24 Train Hacks From an Amtrak Veteran

By Carrie Kirby on 14 October 2014 3 comments

Amtrak isn't easy to love, and yet so many of us do.

The pleasure of watching one region of the country transform to another before our eyes — without having to keep those eyes on the road or stay strapped into seat belts — makes up for our rail system's failings. (See also: Here's Why Bus Travel Is Cheaper, Easier, and More Awesome than You Think)

This summer, my husband and I took our three children from Chicago to Oakland by rail — 2,729 miles on the Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight. Along the way — and on some of our past Amtrak adventures — we learned these hacks to help make American train travel cheaper and more comfortable.

Cost

Travel by train isn't as cheap as we would like it to be — here's how to cut the price.

1. Coach Ticket Prices Can Vary Depending on When You Book

Try buying your ticket 11 months in advance. If the price goes down at any time after that, call Amtrak and ask them to adjust your fare.

2. You Probably Qualify for a Discount

AAA members get 10% off. For our trip, that discount was more than the cost of the AAA membership fee, so I joined, even though I don't own a car. Discounts are also available for military, seniors, and other organization members.

Up to two children (age 2-12) ride half price, per paying adult.

3. Sign Up for Amtrak Guest Rewards

Amtrak's rewards program is like frequent flyer miles, except that you earn points based on how much you spend, not how far you travel. I earned enough on our summer trip for a free local trip.

Not only can you earn points to spend for future travel, but you can buy points. Why would you want to do that? Because for a few routes around the country, it's cheaper to purchase points and use those to pay than it is to simply buy coach tickets. I learned about this hack on the blog Nonstop Awesomeness, but the numbers in that post are out of date. It still works though. For example, to travel from Vancouver, BC, to Eugene, OR., costs $88 for a coach ticket, if you pay with cash or credit card. Or you can pay for it with 1,500 points, which you can buy from Amtrak for $41.25. That's more than 50% off!

4. Check for Special Offers

If you are leaving in one to two weeks, check the SmartFares section for 25% coach discounts.

5. Consider a Rail Pass

The California pass gets you seven days of travel within three weeks for $159, and the USA pass has 15-, 30- and 45-day options. Compare the pass cost to a straight coach fare; for our trip, booking individual tickets was more affordable.

Upgrading to Sleeping Rooms

Sleepers are a lot more expensive than coach. For instance, if I were to book two tickets from Chicago to Los Angeles for next week, getting a two-bed sleeping compartment would add $587 to the price. That's $293 a night — pretty pricey for a tiny room without a private bath.

But if you don't sleep well without lying flat, or if you're easily awakened by lights and sounds, it's worth trying to find a good deal on a sleeper for overnight trips. Keep in mind that the cost of the upgrade to a room includes meals in the dining car — which cost a fortune if you pay the menu prices.

6. Book Far in Advance

Amtrak bases its sleeper prices on availability, so the more beds available, the cheaper they are. When I tried booking the same trip mentioned above 11 months in advance, Amtrak quoted me the same price for the coach seats — $169 each — but the bedroom was only $461 extra for the trip, or $230.50 for the night.

7. Book at the Last Minute

This strategy only works if you are okay with sleeping in coach if you fail to snag a last-minute upgrade.

After having a hard time sleeping in coach on the first leg of our cross-country trip, I started checking sleeper prices for the second leg, an overnight from Williams, AZ., to Los Angeles. The website showed the same high prices as a month before departure. However, it also showed that plenty of rooms were available, so I suspected a last-minute price drop might occur.

When I called Amtrak several hours before departure, I was quoted a lower price — just $221 extra for one night in a family bedroom. That's a steal! The same bedroom, for a trip several months from now, is currently priced at more than $500 above coach. Warning: If you are using a discount like a AAA membership, you might lose it if you change your ticket less than three days in advance.

9. If You Don't Like the Price Now, Price the Trip Again Later

Some travelers report that prices dip on Thursdays and Fridays, or early in the morning. Be aware that if you ask to change rooms, the price might go up, because the room you are already holding decreases the availability on the car as a whole.

10. If the Website Won't Let You Book the Room, Call

We have five people in our family, but the two younger kids are both pretty small. According to the Amtrak website, family bedrooms are only for four people. But when I called a reservation agent and asked for the family bedroom, she was able to book it — and when we got on board, there was plenty of room for all of us.

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24 Train Hacks From An Amtrak Expert

11. You Probably Can't Upgrade Onboard for a Discount

In the past, some passengers have reported being able to snag a cheap sleep if any bedrooms were empty after the train departed. I asked the conductor about this on the Southwest Chief, and he said this is no longer allowed. The reason he gave is that too many conductors were pocketing the money!

