Road Trips

Ultimate Guide to the USA by Amtrak Trains

Amtrak Coast Starlight
Written by Town & Tourist

Ultimate Guide to Traveling the USA by Train – There is something ever so romantic about train travel, the gentle noise, the picturesque scenery, the large comfy seats and of course the dining cart!

Traveling by train in the USA is also a very fast and cost effective way of traveling around the USA. You can actually travel coast to coast for as little as $232! Now although the train network in the USA is nothing on that of Europe, it still offers access to over 500 destinations via the USAs Amtrak network.

On this train network you will drive through real Americana, past quaint towns and meet some real characters along the way!

Should I get the Train, Bus or Drive around the USA?

We love US Road Trips and have an entire section of our website dedicated to it: Ultimate US Road trips.

Although Cars have the advantage of being able to stop whenever you like, you should take into account fuel costs, Vehicle Maintenance and of course you literally have to be in the driving seat which can get tiring if traveling long distances or difficult if your not from the USA.

Then there is Car Rental costs, if you going to drive we strongly suggest checking out our post: Ultimate Car Rental Travel Hacks! This could save you some serious cash!

Cross Country Steam Train USA

Cross Country Steam Train USA

Bus travel is the cheapest option to get around the USA and offers a variety of routes, although it can be a little cramped and the stop offs are not as regular as you would like while driving. For more details see Epic Public Transport Road Trip USA 

This is why we love train Travel in the USA, Fast, comfortable and you don’t really have to do anything! But whether you should drive, get the train or bus depends entirely on your personal situation, preferences and circumstances.  In this post we will discuss the benefits & practicalities of train travel!

For the best deals on public transport, check out:

Best Public Transport Booking Tools? Trains, Buses, Ferries!

Amtrak Rail Network map USA:

The Map below details the Amtrak Rail Network across the USA. The different colors indicate the different rail routes, carriages and frequency. For the detailed Amtrak map you can download click HERE.

USA-train-map-amtrak

USA-train-map-amtrak

Coast to Coast train Travel USA

If you previously read our: Ultimate Motorcycle Road Trip: U.S Coast to Coast!

You will be aware that it is a very long 3,000 mile Journey, which is one of the most memorable experiences you will ever do in your life! Traveling cross country by train is easy, cost effective, safe and comfortable alternative to flying.

Insider Tip:

On each train ask a member of the staff for one of the FREE ROUTE GUIDES which tell you what to look out for in the Window as the train “chugs” along. The scenery is some of the most captivating in the world.

Coast to Coast Train Facts:

  • The 3,000 mile coast-to-coast train ride takes 3 nights, if you have no stopovers.

  • There are 4 or 5 different train routes to choose from each with their own character. I highly recommend stopping along the way to not miss out on all the great Americana passing by. But keep in mind a separate ticket is required for each leg.

Our Favourite Coast to Coast Train Routes:

1. New York to Los Angeles Train Journey:

  • Leg 1: New York to Chicago (One Night)
  • Leg 2: Chicago to Los Angeles (2 nights)
  • Alternative Starting Points (East): You can start from Boston or Washington DC
  • Alternative Destinations (West): You can head from Chicago to San Francisco or Seattle.
  • Train Type: On this route you will ride on a fantastic double deck Superliner Train.
Buffalo New York train journey

Buffalo New York train journey

2. New Orleans to Los Angeles

  • Leg 1: New Orleans to Los Angeles (2 nights)
  • Alternative Destinations (West): You can also head to San Francisco or Seattle.
  • Train Type: On this route you will ride on a fantastic double deck Superliner Train
  • Train Frequency: New Orleans to LA – Three Times/Week
Mardi Gras New Orleans - train

Plan your train journey to coincide with the iconic Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans. See 12 Epic Parades in the U.S.A

Cost of Coast to Coast Train Travel:

You can travel from New York to Los Angeles/San Francisco/Seattle for as little as just $232

This trip includes a spacious reclining seat.

Optional Extras: 

Private Sleeper Carriage for 1/2 people. Includes meals in the dining car, teas, coffees and juices.

Are Amtrak Times ever late?

The trains often run on time. However, as these Amtrak trains run for over 2000 miles, they can arrive around 30 minutes to up to 1-2 hours late sometimes!

Insider Tip:

Don’t book tight connections to avoid missing you train. To be honest, it’s best to stop off enroute anyway and see the great cities then get the night train the next evening. For details on Amtraks real time train positions and times see www.asm.transitdocs.com.

6 Essential Tips when Traveling the USA by Train:

1. Buy train tickets in Advance but no need to make reservations

You can easily purchase train tickets online via the Amtrak Website, they also offer mobile ticketing options. For all public transport bookings internationally I use this great comparison tool HERE.

