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!