Pros: Scenery can be spectacular. Can be very,very cheap if you research deals.
Cons: Lateness, subject to possible problems (rail construction, etc.)
I think when anyone says "Amtrak", most people have a very set idea of what that means, even if they've never tried it. In my experiences, most people think of a Greyhound on tracks.
The reality is quite a bit different. Although Amtrak coach may be a tough ride for more than one overnight, it's still a surprisingly comfortable way to travel. When I first travelled on Amtrak not that long ago, I was really pleasantly surprised - almost shocked - at how decent the coach accomidations were. Coach sections have a lot of legroom (considerably more than I'd expected), nice bathrooms and a few little extras (leg rests, you can get pillows, overhead lighting, trays in front of you).
In my opinion, Amtrak is "travel". Going by plane is a "vacation". By no means is Amtrak a perfect way to travel, but it is an adventure that I think everyone should try - you not only get to see some spectacular scenery, but it's very relaxing - cut off from the rest of the world, you're at the mercy of the rails. Although many will likely see differently, there's a romance about it all.
Romance aside, there are many things that one can do to make sure that their experience on Amtrak is smooth. The following will be some of the tips I can offer, in no particular order: (This list will continue to be updated and revised)
* Arrive early! although Amtrak suggests 30 minutes, I'd consider arriving more around 45 minutes to an hour early if you are departing from a major station. Amtrak is unlike airlines in that you (as far as I know, this is the way it is at all stations) do not know which gate/track your train is departing from until 15-20 minutes (sometimes a little less, even) before departure. So, in other words, you need to keep on your toes as to where you need to be.
Getting there an hour early will allow you to check baggage (if needed, if available - some stations are not staffed and do not have the ability to check baggage), get any last minute items (at the stores in bigger stations) and allow you to understand station layout (an issue in larger, unfamilar stations - Penn Station in NYC seemed particularly intimidating upon first arrival, with its different levels, tracks, gates and generally chaotic amount of traffic). Although Amtrak employees are helpful, in bigger stations, there's not always one around when you need one, so getting there early enough to find your way around makes things easier.
Do not stand directly around the gates at major stations while waiting for your train to depart. You will inevitably be standing there when another train is arriving. People who have been on a train for 20+ hours are not going to wait for you to get out of the way. They will trample your butt.
* Order the travel guide. (http://www.amtrak.com/services/orderpubs.html). This is a free booklet that gives a rundown on each train route, provides beautiful, full color pictures of scenery that the train encounters, goes over tips and rules for train riding and provides more information on sleeper and coach accomidations.
* Do not use your ticket as a bookmark. Like the idiot that I am, I did this while waiting for a train and, not thinking, put the book back in my bag. Not remembering what I did with my ticket when the train was called to board, panic (understatement) set in very quickly. Then, when I found it and was able to get on the train, I proceeded to do the same thing again, right before the conductor came to collect tickets. In other words, keep your ticket close and in a safe place so that it will neither be put away or fall out.
* Hotel: If arriving late in your destination city, you may want to notify your hotel.
* Smoking. Non-overnight trains and Cardinal, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, between Portland and Spokane, Lake Shore Limited, Palmetto, Sunset Limited, Three Rivers and The Federal lines do not allow smoking. Some of Amtrak's other trains do have designated areas, however. On those that do not, some quick smoking may be had at certain stops (if the conductor says it's okay - usually, this doesn't happen - the train is trying to keep things moving and on-time), but other than that, smokers are out-of-luck or, maybe can consider this a good way to start quitting. If you are allowed to smoke at a station stop, stay right next to the train - if you wander off, the train will NOT wait for you.
* Pack smartly. I took two mid-sized bags on my trip - one for clothes and one for books, magazines and everything else. The one with the books and everything else sat on my lap, while the other went up on the baggage rack. Put any medications (tylenol, etc.) in a clear plastic bag in the bag with you. Also, the trains can be dry - what I did was pack one water and one pop in my bag with me, and an extra pair in the bag that was on the rack.
Amtrak allows two carry-ons (each must weigh less than 50 pounds); it's a good idea to pack smartly and neatly to try and get everything you need in. Some people take mini-coolers with them, but again, take only as much as you can comfortably carry and keep track of. Comfort is a must, as you will inevitably have to carry your bags around a station as you wait for your platform/track/gate to be announced and again when you go out to the platform, as you may have another walk - some platforms are long, some trains are quite long and you may not be in the car closest to the station.
