Many of you know that I am a seasoned rail rider. I have spent days, nay WEEKS aboard Amtrak trains. Truth be told, if I NEVER got on an airplane, it'd be too soon. Having said that, there are number of things about rail travel in the US that is NOT good. I will write my thoughts here in hopes of making your train experience more pleasurable, or to help you go in knowing what to expect. I will try to organize them by topic.
Packing - You should have 2 suitcases; One IN your sleeper for all of your needs while you are aboard, and the other you can check through of items you won't need until your arrival.
Things you will need while you are aboard: Clothes you will need. Do not plan on anything formal. Casual, around the house clothes are fine. You will drop food on you when you are eating, you will splash on you in the bathroom, and if you are drinking something in your room, I guarantee the train will lurch just as you are raising your glass and spill all over you. I travel with camo pants. They have lots of pockets for wallet, glasses, iPhone, money, whatever. Plus, WHEN I spill something, you can't see it. I bring one shirt for each day aboard. I sleep in sweats and t-shirts. I bring a sweatshirt (not a hoodie) for if/when it gets cold in my room. I bring my dopp kit with shampoo, toothbrush, shaver (use an electric aboard, trust me), and other personal items. You want all these in a dopp kit of sorts so you can bring everything to bathroom all at once.
In your room: There is a temperature controller in your room, but don't count on it actually doing anything. The car steward actually controls the temp in your car and their concept of warm and cold always seem to be different from mine. In each room, there is an air vent that always blows cold air. There is a lever that "closes" the vents, but it won't. SO I always travel with a roll (or more) of duct tape. If it gets too cold in my room (which it usually does), I cover the vent(s) with duct tape. If it starts getting warm, I remove ONE strip of tape at a time, until I get the temp right. I can very accurately adjust my room temp this way. Works every time. Once, I taped over both vents completely, and cold air came pouring out the lighting fixtures; I taped over them, too. I travel with a ratcheting screwdriver and wire cutters. Once, the speaker in my room would not turn off (again, there IS a controller, but don't count on IT working). I unscrewed the speaker and clipped the wire. I repaired the "fix" before I got off the train. If light keeps you from sleeping, bring a sleep mask. In a roomette, it is impossible to block out the constant hall lighting. It's easier in the bedroom, and in the family room, light comes in under the door, at the floor; you can block this with your shoes. If you want to read, there are plenty of reading lights, and each room has has an overhead light that toggles with a night light that glows a soft, blue light. There is an electric outlet in each room. I bring a power strip and multi outlet charger for my iPhone, iPad and Jambox. This keeps my devices charged up and ready to go. THERE IS NO WIRELESS IN THE SLEEPER CARS. There was a wireless network on the Southwest Chief. I was able to hook into it, but it didn't work. On the Coast Starlight there is intermittent wireless in the Parlor Car and sometimes in the observation car, but don't count on it. Make sure your phone has a personal hotspot so you can link your iPad (or lap top) to the phone. In many places the train goes, there is NO phone service. This would be a good time to get your shower. On the train, you must wear shoes at all times. Not in your room obviously, but this is a good policy. There is a treacherous joint where the cars join. I couldn't IMAGINE getting my toe caught under that. I have a pair of hard soled, fleece line slippers that I wear, with no sox. They are plenty warm, comfortable and slip right on and off.
In the shower: If you are on the train for more than a day, you'll want to shower. Amtrak supplies towels, soap, shampoo. May 2016: no shampoo on the Empire Builder. You probably should bring your own. Unless you are really sticky about what you put on your hair, you can use what they provide; it'll be FINE for one or 2 days. I promise your hair won't fall out. In some showers, you punch a button, and the water runs for 2 minutes, then you punch the button again; I haven't seen this in awhile, I guess they fixed that. Sometimes, it takes a REALLY long time for the water to get hot. Be patient. One interesting thing to note, the shower water dumps right onto the tracks. Once there was no drain cover and I could see the tracks going by right under my feet! There is one shower per sleeper; it is downstairs. The best time to shower is right after breakfast, or right after dinner. I have never had to wait for a shower at these times.
In the bathroom: Many car stewards keep the bathrooms clean and fresh smelling. This is not always the case. If it's not, tell your steward. They may or may not do something about it. If they don't, go in another car. Chances are the steward in that car does. When you use the basin (especially the small one in the bedroom) put your hands at the very bottom of the basin. The water squirts out fast and you will get splashed. Some of the fixtures have been changed, but many have not. I don't want my only pair of pants wet at the crotch for the duration of my ride. If you are particular about what forestry products keeps your bum clean and fresh, bring your own. The septic system aboard the train is very fragile, so they use septic system safe paper products (read: single ply, thin). If you are going #2, line the bottom of the bowl with toilet paper before you do (trust me on this). As with the toilet tissue, the paper towels that are supplied are very thin, fold them in half before you use them. You'll use less and they will work better. Bring some baby wipes (wet wipes). You can freshen up, and you can wash your face with them, too. PLEASE, do not put ANYTHING (except the aforementioned paper product) into the toilets. This can be a REAL mess. Also, after you go, if you have other business in the bathroom, put the seat down, they don't sell toothbrushes on the train. Men, put the seat up. And when you miss (and you will) take a paper towel and clean up.
