9 Train Travel Tips You Didn’t Know

Looking for train travel tips? I've taken trains in dozens of countries over thousands of miles. Here's what I pack and how I prepare >> yesandyes.org

I’m one of those insufferable people who thinks train travel is ‘magical’.
Yes, I watched The Darjeeling Limited, like, eight times.
Yes, I want to take the Trans-Siberian.
Yes, I once had a very unpleasant food-poisoning experience on a train in India (but that hasn’t changed my feelings one bit).
I’ve traveled by train in dozens of countries and at the risk of being predictable, it’s pretty magical.
It’s lovely to slip through parts of the city that are far from the freeway, peering into people’s backyards, watching men take smoke breaks outside a factory, watching as the graffiti turns into suburbs.
I loved passing through little farming towns at sunset, imagining what it would be like to grow up there and clickity clacking through super remote parts of Cascade mountains, while eating a black bean burger in the dining car and chatting with a nice couple from London.

9 Train Travel Tips You Didn’t Know

1. Bring a pillow and blanket

Sleeper cars are car-razy expensive and the seats on Amtrak are reasonably comfortable. However, you’re not going to receive one of those sweet little packs that airlines sometimes hand out. If possible, bring your best real-sized pillow and a fleece blanket.

If you’re traveling with a carry-on and can’t manage a big pillow and blanket, use a sarong and a travel pillow. This is the travel pillow I use and love. You can really, actually fall asleep with it!

2. Pack sound and light-blockers

If you’re taking the train overnight, you’re obviously going to want to block as much sound and light as possible so you should pack your earplugs and an eye mask (these two come in a kit together!) Even if you’re not on an overnight trip, you’ll want to pack headphones so you can block out chatty neighbors or crying babies.

3. Download audio books or albums that complement your route

This is next level nerdery, but I really like listening to music or stories that are set in/inspired by my travel destinations. If you’re taking the ‘Empire Builder’ from Portland to Minneapolis, you could listen to the audio version of The River Runs Through Itย or a Storyhill album. It’s such an easy way to learn a little bit more about the space you’re seeing outside your window.

4. Pack a picnic

You can buy your meals on the train and you should buy at least one – it’s fun! But the quality of the meal for the price is a bit ‘meh.’ Stop at the grocery store on your way to the station and load up on healthy food that can take a bit of jostling, doesn’t smell bad when you eat it, and doesn’t require refrigeration.

Some of my go-to travel snacks are apples, tangerines, vegan jerky, string cheese, green grapes, cherry tomatoes (in the little clam shell to protect from squishing) and trail mix.

5. Put the phone away

Some Amtrak trains have wifi. Some do not. Regardless, we didn’t spend $120 to flip through our phones while the Rockies slip by outside our windows. Sure, use the phone to take a few photos … and then put it away and look with your eyes.

6. Make friends!

I’ve had some great conversations on my train trips and met piles of fascinating people. A 24-year-old WWOOFer, a pair of elderly British sisters, an 11-year-old boy who was visiting his mom for the summer, a 50-something couple who worked in education. When you eat in the dining car, you’ll be seated with strangers and, weird as it sounds, IT IS SO FUN.

7. If you’re a lady, try to sit with another lady

If you’re traveling by yourself, know that there is no dividing armrest between the seats and come night time, it’s a bit awkward to be sleeping so close to an unknown dude. When I first boarded the train, I was seated next to a guy who was also going all the way to my destination – 36 hours away.

When the conductor took our tickets and realized we weren’t traveling together, she swapped our seats so I could sit next to another woman, which I really appreciated.

8. Dress for comfort

Nobody’s trying to win at fashion while riding Amtrak. That being said, you probably don’t want to pad down to the dining car in your pajama pants and a ratty t-shirt. I like wear jeggings and a drapy t-shirt during the day and if I’m sleeping on the train, I change into yoga pants, cozy socks, and a different t-shirt.

It should also be noted that, like airplanes and buses, trains are usually over air conditioned. Bring a scarf, socks, or a light jacket even if it’s 80 degrees outside.