Also, keep in mind that, although the overhead baggage racks are pretty decent-sized, they're not giant, and you'll likely be sharing your overhead with the person you're sitting next to. There also may be additional areas for excess baggage on the train, but don't count on them. Use baggage locks for any bags that have valuables in them.
Pack neatly so that you can easily go in and retrieve extra clothes, magazines, medicine, anything. It's a pain to have to dig through everything to find something you need that fell to the bottom of your bag.
Finally, if you do check your baggage, do make sure that anything you need along the way is with you and not in the checked baggage, as it will NOT be available to you during your trip. If you do want to check baggage, do not put delicate items in, do make sure your station has checked baggage service and do arrive early if it does.
* Take a coat: Although not necessary in the Summer months, a light coat in the spring or a longer/heavy coat in the Autumn/Winter is recommended. Although the train isn't cold, it can get a little crisp during certain times of year. A coat/jacket can also serve as a blanket (or a pillow if you ball it up, I guess) if you're in coach.
* Drop-Offs: When possible, consider being dropped off at a station. Parking at some stations may be limited and/or expensive.
* Fall. Although Fall colors are spectacular all over, many of the trains that run through the Northeastern states (such as the Lake Shore Limited's run through upstate NY (Buffalo to Albany) and along the Hudson River from Albany into NYC) provide especially scenic views of the Fall colors.
* Rail sale. Amtrak's website has a http://tickets.amtrak.com/Amtrak/railsale (go to the link to go there, as it's not exactly highlighted when you go to the Amtrak website) section that offers some rather ridiculously low fares, but only in limited quantity (usually 8 "Sale" tickets per train/per day offered) and on limited/specific days/routes. Chicago to Boston, Chicago to NY and Chicago to Washington have been as low as $25.80 or $26.60 each way. Seattle to LA, along the coast, is as low as $47.40. While these tickets are for coach seats and non-refundable, they certainly do provide some serious savings if you can use them. These fares change often, so keep checking. Although the rail sale fares are listed as being between the first departure station and final arrival station, one can select stations between these points, which result in an even cheaper fare.
Your fellow passengers will be just thrilled to find that you paid a fraction of what they did for the same seat (I paid about a third of what the person sitting next to me did on my last trip.) You can pay the additional charge to upgrade to a sleeper car if you buy rail sale only once aboard the train and only if there is any space left.
* National Timetable: Amtrak has a booklet that lists every train route. These books are helpful for planning trips, and can be requested via Amtrak's website or found at most local stations.
* Ebay Tickets (NO LONGER AVAILABLE - AMTRAK's EBAY STORE IS CLOSED, APPARENTLY). There are some deals to be had on Ebay, as well - Amtrak occasionally puts up a limited selection of heavily discounted tickets on Ebay. Search under "Amtrak Tickets" on ebay.com. These tickets, according to the website, are non-transferable, non-refundable, non-upgradeable, and non-exchangeable. Still, like rail sale, if you can use them, they provide an extremely cheap way to travel. Unlike the rail sale section, the tickets that are being sold on Ebay are - according to the listings - round trip tickets instead of each way.
* Amtrak Guest Rewards. If you plan to be a frequent traveler on Amtrak, you can sign up with their rewards program, which earns points (good towards future Amtrak rides or other goodies) for each trip purchased. More information is available on Amtrak's website.
* On board tickets - On board tickets are not possible on many trains. It's always a good idea to buy tickets considerably in advance of the day that you plan to travel. Although most passengers will likely choose to get their tickets by mail, some stations (not all) also offer Quik Trak machines, which allow passengers to pick up tickets bought online. More information on requirements, etc. is available at the Amtrak website.
* Tipping: Sleeping and dining car attendants do appreciate tips.
* Amtrak vacations/Air-Rail. Amtrak offers vacation packages and the option to get tickets for rail one way and plane the other via partnerships with airlines. These trips/tickets can be reserved by calling a number listed on the website or w/a travel agent.
