How to Travel on Amtrak with the USA Rail Pass: 4 Brief Lessons

The concept of the Amtrak Rail Pass is simple: for $499 (or less, if you happen to catch a sale), you get “10 rides… over 30 days to your choice of over 500 destinations.” Planning your route is slightly more complicated, but this post will give you some basic knowledge and tips that should make the process easier and help you to get the most out of your pass. Currently, I’m in the process of planning my third long trip via rail pass, and though things have changed a lot since I got my first pass in 2009, the lessons I learned on those first two trips were invaluable when it came time to plan this one.

Lesson 1: Segments and Train Routes

Amtrak refers to each of your 10 rides as a segment. Again, the concept is simple, but when you factor train routes into that concept, things become more complicated. Amtrak has more than 30 train routes, and if Point A and Point B are not on the same route, you will have to switch trains, using up multiple segments. Let’s use the trip I’m currently planning as an example.

I’ll be leaving from Fayetteville, North Carolina (my Point A). Having taken all of the other major routes in the West on previous trips (the California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle, Heartland Flyer, Sunset Limited, and Coast Starlight), I have my sights set this time on the Empire Builder, a route that runs from Chicago to Portland or Seattle with many stops in between. On the map below, it’s the northernmost route across middle America:

https://www.amtrak.com/content/dam/projects/dotcom/english/public/documents/Maps/Amtrak-System-Map-1018.pdf

If you’re traveling east to west, the Empire Builder route begins in Chicago, but since I have visited the Windy City many times already, I think I’ll skip it. My friend Cecy is joining me on this trip, and since she’s never been to Wisconsin, we decided we wanted to make our first stop in Milwaukee (Point B). The issue is that there is no direct Amtrak route from Fayetteville to Milwaukee, so in order to make the trip, we would have to change trains, using multiple segments.

In order to figure out how many segments you would need to travel between two destinations, you can download the Amtrak app, click the “Book” icon at the bottom of the screen, and type in your departure and arrival cities, as well as the date you want to travel. You can see that the search results below on the right indicate that you would have to take multiple trains between Fayetteville and Milwaukee, and the solid blue circle indicates the exact number of trains: in this case, 3–for a total of 3 segments. Please note that you can get the same information through the Amtrak website if you prefer websites to apps.

In the scenario outlined above, Cecy and I would have to travel from Fayetteville to Washington, D.C. on the Silver Meteor (segment 1), from Washington D.C. to Chicago on the Cardinal (segment 2), and from Chicago to Milwaukee on the Empire Builder or Hiawatha Service (segment 3). That would be great if we wanted to hop off the train and explore D.C. or Chicago, but I’ve already spent a lot of time in both cities. So that brings me to…

Lesson 2: Supplemental Forms of Transportation

Rather than eat up 3/10 segments getting from Point A to Point B, Cecy and I decided to get a couple of cheap, one-way plane tickets from North Carolina to Wisconsin. We’d gotten our rail passes on sale for $299, so the extra expenditure wasn’t prohibitive for either of us, especially considering we’d decided to save on accommodations by staying with various friends and Couchsurfing (but more on that in a later post). After much contemplation and browsing around, we decided to fly from Raleigh to Green Bay so that we could visit Door County, which I’ve been curious about ever since reading a description many years ago in John Villani’s 100 Best Small Art Towns in America. The plan is that we’ll spend a few days exploring communities along the Lake Michigan shoreline and then bus down to Milwaukee to begin traveling with our rail passes.

In addition to using supplemental forms of travel in scenarios like the one described above, you should also consider employing this method any time you’re traveling between two destinations that aren’t very far apart (e.g., Boston and New York). Keep in mind that if you pay full price for the rail pass, you’re basically paying $50 for each segment, so if you can avoid it, you don’t want to waste a segment on a short trip like Boston to New York, which right now would cost you only $29 a la carte on Amtrak and may be even more inexpensive by bus. Moreover, you don’t have to pick up where you left off, so even if segment 1 is Chicago to Boston, segment 2 can be New York to Miami.

Lesson 3: Arrival and Departure Times

When it comes to arrival and departure times, there are a couple of things you need to know: the first is that the timing of arrivals and departures may be inconvenient in some places, and the second is that for all the magical romanticism that comes along with traveling by train, delays are likely.

