails for you to use in the restrooms.
  • Always wear shoes when away from your seat. Vestibule floors can be slippery, and there are metal plates on the floor between cars that can move and injure bare feet.
  • Never open exit doors yourself. It is all right to pass from car to car (with care), but let a conductor or attendant open a door for you when it is time to leave the train.

At All Other Times...

  • Do not walk on tracks or play near them. Always assume a train may be about to come. Never step on top of a rail - it is very easy to slip and fall on the back of your head. Never use a bridge or tunnel as a shortcut or fishing pier.
  • Do not throw objects at trains. You could hurt someone on the train, or even hurt yourself if the object bounces back at you.
  • Do not leave objects on the tracks. Not even pennies - you could injure yourself when you try to retrieve them. Debris could fly toward you when struck by a train, or injure people on board.
  • Be careful around electrical wires. Do not climb fences or poles, or fly a kite near wires. Do not approach a fallen wire - call the police instead. Assume that any wire could shock you.
  • Be careful around railroad crossings. A train can come at anytime, whether you think so or not. In so many grade crossing accidents, motorists fly through the crossing without ever looking or listening for an approaching train. Some drive around (or through) lowered crossing gates. Some drive into the side of a train that's already in the crossing. Do not be one of these people! Trains are much bigger than your car and cannot stop in time to avoid hitting you if you are in the way. Visit the Operation Lifesaver website for more about crossing safety.

Bikes on Intercity Trains

Until the 1990s, bicycles were only allowed aboard Amtrak trains in boxes as checked baggage. The bicycle owner was required to partially dismantle the bicycle (generally by removing the front wheel, pedals and, in some cases, the handlebars) so it would fit in a standard-sized bicycle box. Today, most trains still only allow boxed bicycles as checked baggage, meaning that only trains and stations with checked baggage service can accept bicycles.

At one time, special accommodations were made for unboxed bicycles on the following trains which still lack checked baggage service: Vermonter, Adirondack, Ethan Allen Express, Cardinal (before checked baggage was restored in October 2009), and Heartland Flyer (though the Oklahoma Department of Transportation is working to restore bike racks to the lower-level baggage compartments of its Superliner coaches). However, none of these trains (except the Cardinal as checked baggage) currently accept bicycles at all.

Thanks to the work of the state Departments of Transportation that support them, a certain number of racks or spaces for unboxed bicycles is available on the following short-distance routes: Cascades, Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin, Pacific Surfliner (except trains 798 and 799), Illinois Zephyr, Carl Sandburg, Lincoln Service, Blue Water, Illini, Saluki, Missouri River Runner, Downeaster (at Boston North Station, Portland and Brunswick only) and Piedmont (except trains 79 and 80). For all of these trains except the Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin and Pacific Surfliner, advance reservations are required for bicycle space. Reservations cost $5 or $10, depending on availability.

Unboxed bicycles are generally allowed on Amtrak Thruway motorcoaches that have baggage compartments. Call 1-800-USA-RAIL to make sure bicycles are allowed on a specific Thruway connecting service.

All Amtrak trains allow folding bikes that meet certain criteria as carry-on items. They must be stored in the luggage racks near the restrooms (on single-level coaches) or in the lower-level luggage racks (on Superliner coaches).

Details on Amtrak's current bicycle policies are available here.

NARP will continue to work with Amtrak to expand the ability for bicyclists to make full use of the national intercity passenger train network as a complement to bicycling. Amtrak has announced that it intends to implement a pilot program to allow unboxed bicycles on the Capitol Limited to or from all stops on the route. Once this is in place, NARP will work with bicycle advocates to make it successful. NARP has also urged Amtrak to include bicycle racks in the specifications for any new baggage, coach-baggage or baggage-dorm cars it plans to order, and bicycle racks are being included in the new baggage and bag-dorm cars being built by CAF USA for use on long-distance trains.

There is no smoking on board any Amtrak train. Smoking is permitted at designated station stops as announced by the conductor (on the Auto Train, the only intermediate stop between Lorton and Sanford is Florence, SC, reached between 1:00 and 2:00 AM).

Go to Amtrak’s website for full details on their smoking policy.

Pet Policies on Amtrak Trains

Many people ask why Amtrak does not allow pets on trains (other than registered service animals, as required by federal law).

The idea is not a new one. Amtrak (and its predecessors) allowed pets on board until 1976, often in three places—sleeping car rooms, parlor cars (in carriers), and in baggage cars.

Amtrak changed the policy in 1976. Pets were banned from sleeping and parlor cars. They were allowed in containers of specified dimensions in the baggage car (on those trains that had them). Passengers were allowed to visit them en route during station stops of ten minutes or more “when passenger safety and operating conditions permit, by making arrangements with the train conductor.” The reason for the change seems to have been the need to thoroughly clean sleeping car rooms whenever passengers changed over en-route. [Smoking is now also banned in such rooms.] NARP objected to the change at the time.

Then in 1977, the federal government issued new animal welfare regulations affecting carriage of pets on trains. There were new requirements for the heating and air conditioning of railroad cars that carry live animals, and for providing a constant supply of fresh water to animals. The agency issuing the requirements was the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), acting under the Federal Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (as amended in 1976). Amtrak determined that it would need to spend $13.8 million on baggage car changes and special animal shelters in stations to satisfy the new regulations, and ended the carriage of pets rather than comply.

NARP believes that carriage of pets on trains is desirable, if it can be done legally and affordably. In the early 1990’s, Amtrak was looking at allowing it on the Auto Train when it got new bi-level equipment. The idea was to convert an area in the lower level of certain coaches that had been designed as a baggage room into a kennel that would have been accessible from within that coach and could conceivably have access to the water and ventilation system of that coach. That project was not carried through.

Here's Amtrak's page describing policies on the carriage of pets and service animals.