* Use the website. Aside from "rail sale" fares, one can also check the arrival/departure times for trains and learn more about the services/promotions that Amtrak currently offers. It's good to check on your train for a couple of the prior days before your trip to see how its performance is averaging. If someone is waiting for you at your destination, they can also check the progress of your train at Amtrak's website and get a better idea of when to expect you in, since the website allows one to track how late a train is currently running. If you're catching an Amtrak train further down the line from the train's start point, you can check to see if it departed early/late before you leave, to get an idea of what to expect when you arrive at your station.
* Expect lateness. Although Amtrak has taken steps to try and improve its on-time performance, keep in mind that there still may be lateness and occasional issues. Chances are, if you're riding the train in the first place, you're doing so for the experience and not because you're expecting to get where you're going in a speedy fashion.
Most Amtrak routes operate on "host railroads" and occasionally, this will - among other things - force your train to wait shortly as a freight train passes (kinda neat to see, especially at night). On that topic, this also means that if the tracks are not well-maintained and the trip is somewhat bumpy, Amtrak has no control over it.
* Understand your train's accomidations. Some long distance routes use bi-level Superliner cars. Other long distance trains use single-level Viewliner cars. Some trains offer sightseeing lounges, some don't. Some offer dining cars, some (the 3 Rivers, which has only a snack car) don't. Some trains offer movie showings. Some of the long-distance routes offer guides who discuss the facts/history behind certain areas you pass through. Once again, it's a good idea to research which routes have what on the Amtrak website.
* Keep your seat check/stub. Your conductor will give you a seat check card that tells your destination after you choose your seat in a train with reserved coach (some short distance trains are unreserved) seating. If you get up and walk around, this card (which is above your seat) keeps it. If you move to another seat, take the card with you. It's also a good idea to keep your ticket stub handy. It has been my experience that conductors will try to organize passengers so that those traveling the entire distance of the train will be near each other, while people getting off at stops in-between will be grouped together. This is to minimize traffic in-between cars and to try and streamline the boarding/departing process. This may not always be the case, depending on the train.
* Bring a camera. High-speed disposable cameras can capture some of the scenery that goes by - and although there are stretches of track on every route that are rather plain, you will also likely see some utterly spectacular scenery at times. My digital camera wasn't able to take clean shots out of the window (blurred), but I was able to take crisp movie clips w/it.
* Power bars/Eating in General. Although Amtrak food is pretty good, you may not always feel like getting up to go to the dining car. Your trip also may start too late to comfortably eat a whole meal. Power or Protein bars are satisfying and compact, making them easy to pack. I'm sure Amtrak would rather you eat their food (and you should give it a try - it's pretty good and it's neat to eat as the country passes by and talk to other people), but they don't mind people bringing food aboard, as long as it's disposed of and kept neat. They also can't heat your food and I believe you can only eat your food you bring on in your seat (something about FDA regulations). If your train is running late in departing, dining car hours also may be less than usual, so plan/adjust accordingly.
* Get a window seat. Although some people will likely want an aisle to be able to get in-and-out of their seat easily, there's a lot of legroom (more than airline coach) in Amtrak coach and you generally should be able to easily slip by the person next to you if you're sitting by the window. The key issue with a window seat is not only the ability to see everything outside, but also, the ability to rest your head against the side of the car, which - at least in my case - makes it easier to sleep then if I was sitting straight up and trying to sleep.
* Position yourself in line. I have travelled alone when riding on Amtrak and I have always tried to scan the lines and try to position myself near a crowd that seems interesting/safe. This isn't always successful, but it's at least worthwhile to try (after all, if you're travelling long distance, you're going to be next to/near these people for at least a night, if not longer). You'll also find yourself encountering different crowds during different rides. On my way to NY, I sat with people in their mid-twenties, on my way back, I sat with seniors. If you are within a group of people, conductors will do their best to try and seat you all together.
* Listen for announcements. The food (snack and/or dining) cars are not open when the train first leaves its departing station. It takes a little while to get things ready, then they will open and announce that dinner is available. They also do not stay open all night or all day, either. Conductors will announce what time the cars open/close and open again in the morning. If they don't (which has happened on my trains), you'll eventually start to see people frequently walking through with food, which signals the cars are open. If you're in the mood to chat, a deck of cards is a good icebreaker. Also, listen for announcements in the departure station.