On a few occasions, I’ve taken the Amtrak from Fayetteville to Washington D.C. or New York City when the only available option was the Silver Meteor departing at 12:37 AM. The Palmetto is another train that travels north at more convenient times, but it sells out more quickly and experiences occasional service disruptions. I am familiar enough with Fayetteville to feel comfortable hanging out at the train station past midnight, but there have been times when 12:37 AM turned into 3:30 AM because of delays. You should also keep in mind that with the rail pass, you’re traveling in coach, and there is currently no option to upgrade to a sleeper car; the seats recline generously, but they’re not beds. I’ve figured out ways to make it work overnight (eye masks and earplugs or headphones help, for instance), but my sleep has not always been the best.

When it comes to inconvenient arrival times, I once had a trip scheduled on the Coast Starlight (perhaps the most gorgeous route I’ve taken to date) from Los Angeles to Martinez, CA (not far from San Francisco), arriving a little past 10 PM. When my Couchsurfing host in L.A. found out about the arrival time, though, he recommend that I make an earlier stop in San Jose instead. I was traveling alone, was scheduled to arrive after dark, and was unfamiliar with Martinez. I later visited the Martinez station during daylight hours and felt totally safe, but I still don’t know what it’s like after dark. In any case, I appreciated my host’s concern for my safety, took his advice, and stopped for the night in San Jose before heading up to San Francisco.

My view from the Coast Starlight during my trip in 2017

The last little snippet I’ll share happened in 2017 when I was traveling between Lawrence, Kansas and Albuquerque, New Mexico on the Sunset Limited, another gorgeous route during which a park ranger occasionally comes to the observation deck as you’re traveling through the desert to tell passengers about the cacti and whatnot. I don’t remember exactly what time I was scheduled to arrive, but I think I was something like eight hours behind schedule on account of a late departure and hot rails in the desert that made the train slow to a crawl.

My philosophy on train delays is that they keep things interesting and make me think on my feet, but if you’re not someone who enjoys modifying your plans as you go, you may want to consider another mode of transportation.

Lesson #4: Change of Plans

While train delays may occasionally force you to modify your plans, one of the lovely things about traveling with a rail pass is that Amtrak allows you to make changes to your route after you’ve booked your trip without incurring a penalty. During my trip in 2017, for instance, a couple of people I crossed paths with along my way described Pittsburgh in such a manner that made me want to drop everything and go straight to this city I’d never previously had any interest in. And I was able to do just that!

I think that technically, you are required to make the changes before the train is scheduled to depart, but I will say that in at least one instance, I was able to call customer support while I was actually on a train and modify my destination city. I don’t think it’s Amtrak’s policy to allow people to make modifications once a trip is underway, but if you have an extenuating circumstance of some kind, it’s possible that an agent could make an exception. I don’t think that goes for missed trains, though. If you miss a train and didn’t make modifications to your trip before it was scheduled to depart, it will cost you a segment.

Choo-Choo!

I took this photo on my last major Amtrak trip during the summer of 2017. I’m pretty sure it’s the Portland, Oregon Amtrak station, but feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m mis-remembering.

It’s been several years since I’ve kept up with my website in any kind of meaningful way, but since so much has changed for me in the last year–and since I’m about to embark on yet another epic train trip (this time to try and decide upon a new place to call home)–I thought this would be an opportune time to begin chronicling my journeys again. Recently, I was laid off from my job as an English professor at a small, private, liberal arts institution in the Southeast. I had deep roots there. In addition to being my employer for the last eleven years, it was my undergraduate alma mater. I love teaching and know I will miss my students dearly, but I also feel like my layoff may have been just the push out the door I needed. A variety of factors like declining enrollments and other difficulties posed by the pandemic have made this a dire time for many in academia. Having been a contingent, yearly-contract faculty member, I was one of the first to go when cuts were being made. In fact, seven out of the ten professors in my department were laid off, as well as a few non-tenure-track professors in other departments. We called ourselves the Monday Massacre Club on account of the Monday afternoon email we all received informing us of our impending termination. When I first finished skimming that email, I felt an unexpected, somewhat perverse wave of exhilaration at the realization I would no longer have a job tying me to my current home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I could move, finally: something I had wanted to do for a long time. Granted, I spent the majority of the next day crying on the couch; after all, I loved teaching, and even though Fayetteville has never quite felt like home, my sisters, nieces, and nephew are all nearby. Being here has enabled me to be close to them. But even in the midst of the shock, financial anxiety, and disappointment, I felt an undeniable sense of possibility. Plus the layoff wouldn’t be official until the end of the spring semester, so I was fortunate in the sense that I had some time to plan.

