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Travel Guide: Amtrak & Via Rail
Getting the most out of your train trip
Tips and cautions
The Amtrak and Via Rail Canada advice below helps you get the most value and enjoyment out of your North American rail trip.
These suggestions help save you from problems when using Amtrak or Via Rail Canada.
- Avoid connections from one long-distance train to another on the same day.
If you miss, you may have to wait days until the next train is available. Most long-distance routes have just one train per day. Some have just three per week. Moreover, many sell out days or even weeks in advance.
Stay over at least one night when you have major connections, or at least allow many hours between trains (more than two or three).
However, you can comfortably connect on the same day when you are scheduled to arrive early and there are numerous later connections availablesuch as from Los Angeles to San Diego, Anaheim, or Santa Barbara, or from New York City to Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, DC. If you miss one train, there are others.
You can also connect the same day when Amtrak offers a dedicated transfer bus for you, such as from Emeryville, CA across the Oakland-Bay Bridge into San Francisco.
- Schedule an extensive trip so that you travel clockwise around North America. Because of the times Amtrak schedules its trains, this helps you see the best scenery.
For instance, be sure to book
- Vancouver to Toronto eastbound,
- Los Angeles to San Francisco northbound along the coast,
- Chicago to San Francisco westbound.
As an example, when traveling southbound from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a delay of just several hours may cause you to miss the stunningly beautiful California coastline north of Santa Barbara, especially in the winter. Northbound, this cannot easily happen.
- Reserve all long-distance trains well in advance and do not expect to be able to make changes while traveling. Most Amtrak and Via Rail long-distance trains sell out days or weeks in advance. Plan now to get the days you want.
Three trains can be especially hard to book:
1) Amtrak's Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle (via the San Francisco Bay Area),
2) Via Rail's Canadian between Vancouver and Toronto, which travels just three times a week, and
3) Amtrak's California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco.
You may have to plan your trip around when these have room for you.
- Book sleeping car accommodation if you can afford it for maximum comfort, but know that using private "sleepers" astronomically increases the cost of your trip.
Exceptions are the upper and lower berths found on Via Rail's Canadian train between Vancouver and Toronto. These seats convert into comfortable beds behind reinforced curtains at night. You can either book these in advance or ask the conductor if any are available after boarding. Their prices include all meals and access to the first class lounges and domes.
Amtrak's coach seats with leg rests on long-distance trains are big and comfortable, with lots of legroom, but group sleeping can be difficult. Just one unhappy infant in your area can block sleep altogether. Try not to have more than one night in "coach" in a row. Break a longer trip with a stopover in a hotel, unless you are the type who can sleep anywhere.
Note: if you wish to move cars, be sure to tell the conductor. The doors of your new car may not be scheduled to open at your stop.
- Bring healthy snacks especially if traveling in coach. At times, Amtrak and especially Via Rail meals can be good, but you may tire of them and the snack bar items. Frankly, in my opinion, Amtrak's snack bars serve up a rather unhealthy diet, but I do enjoy the yogurt.
Vegetarians have access to several items on Amtrak and Via Rail, but may grow tired of the limited selection.
- Show up at least one hour in advance at major stations and at least 30 minutes at smaller ones.
Most trains require reservations, but it is first come first served for the actual seats you get. Queue up early for window seats.
- When boarding a two-level train (many are), mention to the car attendant that you want to sit upstairs for better views (unless you are physically challenged).
On the upper level of an Amtrak "Superliner" coach, sit in the front half of the carriage, in order to avoid being over the washrooms, where some passengers sneak cigarettes, in violation of Amtrak nonsmoking rules.
- Pack lightly, and avoid having to check bags.
For security reasons, Amtrak strictly limits you to two carry on bags, plus several items like a purse, briefcase, or small laptop case. Via Rail limits vary by train.
Because nearly all Amtrak stations DO NOT handle checked luggage, DON'T show up with more than two suitcases, unless you are absolutely sure both your origin and destination handle checked items.
Otherwise, you'll have to check to the nearest station that handles luggage, which could be hundreds of miles from where you're going.
When you can check, the usual limit is three free bags plus three paid ones on both railroads, but check for current rules. Both railroads accept boxed bicycles, and Amtrak provides space for unboxed ones on some trains.
- Reconfirm departure times before traveling. These change!
- In its Travel Guides, BidonTravel suggests convenient hotel locations in major cities and sightseeing in some areas.
- Avoid making any non refundable hotel or resort bookings until your rail itinerary has been completely confirmed, and one of our favorites
- Learn how to bid on hotels to save substantially.
Check out BidonTravel's hotel bidding tips. You can really save with these. You'll also find tips for using Hotwire.com for hotel bargains.
- Other pages in this section:
Best Amtrak and Via Rail routes I (western)
Best Amtrak and Via Rail routes II (eastern)
Hotel bidding tips to help you save
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