A NOTE — I didn’t have a set budget for my trip (it was a business trip for me), but plenty of people do. I will recommend things based on what’s ideal for comfort and enjoyment, and you should tailor your trip to your own needs.
CHOOSE YOUR ROUTE: Where do you want to go? The trains pull into some smaller, quirkier towns that might deserve a visit. You can spend a day in Lafayette, Louisiana and then hop on board another train. Intermediary stops are a beautiful benefit of train travel and wholly different from planes. Take advantage of that difference.
All things considered, it’s remarkable how often trains pull into the station on time or even early. But sometimes they’re late. So, add “-ish” to your arrival time and relax. Also, check for scheduled track work. I called Amtrak when I was doing initial planning so I could choose a good time of year.
CHOOSE YOUR SEAT: If you’re traveling overnight, I really don’t recommend riding in coach. Even though the seats are considerably more comfortable than a plane and you can get up and make useof roomy bathroom facilities whenever you like, it’s still pretty darn irritating to try and sleep in a seat, surrounded by other people who may snore resoundingly.
Your other options are a roomette or a bedroom. Roomettes are about 3.5' by 6.5'. They have two seats that face each other and pull out into a bed, plus a bunk overhead that can be lowered at bedtime. The bedrooms are considerably larger. They have a sofa that pulls down into a larger bed, plus the bunk overheard (so you can sleep three people if you all like each other), plus a private bathroom/shower (the shower stall has the bathroom in it), plus a little sink and storage and a swiveling chair. The final option is the family bedroom that can accommodate four people and it spans the entire width of the train car.
I had a roomette during the first leg of my journey but switched to the bedroom after that. That small space wasn’t going to work for me during two weeks of travel, but it would have been fine for a single trip.
All of your meals (three, freshly prepared by an actual chef) are included in the price of your ticket. Plus, there is fresh coffee by 5:30 am.
CHOOSE YOUR HOTEL: The beauty of trains is that they generally drop you right in the middle of the city, not 30–40 minutes away at an airport. If you need accommodations, try to find a hotel near the train station. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s an incredible convenience to leave the train, walk a block down the street and check into your hotel for the night.
Plus, getting back to the station is easy and quick. I left my hotel room 20 minutes before the train left in Seattle and had plenty of time to spare. Take full advantage of the ease of train travel, in that you don’t have to schedule extra time for fighting airport traffic, checking baggage or going through security lines.
WHAT TO PACK: An umbrella, a water bottle (and coffee mug, if you drink coffee or tea) so you aren’t ruining the planet with plastic bottles, sneakers that smoosh flat but have decent support. I wore the Taos shoes below and I did 23,000 steps in one day in Boston and my sneaks kept my feet happy.
A multiplug, as most seats on Amtrak have only one or two outlets available. Even the bedrooms only have a couple plugs. I used this multiplug and it was excellent:
Also bring a stain remover pen (you will want to re-wear clothes), shower wipes, and slippers. You’re not allowed to go barefoot on the train (and probably don’t want to), but it’s not very comfortable to stay in your sneakers for two full days, so bring some slippies.
Bring some ear plugs, as the train blows its horn during the nighttime. Also, a long charging cable is useful so that you can take photos while your phone continues to charge.
SUITCASES: Don’t bring a large one. If you need to bring a lot, pack a carry-on and another that you can slip over the top of the suitcase handle. On a sleeper car, more than half of the rooms are upstairs and the stairwell is small and twisty. You do not want to be lugging a big suitcase up and down those stairs. So, bring two smaller bags if you need them.
Each night that you’re in a hotel, move what you need for the next train trip into your smaller bag. That way, you can leave the carry-on in the luggage rack downstairs and you don’t have to take it to your room or store it in that small space. It will be safely stored near the door, waiting for you to grab it on your way out the door.
WIFI: Some trains don’t have it. Check the route on the Amtrak website to be sure. What’s more, the trains travel through some isolated areas like the middle of Glacier National Park, where cell signals are weak or non-existent. If you want to use a tablet or laptop, bring a portable hotspot, expect to use your phone as a mobile hotspot, or download stuff in advance so you don’t need it. Remember that a train ride is an excellent excuse to unplug, disconnect, and enjoy life without email and Twitter. It might be scary at first, but you’ll quickly realize that we survived and even enjoyed our lives a few years ago before smartphones. You might want to try it.