Amtrak Tips for Brits
A couple of months ago, I took the Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. This year marked the first time I had ever traveled to the US, and I figured what better way to see an awful lot of the country at once than to take a train across roughly two thirds of it? Plus, I’d never done a long-distance train ride before so I really had no idea what to expect. Here are some tips I learned along the way, and whilst they’re written with other Brits in mind, hopefully there’ll be something helpful here for everyone.
Check Your Bags
If you’re travelling from a station where checking baggage is possible, please do so. There’s limited space in the sleeper cars for baggage and trust me, you don’t want to be the one holding up the entire car whilst you work out what to do with your giant bag. You can check your bags in up to 24 hours before your train departs, which might free you up for a bit of last minute sightseeing in your departure city.
Be Prepared to Be Sociable
Maybe the idea of talking to your fellow passengers breaks you out in a cold sweat. When you hear that seating in the dining car is ‘community style’ (e.g. your table of 4 will be filled), you may start to have second thoughts. But this is not rush hour on the tube; without exception everyone we spoke to on the train was friendly, open-minded and had some great travel stories to tell. Bonus: they can help decipher the menu for you. I am pleased to say I now know what grits are.
You Won’t Go Hungry
If you book a roomette or bedroom, all your meals and non-alcoholic drinks are included in the price of your fare. You can bring your own food, but you really don’t need to; the portions are generous and the food is decent. I tried several of the gluten-free and vegan options.
You Might Learn More Than You Think
Not only will you learn about the various people you’ll meet on the train, their lives and their stories, but you’ll also learn about the landscapes you traverse via the Trails and Rails program. This is where a park ranger from each of the National Parks you travel through comes aboard and narrates the scenery as you pass through. You’ll get ecology, geology, ornithology, sociology, and more besides. We were lucky enough to have three different rangers come aboard at various points and their talks were all fascinating.
Don’t Worry About Getting Bored
Here in the UK where you can get practically anywhere in the country in under 5 hours, it’s slightly terrifying to think of 45+ hours on a train with—shock, horror—no Wi-Fi. Whilst most Amtrak routes now provide Wi-Fi, ours was one of those that didn’t, and actually, I didn’t miss it. Between our three square meals a day, conversations with our dining car companions, chatting with our roomette neighbours and car steward, jumping off at the short stops for a brief explore, and listening to the Trails and Rails rangers in the observation car we had very little spare time in which to get bored.
The Roomettes Are Cosy
But I loved ours. It’s got everything you need in an appealingly efficient space. Pack light; there’s space to stow a small bag under your seat, but remember to get everything you’ll need for the night out of your bag before you go to dinner. During that time the car attendant will make up your bed which will render your bag inaccessible.
Tip Great Service
Tipping in the US is a minefield for us British folk who aren’t used to the etiquette. Laid out plain and simple, here’s what I did and saw other (real, actual Americans) do:
- Tip your car steward for the entire journey. We tipped ours at the beginning, which I’m not sure is standard operating procedure, but seemed to work fine. He worked extremely hard throughout the trip (plus he was a hoot) and thoroughly deserved the extra recognition
- Most people didn’t tip the dining car staff if they had their meals included, but I did notice people tipping if they’d paid for extra alcoholic beverages. I left one larger tip at the end of the trip to cover service throughout, as the servers were the same. Again, they work very hard and made sure my food was gluten-free, which for me is crucial.
- I didn’t notice anyone tipping the Trails and Rails rangers. They’re volunteers so I believe this isn’t expected.
Whether or not you choose to tip is, of course, up to you; but I’m certain the employees appreciate it.
Editor’s Note: While there is no requirement to tip, our employees always appreciate recognition for providing superior service.
Ultimately, I’d recommend taking the Empire Builder to fellow travelers from overseas because it’s a great way to see a lot of the USA in one go, in comfort, with informative commentary about exactly what you’re seeing as you go along. Yes, it does take longer than flying, but it’s so much less stressful – once you get on board, you can just sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery. The food is infinitely better than on planes, you’ll meet interesting people along the way, and you’ll have a great story to tell when you get home.
About the Author: Rachel is a British soon-to-be-expat, balancing full-time work with full-time wanderlust. She share travel stories and handy tips to her online friends at A Nesting Nomad, and hopes to go for a gluten-free afternoon tea with each and every one of them.