Train Travel 101 – What You’ll Need to Know Before You Go

If you enjoy train travel but the cost of a bedroom or a roomette has you picking your jaw up off the floor, this is the survival guide for you. Before you board the train for your adventure in coach, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. Train travel is so exciting but has some drawbacks. This is your one-stop guide to surviving (and enjoying!) your ride on the rails.

The Accommodations

Train Travel 101 - seating

Speaking just for coach, this is what your seating will look like. They are comfortable, recline reasonably, and even have a foot rest! If you choose a seat at the front of the train car, you’ll have a good bit of extra space to stretch out and hold your belongings. We were able to put our baby’s car seat there as well, which was a huge help. It does, however, put your right up against the doors, which doesn’t lend itself well to sleeping at night, but you will have that extra leg room, which is nice.

Coach seats are four to a row, with two on each side of the aisle. All of the seats recline enough to rest comfortably in without bothering the folks seated behind you. They are spread out in a way that won’t infringe on their space and it doesn’t bother their tray tables either, so you can recline and relax without worry.

There are two, 3-prong power outlets per set of two seats, so be sure to bring a plug for your electronics with a long enough cord to reach to the end of the aisle seat with enough slack that it won’t bother the person occupying the window seat.

The Noise

Train travel reading
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Regardless of where your sleeping accommodations are for the night, the noise never stops. Rattles and shakes from the train sliding across the tracks are a constant. The engineer is on the horn regularly, around the clock as the train is gliding through populated areas. The doors between the trains are opening and closing. People are always on the move and aren’t always the best at being quiet when they’re not.

The train also makes stops to pick up and unload passengers as it’s travelling along its route all throughout the day and deep into the night as well. The conductors do an excellent job of making sure everyone is ready to get off at their designated stops and being discreet about it, but it’s still not exactly a quiet thing. Folks need to clean up their area, grab their luggage from above their seats, and make their way down the staircase to the exit.

Most people who board the train in the wee hours of the morning are coming in at a whisper, but there are plenty who are bouncing in and chatter for hours before they finally are able to calm down and zonk out.

Our longest stop-overs on the Southwest Chief (in Kansas City, heading west) and the Empire Builder (Portland, OR heading east) were for a full hour. That would have been the perfect time to get out, stretch, and explore the station, but both were in the middle of the night.

Both stops required the train to be fully powered down. Even with ear protection, it was so eerily quiet, you could hear every sniffle and fidget from the other passengers. It’s great encouragement to get off the train for a while, but again, it’s in the middle of the night. This is something that could have been enjoyable instead of the nuisance it was, had I known about it ahead of time. The schedule does state the stops the train makes but it wasn’t something I fully “got” until we’d experienced it for ourselves.

If you don’t own a good pair of noise-cancelling ear protection, I highly recommend picking up a pair before you go. These are a great option and work well at night too (where actual headphones may be less comfortable). I had to buy enough for a small army, so I went with these because they had decent reviews and were cheap enough that I wouldn’t feel too badly if the kids lost them and needed a duplicate pair or two (and they did).

The People

train travel people

I personally LOVE people. One of my very favorite things about being a traveling family is the people we meet on the road. However, if you’ve booked yourself a coach ticket on a long-haul train, it’s worth mentioning that you’ll be trapped in a steel tube with the general population for days on end. It’s not quite the same as flying because it takes significantly longer to reach your destination. There’s also a lot of encouragement with train travel to make it a community affair. Even dining is done per-table (where they fill all of the seats), vs. per group (where it’s just your party seated together).

So, be prepared for that.

Who might you meet on the train?

*Happy travelers

*Train enthusiasts

*Those who are afraid to fly

*Folks with short distances to travel (too long for an uber, too short for an airplane)

*People who wouldn’t pass a TSA inspection 😬

We had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with all of those while on our journey across the states. The vast majority were just great company. We had one lady who boarded in Chicago and traveled with us all the way to Los Angeles though, who had something going on…a mental disorder of sorts maybe that had her constantly yelling, cursing and carrying on, and generally causing a fuss. We also had a rather large group join us in St. Paul that a team of police officers came through and took right back off the train.

You really never know who you’re going to meet when you’re on the road. I quite enjoy that, myself, but they definitely aren’t all positive interactions, so that’s something to consider, especially since you can be stuck with your fellow passengers for quite a while.

The Food

Train travel dinner

So, the food. The food on the train is….food on a train. If you’re buying from the cafe car, expect to find a very limited selection of microwavable fare and select snack options at Disney World prices.

A Cup of Ramen costs me 30 cents in the store and $3 on the train. A tiny, Digiorno pizza is $7. A cup of water is $3 or you can get a flavored beverage (soda, powerade, etc) for $4.

The Dining Car offered a decent-looking meal that tasted just ok and ran about $15/meal if you bought the cheapest thing on the menu. It’s a neat experience though and is something you should consider doing at least once.

I travel with 6 kids pretty much everywhere I go. Most are teenagers with adult-sized appetites so keeping the cost of feeding them in check is important. It’s super easy to blow the vacation budget because we didn’t properly plan ahead in that department.

So, what resources will you have if you choose not to buy the $15 mystery burger from the dining car?

We packed an extra suitcase just for snacks. We also packed a couple of freezable lunch bags (which you can purchase here) inside of another flexible cooler bag (something like this) to hold lunch meats and cheeses so we could make ourselves wraps for lunch as we rolled along. It’s a little bit of an investment, but our one meal in the dining car set us back almost $100, so you’ll actually save beaucoup de bucks by going that route. And it’ll taste better too.

A word of caution though, if you’re storing your snacks in the luggage area downstairs as opposed to the rack above the seats, it does get pretty warm down there. So, either pack in a few extra ice packs with those lunch bags or plan to keep your snack back up by your seats where it’s a little cooler.

