How To Travel by Rail
Traveling by rail can be a fun, rewarding, exciting, and inexpensive experience. There are lots of reasons to take the train. But it's different in many ways from air or car travel. Read on to learn all about your trip.
In the United States, traveling between cities almost always means taking an Amtrak train. Amtrak is the nation's passenger rail service that began in the early 1970s. Amtrak operates a wide variety of services: small connection trains, long trains that cross the continent, commuter trains in California and the Northeast, and the fast Acela trains in the Northeast. Amtrak also operates some short bus lines to connect passengers to trains. This document focuses on Amtrak; where some other service is involved, you'll be alerted.
A Word On Train Names and Numbers
Each route on Amtrak has a name. For instance, the Southwest Chief runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, and the Texas Eagle runs between San Antonio and Chicago. The Acela Express runs between Boston and Washington, DC.
Along each route, you will find two or more train numbers. On the Southwest Chief, train 3 is westbound and train 4 is eastbound. At any given stop on the route of the Chief, both train 3 and train 4 will stop on a given day.
Routes such as the Acela Express may see dozens of trains operate each day, with their corresponding number.
It will be helpful for you to note both your train's name and its number as you book your travel.
Amtrak can book travel on some other services, such as connecting buses, to get you to or from your trains; sometimes these non-Amtrak services lack a name or number.
Planning Your Trip
You can find a travel agent that specializes in Amtrak by looking on various rail forums. I suggest that you do not use travel agents that do not specialize in Amtrak; many of them will not have much helpful knowledge. However, an experienced Amtrak agent can be a tremendous help.
You can also call Amtrak directly at 1-800-USA-RAIL. They can help you find stations, plan your trip, etc. While many Amtrak agents are very good, there are some people on that line that aren't the most helpful; your mileage may vary.
You can also gather the information you need, and book your entire reservation, online. Here's how:
The first thing you should do is find out what services are available in your area and where you want to go. A handy place to start is Amtrak's station finder. One hint: expand the 15-mile radius. Most large cities and a surprising number of small towns have Amtrak service. If the station finder doesn't help you, check out the list of stations by state. Our page on Amtrak stations may also be useful.
The next stop is Amtrak's reservations page. Put in the station your going from and the one you're going to, and Amtrak shows you a list of available options. From there, you can select amenities to add if you wish, get price, and make your reservation.
Like with airlines, you will get better prices if you book well in advance.
Amtrak uses paper tickets only -- no e-tickets like the airlines use. Amtrak has so many stations, some of them in out-of-the-way locations, that e-ticket handling is not sensible or economical for them.
We've assembled some money-saving tips for you.
See Amtrak/Luggage for details.
For information on different kind of seats or private rooms available on Amtrak, see our accommodations section.
See Amtrak/Identification Requirements for more.
What To Expect On Board
What To Bring With You
See Amtrak/What To Bring for suggestions on things to bring with you onto the train.
For More Information
For more information, consult:
Travelogs -- reports from people that have ridden the train. Check rail forums or Google. Or, here's one to get you started.
Our Internet Resources page