Other passengers reported as recently as 2013 that you could book a sleeper onboard, but at the same price as online.

12. Check the Price of a Bedroom for Daytime Trips

The price might be similar to coach, and riding in the bedroom is more private. You might even get a meal if you travel at the right time.

Baggage

Trains are good at hauling freight — even if it's just your luggage.

13. Check Your Baggage Up to 24 Hours in Advance of Departure

If you plan on touring a city before getting on the train, you don't have to pay for lockers — just drop off your bags at the check-in window. This can also make boarding time much less hectic.

I couldn't find the 24-hour rule listed on the Amtrak website, which notes only that baggage must be checked a minimum of 45 minutes to one hour before departure, depending on the station. But when I called an agent, she told me that you can check bags 24 hours early systemwide. Still, it's not a bad idea to call and verify that your particular station's baggage claim is open and willing to take your bags before making a special trip.

Note that if you do this, your bags might reach your destination before you do. But unlike airlines, Amtrak will check your claimcheck before handing over your bag, so they should be safe waiting for you there.

14. Don't Stress Over Carry-On Restrictions

No one looked twice at the mountain of luggage our family dragged on board. In fact, the train staff happily helped us pile it onto the abundant shelving. This is also good to keep in mind if you miss the cut-off for checking in luggage, or if you're taking a route that doesn't allow checked bags.

Food

There's no denying the elegance of the dining car and there's no denying how costly it can be.

15. Bring Plenty of Food

On our summer trip, the longest leg of which was two days, we limited ourselves to a small soft-sided cooler and a grocery bag of shelf-stable food. Next time we will bring much more food, including a rolling cooler. There was plenty of room onboard, and prices in the dining car are high — like $7 for a kid's hot dog and $16 to $26 for adult dinner entrees.

16. The Cafe Is Much Cheaper Than the Dining Car

It's only microwaved pizza and such, but it'll get you through the day if necessary.

17. Get Free Hot Water in the Cafe

The cafe will not microwave your food, but if you bring instant noodles or anything else designed to be warmed up with hot water, you're golden.

18. Buy Food in Stations or the Neighborhood on Longer Stops

The staff will let you know when the train will be stopped for 15 minutes or even half an hour. This is the time to dart outside and forage.

Comfort and Enjoyment

Traveling by train isn't exactly speedy. You'll have a lot of time to ponder the nature of existence, to read a good book, or to interrogate your fellow travelers.

19. Bring Supplies to Hack your Environment

Clothes pins or safety pins can hold your curtains closed so the light doesn't wake you up at dawn. Duct tape can secure any squeaky wall panels — or any holes in your baggage.

20. Bring Earplugs and Eye Shades

In coach, there are always some lights on for safety, and I wouldn't have slept a wink without my eye mask. Despite posted rules, some passengers on our train persisted in taking phone calls and watching movies without headphones well past 10 p.m. And there are always station announcements in the wee hours.

21. You Can Probably Get Away With Bringing Your Own Booze

I heard the cafe car attendant admonish one passenger who was drinking a beer in the lounge that he could not have alcohol not purchased onboard outside the bedrooms. However, it's not like anyone's searching your bag. My husband and I brought a good bottle of bourbon and subtly enjoyed a nightcap without a problem.

22. Make Friends With the Staff

Being on good terms with the staff can help with many of these hacks. Plus, friendly staff members will let you know when an upcoming stop will afford enough time to get off and walk around, and keep you posted on how much time remains before your stop.

In the sleepers, your car attendant can make or break your trip. Ours' was so kind that he went to the 6 a.m. serving of breakfast and got five to-go plates for us so that we would be able to eat in our room before getting off the train. (Yes, they accept tips!)

23. Expect Delays

Download the Amtrak app to for updates on when your train will really depart. If you are not taking the train from the beginning of the line, you can also call Amtrak the day before to ask if the train is running behind. Keep in mind that they can make up time along the way.

24. Enjoy the Trails and Rails Program

If your train is part of this program, you can hear National Park rangers make presentations in the lounge about the parts of the United States you're crossing. This program — in which we learned about the Santa Fe Trail — added hours of entertainment to our trip.

Do you have any Amtrak Hacks (Am-Hacks?) that weren't covered? Let us know in the comments!

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Ashley

How do you find out how many points your trip will cost without purchasing the points first?

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Lynne

As of Oct. 1 2015, baggage and carry-ons have new restrictions, much like the airlines do now.
Your check-in luggage will be weighed.

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Guest

We've traveled on the AutoTrain a few round trips from Lorton VA to Sanford FL. When using a smaller SUV, we inquired about using roof-top luggage bags and hitch-mounted luggage trays. Both options were permitted, without any extra fees, as long as the overall length and height do not exceed the requirements.