In the dining car: Please, don't expect gourmet food. Aboard the Coast Starlight there is the parlor car, where sometime they serve something special. Typical breakfast fare is a couple different eggs dishes, oatmeal, continental. If they have it, try the French Toast. Bacon or sausage on the side is included. They don't always ask if you want it. If the people sitting with you at breakfast don't get theirs, ask them if you can have it. You can never get enough protein. You will be offered biscuit or croissant. Sometimes, the biscuits are dry. Grits are always available, and are sometimes offered. Don't expect Starbucks coffee. Last I heard, they make the coffee from a liquid concentrate. It isn't terrible. If you hate paper cups, bring your own mug; I do & it is ALWAYS a conversation starter. There is always a lunch special, a burger (overcooked, get the cheese & bacon, it'll help, & add catsup & mayo), a veggie burger, and some kind of salad. You can ask for a side salad, and sometimes you can get one (see tipping below). Recently, aboard the Coast Starlight, I had a wonderful pork shank for lunch, they had it on the Empire Builder, too. For dinner, there is always a special, a chicken dish, pasta dish, fish dish and a flat iron steak. I've had them all, get the steak. Although, on this time out of SJC on the Coast Starlight (May 2016), there was a wonderful smelling & looking chicken dish (I got pasta). Dinner comes with a salad (of the crappy side variety), veggies du jour (steamed, I think, it's hard to tell), and a starch. There is always Newman's Own for salad dressing, 4 choices; mix the ranch and Italian. I don't THINK they have changed the menu in at LEAST 15 yrs. For breakfast, you can sit any time as they serve from 6:00-9:00; there's always a seat. For lunch and dinner, you need reservations. I haven't gotten this figured out yet. I'm either not hungry yet, or I'm starving. Dessert is included for lunch and dinner. Make sure you ask for it if it is not offered. You will have to share a table, you will be seated with 3 strangers; this can be a GOOD thing, or a BAD thing. You'll find a different breed of person on the train. Nobody is in a hurry. They sit. They talk. They hang out. Everybody has a story. Be prepared to chat. I have met some phenomenal people on the train. If this disturbs you, you can get your meals brought to your room by your car steward, but be prepared to tip a little extra, which brings me to my next topic:
Tipping aboard the train: While the stewards and the dining car workers are union members, their union is not as strong as the engineer's & conductor's union (yes, they are different). This harkens back to the day when the car workers were all African-Americans, and the others were Caucasians. The accepted tip for the car attendant is $5 - $10 per day, per person. I always double that and I tip the attendant BEFORE I get on the train. As I show my ticket, I hand the steward the tip and I say, "This is for you, in case I don't see you when I get off." These overworked Amtrak employees are on call 24/7, and they have to be as bright eyed and bushy tailed at 3 AM in Chico, California, as they are at 11 AM in Ottumwa, Iowa. Tip 'em. Learn their name and use it. They will put up your bed when asked, & take it down. "Do you need anything, Mr. Clements?" is the way I'm treated on the train. With the cost of train travel, what's a few extra bucks to get good service? In the dining car, you calculate your tip on the actual cost of the meal. When you get a sleeper, meals are included. Figure your tip (use 25%) at the time you order your meal (don't forget beverages & desert). I always tip a minimum of $5 for breakfast & lunch, $10 for dinner. I always get great service: that extra order of bacon or coffee and soft drink at meals (for which you have to pay, normally). I always learn the name of my server and use it liberally. I give them mine and we develop a nice rapport that makes meal time very pleasurable. On the Empire Builder this time, I knew all of them (Kevin, Connie, Katrina & Liz) and we hung out at long stops. If I get outstanding service by my car steward, I'll tip them AGAIN when I get off. This happened ONCE.
Selecting your accommodations: If you decide not to go coach (HIGHLY recommended), you'll need to decide what type of accommodation you want. I have been in all types, so I'll comment on my preferences, and why. I suggest you go here to read what Amtrak posts about accommodation choices:
Roomette: This is suggested for one or 2 people. This is 1/3 of the width of the train (on the site I think it gives the dimensions of each room). Honestly, for me, this is too small. For 2 people, with the room set up for day use, you will be bumping knees all day. You can't sit side by side, or lay down together. It has two bunks, one lower & one upper. There really is not room for your stuff. There is a small closet to hang your coat. There are 4 of these on the lower level, and 10 on the upper.
