Although I have been on numerous trains in Europe, as well as a few in Australia and New Zealand, I had never been on a train in the US until a few weeks ago. All trains from Michigan go to Chicago first and there is no passenger service to or through Ontario which is quite inconvenient, and I never actually traveled much in the US before I left for France. I had already planned to visit my niece and nephew in Virginia upon returning from Australia, and I decided to try the overnight Capitol Limited train to DC and the Northeast Regional train to Newport News. It would take nearly 24 hours and cost $230 per person for the one-way trip (slightly less than the cost of a roundtrip plane ticket), but I wanted to experience American train travel. My mother was accompanying me to Virginia to spoil her grandchildren so we shared the sleeping accommodation on the overnight train.
The most important thing you should know about Amtrak is that trains are very often late since commercial trains have priority over passenger trains on the railways in the US. Do not book two trains that are within 2 hours of each other because you could very well be arriving 2 hours late. We were supposed to arrive in DC at 1:05pm and we had to book the 5pm train to Newport News because the system would not allow me to choose the 2:30pm train. Of course, I could have booked two separate tickets, but it was a good thing I didn’t since we didn’t even get off the first train until 2:45pm…
If you are not getting on the train at a major station, be prepared to board the train really late or really early. I could have taken a train from Flint to Chicago and boarded the Capitol Limited there, but that would have added another 18 hours to my trip (seriously!), so I decided to drive 2.5 hours down to Toledo, where the train was scheduled to depart at 11:49pm. Getting on the train in Cleveland? It departs at 1:54am.
Since you can print your ticket when you buy it online, there is no actual check-in process at the station, unless you are taking a train that has baggage check and you actually want to do it. Amtrak’s luggage allowance include two regular (not carry-on) size suitcases weighing 50 lbs. that you take on the train with you, plus two additional 50 lb. suitcases as checked luggage. If you have even more luggage, you only have to pay $20 for each additional suitcase (up to 2 more).
I booked a regular bedroom for the journey to DC, which includes a private toilet/shower in the room as well as free meals. Up to three people can be in one bedroom since the bottom bed is a double bed, but I don’t know if I’d recommend it considering how little space is left in the room after the beds are down. (This is also why you should leave your luggage on the rack downstairs and just take a backpack or small carry-on suitcase upstairs.) I even had trouble standing in front of the sink and I am very small! Soap, shampoo, towels, linen, and bottled water are provided – though you might want another blanket for the bed. The shower is in the same tiny room as the toilet so it will get soaked, but there is a rack at the top for towels and the toilet paper has a long cover over it. Roomettes are a cheaper option which do not include a shower, but may or may not include a toilet depending on if you’re on a Superliner or Viewliner train.
Light sleepers beware – most of the rooms have a door leading to the next room so you can definitely hear noises from your neighbors. I could hear snoring next door so I had to move my pillows to the other end of the bed, underneath the air vent, to block out the noise. However, there are plenty of other noises to keep you awake anyway – the train can be quite bumpy, and the whistle blows often, plus other trains passing by make a lot of noise. I actually did not sleep very much at all – perhaps only an hour or two in the early morning. If you are on the top bunk, there is a safety strap to prevent you from falling off.
The sleeper car attendant was incredibly nice. He even checked on us in the morning to see if we wanted breakfast since we didn’t get up for it. Normally the Capitol Limited to DC doesn’t include lunch, but since we were arriving late, those of us in the sleeper cars were offered hamburgers/hot dogs. You are told where to sit in the dining car, so you will most likely end up next to strangers. The cafe car is open as well if you prefer to snacks or smaller meals.
Passengers with sleeper tickets should have access to Acela lounges at departure and arrival stations (if available), but I didn’t actually check out the lounge in DC. Union Station has free wifi, and plenty of shops and restaurants to keep you busy while waiting for your next train.
On the Northeast Regional to Newport News, we were in business class, but I do not think it is worth the extra money. The seat configuration is 2 x 2, so there is still the same amount of people as in economy. You are supposed to get free newspapers and drinks, but no one came through the car to offer them to us (so you have to go to the cafe car on your own). The seats did not seem any larger or more comfortable than those in economy class either. Luckily, there is free wifi on this particular train, which helps to pass the time. The bathrooms are large enough, and there is a free water fountain in each car.
There are no assigned seats in either business or economy class, so boarding is a free-for-all. Not all doors open so you have to find the Amtrak employees in order to get off the train. Sometimes they walk through and announce the stop and tell you to follow them to a particular door. They often help with luggage, especially for business class passengers.
Yes, Amtrak takes forever to get you across America – but it’s more environmentally friendly, and best of all, it’s the opposite experience of flying. You do not need to arrive 2-3 hours ahead of time just to wait in line to get through security where TSA doesn’t allow you to bring enough shampoo for your trip. It is quite cheap to bring tons of luggage, and the food is surprisingly good.
I wish the US had more passenger railways and better connections between cities, especially between Michigan and Canada. Currently, Amtrak stops in Port Huron, and if you want to continue to Toronto, for example, you need to take a taxi across the border to get to the Sarnia train station where you can board a Via Rail train. It’s quite ridiculous. I highly doubt the US will ever have extensive train travel like Europe since state governments do not want to spend money on it, and American car culture is so pervasive that it will be hard to change. I enjoyed my time on Amtrak trains, but I don’t know if I’ll be doing another sleeper train since I am such a light sleeper. For shorter trips, it is definitely a cheaper and less stressful option than flying, as long as you live near an Amtrak station.
TL;DR – Your train will most likely be late. No assigned seats. Free wifi sometimes. Don’t expect to sleep much on overnight trains. Lots of luggage allowance. NO LIQUID BAN IS AWESOME.
Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.