9. Pack + plan for spontaneous freshening up

Amtrak bathrooms are slightly larger than airplane bathrooms but you’re obviously not going to be able to take a showers.

Here’s how I feel less-gross after 42 hours on the train

* change all your underthings every mornings – just like you would if you weren’t traveling
* take a sink bath (wash/wipe down your yuckiest parts with soap and hot water)
* take all your makeup off before you go to sleep; put on a fresh face in the morning
* brush your teeth after every meal
* drink lots of water
* dry shampoo (obviously)
* when the train makes short stops get out for a bit of fresh air and to stretch your legs

And 3 Amtrak-specific tips

1. Amtrak is sometimes late

I’ve lucked into taking on-time trains, but apparently this is a bit unusual. Obviously, trains can’t take different routes so if there’s an obstruction on the rails, there’s no going around it. Unlike airlines, Amtrak isn’t going to give you a discount or meal vouchers when they’re late.

I love train travel enough to look past this, but you probably don’t want to schedule time-sensitive activities really close to your ‘arrival time’ … because you could easily arrive three hours late.

2. You can take your time freshening up

Each train car has four or five bathrooms, so you don’t need to rush your morning and evening freshen ups; it’s unlikely that anyone is waiting to use the bathroom after you. So go ahead! Go through your entire 20-minute beauty regimen!

3. Sleep in two seats and put the footrests all the way up

You’ll almost always have two seats to yourself after nightfall. Awesomely, every coach seat reclines and has a foot rest that can be raised parallel to the seat, effectively doubling your sleeping area. You can see an example here.

However! The footrest isn’t spring-loaded; when you push the lever, you have to pull the footrest up with your hand. I mention this because it took me two nights to figure this out because I thought my footrest was broken. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Have you ever taken a really long train trip? Where? And share your train-specific travel tips with us!
photo by christopher sardegna // cc

31 Comments

Sue @ SimonsSistaSaw

I've taken an overnight sleeper train a few times and really enjoy them although the experiences vary. The first was from Moscow to Pskov, Russia with friends and it was a fairly social occaison. We were in bunks (6 to a section) and there was a decent amount of vodka before sleep. The second was perhaps more dignified but I'm not sure if it was more fun (a single berth cabin in the UK, London to Plymouth) which entailed my own room with bed, tv, basin and bench. Again in India, Varanasi to Agra. An experience for sure but perahps not my favourite with a stomach bug.

Like you, I consider long distance train travel magical and seek it out ahead of flights or buses in many places.

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Rachel B

Definitely pack a picnic! I take Amtrak between Cleveland and Boston, and Maine (where I live) to Philadelphia a few times a year. You can't always count on the snack car being stocked when you're ready to eat. Food selection also varies depending on the line you're on. The Downeaster (Boston to Brunswick, Maine) is looks like Le Bernardin (Craft beer! Sandwiches from Maine businesses!) in comparison to the Lakeshore Limited (Chicago to Boston/NYC), where you're lucky to get a hotdog after Albany on some trips.

Bring earphones and a white noise app. Not all services have quiet cars, and it may be difficult to move seats if you have a loud talker nearby for part of your trip.

Amtrak wifi service is still pretty spotty, and they block certain sites that stream video. If you think you may want to watch something during your trip, try to bring the DVD or download it before you go.

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Sarah M

I have only ridden the Amtrak train once–from Lincoln to Denver and it was an overnight trip. It was really fun, and I didn't find it that uncomfortable. It's definitely better than trying to sleep on a plane. I agree, train rides are magical, and I LOVE the room where you can sit and it's nothing but outward-facing seats and big windows. We're planning on taking our kids on an Amtrak train ride this year from Bellingham to Seattle, just for fun. Our kids would love it. If you're ever up in the PNW, the Seattle to Vancouver amtrak is fast and affordable, and you do NOT want to be driving in Vancouver anyway.
Have you heard about those 300+mph 'magnet' trains? They basically hover on top of the magnet/rail system. Crazy. I'm a little terrified, but I'd love to try one of those sometime in my life.
Sarah M

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Barbara

I have fond memories of a Calgary, Alberta train trip to Vancouver, B.C. (Canada). many years ago.
Not only was the scenery spectacular, the trip was also made enjoyable by the information given by the coach attendants. They told us to watch for a spot which bears frequent; advised ahead of time when the train would be going through a long tunnel (helped parents prepare little kids for the experience) ; and gave some historical highlights and geographical information.