Bedroom: This is for 2-3 people. This is a good choice. There is plenty of room for you and your stuff; tuba & suitcase. It includes a bathroom & shower, it is 2/3 the width of the train. This is the most expensive of the accommodations. I guess because of the private bath and shower. Honestly, for me the shower is too small. Also, I'd rather not poop in my room. I'd rather do this down the hall. It IS good, however, if you reach a certain age and have to tinkle during the night; the loo is right there. There is a shelf right above the single chair to put your suitcase on, and room under the bed for a THIN suitcase. The cool thing about this option is that there is a sliding panel so you can adjoin 2 rooms to make a suite kind of thing. I have never done this, but it seems like a cool option. These are on the upper level, 5 per car.
Accessible: this is for people who have mobility issues. Before I had hip surgery this was a good choice for me. There is only ONE of these rooms per car, so if you need one, better book early. And it is on the lower level.
Family Bedroom: This is my choice. It sleeps 2-3 adults plus 2 kids. I travelled with 2 suitcases a tuba & my backpack. PLENTY of room. It is the entire width of the train so if there is something to see on either side, you won't miss it. The nearest bathroom and the shower is only 12 steps away. Even in the middle of the night, this ain't bad. The only thing "bad" about this room is that it is on the lower level. At many stations, people can see right into the room. Make sure you draw the curtains if you are changing. Sound like the voice of experience? There is only ONE of these rooms per car. Again, book early. Oddly, even with the size of this room, it is cheaper than the bedroom.
Upper level or lower level?: This in an interesting question. You have this choice only on the roomette. On the upper level, there are people walking around all the time. This is the passageway between cars. If your car is near the dining car, you will get a lot of foot traffic walking by your room. Plus, the upper level sways a bit more. Imagine the wheels being the center of a circle and the roof being on the circumference. So if the motion bothers you, this might be an issue. The lower level has virtually no foot travel, and it sways less. BUT if it is the last car the train (like I had on the City of New Orleans, a notoriously BAD section of track) it can be a bouncy and rocky ride, kind of like the last car on a roller coaster. On the lower level the track noise can be louder. Then you got that "looking in the window" thing. I prefer the lower level. At stops you can get right out and back on.
Cars on the train - In addition to the engine(s) and baggage cars, there are these types of cars:
Coaches. There are airplane types of seats, but better. There are 2 on each side of the aisle, and there is LOTS of room between seats; plenty to recline and sleep. There is an overhead for your bags. In each car there is a large space behind the last row. Traveling with a tuba, I put it here for the duration; it was safe. Most people travel on the train in coach. Fare is reasonable and it is easy to get tickets. One caution: while the attendant will keep track of where you have to get off, once they didn't and I ended up 3 hours beyond MY stop.
Lounge - This is sometimes an observation car. This is the BEST place to look at scenery. It is all windows and the seats are comfortable. Many times, there is a ranger on board giving great information about the area through which you are traveling. Food is sold on the lower level, but don't expect much, and it is not cheap.
Diner - Where you get your meals. Details above.
Sleepers - Where the accommodations are.
There is no figuring where each car is going to be. GENERALLY, sleepers are right behinds the baggage car, followed by the diner, lounge car (if there is one) then coaches. Having the diner in the middle, prevents coach passengers from entering the sleepers. On the Coast Starlight, the parlor car is between the sleepers and the diner.
Other considerations: When making plans, plan on the train being late, VERY late. I was almost late making a connection from the California Zephyr to the Capitol Limited. I left 7 hours to make the connection. Literally, I made it with 4 minutes to spare. Taking the Sunset from LA to Kissimmee, Florida, we were 18 hours late. There were a train full of folks in the next car that were going on a cruise; they missed their boat. They had to CHARTER a boat to the next port of call to catch up with their cruise ship. SOMEONE should have told them. I always plan a day between legs of a trip. You're on a train, what's the hurry? On this trip, we hit somebody. We were stopped for 4 hours while everything was sorted out.
Bring everything into your room that you will need in transit, jacket, sunglasses, snacks. There is a luggage storage area on each sleeping car, lower level, but frequently accessing your bag is a huge hassle. If you've checked your big bag through, you cannot get to it until you arrive.
This trip will not be cheap, adding accommodations will triple the cost of the fare. Plan on it. There are no shortcuts or discounts. There is a small AAA discount and your NARP (National Association of Rail Passengers) membership MIGHT help.
There are some "smoke stops" along the way. This is to slow the train down in the REMOTE chance that it actually gets ahead of schedule or to change crews. (The train will NEVER leave a station before the printed departure time). Take the time to go outside and smell the air in different locales. It's one of the things that makes train travel SO good. If the conductor (or car steward) says, "Stay on the platform," Stay on the platform!!! Once in Eugene (on the Coast Starlight), 12 people went into town, the train left them. They had to get 4 cabs to bring them to Albany to catch up. 4 cabs ain't cheap to go 43 miles.
When walking THROUGH the train, walk with your stance as wide as possible. You will minimize the getting thrown around effect as the train rounds bends. Use your forearms as outriggers against the walls & windows.
Remember, the train is quiet. Please respect your neighbors and make the kids use their inside voices. Quiet time is 10 PM to 7 AM.
Bring mouthwash. You will be sitting up close and personal with people at dinner time. And deodorant.