Ultimate Guide to an Amtrak Ride

An Amtrak train is often times the most convenient form of travel to particular destinations.
Have you ridden on Amtrak before?

I am no stranger to Amtrak. While in college I rode Amtrak to and from college multiple times a year. I remember when I first rode it. My mother, sister and I were all heading to my future college. I was going to orientation before the semester started. My mom could have driven but wanted me to become familiar with the train since it was how I’d be getting to and from school for the next four years.

Nervous was an understatement! Overthinking is a habit I am working on. My mind filled with thoughts.

How am I going to know what stop to get off? What if I sleep through my stop? I can’t travel on the train for hours ALONE.

my mind

Yeah, melodramatic, right? But when something is new, it’s easy to let your mind wander off. But I am here now, countless SOLO trips later through Amtrak and I am unscathed. No mishaps. Nothing. The journey to and from college wasn’t super long, just a little over two hours. However, I also took the train from New York to Canada and that was TWELVE hours.

I am planning another post dedicated to that trip in particular, but here I want to lay out a few tips I have to get a long Amtrak ride whether it be two hours or twelve. So, if you have a trip planned or are thinking of booking an Amtrak train for your next excursion, keep reading.

Train rides don't have to be scary and boring.

First Things First: Seat Choice

Seat choice can greatly impact the enjoyment of your trip.

I’ve always rode in the cheapest, coach seats because hello? What college student has money to pay double for a “nicer” seat? I’m not sure what happens in the other classes but with the regular seats you can choose where you sit. The options are limited depending on which station you board at and how busy it is.

Pro Tip: Penn Station

If Penn Station is the first stop and you’re also boarding at Penn Station, know that there will be a TON of people getting on too. You probably won’t have trouble finding a seat, but perhaps not one by yourself. Especially around the holidays which are always hectic. Try to arrive early and get on line as soon as possible.

If Penn Station was the first stop and you’re boarding after, know that many of the cars will be occupied. On weekends or around a holiday you can almost guarantee that you’ll have to sit next to someone.

You got a seat to yourself? Score! But if Penn Station is next, you should try not to get too comfortable by putting your things in the empty seat beside you. It’s not uncommon to have to share it. If you do keep it there to kind of “encourage” people to keep looking (I know this is awful, but we’ve all done it, don’t lie!) know that if its REALLY busy, you will be asked to move your things by a staff member.

Where to sit? Front of cart? Back? Middle?

Think beforehand which seat you'd prefer.

One thing that I always worried about was my luggage. If you have a large suitcase, which I often did if I’d be coming home for winter break and swapping my clothes, you can’t really put it in the overhead compartments. There’s a space at the back of every car near the handicap accessible seats that people placed their large luggage. However, unless you’re sitting in one of those handicap accessible seats (which is okay unless someone who truly needs it is on-board) or near the back of the car, you can’t keep a direct eye on your things.

Your things are most likely going to be okay. Even when I had to sit far away from my bags I worried a lot and for no reason. I never had anyone steal my things nor have I heard that happen to anyone I know. Get up to go to the bathroom every now and then and stretch your legs and just make sure it’s still there and undisturbed. But trust me, you don’t need to worry as much as I did.

This video was taken December of my senior year in college in 2016. I was heading back to school after coming home for a couple days for the holidays.

TIP: As I mentioned in the video, I called to make sure my train was running on time. I recommend doing that AND also signing up for email and/or text updates. There have been times my train was delayed for over an hour. It’ll help to know that before you make your way to the station.

Speaking of bathrooms, again, remember that the bathrooms are typically at the end of the cars. There is usually a sign that says “BATHROOM THIS END.” You may want to take that into consideration if you’re someone who has to use the restroom a lot or are feeling sick.

Window seat? MAJOR YES.

I highly suggest a window seat. Even when taking the same route which I practically memorized going to and from school-home, I enjoyed looking out the window. Sure, if I’m sitting next to someone it’s awkward when I have to get up to use the restroom, but that’s a small inconvenience to pay for nice views and also a sturdy surface to rest on when you’re trying to catch some shut eye. Have you tried to sleep when you have the aisle seat and nothing to lean against? Yeah, not fun. Not fun at all.

Also, the side of with the window typically is where the outlets are. You’ll definitely want to be near one of them instead of having to awkwardly reach over a stranger. Each seat also has the ability to recline a tad, there’s typically a little foot petal/bar to rest your feet, a tray that you can lean your laptop, food (or head, just make sure to disinfect it!) on.

Entertainment: An Essential

Make sure you have a plan to keep yourself entertained

Keeping myself entertained was a must. Usually even if I am up early and didn’t get any sleep (like when I went to Montreal) it takes me a while to fall asleep. So I made sure to head to Youtube, Netflix, Hulu and have my favorite podcasts on deck to keep me occupied. I’m not at all suggesting you need all of these. Heck, just put together a great music playlist and that may be enough for some people! But for me, I get really bored of one thing easily when I travel, so I like to have options.