If you book a coach seat, you can usually reserve these in advance. Amtrak staff usually allocate your seat on the platform. The seats are configured in pairs which face towards the direction of travel. If your a solo rider, you will usually be slotted into a spare seat, so don’t worry if your unsure exactly where this is until you board.

2. Check in your bags

The Train Stations can vary in size from massive complexes with many bars, shops and cafés to a single platform with just a station sign and a bench. The Majority of stations allow you to check in your Baggage for FREE, like you would at an airport. Just be sure to arrive at least 40 minutes before departure.

This is certainly a great option if your on a long haul journey and leaves you free to wander around to the dining car, bar or vestibules without worrying about valuables.  However, if you prefer to keep your baggage with you there is ample overhead storage, even in coach. You can also check bags in to your final destination and they will be automatically changed over.

Luggage Policy: 

All passengers are entitled to check in up to 2 large items of luggage free of charge, plus an additional 2 large items for $20 each.  Maximum 50lbs (23Kg) per item, maximum dimension (length + height + width) = 75″.  Oversize bags (up to a total linear dimension of 100″) $20 per bag.  A name and address label must be attached to each item.  Hand luggage is limited to two items per passenger, maximum 50lbs (23Kg) per item, dimensions 28″ x 22″ x 14″.  For more details: www.amtrak.com/baggage-policy.

Amish on Coach

Amish Disembarking in Portland. We took the same trains twice, with a 5 day break in-between. (What are the chances?)
They didn’t want to pose for a photo, but said I could “catch” them if I wanted. See: Top 13 Amish Communities in America : Culture Guide
Photo by Amish Flickr

3. Head to the Bar Car

The Bar car is usually found next to the dining car. Here you will discover comfy leather booths for four people where you can play cards, enjoy a coffee, drink, snack and just chat to other passengers. This is also where you will find the National Park Guides, these uniformed officers travel by train during the summer months as part of the Amtrak Trails on Rails Programme. They will happily give you educational leaflets and give you background and interesting spots out of the window.

4. Be aware of which stops are real ones! 

Make sure your aware which stops on the journey are designated ones where you are allowed to head out onto the platform stretch your legs or have a smoke (if your a smoker). Amtrak has strict rules regarding this so don’t try it unless your have confirmed it prior…also you don’t want to get left on the platform!

5. Check out the Dome Car

The Dome Car offers seat facing out of the windows offering panoramic views of the scenery. The Dome cars are common on Scenic routes but do fill up quickly, especially on trains like the California Zephyr which passes through the untouched areas of the Colorado Rockies. So get to the carriage early to avoid disappointment.

amtrak-california-zephyr-onboard-dome car

amtrak-california-zephyr-onboard-dome car. Source: flickr

6. Consider a US Amtrak Railpass

Will an Amtrak Railpass save me money?

Number of Days  Segments Costs
15 Day 8 $449
30 Day 12 $679
45 Day 18 $879

Amtraks USA Railpasses no longer give unlimited train travel. They cover a maximum number of segments. This is the maximum number of train rides you can take with the give period or time. This is a similar system to Europes Interail pass. So a 2 day trip counts as one segment if you don’t change trains but a 30 minute train also counts as one segment. So just be aware of this.

If you plan on making 8 or more long distance train rides then the Amtrak Railpass will most likely save you money. However, if you only plan on making 2/3 long train trips or  a few short ones then the standard tickets are most likely to be cheaper. Children aged 2-12 get passes for half price, under 2’s travel free.

12 Captivating Train routes in the USA:

Taking an Amtrak Vacation can be an incredible way of seeing the United States of America. Enroute you will pass by historic landmarks, cityscapes and National Parks. Using Amtraks interactive route planner you can find some great journeys across the USA

1. California Zephyr

The California Zephyr is one of the greatest train journeys in the world! In terms of both Scenery, character and historical significance.  The Route runs from Chicago to San Francisco, where you can take a connection with the Lake Shore Limited from New York or Boston to Chicago, or the Capitol Limited from Washington DC to Chicago.

On this journey you will cross the farmlands of Nebraska, the Colorado Rockies, through the Sierra Nevada mountains before arriving at San Francisco. For a 360′ view of what its like in the sightseer lounge of the California Zephyr see this link HERE. (Be sure you allow pop ups)

Insider Tip:

Listen out for the Commentary of the most significant section of the California Zephyr route and try some classic american eggs and Bacon for breakfast in the diner carriage.

California Zephyr train

California Zephyr train

2. The Napa Valley Wine Train

The Napa Valley Wine Train takes you through the lush wine country northeast of the Bay Area. The historic train line was originally built in 1864. These days visitors can hop on a three hour 36 mile round trip which runs from Napa to St Helena, then back.

The train boards at McKinstry Street Station, and takes you through the historic industrial part of Napa before heading the breath taking wine country. Feel free to hop on and off the train as you go and stay overnight at one of our recommend hotels in Napa Valley. 