* Bring a schedule. Amtrak stations should have schedules for your train. Having one with you will allow you to track your train's progress, checking your watch as the train arrives at each station and comparing. If you take several, you can also share with fellow passengers who didn't pick one up.
* Bathrooms/Grooming: Amtrak trains do have fine (nothing glamorous, for sure, but certainly adequate - the trains I've been on have 2 in each car - one larger handicapped-accessible one and one smaller one) bathroom facilities. Keep the bathroom clean for the next person. Also, it's a good idea to either go to brush your teeth and do all that earlier (7-8-9pm), before everyone else starts to line up to do so. Small bottles of Purell hand sanitzer (available in most drugstores) help, or bring along your own soap. Handi-wipes are another suggestion. You also should take along band-aids, toothbrush/toothpaste and any other minor grooming/first-aid essentials.
* Choose the earlier arrival. Some routes have multiple train options. Personally, I would always choose the train that arrives earlier. For example, some trains arrive into Penn Station in NYC quite late and if they're running late, you can find yourself arriving in NYC in the middle of the night. Fine if you're familiar with the city, not so great if you're not. If you're arriving in a city you're unfamiliar with, learn more about the area the station is in and what transit is available to/from it.
Essentially, use the Amtrak website to research your options, as some trips may present a handful of different possible routes, each with their own pros and cons. If you visit the website, you can type in your departure city, destination and planned travel date - the website will present you your routes. Of course, it's best to take a route without any stopovers. Also, keep in mind that some trains only operate on certain days.
Along the same lines, if you're coming into a station in a city you've never been to, do use Yahoo Maps (yahoo.com), Mapquest or one of the other popular online map services to get a better understanding of where the station is in the city and approximately how far it is to your hotel/destination.
* Make "Safe" connections: Although Amtrak guarantees many connections between trains, try to make "safe"-seeming connections that have at least a few hours between them.
* Don't always use the waiting room. In larger stations, Amtrak waiting rooms can become overcrowded (chaotic in busy seasons), as many different trains are departing in the same general time period. If you're running early and departing from a larger station, stroll around for a little while before entering the waiting room closer to your departure time. In some stations, it's better to not be in the waiting room. Waiting out in the main floor at Penn Station in NYC allowed me to be closer to the train's gate when it was finally called.
* Children. If you are bringing children on board, please - for heaven's sake - keep them quiet. There's nothing worse than riding on a train across half the country with a kid who doesn't know how to use their "indoor voice". Board games aren't a bad idea, books, talk to them about the scenery/sights...anything. Certainly, travelling by train is a better way to travel with kids than the car, but bring enough things to keep them occupied (they don't seem to care as much about scenery) and keep them low-key. Whole families with children may find that one of the sleeping compartments is an easier way than traveling by coach.
* If you have items that need power or need to be recharged, seek out a seat with an outlet. Most trains have at least several in each car and some cars have them near every seat. If you do bring an item that needs to be recharged, you should also strongly consider picking up a surge protector to keep the items you're charging safe.
* Sleeeeeep. Do whatever you can to sleep at least part of the way if you're going long distance. Although it's fun to travel on Amtrak long distance, being awake for the entire 20 hours (more or less, depending on your long distance trip) can get just a wee bit tough. Call it excitement, call it anticipation, call it sleeping pills that just wouldn't kick in - I was awake for the whole overnighter to NY and eventually, I started to get a little case of "cabin fever". I slept on the trip back and it was an easier ride.
In the coach, the lights (aside from a couple of overheads) will be turned off at a certain point at night. Pillows are provided for coach passengers - blankets are not. Don't sit next to the front of the car, either - you'll be awakened by people shutting the door as they walk between cars. On one trip, I sat next to the door, which wasn't working and proceeded to slide open and slam shut during almost every time the train turned.
Non-medical sleep aids may include earplugs or heavy, ear-covering headphones. Nobody has snored too badly on my trips, but you never know when you're going to be sitting next-to/near someone who does, so earplugs may help. As for medical sleep aids, discuss those with your doctor.
* Pack magazines/books. If you think you have enough reading to last you the trip...take some more. Although it's great to look at the scenery, if you bring no reading material for an overnight trip, you will stare a hole in the wall. You can also be nice and share with others when you're done with your mags. Books on tape or CD are another way to have more things to do and take up less bag space. You may want to take a small clip-on reading light, but it shouldn't be bright enough to wake up other people at night. This small light may also be able to help you find anything - change, etc. - you drop.
