Traveling Amtrak overnight in a coach-class seat is never going to equal the glamour of the Orient Express.
It’s about watching the sunset behind Nevada’s sandstone mountains. Catching sight of Utah’s spectacular buttes while cuddling beneath a blanket. Or listening to your favorite Boss tunes while taking in Iowa’s quaint small towns.
Sure, there will likely be delays. Will you sleep well? Probably not. However, that's not what coach is about. Here’s the perfect cheatsheet for planning accordingly.
As a U.S train traveler with numerous cross country coach-class trips under my belt, there’s one thing I can say for sure: Amtrak isn't quick, but it's an experience that's well worth it. Yes, you may be meandering across the country at an average of 30 miles an hour.
But with impromptu stops and less-than-perfect sleeping arrangements, how do you make the most of a coach-class money-saving adventure?
Logistics, seating and baggage
It’s possible to ride coast-to-coast and go from shining sea to shining sea on Amtrak, although Chicago will be the the start/end point for cross-country routes like the California Zephyr (to/from SF Bay Area), Empire Builder (to/from Portland/Seattle), and the Southwest Chief (to/from Los Angeles).
Once there, passengers will have to transfer trains to their final East Coast destination.
Currently, there are no change fees to reservations made by September 6, 2021, meaning if you’re having a blast in Denver with friends, feel free to stay put a little longer. Just remember many of Amtrak’s trains are operating on limited (tri-weekly) schedules, including those mentioned above.
Passengers can check up to two pieces of luggage at 50 pounds each without a fee. If you go over that weight, though, station employees will make you take out the excess and carry it onboard. It’s not a huge deal, since passengers are already allowed two carry-ons and two personal items as well.
(Quite not like boarding a flight but in a good way! Seriously, if you’re baggage heavy, a train is the way to go.)
Cross country railcars are double-decker, with both upper and lower levels. The majority of passengers choose to sit on the upper level. The views are more expansive here and the choose of seating more varied (while the lower level is split between seating, boarding and lavatories). Access to the other railcars is also on the upper-floor only.
Lavatories are as cramped as those on airplanes (and often just as messy). Let the Amtrak crew know of anything foul before it gets too nasty. Each car also has a downstairs ‘dressing room’ for brushing teeth, putting on makeup, and changing, though they’re currently women-only.
There is absolutely no smoking on trains, and ‘smoke stops’ ultimately depend on whether the train is running on time or if they need to forgo them to make up the miles. Still, there’s usually an opportunity to step outside and stretch your legs at least a couple times a day.
Something interesting yet important: Amtrak only owns 3% of the 21,400 miles of tracks it runs on. Freight railroads own the rest, and they have the right of way. Waiting for freight trains to pass can be a common occurrence. This means a train might be sitting still for a half-hour or more, even if you’re not at a stop. Frustrating yes, but ultimately it’s part of the experience.
The ultimate overnight strategy
If the train is open seating (as opposed to reserved seating), look for a window seat with an unobstructed view.
It may also be wise to steer clear of the front and back of the railcar, because the doors between cars can be noisy. The lights above these doors stay fully illuminated at night, even when the rest of the train’s lights are turned down.
Though the midsection of each railcar is closest to the stairs (and therefore, the restrooms and drinking water), it can also be a little loud.
But don’t overthink it. Wherever you sit, the person across from you might snore like a lion, or start chatting with their seat neighbor until 2 a.m.. So, decide what seat looks best to you, and take it. Most of the time, you can change seats later if things aren’t working out.
There are no middle seats on Amtrak.
Due to the pandemic, solo travelers currently get the seat next to them free as well. This means there’s plenty of room to spread out, and even sleep horizontally if you like.
Don’t count on great Wi-Fi, if it even exists, on Amtrak’s overnight trains. This helps make the trip feel more like a holiday, to the annoyance of some travelers, but ultimately helps passengers focus on the scenery rather than themselves. Still, if you’re planning on watching movies a device, download them beforehand (this goes for podcasts too, since cell coverage is spotty).
Remember to bring along earphones. Your seat neighbors will thank you. I promise.
Onboard filtration systems provide a fresh air exchange every four or five minutes. However, the railcars do get pretty cold pretty quickly. Have layers handy.
The train’s observation car (a.k.a. sightseer lounge) is open to all passengers. It’s a first-come, first-serve seating space with floor-to-ceiling windows, and a range of both comfy booths and rotating, cushioned chairs on either side.
Every other booth is currently sectioned off to assure six-feet distance.
Still, on my recent trip aboard the California Zephyr from Emeryville CA to Denver CO, the car had plenty of open seating.
For the time of the pandemic, the dining car is only open to sleep car passengers (this should change by June 1). It has food you’d actually want to eat (like shrimp in lobster sauce, though I’m still not sure what that is). Either way, it’s a huge bummer, for sure.
The general café is open to all passengers on the observation car’s lower level, but it serves up the kind of cuisine you’d find in a high-school cafeteria: Microwaveable pizzas, hot dogs, ramen Cup Noodles and cheeseburgers. You won’t feel good about eating here, but the beer, wine, cocktails, and soft drinks do help to wash it all down.
Plus, there’s coffee and pastries to help start your day (it’s something!).
FYI: Amtrak is currently credit cards only, so forgo the cash and carry a little plastic instead.
Face masks are currently mandatory in coach. This means in your seat, when you’re sleeping... anytime you’re not actively eating or drinking. It’s also strictly enforced (and for good reason), so just wear the damn thing. Basically all the time.
Elevating the coach experience
How do you make an overnight in Amtrak coach worthwhile? Treat it like a vacation.
Pack some healthier snacks to ward off any café-car guilt. Mandarin oranges, beef jerky, granola bars, crackers, and cheeses that do well without refrigerating, like Parmigiano Reggiano or hard cheddar, are all good choices.
One couple even brought their own checkered tablecloth to put over the table in an observation car booth. Keep snacks in resealable storage bags or place them directly inside your backpack, but please, please avoid using plastic bags. Every time a plastic bag crinkles, especially at night, it annoys every single person who hears it.
It also pays, somewhat literally, to bring along your own water bottle, which you can refill at the railcar's potable water dispenser on the upper level.
Most seats—other than those at the very front of each railcar—have fold-down trays for eating, drinking, playing cards, etc...
The seats also recline relatively far and there's a leg rest that rises, turning coach into a sort of airplane “business class” for sleeping. Not ideal, but it'll do.
Face it: You’re not going to get the best night's sleep in coach, but you can make the best of it. Dress comfortably, bring along an easy-to-pack blanket and a pillow for a better night's rest (I just stuffed my puffy jacket into a pillowcase). Carry earplugs.
Trains do make stops throughout the night but if the lights outside are too bright it’s also possible to pull the window curtain. Just be aware that if there's someone behind you they might prefer having their curtain open, light can still get in. Sleep mask, anyone?
There are charging stations at each seat, so remember to bring your phone’s cord (with plug). Books or magazines can also help break the time. Though if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend the bulk of your days staring aimlessly out the window. Cross country Amtrak trips are also a great place to practice those iPhone pics.
Here is my list of must-have carry-on items:
- Pillow and/or pillowcase (which you can stuff with a puffy jacket for a makeshift pillow)
- Pajamas or comfy clothes to sleep in
- Change of underwear/clothes
- Slippers or cozy socks (for when you're at your seat)
- Sleep mask
- Gum and/or breath mints
- Wet naps (both for wiping down the seat and yourself)
- Noise-cancelling headphones and/or earplugs
- Playing cards
- Book (or three)
- Journal and pen
- Reusable water bottle