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4 great scenic train rides across the US

Oct. 05, 2022
9 min read
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Want to truly immerse yourself in the vastness of the USA? There's no better way than to take a scenic cross-country train trip.

During these long-distance train rides, the journey is just as exciting as the destination itself. Relaxing in your seat as you watch the U.S. landscape out your train car window slowly change from cities to farmlands or from wide-open plains to towering mountains is an experience that's worth the extra transit time.

Amtrak offers many overnight and multiday scenic train rides across the U.S. from the East Coast, the West Coast and everywhere in between. Route names like the Empire Builder, the Coast Starlight and the California Zephyr are enough to inspire wanderlust for any traveler.

Whether you're new to train travel or an avid rider of the rails, here are four bucket list-worthy U.S. train rides to take for stunning scenery, plus some tips on how best to book and enjoy them.

Tips for cross-country train travel

Amtrak train. JIM SUGAR/GETTY IMAGES

While taking a cross-country train trip can be a rewarding experience, as it offers days to leisurely sit back and enjoy scenic landscapes, many people have worries about how best to book such a long trip and what to expect when it comes to sleeping arrangements. TPG has a few tips to help you get on board with the concept and easily plan your journey.

Browse routes by region

AMTRAK

A good first step to take when looking for a route that's right for you is to search Amtrak's "Browse by Region" menu. You can pick a large area of the country from which to start or finish your trip.

Once you click on an area, Amtrak will provide lists of highlighted long-distance routes, as well as shorter point-to-point trips. You can then select a route like the Capitol Corridor in California before being directed to ticket purchase menus.

Explore Amtrak Vacations

AMTRAK

Amtrak offers curated vacation packages to rail travelers via its Amtrak Vacations website. These tours can include side trips (via bus) to national parks, sightseeing tours in cities and hotel lodging on stopovers along the route. You can search for packages around vacation themes like "Fall Foliage" and "Multiple National Parks."

Amtrak's set of "Most Scenic Journeys" vacation packages include trips lasting up to two weeks that combine rail travel and additional tours. Think of these trips like cruises with shore excursions. Some of the scenic journey-designated options focus on national parks, while others are big-city oriented.

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You can click on each option's details to find itineraries, dates and prices. Then, all that's left to do is book your rail vacation.

Consider famous routes

AMTRAK

A shortcut to finding scenic cross-country rail routes on Amtrak is to visit its Amtrak Vacations website and click on "Famous Rail Routes." This set of approximately 20 different overnight train routes gives you a great set of suggestions for your own potential cross-country journeys.

For more details on the fixed routes, click on any of the tabs. Once you've chosen a route, you can either book a package tour with Amtrak Vacations or go to the regular Amtrak website and book a point-to-point trip.

Weigh your accommodation options

Taking an overnight or a multiday train trip means you'll need to sleep aboard the train. All of Amtrak's long-distance train trips provide a variety of seating and room arrangments.

The cheapest way to travel is to simply book a seat on the route. While Amtrak's seating is comfortable, with more legroom than you'll find in an airline's business class, it may not be the way you want to travel for many hours. You can get up, walk the train and stop in the cafe car, but this can still be a tough way to travel during a multiday journey.

Fortunately, Amtrak provides several classes of accommodations on cross-country trips, ranging from shared roomettes with fold-out bunks to bedrooms, larger family bedrooms and suites complete with private bathrooms and showers. Should you book one of these rooms on a cross-country itinerary, you'll enjoy access to a separate dining car.

Prices for the various ticket classes vary widely between routes and dates, so check potential itineraries to find the best option for you.

4 scenic train trips to take in the US

Now that you know the basics when it comes to picking a long-distance train route, you'll want to narrow down your options. Although there are many scenic routes in the U.S., here are our four favorites.

California Zephyr: San Francisco to Chicago

AMTRAK

Amtrak's California Zephyr route travels between San Francisco and Chicago on a three-day journey. The 51-hour trip (on the west-to-east path) begins in nearby Emeryville, California, then travels through central California farmlands up into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Along this part of the route, you'll enjoy spectacular panoramas from glassed-in viewing cars.

The train continues through Reno and the Nevada deserts into Salt Lake City before traveling up into the Rocky Mountains to reach Denver. You'll descend into the wide-open plains of Nebraska and eventually wind your way into the Windy City.

This trip is a great way to immerse yourself in the American West, as you'll get a true feeling of the vastness of the region and the variety of terrain that makes up the country.

One-way prices start at $141 per person for a seat in coach and $688 for a room.

Empire Builder: Seattle to Chicago

AMTRAK

The Empire Builder train route connects Chicago and Seattle on a 46-hour journey connecting the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. The train loosely follows the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, the route the explorers took to map out the region acquired during the Louisiana Purchase.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would have appreciated sitting back in the train's viewing cars to enjoy eyefuls of Montana's Big Sky Country, Glacier National Park, the Cascade Range and the vast plains of North Dakota. Additionally, the explorers would have marveled at the metalwork of North Dakota's towering Gassman Coulee Trestle bridge.

Should you wish to depart or arrive in Portland, Oregon, instead of Seattle, know that there's an alternate route of the Empire Builder from this Pacific Northwest city, so you can plan your itinerary based on your preferences.

One-way train fares from Chicago to Seattle begin at $150 per person, while rooms cost at least $651.

Southwest Chief: Los Angeles to Chicago

AMTRAK

Traverse the American Southwest on a southern route between Los Angeles and Chicago. The Southwest Chief route departs daily and takes roughly 40 hours to cross eight states.

For some of the journey, the train follows the classic American road trip thoroughfare of historic Route 66. However, unlike its car-friendly neighbor, the train route offers views you won't find while driving the highway, as it winds on twisting tracks that travel through narrow red-rock canyon passages before offering wide-open vistas of mountains and deserts.

The train's main stops include Kansas City, Missouri; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Flagstaff, Arizona. You can also take advantage of excursions from the train when you purchase one of Amtrak's vacation packages. For example, you can visit the Grand Canyon (by train or bus) while the train is stopped in Williams, Arizona.

Even if you never leave the train, the views along the way are enough to create lasting memories.

Expect to pay at least $146 per person for a coach seat on this one-way route or a minimum of $899 for a room.

Crescent: New York City to New Orleans

New Orleans automobile and railroad bridge. JW LOUISIANA/GETTY IMAGES

See the American South on this 30-hour journey between New York City and New Orleans. Departing the urban landscape of the Big Apple, this route will take you through the Northeastern cityscapes of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., among other destinations.

Once it exits the urban corridor, the train winds through the countryside of Virginia and the Carolinas, offering stops in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina. Then, it continues through the Deep South states of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi before reaching its final stop in New Orleans.

Tickets for this one-way route start at $139 for a seat in coach and $580 for a room.

Bottom line

Traveling by train across the U.S. gives you a unique perspective of the scale and scope of the American landscape. While it may be slower than flying across the country, rail travel gives you the opportunity to sit back and savor the journey, appreciating the changing views as the hours roll by.

The four scenic cross-country train trips highlighted here are only some of Amtrak's many long-distance journeys available to book. By exploring Amtrak's website, you can find many different rail journeys in nearly every part of the U.S. Best of all, most offer an array of seating options, so you can choose the ticket that best suits your travel preferences and budget.

Featured image by AMTRAK
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
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  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more