9 mistakes travelers make on their first train trips
Congratulations! You've just booked your first train trip. That was the easy part. Now what you need to do is prepare before your trip to ensure you have a pleasant experience.
I'm a regular traveler on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, with countless numbers of trips between Washington, D.C.'s Union Station to New York City's Penn Station. But back in 2015, I booked my first long-distance trip, a roomette on Amtrak's Capitol Limited from Washington, D.C., to Chicago. My trip wasn't horrible, but it could have been much better if I had done some simple research before boarding. I'm sharing my tips, so you don't have to learn the hard way.
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1. Using the wrong card
We wouldn't be The Points Guy if we didn't tell you how to get the best points and miles when paying for your trip. First is the no-brainer Amtrak Guest Rewards® World Mastercard®. New cardholders get a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after making at least $2,500 in purchases within the first 90 days, with an annual fee of $79, to celebrate Amtrak's 50th anniversary.
When you use your Amtrak World Mastercard on board, you’ll get a 20% rebate in the form of a statement credit on food and beverage purchases. Cardholders earn 3 points per dollar spent on Amtrak travel, including onboard purchases, 2x on other qualifying travel and 1x on everything else.
Other perks include:
- Annual companion coupon (worth up to $300 in Amtrak travel)
- Annual upgrade coupon (worth up to $150 in Amtrak travel)
- Complimentary one-class upgrade
- Complimentary station lounge pass
- Earn 1,000 Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) toward earning tier status each time your eligible spending reaches $5,000 in a calendar year, up to 4,000 TQPs per year
- 5% Amtrak Guest Rewards point rebate when you book your Amtrak redemption travel
- No foreign transaction fees
Other cards to consider:
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card (2x on all spending)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x for travel; 5x on travel booked through the Ultimate Rewards Travel portal)
- Chase Sapphire Reserve (3x for travel; 5x on travel booked through the Ultimate Rewards Travel portal)
- American Express® Green Card (3x points on travel and dining, 1x on everything else)
The information for the Amtrak Guest Rewards Mastercard and Amex Green Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
2. Not packing your patience
Some of Amtrak's long-distance trains are notorious for delays.
A whopping 14 of 15 routes fail to achieve 80% standard of arriving within 15 minutes on schedule, according to Amtrak's Railroad Report Card 2020.
Only The City of New Orleans route made the cut. Long-distance lines with dismal on-time schedules include the Sunset Limited (33%), the Texas Eagle (48%), the Capitol Limited (52%) and the Crescent (53%). So check the on-time statistics of your train before you book that trip, so you don't stress out during delays.
3. Choosing the wrong train
One of the biggest thrills of train travel is seeing the majesty that is America from a window. So make sure you choose a train that will give you that. Some of the more popular routes include:
- The California Zephyr between Chicago and Oakland, Calif., is called one of the most beautiful train trips in North America, traveling through the heart of the Rockies and snow-capped Sierra Nevadas, as well as through the plains of Nebraska to Denver.
- The Coast Starlight, which runs from Seattle to Los Angeles, features views of snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Range and Mount Shasta, lush forests, fertile valleys and long stretches of Pacific Ocean shoreline.
- The Southwest Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles journeys past wheat fields and ranches, missions and pueblos, mountains and deserts and through canyon passages only a few feet wider than the train itself.
4. Not bringing your own entertainment
Train rides can be long, especially if there are delays. Northeast Corridor trains have Wi-Fi access, but the pickings can be slim to none on some more remote areas. So be prepared by downloading plenty of movies, television shows, music and books on your smartphone, laptop or tablet to keep you amused -- especially if there are train delays.
5. Not choosing the right seat
On Northeast Corridor trains, I don't bother booking a reserved seat. I make a beeline to the Quiet Car because most people can't stay off their phones, so there's a good chance of snagging two seats.
Sitting in that coach seat -- especially if you have someone sitting next to you -- can get old quickly. But if you're on a long-distance train, try and pay extra for a roomette. The roomette comes with the following amenities:
- Two comfortable seats by day
- Upper and lower berths by night
- Fresh towels and linens
- Access to a private restroom and shower in your car
- A dedicated Sleeping Car attendant
- Complimentary lounge access
- Priority boarding
- Complimentary meals
There's also room for your luggage, plus dedicated restrooms and showers in your train car.
6. Missing out on observation cars
The views from observation cars on Amtrak's long-distance trains can be incredible, thanks to cars with floor-to-ceiling windows. But get there early because seats are only available on a first-come, first-served basis.
7. Not bringing food and drinks
The good news is that Amtrak is bringing white tablecloth dining back to six long-distance trains -- California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle -- which includes the return of china dishes and real silverware. And if you've booked a roomette, your meals and non-alcoholic drinks come with your ticket.
But if you're sitting in coach or have special food requirements, you may want to bring your own food and snacks because a long train ride is even longer when your stomach is growling.
8. Eating with strangers
When you make a reservation for Amtrak's dining car with the three-course menu, know that you will be seated with three random passengers at your table. If you're an extrovert like me, it can be great.
One of my tablemates on the Capitol Limited was a woman who was part of a team that investigated Amtrak accidents, and our table had a fascinating conversation about it. But if you're an introvert, it may feel like a circle of hell to make idle chat with your fellow passengers at the table. You may be better off getting food from the Cafe car and eating at your seat.
9. Not dressing for comfort
Like airplanes, temperatures can vary on train rides. So prepare accordingly and bring a hoodie or sweater to protect you from the chill. Multiple hours on a train wearing skinny jeans can be so uncomfortable. So avoid that by wearing yoga or sweatpants or comfy leggings.
Everyone should go on a long-distance train trip once in their lifetime. It's not for everyone, but by following my tips, you'll have all you need to make it a wonderful trip.