One of my deepest sources of disappointment upon hearing the news was the fact that I’d recently made some significant professional strides that my layoff threatened to undo: after a decade of teaching first-year composition almost exclusively, I’d finally been given creative writing classes, and I’d also taken over Longleaf Press, a literary nonprofit that had been founded in the 90’s by Robin Greene and Michael Colonnese, my undergraduate mentors, who later became my friends and colleagues. Michael and Robin retired from the university in the spring of 2020, when the reality of the pandemic was setting in, and in October, I hosted a virtual poetry reading in their honor. A little over a month later, when I found out about my layoff, I had just begun working on my first publication as editor-in-chief, a beautiful poetry collection by Crystal Simone Smith entitled Down to Earth. Since the press had operated under the umbrella of the university’s nonprofit status since its inception, I didn’t know what would become of it once I lost my job.

There were some minor technical difficulties early on (trickster energy, as Sandy Yannone called it), so the event actually begins about five minutes into the recording.

My connection to the press began in 2007, when I worked as an undergraduate intern on the publication of Roger Weingarten‘s Premature Elegy by Firelight, so my attachment to Longleaf was longstanding and deep. I wanted to preserve my mentors’ legacy and felt it would be a disservice to all of the authors whose work we had published over the years if I were to let the press fold or hand it off to someone who didn’t know it as well as I did or care about it as much. So I figured it was worth a shot: I asked to take the press with me when I left the university, and to my delight and surprise, the administration agreed.

For the last several months, I have been working to not just preserve but expand the press, and one of the lovely, unexpected blessings to come out of all of this is that it has given me a chance to work again alongside Mike and Robin, as well as Roger, and another poet named George Rawlins, whose fantastic collection, Cheapside Afterlife, is forthcoming from Longleaf. We’re re-incorporating as an independent nonprofit and re-envisioning the possibilities now that we’re transitioning away from the university and going out on our own. Whereas we previously operated as a regional publisher of authors in the Southeast, we’re now opening submissions for our full-length poetry book contest to anyone writing in English. We’re also hoping to house the press eventually within a community-integrated arts center of some kind, and toward that aim, I’m looking for an arts-oriented town or city to which to relocate.

I found out a few days ago that Amtrak was running a sale on 30-day rail passes for $299, so to those who know me, it will come as no surprise that I’ve decided to scout out possible locations by train. I just bought the pass and will be planning out my route during the next couple of weeks.

The last time I took a trip like this was in 2017, when I spent a summer backpacking solo via Amtrak and Couchsurfing my way cross-country to and from a residency at Willapa Bay AIR. I’ve often wished I had blogged about that trip, so I’ve decided to do so this time around. Stay tuned to hear updates about my trip and the press. Long live Longleaf!

Couch Surfing My Way Cross-Country

I heard passing mention of couch surfing about six months ago on the Indie Travel Podcast, but I didn’t know much about it. Then, when I was budgeting for the West-to-East-Coast portion of my trip, I realized that I was going to need to find very inexpensive—or, better yet, free—accommodations along the way if I was going to be able to afford to park my car and eat for the week I’m spending with a friend in New York City before my next residency in Saratoga Springs begins. I thought about car camping, but then I remembered couch surfing and decided to Google it.

Obviously, as a woman traveling alone, I am conscious of safety, and while I understand that very little of life is completely risk-free, I didn’t want to crash with just any random stranger. Couchsurfing.org is set up very smartly, though, so that both the hosts and the travelers create profiles about themselves and leave reviews about their experiences with each other. So I found profiles that had good reviews—especially from women traveling alone—and I sent requests to crash for a night with hosts in Kalispell, Montana and Dickinson, North Dakota. The hosts then had the opportunity to review my message and my profile before they said, “Sure, come on by!” or “Sorry, I’m out of town!” or “Tomorrow is no good. Sorry!” Luckily, I was able to find hosts in both locations with only about forty-eight hours’ notice.  

