Exploring “America the Beautiful” by train…can you even get more American than that?
From sea to shining sea, the coast to coast Amtrak train experience should be the coveted prize and ultimate bucket list goal of every traveler.
I mean, how many people do you know who have actually traveled across America by train?
And depending on the route you select, you can soar past the Rocky Mountains and hop on the shuttle to the Grand Canyon, or soak in the city life of Chicago and New York City and zoom past the Midwestern prairies.
But whatever route you decide – don’t book that cross-country trip just yet.
You may have seen popular blog posts boasting how one traveler managed to travel across the country for less than $200 on an Amtrak.
And while this is possible, this isn’t necessarily the best way.
However, some travelers can drop literally thousands on sleeper cars and food when traveling by train.
We get it, most people aren’t experts at traveling by train, that’s why we’ve got you covered.
So check out our top train travel hacks below.
Know What Cities You Want To See
First, determine what cities you actually want to see.
Sounds like a no brainer, eh?
But did you know Amtrak actually serves more than 500 destinations?
That’s a lot of cities to choose from!
Maybe you’d prefer to take a train straight from Chicago to San Francisco?
Or perhaps you are fixin’ to do something different and enjoy the southern hospitality of the south before you check out the leftist West Coast (although some of the cities on the West are still fun to visit).
If you plan to do the “official” cross-country route—starting your trip in New York and ending on the West Coast—you’ll have to book separate routes.
Some travelers prefer to skip the NYC-Chicago route and simply start from Chicago.
If that’s you, Amtrak’s most popular cross-country routes from Chicago include:
- California Zephyr: Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, Oakland (San Francisco)
- Southwest Chief: Chicago, Kansas City, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Los Angeles
- Empire Builder: Chicago, St. Paul, and either Portland or Seattle.
Want to create your own route?
If so, you have even more options in store!
Get The Rail Pass
Even better than a straight shot on one train is the USA Rail Pass.
Instead of selecting one train route and being stuck on a train for 48-55 hours, there’s another way.
The Amtrak USA Rail Pass is essentially a “choose your own adventure” road trip – you get to pick how long you want to travel and where you go.
Currently, Amtrak offers three options: 15 days (8 segments), 30 days (12 segments), and 45 days (18 segments).
Amtrak counts a travel segment as any amount of time off one train and then back on another.
We recommend the 15-day travel, 8 segment pass which means you have 15 days to use your pass.
For example, if you’re on the Southwest Chief route, you may decide to get off in Albuquerque and explore or stay the night, then get back on the next day.
I mean, what’s the point of traveling across the country if you can’t get off and soak in the sites?
Just make sure you plan ahead and book your reservations for each train – the USA Rail pass still requires tickets.
Should you get a sleeper car?
Well, it depends.
If you plan on staying on the train the entire time – then yes.
The Amtrak coach seats are comfortable… but sitting in them for 4 days (and sleeping) is not.
But, if you go the sleeper car route – all your dining meals are free.
If you’re traveling with a friend or spouse, you can get the roomette which sleeps two and split the cost!
Bring Your Own Food And Other Pro Tips
One of the quickest ways to yank up the price of your trip is spending it all on food inside the train.
Stock up with snacks high in protein like almonds and beef jerky. Also consider easy to eat items like fruit and power bars. Don’t forget the bottled water!
While you can’t bring outside food into the dining areas of the train, you can eat from your coach seats and you’ll save a ton of money.
If you’re planning on working during the trip, be prepared – not all trains have reliable Wi-Fi.
But if you’re the introvert type like me, a train ride is the perfect time to catch up on podcasts or read a good book.
But for your extroverts, don’t worry! There are people all around and they’re bound to have incredible stories, so you’ll have multiple chances to make friends.
Don’t forget to bring ear phones and a blanket for chilly evenings!
The Best Part
Besides being able to explore America by train – one of the best parts of train travel is the flexibility to explore the streets at ease.
Train stations are typically located in the heart of the city – which makes them easily accessible to stroll right off and check out the local city vibe.
On a nice day, you can walk and soak up the sites of the city – or if you don’t feel like walking, a simple Uber or subway ride will do the trick.
Think how much easier it would be to explore the streets of New York City or Washington D.C. by hopping right off the train and just going – verses navigating airport terminals, roads, and parking lots.
Bucket List Status Achieved
The most important thing is to determine what you want.
If you’re looking to just check off the box and be that guy or gal who traveled coast to coast – then consider the California Zephyr.
Or perhaps you have the time and cash to truly check out all America has to offer and you prefer a more drawn out trip with multiple stops.
Whichever route you decide – get ready for the ultimate travel experience.
You can make this trip as simple or as complex as you’d like.
The best part about train travel is the routes are set up so you can view the most scenic areas of the country during daylight hours.
So even if you are not a morning person, consider getting up early and heading to the observation car to experience the beauty of America by train.
Traveling by train will show you a view of America you just can’t get from the friendly skies, and we guarantee you’ll have a new appreciation for the good ol’ U.S.A!
And… you’ll finally get to cross that item off your bucket list!
Have you ever made the cross-country trip by train? If not, what’s holding you back?
Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
(h/t Proud American Traveler)