Category: train

The 10 things to know before taking a cross-country train trip

The 10 things to know before taking a cross-country train trip

In my last post, I detailed how one can use Amtrak Guest Reward points to take an Amtrak trip across the country for free, as I did last summer from the San Francisco Bay Area to Boston.

It was an amazing experience, though I’m not sure I’d do it again. If I were though, there are a few things that I would do differently, as well as a few things that worked out well for me.

Fair warning, my camera was nearing the end of its days on this trip, hence the low-quality photos.

1. Expect delays. And lots of them. Due to mandatory rules about crew rest, if your train arrives late the night before, it might depart late the next day to allow the crew to get enough sleep. This is what happened to me, as my train departed 2.5 hours late. And unlike planes, trains can’t “make up time.” So if you leave 2.5 hours late, then add 2.5 hours to your arrival time.

But that’s not the only delay. Amtrak doesn’t own most of the tracks it runs on (especially west of Chicago), and therefore has to defer to freight trains when on single tracks. This happens a lot, and you will be sitting still looking out at the cornfields of somewhere like Iowa, like this:

 

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The bottom line is, only do this trip if you have a significant time cushion built in. My itinerary had an eight-hour layover in Chicago, but we arrived 11 hours late, meaning that I missed the once-a-day connecting train to Boston. Instead, I had a 21-hour layover (they paid for my lodging and meals), and while I had fun exploring Chicago, I ended up arriving in Boston more than 24 hours after I was scheduled to.

2. Plan your food/drink accordingly.Yes, there are hot meals served on Amtrak. And they’re surprisingly good. However, they’re not cheap, nor are they incredible. I would maybe recommend doing one for the experience. You can also bring your own food, but remember that there is no refrigeration on board. If you want to ensure that you’ll be eating hot food and not spending too much, research your layovers in advance, as there tends to be at least one restaurant near most major stations.

However, this will require somes advance planning: I saw that I had a 10-minute stop in Grand Junction, CO and located a restaurant adjacent to the station using Yelp, called them an hour in advance to place a takeout order, sprinted in to get it as soon as we pulled in, and then sprinted back on to the train with a few minutes to spare. Having a hot meal of eggs, green chiles, and homefries was a welcome change from the cold bahn mi sandwiches I had brought.

Amtrak does sell snacks and drinks (including alcohol) on board, but given that it doesn’t cost you anything to bring these yourself, you’ll save a lot of money (though if you need your beer to be cold, it might be better to buy on board). Of course, you’ll want to not go overboard on the alcohol, because it’s also important to…

3. Behave yourself. Just like on a plane, the staff is not afraid to kick you off if you’re not behaving. While I don’t think this is an issues for most readers of this blog, there was a man on our train who had a bit too much to drink, and started to get verbally abusive to his girlfriend. The train had no problems making an emergency stop in a remote town in Colorado, where he was met by police. I don’t know what happened to him, but even if he got a second chance, it means he had to wait 24 hours for the next train to arrive, as the California Zephyr is a once-daily route.

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4. Don’t spring for the sleeper cabins; the coach seats are perfectly fine. If you can relate to the princess from “The Princess and the Pea”, then this might not apply. Otherwise, I slept fine most nights, and I’m 6’7.” The leg room is more than ample, and the seats recline quite a bit (though not 180 degrees). Obviously you’ll want to bring a sleeping bag and/or blanket, however.

5. Bring cards, games, or something to engage other people on the train. While you’ll most likely spend daylight observing the beautiful scenery, and nighttime asleep, there is a period of roughly four hours (depending on what time of year you go) where it’s too dark to look at the views, but too early to go to bed. Especially if you’re a solo traveler, this can be a fun way too meet other people and pass the time. My first night, I played “Cards Against Humanity” well into the night with three people I’d never met

6. Get a good data plan (or do a digital detox). While Amtrak is starting to roll out WiFi on 2=shorter routes, especially those frequented by business travelers, they still don’t have it on the long-distance routes. If you’re just looking to do some writing, you’ll be fine, as they have plenty of outlets, but if you need to do work requiring the internet, it will be very expensive to tether to your phone’s data plan. Or, you can just take a break from the internet and enjoy the views.