My experiences have been incredible. I have been so astonished by the kindness and hospitality of these people who are willing to share their homes with total strangers. The best part, based on my admittedly limited experience so far, is that there seems to be this couch-surfing code whereby you arrive early enough to sit around, share some stories, and get to know each other a little bit. I daresay I’ve even made some pretty fantastic friends.

Since my house back in North Carolina was robbed a couple of weeks ago, I’ve had these nagging feelings that the world can be such a lousy place, and that’s true. It can be. But then I find people like the ones I’ve met over the last few days, and I remember that it can also be damn cool.

I also visited Glacier National Park, which was gorgeous, and will post some pictures soon, when I get to my next stop (Minneapolis with a dear friend I met last year at The Anderson Center). For the next five or six hours though, I will be driving down I-94, basking in this incredibly green countryside, wide open as my heart. 

Walking the Vera Wagner Memorial Labyrinth, in Tribute to Elspeth Pope

On May 18, I arrive at the Holly House in Shelton, Washington, about an hour and a half south of Seattle, down a long, gravel drive shaded by grand, impossibly green cedars and maples and oaks, all draped in a fine filigree of moss. I am so grateful to have been granted a month-long writing residency here by the very generous organization, Hypatia-in-the-Woods. Approaching the cabin, I pass a pebbled labyrinth that winds through the late Jim Holly’s orchard, a small meadow hedged in by blackberry brambles and dotted with a few pear, cherry, and apple trees. A wooden box at the entrance contains pamphlets describing the spiritual tradition of walking the labyrinth as a mirror of our lives’ journeys.

I am reminded of a book I have just picked up, Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior. “The sun and moon are eternal travelers,” it begins. “Even the years wander on.” I am greeted warmly by the writers Carolyn Maddux and Marilyn Vogler, but I do not have an opportunity to meet the director, Elspeth Pope, who during the previous week, while I was winding my way cross-country, checked herself into hospice.

Bashō’s opening paragraph continues:

A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still, I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.

The night I arrive, Elspeth passes, so this time, it seems I have wandered into someone’s death. It feels as if I am arriving as the curtain falls on a great play—one I have never seen—the audience still standing in reverential ovation, then shuffling out slowly and leaving me alone with the set: a charming cabin in the woods alongside the house of a generous scholar who made it her mission to provide other women with a creative sanctuary. The stage is still cast in the quiet spell of its absent heroine, and I am surrounded by what she left behind: shelves of books inscribed with heartfelt thanks, paintings, a sculpture, various drawings and prints, journals penned full of poems, musings, and sketches from previous residents, and a handmade box filled with remembrances of those who helped her create this place. A soft, but almost constant rain, chimes through the trees for the next two weeks, shedding white petals from the blackberry brambles and swelling the fruit to a deep red on its way to sweet.

Travelogue, 05/18/2013: Portland, OR

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I don’t know if I could stay forever in Portland, but I would definitely try it out for a year or two. We had dreary weather, but people were dressed so brightly, and the smell of wood smoke carried through the streets, which were lined with giant calla lilies and great, drooping peonies. We visited Powell’s City of Books—a blissful place—and I drank chai and browsed through shelves and shelves and shelves of excellent poetry. Bought a bunch. Wanted to buy more.

I picked up was my dear friend Sheila’s new fiction book, Keeping Safe the Stars. I don’t read much children’s lit these days, but Sheila’s work is really special. Last summer, I picked up Sparrow Road, a book about a girl who lives for a summer with her mother at an artists’ colony (the setting is loosely based on the Anderson Center, where I met Sheila), and I was totally enchanted.

After reluctantly pushing ourselves out back out into the daylight, Ally and I visited the Japanese gardens and spent awhile admiring the meticulously-sculpted shrubs and trees and the way the reflections all wavered in the koi ponds.