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the homesteady

I took a sleeper train once from Madrid to Lisbon, Portugal, with my parents and brother and sister. It was the first time in a sleeper train for any of us — my sister was the only one who got a good night's sleep!

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Kate

When I was in college, our History Club took spring break trips to Washington D.C. and to Boston (so nerdy!) and we took Amtrak for both trips. I loved being on the train. You have more space, you can roam around, and you absolutely meet the coolest people. The scenery is breathtaking as well–it's definitely better than driving on the highway.

That being said, the sleeping thing was miserable for me. I'm an extremely high maintenance sleeper–I require many, many pillows, constant white noise, complete darkness, and a safe space to breathe with my mouth open and drool everywhere. I've thought about taking the train again but upgrading to a sleeper car? I'd love to try it again sans persnickety sleep issues.

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barrentree

I have taken the Empire Builder (Portland to Chicago or vice versa), three times now. I LOVE it so much. This summer I'll be taking it again, and then taking the California Zephyr and Coast Starlight home. ๐Ÿ™‚

My tips are:
Wear long pants (I wore shorts the first time and nearly froze).
A blanket and pillow are must haves-a neck pillow is awesome because you can shift around and not have to readjust your pillow.
Spend as much time as you can in the observation car-it's the best place to get great views (and you can find lots of tips online that will tell you which side is the most scenic during different portions of your trip).
You can bring a small cooler without it counting toward your carryon, so take advantage of loading one with snacks.
Wear shoes you can slip on and off-it's much easier to sleep if you aren't wearing shoes, but you have to wear them when moving about the train (last time, I brought a pair of minnetonka mocs).
If there are empty seats in the evening, you can move to a spot where you might not have someone next to you overnight (meaning you can spread out over two seats-if needed, the conductor will have you move over). You can always change to an empty seat if it's not reserved for families, you just want to stay in the car you were put in (in the case of the Empire Builder-the train splits into two in Spokane, WA and you don't want to end up gonig to the wrong place).
Bring an extra shirt, at least-it will make you feel fresher in the morning if you can put on a clean shirt (I've seen people change into pajama pants and shirts in the evening as well).
Put a lock on your carryon and bring a backpack. If you go to the observation car, you don't want to leave your bag unlocked. A backpack or other bag is a good way to carry the things you don't want to leave at your seat with you (phone, wallet, kindle or iPad, chargers, snacks, etc).
When you first get on, get your space set up. Put anything you can in the overhead bin and make sure the stuff you might need during the trip is easily accessible.

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Carol Watson

Thank you. Very helpful. My husband and I are taking our first cross country trip and this is one of the legs

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Alex

I LOVE long-distance trains. One of my odd dreams is to take one across Russia, via Transsiberian, to Vladivostok, which is anywhere from 6 to 12 days. And to North Korea, which is 9+. In hindsight I may end up hating it (I mean… no shower), but I. just. want. to. do. it.

Still very sad about the Orient. :-/ But I guess the luxury one will do too. ๐Ÿ˜›

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Katie

I never would have thought to do this in a million years, but now I really want to!
Also–beautiful pictures!

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kathrynoh

I've done a couple of overnight train trips in Australia back when it was $$$ to fly. They were awful but funny to look back on now. I went to Sydney and got off the train for a cigarette break where one of the other passengers propositioned me, saying he'd just got out of jail and hadn't had sex in a long time!

I've done some long trips on the trains in Japan (you can get a 5 day pass on the local trains for $100 at certain times of the year) but not overnight. Definitely needed a cushion for them because the seats get really hard but you see a lot more of the country than you do wizzing through on the bullet train.