Another thing that would be handy and is something we’ll take with us on our next adventure on the train is a heating pack. I toyed with the idea of taking a mini-crock pot (like this), but decided against it because I wasn’t sure just how the seating/power outlets were set up. It would have been fine though and we’d have had soup or pretty much anything that you just need to warm up available to us. So, next time we’ll be taking a few of those too.

The trains do offer free water, hot or cold, to make your own beverages with too. There’s some debate amongst the hard-core rail travelers over the need to be generous with the person manning the cafe counter if they allow you to have hot water, cost-free. Some will tell you the cafe manager won’t allow you a cup of hot water at all without offering them a tip and that you dare not ask unless you’re willing to hand over some cash.

We spent almost two weeks riding 5 different, long-haul trains around the US and never ran into an issue with that. There was no drama or attitude as had been suggested. We just asked nicely for a cup of hot water to make our tea, and they handed one over with a smile. I suppose we could have run into an issue there, but we didn’t.

The Entertainment

Train travel view

The big entertainment on the train is watching the world go by. There are Viewliner cars where you can kick back in front of the giant windows to just enjoy the view. There are booths with tables in the Viewliner as well, so you can get a board game or some Uno going too.

Some of the scenery is spectacular! The train will take you places you’re not likely to see otherwise. It’s so, super neat! If your train ride takes you through our national parks during the warmer months, you may get lucky and have a ranger or some volunteers from one of them hop on the train and give a lecture about the area.

We traveled a little too early in the year to have had any park rangers join us, but we did have a couple of gentlemen join us in Klamath Falls, Oregon. They handed out maps and information on the area and stood in the Viewliner with us for most of the day, chattering on about all things Oregon. That was our first time in the Beaver state, so it was especially nice to hear all about it from the locals.

Sleeping on the Train

Sleeping in coach takes some getting used to but it can be done!

You’ll need the following:
A neck pillow (which you can also pick up for just $5 at Five Below if you have one nearby)
Noise-cancelling ear plugs
A Face Mask
A Fan (or something to help drown out the little noises)
A compact but comfortable blanket
A seat as far away from either of the doors or the staircase as you can get (let your conductor know BEFORE you board)

There is plenty of leg room in coach. You can also feel free to recline as far as the seats will go (and they do recline reasonably) without bothering the folks in the seats behind you. There are foot rests that pop up as well, kind of like a recliner. Those foot rests are rather stubby though. They worked fine for my 5 foot 1 inch body, but if you’re much taller than that you’ll have to get creative if you’d like to sleep with your feet propped up. Something like this, maybe? Or try weaseling a piece of luggage in front of your seat, perhaps. I saw several folks who were utilizing the floor or who were half in their seat and half on the ground….whatever it takes to get you through the night.

In the Station

Train Travel station
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There are some really amazing Amtrak stations! Washington, DC; Kansas City, Missouri; Los Angeles, California; Seattle Washington; Chicago, Illinois; New York City…. The architecture is fantastic! They have lots of options for dining and relaxing while you wait for your next train to arrive. Amtrak has some very nice lounges to hang out in too, if you’re one of their frequent travelers or are lucky enough to have snagged a voucher.

Most of the stations though are just small-town connections. They may or may not even be open when the train comes through. There also may or may not be bathrooms available (something to keep in mind when choosing the station you plan to get on at).

Also be mindful of handicapped accessibility. There’s a link to that info here. Not all stations are handicapped accessible, so that’s something to keep in mind if that’s an accommodation you require.

Consider Getting the Amtrak Credit Card

I get zero kick-back for putting this out there, it’s just a good idea. You may be able to pick up enough points to cover your journey by signing up for one and hitting their minimum spending requirement. You’ll pay 10% less in points with it also, so you’ll be able to stretch those points even further. 2 free companion passes come with it as well (which can be used when you’re paying in cash), and also a free lounge pass (good for 2 people plus everyone in your party who are under 21).

That lounge pass is valuable! Not only does it give you free access to the lounge to relax in, some light meal fare and beverages, and showers if you need them, you’ll also be able to check your bags there (also for free) while you wait. So, you can unload your luggage and go explore the city if you’ve got a long enough layover to go for a wander.

The WIFI

I know what you must be thinking: wouldn’t a discussion about the WIFI be much more appropriate under the “The Entertainment” heading? It sure would! However, both the Amtrak.com website and every one of their customer service agents I spoke with while planning our journey assured me that WIFI would be readily available in most locations except for those where the train is deep in a mountain or in a tunnel or somewhere similar where a WIFI connection simply wouldn’t exist. That simply isn’t true, so it’s earned its own category.

With that being said, THERE IS NO WIFI ON THE TRAIN. I have to put that out there big and boldly because that was a massive oversite on their part. If you’re traveling with children or work a mobile job that requires internet access, this is SUPER important. I’m sure they have a smidgen of WIFI available somewhere on the train, or they wouldn’t be able to advertise it, but in all of our time on the train, we were never able to actually get it to function. That’s something I’ve heard echoed from many other passengers as well.

I have heard that IF you’re going to pick up a WIFI signal, it’s going to be in the cafe car. We didn’t have luck there either, but it’s worth a shot.

That’s pretty much it!

Train travel is SO exciting and it can be a ton of fun too, as long as you understand what you’re getting yourself into. Bring your patience with you, pack ALL of the bedtime gear, your favorite electronics and charging cords, and copious amounts of snacks and drinks, and prepare to kick back and enjoy the ride. I, personally, loved everything about it and I hope you do too.

Happy travels!

Choo choo! 😊

Train travel happy travels

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