Since the first time I boarded a plane six years ago, I’ve sworn flying is the only way to travel. Road trips lose their appeal around hour four, and only desperate times will get me on a long haul bus. But flying? Flying is easy. Sure, security can be a hassle, but the TSA is there to keep you and your fellow travelers safe. Once you’re on the plane and in the air, someone else is in charge of navigation, and you get there so much faster. A coast-to-coast flight in 5 hours? Beats the heck out of multiple days spent in the car.
When my friend Liz and I decided to do a post-Christmas trip to New York, we also decided to try a new form of transportation – Amtrak. The Charlottesville to New York line is popular around here and, best of all, affordable. We booked our tickets and set about planning our Big Apple adventure.
Train travel was a great experience, but I also learned a lot through trial and error. In the couple of days before we left, I realized I knew nothing about train travel. How many bags could I take? What was the security checkpoint like? Could I take my own snacks on the train? What about liquids? Was their assigned seats? Where did we check-in?
So many questions.
I started Googling everything I could about train travel, and while I found some useful articles and blog posts, a lot of my questions were still fuzzy when I arrived at the Amtrak station bright and early Sunday morning. And so, I’m passing along my train travel does and don’ts, should you ever find yourself booking a ticket to ride the rails to your next destination.
DO purchase tickets in advance. Our train both to and from New York was full. We purchased our tickets in early October to leave on December 27, and tickets were nearing a sold out point then.
DO call Amtrak if you have any questions. I have AAA, which offers a discount on Amtrak tickets. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get my discount to work. I gave Amtrak at call – on a Saturday evening – and the ticketing agent was incredibly helpful. She helped me apply my discount, purchase my tickets, and confirmed I had received my e-tickets before we ended our call.
DO check baggage allowances. Amtrak’s baggage allowances are pretty generous, coming in at 2 person items and 2 carry on items. However…
DON’T pack everything you own, just because you can. When I fly, I spend a lot of time planning out what to pack and deciding if I’m carrying on or checking luggage. When I realized I could take two suitcases and two personal items, my packing strategy went out the window and I tossed everything that would fit into a suitcase and my Maika Goods duffel bag. I also tested the limits of my Longchamp tote, cramming it full of books, gadgets, even my coloring book and colored pencils.
DO take your liquids. One of the things I really love about Amtrak is that I can take my full-sized liquids, no questions asked. Did I actually need the big bottle of shampoo and condition? No. I washed my hair once during the four days we were in NYC. But, I could take my full bottle of dry shampoo and there was no one there to confiscate it.
At The Station
DO download the Amtrak (or whatever line you’re using) app. I used the app to see if our train was on time (we left almost two hours behind schedule). I also periodically checked our arrival in NYC and found that the train made up time as we progressed north. The app also lets you buy tickets, find stations, and more.
DON’T arrive more than 30 minutes before the train is scheduled to arrive. Even after Liz’s sister kindly took us to a Starbucks for breakfast, we still sat at the train station for over an hour. The Charlottesville train station isn’t glamorous, or big, so we sat in a crowded room, waiting. At least during flight delays, there is plenty of space for walking around and shops to cure boredom.
DON’T expect TSA style security. In fact, don’t expect security at all. It blew my mind, how lax Amtrak is about security. My bags were never checked, in Charlottesville or New York. The thought of what could be on the train made me realize how much I do appreciate the security screenings at airports, despite how much of a hassle they can be.
DO keep your tickets readily accessible. In Charlottesville, our tickets were half-heartedly checked about 15 minutes before the train arrived. I was in the bathroom when they called for tickets. Liz showed the lady both of ours, no questions asked or IDs checked. Leaving NYC, a single soul was in charge of checking tickets at the top of the escalator leading to our train while a few hundred people pressed their way to the entrance. They didn’t truly check our tickets until we were on the train and in motion, and then checked them multiple times.
DO check the boards. While the Charlottesville Amtrak station is essentially one room and no more than 3 or 4 tracks, Penn Station in New York is far, far bigger with a strip of restaurants and coffee shops, and a couple dozen tracks. Those tracks also run east and west, so you have ’14 east’ and ’14 west,’ just to add to the confusion. The track for our train wasn’t posted until 15 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, which made for a mad dash for a few hundred people to get down a sole escalator and to the train on time. It was as close to the Hunger Games as I ever hope to be.
On The Train
DON’T expect assigned seating. It’s first come, first serve. Liz and I started both of our train rides seated apart, but were able to move into seats together as people got off at other stops. It can be a bit chaotic getting on and off, but the Amtrak staff was great about helping people find seats.
DO take snacks. I took trail mix, granola bars, and fruit snacks, which helped me eat healthier, and save money. I also took my own water bottle – with a filter – that I could refill as needed.
DO explore the train. I wandered down to the dining cart to get coffee and was so glad I did. It was such a unique experience, very retro. My cup of coffee was small, $2, and not especially good, but you can only expect so much from train and plane coffee. The dining cart offered snacks and meals at fairly reasonable prices. The personal pizza seemed to be a big hit with the kids on our train.
DO take your own entertainment. I had Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to keep me entertained, and Liz also brought a book. I also recommend a good set of earphones.
DON’T expect good cell service or steady wi-fi. For most of our journey, our phones had terrible reception and there were so many people on the free wi-fi that there basically was no wi-fi. Download your books and movies before you go.
Train travel hasn’t replaced flying as my number one way to travel, but it was a great experience, not to mention a great way to see part of the country from a window. Plus, the leg room was fantastic!
Of all the tips above, my most valuable one is the packing – don’t over pack, just because you can take a few bags without charges. I ended up lugging two very heavy pieces of luggage up and down stairs, along the sidewalks of New York, and all over the subway. My London adventure is going to be involve a lot less luggage.
Have you ever traveled by train? Leave your best tips in the comments!
I received no compensation for this post – just sharing my Amtrak experience to help others!