Napa Valley Wine Train

Napa Valley Wine Train. Source: NapaValley official

3. Route 66: Chicago to Los Angeles

On a trans continental train route you will find some of the most breath taking scenery.  For example, a Southwest Chief  train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles with take you over the famous Santa Fe Railroad and alongside the iconic route 66, through Navajo Indian Country. You can even stop off at the Grand Canyon on the way.

Southwest Chief route 66 train

Southwest Chief route 66 train. Source: Latimes.com

4. The Grand Canyon Railway

The Grand Canyon Railway, dates back to 1901 and offers riders journey into Wild West! Here you will travel through one the US’s most iconic regions. On board the restored carriages you will hear folklore, tales from the crew and be entertained by musicians which bring the old west to life. Take the railway to the South Rim in a 65 mile trip across the desert Plateau.

Grand Canyon Railway live music

Live entertainment is common on the Grand Canyon Railway! Source; Xanterra Parks & Resorts

5. The Coast Starlight (West Coast)

Take a memorable train journey along the edge of the west coast on Amtraks Coast Starlight. This train travels from Los Angeles to Seattle via Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Portland. There is a vast spectrum of scenery which you can indulge in along the journey from snow covered mountain peaks of the Cascade Range & Mount Shasta to wild Forests, valleys and of course the shimmering pacific ocean shores.

coast-starlight-train-ride

coast-starlight-train-ride. Source: amtrak Cl

6. The Pacific Surfliner (San Diegos ocean towns)

The is a real southern California favourite. Start in San Diego and head north stopping along quaint towns such as San Juan Capistrano, Encinitas, Carpinteria and Ventura. Be sure to check out Santa Barbara, or carry on the end of the line at San Luis Obispo.

Pacific-Surfliner-train

Pacific-Surfliner-train

8. Amtrak Cascades (Northern USA)

Amatrak Cascades will take you over the northern border of the USA. The train runs from Vancouver, Canada to Eugene, Oregon via Portland and Seattle. Pass Mount St. Helens and across the Columbia River Gorge.

Insider Tip:

Be sure to stop of in the cities enroute for a day trip or even an overnight stay! See How to find the Best Hotel Deals??

9. The White Pass Yukon Route (Alaska to Canada)

The White Pass Yukon Route will take you 67.5 miles from Skagway, Alaska to Carcross, Canada. This is an historic route the Klondike stampeders traveled more than 100 years ago. Be sure to stop along the way to tour the historic Bennett Station and museum.

White Pass Yukon train alaska

White Pass Yukon train alaska. Source: wpyr.com

10. New England in the fall

New England in the Fall offers a spectrum of colors and captivating sights. Hop on Board the Conway Scenic Railroad, Green Mountain Flyer Fall Foliage Express and the Cape Cod Central Railroad. For three memorable train journeys which include Mystic seaport, New port Mansion, Plimoth Plantation and of course Boston.

New England in the fall train

New England in the fall train. Source: the great americabyrail.com

11. National Park Train Vacation

On a 14 day rail tour you will get to experience 5 of americas most breath taking National Parks. Enroute you will get to enjoy two overnight stays on Amtraks Empire Builder and the iconic California Zephyr train.  On this bucket list experience you will get to tour Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, Arches, and Canyonlands national parks.

yellowstone national park sunset

yellowstone national park sunset view from train

12. Maple Leaf Train (Niagara Falls to New York)

Niagara Falls is one of the wonders of the world! Hop on board Amtrak’s Maple Leaf train for a winding journey through New York State. From Niagara Falls to to New York City. When at Niagara falls be sure to hop on the Hornblower for a cruise past the majestic falls.

Maple leaf express train usa niagara falls

Maple leaf express train usa niagara falls. Source: www.traveller.com.au/

This journey was also popular on our: New York City to Niagara falls Road trip!

Want the best deals when booking a train?

Check out: Best Public Transport Booking Tools Trains/Buses/Ferries!

Want to capture Instagrammable photos??

Check out: Recommended Travel Photography Gear

Got everything you need?

Check out our  Travel Essentials .  (Things You can’t travel without!)

Want to know the secrets of great Hotel Deals?

Check out: How to find the Best Hotel Deals??

If your still not convinced by trains and would still like to rent a car Check out: Ultimate Car Rental Travel Hacks!

Want more?

Epic Public Transport Road Trip USA: Train/Bus!

ROad trip with bus-Map-Couple

Checking out new spots on while taking a public transport road trip is a unique & Memorable experience! Especially for couples

Sri Lanka is also one of my favourite places to visit by train see:

 Sri Lanka 10 Day Itinerary: Adventure!

Ultimate train journey cross country

Cross Country Train Travel is also one of my favourite ways of seeing Sri Lanka.

About the author

Town & Tourist

A travel resource guide that has been carefully crafted and curated by travel bloggers to help you find the best places to travel to in the USA.