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sailor-klerr

I've been on the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth, 3 nights and 4 days on a seated carriage. I was with a bunch of Scouts going to a camp and we became good friends, so it wasn't too boring. We played a lot of card games. It's a journey I'm glad I did, but wouldn't do it again, even in a sleeper cabin. Sleeping was so uncomfortable!

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Kathy Biep

I live in Vienna, Austria. A over 6 hours train ride away from my mom, who lives on the other side of Austria, on the border to Switzerland. So I do it regularly. I always have my own food and drinks with me. Lots to read and music. And never ever without scarf, cardigan and socks. Its so cold in trains here.

I love seeing the landscape change from flat with a few hills to the high mountains of the alps. Its just incredible. I'd rather spend a whole day in a train, just to see the mountains getting bigger and bigger. Because thats what I miss mostly. The mountains of the area I grew up.

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Cynthia

Wow, what a great idea. Were you able to get any sleep? Did the seats recline?
I'll be taking a (day-time) train journey in less than 2 weeks: 9.5 hours total but made up of four different trains because I have to change. I'd probably rather just be on one long one but maybe it'll be a nice way to break up the journey a little. I will be sure to bring all of the travel musts you suggested ๐Ÿ™‚

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Sarah Von Bargen

I got sooome sleep. Maybe 4+ hours? Once you get past Sacramento, they don't pick up any more people for the night so you can spread out into the unused seats. The seats recline – not totally flat but waaaaay more than airline seats.

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Sarah

One of my favorite vacations was a trip to NYC with one of my best friends. We took the train from Grand Rapids, MI to Chicago, and then Chicago to NYC. I absolutely loved taking the train and have been trying to plan another trip ever since. The one thing that I wish I had known was to bring a blanket or a heavier sweatshirt. The trip was in late May and I wasn't prepared for the train to be so chilly (especially at night).

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Anonymous

1) When I took a train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg overnight, they served red caviar (with bread and butter) and tea, no joke.

2) You say you're insufferable far too often. You're more accurately…wonderful.

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Caroline M

Aww, this post was great!! Trains are the best!!

A few years ago, I took a 3-day train trip from LA to CT. On the way back, I met a journalist sitting in the cafรฉ car on the Lake Shore Limited. We played a few card games, then talked all night until the sun came up.

Together for four years, now. Still riding trains together — this time on purpose! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Alliha Jonson

I also think that train travel is magical. I really like to travel from the train. It is an enjoyable journey for me. The tips you have mentioned in your blog are very useful. I always keep this kind of stuff with me. Last year before going to boston new york washington dc tour. I traveled Vancouver to Seattle Portland from the train. It was a very delightful tour. I cannot forget it in my life. I saw many attractive views during this travel.

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m e l i g r o s a

over a decade ago i lived in florence and we were doing a weekend class trip to rome. manage to miss that – girls nite out, yes we'll be up in time, right? โ€ฆ we get to rome, class trip continues down to sorrento. oh look capri let's go. managed to miss our scheduled nice bus back to florence. me and a good dude friend take local train line to rome, then florence, no biggie right this goes all night all day. overnighter wide awake outside the rome station doesnt sound as good IRL with every hostel sold out around the train station. it closes between 11pm-6am. we finally made it to florence. longest anxious trip ever, we had tests the following week.. grades, I dont remember. that weekend + its stories, i could write a million essays about it! ๐Ÿ˜€ yay, life.