* Keep a journal. Some people like taking a journal to remember some of the trip's events.
* Map your route. Amtrak's website offers more information on each train (including a map of the route), allowing one to get a better feeling for what they'll see along the way. Also, keep in mind the times of day when thinking about scenery - you may go through certain areas in the dark one way and in the daytime the other.
* Expect crowds. Although many operate under the theory (myself included, before I started riding) that "hardly anyone rides the train anymore" or that "I'd have the train to myself", this definitely isn't the case, especially on several of Amtrak's major routes. Go in expecting most - if not all - seats to be filled. On a recent trip, I thought people wouldn't be leaving on a train on a Saturday night in October. Wrong - train was full. Okay, I thought they wouldn't be going back on a Thursday afternoon - wrong again...full train.
* Take a cell phone (if you have one). If something happens and the train is going to be late, it's handy to have. Teens taking a trip should especially have a phone with them. You may not get a signal out in some of the more unpopulated areas (you go through a lot of forest on some routes), but it's still nice to have one with you. Of course, be courteous and quiet while talking. I generally kept the calls to a minimum - "I'm on the train, I'm okay, I'll be in at 10."
* Amtrak is an adventure. Expect the unexpected. Some people have compared Amtrak coach to "camping out - only you're indoors and moving", and that's not a bad description. Expect some dull scenery. Expect some AMAZING scenery. I'll never forget travelling on the train along the banks (we're not talking off in the distance - we're talking stone's throw away) of the Hudson River for the entire ride between Albany and NYC. You might also meet interesting people.
* Amtrak employees. The train employees that I encountered were an interesting, occasionally funny bunch. However, they ran a tight ship - while they remained pleasant, they also tried to maintain the train's performance, keeping the boarding process speedy at each station. At the stations I've been in, I've run into some great employees and so-so ones. I've talked to Amtrak about a couple of really good ones.
* Ask. I've found Amtrak email customer service to be scary good, often responding - with full, informative answers - in as little as 20 minutes after I wrote. Amtrak can be emailed via the website.
* Bus Connections: Some trips may require bus connections (although the connections may not be guaranteed). Amtrak's website does offer the ability to reserve space on some of these busses.
* Steady yourself. Although it's common sense, it is recommended that you steady yourself using the handrails while walking down the aisle in the train. Sudden turns, shifts and the occasional bump do happen. Wear proper/comfortable footwear and do wear shoes when walking around the train. In other words, keep safe. Don't ride in the vestibule or open any openable windows, either. Also, make sure that your baggage is securely in the upper rack and not half-in/half-out.
* Sleeper cars. Amtrak has several options for sleeper accomidations, and they vary depending on your route. Personally, I find the sleeper cost a little on the pricey side (you are paying the rail fare + additional cost for accomidations, although - as with any other Amtrak fare, this cost varies based on season), but it may be a good option for some of the "very long" distance rides (a couple nights or more). You do get meals with sleeping car accomidations and additional extras (some sleeping room cars have showers), but again, it's a matter of your trip. Personally, I found coach to be fine for an overnighter - especially at the $26.60 price I paid each way. These sleeper accomidations need to be booked in advance, as they're often filled up on long distance routes. If you've paid for coach and want to upgrade to a sleeper, talk to the conductor on the train, as an opening may be available. However, you need to be able to pay at that time.
* Check refund policies. Refund policies vary based upon how short in advance you cancel, and a fee is charged for changing or cancelling a trip.
* Carry ID. It's good to carry ID (driver's license or state ID) with you in general, but you must have it if you're checking baggage or purchasing tickets at the station. Along those lines, also make sure that your bags all have luggage tags.
* Check discounts - although the rail sale fares certainly offer the best prices (although they are non-refundable), there are also other options. AAA and AARP members get discounts, for example, as do students and children. There is also a North American Rail Pass for one month's use - allowing travellers to ride coach throughout both the US and Canada (given that the pass is in association with Canadian rail, part of your trip has to be somewhere in Canada.
All of this seems like a lot, but it's simply all suggestions on how to "optimize" the Amtrak experience. And it is a good experience - something that I still think everyone should try. It's an especially great way for people both young and old to see the country.