Faced with longer waits at airports, travelers are starting to find Amtrak an appealing alternative. Here are some pointers to help you get on board.
Tickets: You can buy tickets over the phone from an agent (800-872-7245) or online at www.amtrak.com. In the Rail Sale area of the Web site, you'll find online-only fares that are reduced by as much as 60 percent. New discounts are posted every Monday. As a rule, book two weeks ahead for the best fares.
Schedules and delays: Schedules are available over the phone or at www.amtrak.com. But remember: Trains don't always run on time. Because Amtrak shares the rails with freight lines, which have priority, trains can be delayed with no warning. In these very rare cases, Amtrak may transfer passengers to buses.
Parking and car rental: Big commuter stops typically offer abundant parking; a tiny whistle-stop may have next to none. Fees run from free to $20 a day. To find out about parking—and about car rental options—visit the Web site.
Luggage: Passengers can check three pieces of luggage weighing up to 50 pounds per piece. Extra baggage typically runs $10 per bag.
Service: Amtrak offers two basic levels of service: coach and first class. (A few commuter lines also offer business class, with headphones and a mini-screen at each seat.) Coach seats are first come, first served. With first class, you get a sleeping car—a welcome luxury on a long journey. But even in first class, don't expect the kind of service provided by flight attendants; Amtrak employees are all business.
Eating: Amtrak has improved its menus recently, but the food still isn't great and prices are steep. Community seating in the dining car means a grab bag of dining companions. Most trains have a café car, where you can buy snacks and beverages, either in addition to or instead of a dining car. You can also bring your own food.
Sleeping: In a standard compartment, two facing seats convert to narrow bunks, leaving about 6 inches between you and the doors. For longer trips, you should book a deluxe. You'll have more room to move around, an armchair, toilet and shower, and the bottom bunk is wider than those in standards. Family bedrooms have four berths (but no toilet).
On a budget? Coach seats are wide and soft and you'll likely find adjacent seats to stretch out on. Pillows are provided, but you'll need to bring your own blanket.
Entertainment: First-class passengers on swank lines, such as California's Coast Starlight, can visit a parlor car and sit at white-clothed tables to sip Scotch or play Trivial Pursuit (available in the game library). There's often a special event, such as winetasting, or a film. The observation car available to coach has plastic seats and movies are shown on video monitors.
But remember: Train travel is entertainment in itself. There is nothing like gazing at miles of beaches or golden aspens as you speed, clickety-clack, to your destination.
Illustration by Melinda Beck
This article was first published in January 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.