7. Spend most of your day in the observation car. The observation car is a car with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that allow for much more expansive views of the landscape than a coach seat, as I documented in a short video I took:

But seriously, you’ll see all sorts of great stuff:

It’s open seating, and conversation is encouraged, unlike the coach cars where people are expected to keep the noise down. However, it is not for sleeping, and you will get a stern warning for doing this (whether you mean to or not), and be asked to leave the car if caught again. But don’t take it as an invitation to put on your headphones and tune out, because you’ll also want to…

8. Learn. While this varies route to route, Amtrak has a variety of educational programs on board to help you learn about the route. On the California Zephyr, there are guides from the California Museum in Sacramento that stay on board between Sacramento and Reno to educate you about how this section of the route came to be, including the incredible hard work of the many Chinese immigrant laborers who helped build the track through the mountains, which was invaluable for shipping goods between the coasts.

There are also people from the National Park Service between Grand Junction and Denver who talk about the Colorado portion of the route, telling us how some of the highways on the way were among the last of the entire interstate highway system to be completed due to the difficulty of snaking around large canyons, and other interesting tidbits.

9. Know your breaks and stops. Definitely pick up a paper copy of the schedule beforehand. While the actual arrival times will become useless after the first delay, they still are useful for knowing how long it takes to get between two different stations, as well as when there are extended stops (such as for 20-30 minutes, when you can get off and walk around the area for a bit. However, most of them tend to be either in areas with not many places to see, or are in places with lots to see, but in the middle of the night.

It is also important to listen for which stops are “cigarette breaks”, meaning that it’s OK to get off the train for a few minutes and get some air and smoke (if you like), versus stops where only departing passengers are expected to get off. As I mentioned earlier, the California Zephyr is a once-a-day route, and other long-distance routes run with similar frequency, so it’s critically important to get back on in time.

10. Take advantage of the generous baggage policy. Unlike the airlines, Amtrak has a very generous checked bag policy, allowing you to check up to two bags for free, and two more for $20 each. On top of that, they don’t really have a policy restricting carry-ons. While I’m sure others have pushed it further, I stuffed my already-full giant travel backpack with a trombone and bass guitar sticking far out of the top, and no one seemed to care. Obviously, if you’re just doing this as a fun trip, you won’t come close to exceeding their checked bag limits, but if you’re doing a big move, like I was, it’s a much cheaper way of getting your stuff across the country than shipping it.

 

Have your own long-distance Amtrak story to share (either good or bad)? Did I miss something? Feel free to post in the comments below, or e-mail me.

Forget $213, take Amtrak across the US for free!

Forget $213, take Amtrak across the US for free!

Last July, I fulfilled a lifelong goal of mine by taking the Amtrak from Emeryville (just outside San Francisco) to Boston over five days (though it was supposed to be four), completing my journey back to my hometown of Boston from San Francisco, where I had the spent the past seven years. It was an absolutely amazing trip (which I’ll get to in a future post), but best of all, it was totally free.

A little later after I was done with my trip, a blog post went viral about how to go across the USA for $213, which was frequently shared by many of my friends on Facebook, to which I would furiously comment that it could be done for free, but with no avail.

As this blog is called Wicked Cheap Travel, not Wicked Cheap Flights, I wanted to use this post to talk about how to travel for free on Amtrak using Amtrak Guest Rewards.

Amtrak Guest Rewards

Like other airlines, hotels, and car rental companies, Amtrak also has its own loyalty program called Amtrak Guest Rewards. And like the majority of domestic airlines today (unfortunately), you can earn points based on the cost of your ticket (rather than distance traveled), at two points per dollar spent, with a 25% bonus for business class tickets and 50% bonus for Acela first class.