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Lynne Shapiro

INFO AND NEAT STUFF from Lynne S in SoCal:
I ride the Southwest Chief a lot from Fullerton to Albuquerque. It's an overnight ride, appx 15 hours, leaving around 7 pm from FUL and getting into ABQ around 11:45 the next day.
All my information is regarding my trips on the SWC, but some of it is germane to trains in general.
1. If you're not in a sleeping car and in the regular coach, do NOT bring tuna or egg salad sandwiches as a nosh, unless you eat them in the observation car! Think of the SMELL!
2. As mentioned, if no one is near you, stretch out on both chairs diagonally, with the one by your feel a little 'down'. Bring two pillows-one for the back of your head, and one for your face if you're a snorer like me.
3. The greatest thing I did was have breakfast at dawn in the dining car. Same thing going west with dinner.
4. The steak for dinner might be pricey, but I understand it's fantastic! For b'fast I get the continental b'fast.
5. The people in uniform coats and hats going up and down the aisles occasionally are usually Assistant Conductors. The actual Conductor will be in the front in constant communication with the Engineer and Dispatch.
BTW The Engineer and the Conductor are NOT the same! The Conductor manages the entire train, and the Engineer runs the engine(s).
5a. The Conductor is basically the Manager for the train. Period. He runs everything, the pilot on a plane. The Conductor makes sure the travel vehicle is safe, and leaves the day-to-day running of the train to his crew and rarely has to intervene. The only reason a Conductor has to intervene is if someone is breaking the rules (like bringing alcohol on the train-HUGE no-no), being unruly, you know, a total loud jerk who is totally disturbing the other passengers' experience. The Conductor has to authority to put someone off the train at the next stop.
5b. Did you know that if there's ANY hint of an issue with the tracks, the Conductor goes out and check the tracks visually and physically? and (s)he takes the Engineer. This can delay the train (of course) but it's in the interest of safety. Tracks may be damaged by the weather conditions i.e. flood, snow, etc.
5c. If you ask ahead of time, most conductors will gladly take pictures of you and your family or whoever you're traveling with! It's pretty neat.
5d. Speaking of crew, the hourly crew (coach attendants, dining car personnel, anyone who isn't an Ass't or regular conductor or Engineer) stay with the train for the entire run. They have sleeping quarters towards the front of the train. The Engineer, Conductor and Ass'ts only work for a certain period, then there's a conductor/ass't conductor/engineer switch, i.e. LAX Union Station to Kingman AZ crew gets off at Kingman and another crew gets on.
6. When you get on the train, lots of times you're assigned a seat. This is based on where your destination is, i.e. people going from ABQ to FUL will sit in assigned areas. This is just to keep track of people. Some station stops are in the middle of the night (i.e. Kingman at 2 am), they know where the passengers are that get off at KNG, and they can let them know if that passenger happens to be asleep. CAVEAT-DON'T change from your assigned seat if your stop will be coming up in the next 1 1/2 hours! They won't be able to find you and will assume you're going to get off yourself. After 10-11 pm, it's quiet time so they won't announce the stops ahead of time. Make sense??
7. I bring a few medical thingys, like pepto bismol tables (hey, You. Never. Know.), analgesics, allergy/runny nose meds, a small bottle of hand sanitizer, chapsticks.
Of course some bottled water.
There are train forums all over the place-I like the Amtrak Forum-just Google it.
On the Amtrak website, you can find out the status of an Amtrak train.
There's another website called Dixielandsoftware.com that will also give you updates and have a map that tracks your Amtrak train.

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Brittany Q

Hi Sarah! This is my first time visiting your site, and I'm excited to explore more!

I'm taking my first US train trip in June, Boston > New Orleans! I'm looking forward to two onboard sleeps and one 8-hour long layover in Chicago. These tips were very helpful! Thank you =)

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Sophia

I’ve never been on a long distance train before – only on express regional trains in France. In November, I’m going to St Petersburg with my class and I’m so nervous. The train ride is going to take 2 days! Thank you for the tips, I’ll try to follow them!

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Beth C.

I will say this from mine and several folks’ bad experiences- put locks on your carry-ons, especially if you are on a long haul and will likely go to the observation/dining cars. On some routes jerks wait for people to leave their stuff then go through unlocked bags while the porters/conductors aren’t looking then jump off at the next stop before you even notice it has happened. I also bring a short aircraft cable bike lock with me and tie my whole bag off to something if I can. You can’t always do it, but if you can, do. Better safe than sorry.

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