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Being Called a Twat on an Otherwise Lovely Day: Travelogue 5/17, Yellowstone to Boise

We had an uneventful night in Cody and moved on the next morning through Shoshone National Forest into Yellowstone. Exposed rock rose up dramatically along the Sylvan Pass, and as if right on cue, the bison, still shedding their winter coats, appeared along the road just as we reached the park:

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Much of the forest near the east entrance had been damaged badly by fire, but the melting snow made stunning cascades down the rocks, and the distant mountains provided a lovely backdrop for Yellowstone Lake, still an expansive, slushy pool of ice in mid-May:

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On down the road, we stopped at some geysers and discovered Dragon’s Mouth Spring, a rock-cave that belches sulfur-scented steam and waves of boiling water. I saw on a documentary once that no one believed the descriptions of those who first discovered Yellowstone, and I can totally see why not. It’s totally other-worldly. We continued on to a lovely view of the Lower Falls at Artists’ Point:

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As the name promised, there was a painter perched on a stool nearby, trying to capture the colors of the falls with his oils.

We exited the park into Montana, where I was promptly accosted by a woman behind the counter at Kiwi’s Takeaway. I’d been sitting there for about five minutes while she was attending to some other customers, and I decided that while I waited, I would iron out the route to Boise on my smart phone. She eventually approached and said to Ally, “I’ll take your order, but she’ll have to email me hers.” Haha, I thought, putting my cell phone away to indicate I hadn’t planned on sitting there and fiddling with it while she was trying to take our order. (I worked in restaurants for ten years and know how annoying those people are.) I looked up and smiled, but she didn’t take the clue–just glared and proceeded to yell about how rude I was being. Not in the mood for a fight, I just shrugged, said, “Nevermind,” and gathered my things to leave. (I certainly wasn’t going let her anywhere near my food after that.)  As I was on my way out, she yelled behind me, “Enjoy your Twitter, twat!” –which I admit was amusingly alliterative. Still, I hope some local hooligans vandalize her restaurant, and she is forced to spend a whole Sunday sandblasting spray-paint vaginas off her building. So much for beauty.

 

Travelogue 05/16/2013: Scenic, SD to Cody, WY

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This morning, I had perhaps the best breakfast of my life— fresh scrambled farm eggs, homemade apple cinnamon dumplings, a strawberry salad, homemade granola with yogurt, and blueberry pancakes made from wheat grown by our host’s brother—all prepared by Amy, one of the proprietors of the Circle View Ranch.

Over breakfast, Phil, the other proprietor, described Scenic, the all-but-abandoned town just up the road. In the 60’s, Scenic was renowned for the brawls that broke out at the saloon, but slowly, everyone had died or moved away until no one was left. The whole town then went on the market and was sold to a church in the Philippines for $900,000. Now one couple lives there and sells odds and ends (but no gas) out of the old gas station.

On our way toward Yellowstone, Ally and I stopped there and had a lot of fun creeping around the squat-roofed, stone jailhouse and snapping pictures of the saloon, which had strung across its roof many strands of sun-bleached animal skulls, coils of barbed wire, and a sign that, for years, had read “No Indians Allowed,” until someone finally got enough sense to climb up there and paint over the “No.” Next to the saloon was an open-air cell with a couple of rusty bed frames. I bet that place saw its share of soul-splitting headaches:

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By evening, the landscape had changed dramatically as the clouds’ shadows slid like butter over the mountains and valleys of Montana. On our way to Cody, where we stopped for the night, we drove through the Bighorn National Forest, and the shadowier hilltop roads were still lined with snow.

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Travelogue, 05/15/2013: Scenes from Scenic, South Dakota

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Tonight, we are staying in an 1880 homestead cabin (sans electricity) a few miles outside of Badlands National Park. It is stunning here. We built a fire, watched the sunset, and looked up at the stars until the coyotes erupted in this frantic chatter that kept seeming to get louder and closer. Nothing like a night on the prairie to electrify the senses. Before the coyotes, though, Ally treated me to her own rendition of Von Gluck’s “O del Mio Dulce Ador,” which was both eerie and beautiful to hear among all the flickering stars.

This is among the creepier places I’ve stayed, for sure, but I like it all the more for that. Earlier, after we checked in at the ranch, we were driving down this dusty gulch to our cabin when a very elderly man with watery blue eyes flagged us down and asked what we were doing. He put his hand on Ally’s door like he was going to open it, and to be honest, I was relieved when I saw that the door was locked. We explained that we had already checked in and were just on our way down to our cabin (it was obvious which one), and he said, “Oh, I don’t want to stay there.” I realized then that he was confused and told him I thought there was a misunderstanding—that he wasn’t staying there, we were—and I asked him who he was looking for. “I’m just looking for something to do,” he said.

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