Redeeming points for reward tickets is also fairly straightforward. One Guest Reward point is worth roughly 2.9 cents, meaning you could get a $29 ticket (not unheard of for short distances outside of the East Coast, like Emeryville, CA to Davis, CA) for 1,000 points. And on top of that, if you take your first trip within 90 days of signing up for the program, you get a 500-point bonus!

So in order to take that $213 trip for free, all you need is 7,345 Amtrak Guest Reward points, or to spend $3,422.50 on Amtrak coach tickets (assuming you get the 500-point bonus). However, unless you’re a consultant on the East Coast who’s always on the road, you might not spend that much on Amtrak in your entire life.

This is where the magic of credit card points and bonuses comes in.

Using credit card(s) to get (a lot) more points

Last year, Amtrak switched its credit card partner from Chase to Bank of America, which offers two Amtrak co-branded credit cards: one with a 20,000-point bonus after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days and an annual fee of $79 (as well as three points per dollar spent on Amtrak travel, two on other travel, and one for other purchases), and one with a 12,000-point bonus after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days but no annual fee (as well as two points per dollar spent on Amtrak travel, and one for other purchases).

If you’re a frequent Amtrak rider who plans on using this as their primary card, it might not be bad to get the one with the annual fee, as it’s essentially a 3%+ cash back card when used on Amtrak (you also get 5% of your points back when redeeming), and it also gives you one club pass and one upgrade pass per year, as well as a fast-track to earning elite status.

But for most of you who aren’t hardcore Amtrak riders, the no annual fee one is probably the one worth considering; given that the signup bonus is worth over $350, it’s very rare to see a signup bonus this high before any card without an annual fee. After you spend $1,000, you could put it in your drawer by your bed and never have to use it again, and you’ll be 13,000 Amtrak points richer (assuming none of the $1,000 you spend to hit the bonus is on Amtrak). Of course, you shouldn’t get rid of it so that you can still build your length of credit to improve your credit score, as I discussed earlier.

Booking the Trip

This used to be a much more complicated process, but at the end of last year, Amtrak revamped their loyalty program and website to make it far easier. After you go to the Amtrak homepage, type in where you’re coming from, and going to, and the date. You’ll then get a page like this:

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I haven’t figured out how Amtrak chooses the order it displays trips in, but for some reason, it chooses to display the most expensive ones requiring the most amount of transfers first. Select “POINTS” and scroll down until you find the one you want. As you can see here, this trip cost $231 normally, but just over 8,000 points!

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The route above is the exact one I took last year, and it was everything I hoped for (the featured image in the post is a photo I took while passing through the red rocks of Utah), though it for sure was not without faults. As I mentioned earlier, I plan on putting this in a separate blog post that should hopefully be coming soon.

“I don’t want to open up another credit card, is there another way I can earn lots of Amtrak points if I’m not planning on spending a lot of money on Amtrak travel?”

Yes, though it may not be a good idea. Amtrak has a wide variety of earning partners, such as rental cars and hotels, though for almost all of them, you’re better off not crediting points to Amtrak, unless your primary travel goal is free Amtrak travel (you can even earn Amtrak points for United flights if you fly in/out of Newark and connect with Amtrak, but again, probably not a very good idea).

However, if you have more Starpoints (earned through staying at Starwood hotels) than you know what to do with, not only am I very jealous of you, but you can transfer them in 5,000-point increments to your Amtrak Guest Rewards account. But given Starpoints’ ability to be transferred 1:1 to nearly every major frequent flyer program, this isn’t a great use of them, as I would much rather transfer them to Alaska Airlines MileagePlan to book award flights on Emirates (which I’ll address later).

 

Did I miss something? Have your own Amtrak Guest Rewards experience to share? Feel free to post in the comments below, or e-mail me.