What to watch on Netflix:

  • Black Mirror
  • Reign
  • Gossip Girl
  • The Originals
  • Goosebumps
  • Charmed

What to watch on Hulu:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • My 600 Lb. Life (it’s a guilty pleasure, okay?)
  • How to Get Away with Murder
  • Rugrats
  • Law & Order: SVU
  • Hoarders

Podcasts to Listen to:

  • My Favorite Murder
  • How I Built This
  • Everything Is Alive
  • Stuff You Should Know
  • Serial
  • TED Talks Daily
I wrote a blog post on Youtubers I enjoy watching, check it out for recommendations.

So Leila… how’s the WiFi? 

The WiFi on Amtrak is, uh… not that great. But it’s free so what can you expect? If you have limited data, you may want to download shows, podcasts, movies and music playlists before getting onto the train. Sites like Youtube were always so slow for me when riding on Amtrak. Even if you opt to just use your data, remember that you’ll likely have crappy service for a great portion of the trip. So that will bring extra frustration.

To read more about their WiFi service and what stations and trains free WiFi is offered on Amtrak, click here.

Books are Still Cool

Maybe you don't want to use your phone or laptop, grab a book instead.

Did you decide you don’t want to deal with the dodgy WiFi on Amtrak? Perhaps you want to disconnect a bit and not use electronics. Or perhaps the only electronic you want to use is your e-reader such as a Kindle. Either way, pulling out a good book and getting through a chapter or two is something I enjoy doing while traveling. The train is typically adequately lit, even at night, so pulling out your favorite book wouldn’t be a problem.

Click on the links below to shop my favorite books.

A book on how to make smart financial decisions.
I brought this with me during my trip to Montreal and put a serious dent in it.
This book is for those who always felt pressured to live by the status quo.
The Amtrak train station in Yonkers, New York

Write.

Document your trip by writing

Another great way to keep yourself entertained is by writing. Something that I want to do more on future travels is write. I filmed things but I want to start to keep a travel journal where I not only write about how I’m feeling and what I’m doing but I want to document the little things. What is the smell like in this country? What was the first thing I saw when I walked into this hostel in Barcelona?

This can help you process your fears/anxieties if traveling still makes you uneasy. Additionally, you’ll be able to look back on everything once it’s all said and done and realize: wow, I got through it!

If keeping a travel diary doesn’t interest you, writing in general is a great way to kick some time off the ride. I personally enjoy writing stories, so I am a tad biased. But give it a try! Even if you’re not a “writer” jot down a story. That person sitting across from you? What do you think their story is? You probably don’t know, so make it up! The staff have probably dealt with peculiar guests, write about one of them!

Vlog from my first full day in Montreal

Bring Snacks

The Café car is not the best option. But if you gotta eat, you gotta eat.
Café Car via Amtrak

Typically I wouldn’t get hungry on the 2 hour ride I’d take. But when I went to Canada I knew I needed to come prepared with snacks. On shorter rides there is typically a café car in which you can buy food, drinks and snacks. On longer trips there is typically a dining car where you can make reservations to eat at for dinner. I’ve never done that because again, I’m all about budget travel. Plus, the prices are usually way too expensive, like more than $2 for water and pizza for nearly $7.

You can click the link below to view and/or save the menu.

If you must buy something, I’d suggest getting something at one of the stores in the train station. You can typically find restaurants to bring food on-board as well. However, I’d forego ALL of this and buy food and snacks before the day of your trip. I headed to my local Walmart and bought things for my trip to AND from Montreal. Wish I could say it was all healthy, but in addition to my nuts and water I bought Funyuns.

I would stick with bringing cold food/food that doesn’t need to be heated. Perhaps the staff will allow you to heat your food on the train, but I am unsure if this is something they do.

For International Trips

Have your passport out and ready

Have your things prepared for border control. You will need to show your passport definitely, and potentially your I.D. They will collect forms that you should have received to fill out. On the forms you will fill out your basic information, reason for coming into the country, what your bringing inside the country, etc. The personnel will come onto the train at the checkpoint and will go and get the relevant information and documents from each person.

You will also be asked a variety of questions. Don’t worry, they’re all pretty standard. Of course I was a little nervous because it all seems very “serious” and “official.”

A few questions I was asked:

  1. Why are you coming to Canada?

    For vacation, just a little break [from school].

  2. Are you meeting someone there?

    No, I’m traveling alone.

  3. What do you do for a living?

    I’m a student.

Those were some of the questions I remember being asked. I believe he questioned me by clarifying “you’re traveling alone?” But I felt it was more due to curiosity than suspicion. He also asked me what I was studying and then that was it, he was on his way.

Be prepared to wait. As mentioned, they have to go through every single person on the train to make sure they are able to come into the country legally. My itinerary had the trip listed as 11 hours, including the border check. But it ended up being 12 hours. We were there for a long time. I even saw one guy get escorted somewhere by one of the officers. He came back later, so perhaps that was part of the holdup. However, be ready to sit for at least an hour.

During your wait the power gets turned off so that means no bathroom, no charging your electronics, etc. Make sure to keep an eye out for when the stop is coming up so you can plan accordingly. The staff will also announce it to make sure people use the bathroom. This can be a great time to pull out a book or perhaps if you’re lucky and you’re taken care of early, you can use this down time as a time to catch some Zzz’s.

That’s All!

Those were some things I felt you should know before heading into a long Amtrak ride. Thank you for reading this and I hope this post helps you on your future travels. Was there something you think I should’ve included? Let me know in the comments.

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