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 It 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
* 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. 😉