Amtrak Train Travel
Traveling by Amtrak for the First Time
Wondering what to expect on your first train trip? We did too! My daughter and I recently traveled by Amtrak Train. We weren't sure what to expect or exactly how things would go so we kept a record of all that happened so we could share it here with you. We learned many things and hope this article will help other first time train travelers with their first train trip.
To be a little more accurate, this was indeed my daughter's first train trip and my first travel by train in 25 years. Since I don't remember much of that trip so many years ago and considering how all things change over time, it certainly felt like my first trip.
This Amtrak train photo used under Creative Commons from Flickr
How do you spell it? Amtrak not Amtrak!
There is no letter "c" in the name
After studying up for this article, I came across some information where it was noted that most people spell Amtrak incorrectly as Amtrak. Notice it ends in "k" not "ck". I typed this incorrectly myself when we first started thinking about taking the train. Just remember when you search for Amtrak, do not spell it with a "c". If you type it incorrectly into the web address, you will get what I call a "fake website" that will lead you to all sorts of other fake websites. Be careful when you type the name.
...my mom said
"Why don't you take the train?"
What a great question.
Why wouldn't we?
Making the decision to take the train
Drive our van vs. Ride the train
We would be traveling from St. Augustine, Florida to Columbia, SC (east coast of the US) and back again for a wedding. Here's a map that shows the Amtrak train route from Jacksonville to Columbia (we departed from Jacksonville because there is no train station in St. Augustine).
We decided on our approximate travel dates and spoke with family to confirm our trip when my mom said "Why don't you take the train?" What a great question. Why wouldn't we? We decided right then to look into it. We would weigh the cost of gas, wear and tear on our vehicle and the convenience of riding instead of driving for the 6-7 hour trip.
Traveling by car is 340 miles one way. Doing some quick math, the cost of gas alone would be about $90.00 round trip. The cost of round trip train tickets (coach class) was $156. It's important to note here that had I booked the tickets a few days earlier, the fare would have been only $135.00. There's more to say about getting the best price on tickets later in this article.
We decided for the train!
Buying the train tickets - Getting the BEST deal
Amtrak has a great website and I highly recommend buying your tickets online. At Amtrak.com you type in cities, dates and number of passengers and presto they give you a schedule and a price. The middle of the week seems to be cheaper than the weekends. And buying your tickets several days in advance gives you the best prices. Plug in different dates on the Amtrak Fare Finder and see what I mean.
You can have the tickets mailed to you, or if there's not enough time to mail them, you will be prompted to print out a confirmation page with a reservation number (that's what we had to do). I've included a picture here to show what the confirmation page looks like. Keep this and take it with you to the train station*. Hand over your confirmation page at the ticket office (or scan at the Quik-Trak machine) and you will receive your tickets. Here's a gentleman getting his tickets at the ticket office. *But remember there is NO TICKET OFFICE at remote unstaffed stations.
Be sure to check out the Passenger Discount section on Step 2 of the online reservation process. There are discounts available to AAA members, military, children, seniors (62+) and more.
I was impressed by this: When the fare is calculated online there are no extra charges tacked on at the end! $156 was $156 period. No bells and whistles and taxes and surcharges and this charge and that charge. It was exactly what was calculated and no more.
*This doesn't apply for unmanned stations! It gets a little complicated if you are boarding the train from a "platform" (meaning there are no service personnel). In this case, they will always mail the ticket to you OR if there is not enough time, you will be prompted to call Amtrak and get a "code" which you MUST HAVE to board the train. You will then PAY ON THE TRAIN!
Which stations will we use?
We had an important choice to make
For our departure we learned that there is no Amtrak station in St. Augustine, Florida!* Well, who knew? So we searched for the next closest station...and there are two of them. The closest one is in Palatka, Florida (25 miles away), and the next closest one is in Jacksonville, Florida (40 miles away). We chose to depart from Jacksonville...but why did we choose the station that is much farther away? There is an important reason so listen carefully. NOT ALL AMTRAK STATIONS ARE STAFFED. That is to say, some are only
platforms in the middle of what seems like nowhere.
Here's the description of the Palatka Station Services: No Station Hours, No Ticket Office Hours, No Quik-Trak Hours, No Checked Baggage Hours, No Help With Baggage, No Shelter.
Now this may have been fine if we were experienced train travelers, but not for our first trip. Matter of fact, now that we know what to expect we may depart from Palatka in the future. I wouldn't recommend learning the ins and outs of traveling by train at an unstaffed platform.
As for our arrival, there is a station in Columbia, SC very near our destination. No decisions to make there.
Here's a link to find an Amtrak station near you: Amtrak Train Stations
*Update: Our local newspaper reported on 8/19/2009, "Within three years, Oldest City residents could very well be able to hop an Amtrak commuter passenger train and get off at any city along Florida's Atlantic coast." We may be getting a station in St. Augustine after all.
*Update: I've now read that a tract of land has been chosen for the train station site. It's only 2 miles from my house!
This Amtrak train station photo used under Creative Commons from Flickr
How many bags can we take? - And can we carry them on?
If your suitcases are bigger and/or you have more than 2 per person, you'll need to check your baggage at the station. The picture in the lower right shows people checking their luggage for the trip. Check out those details at the Amtrak website: Amtrak Baggage Details
You'll have to think about whether or not you want to carry-on or check your baggage. For us, I preferred carry-ons for a few reasons and it worked out fine. We simply stored our carry-on suitcases above our seats while in route.
Amtrak has a rewards program!
Earn and redeem points for free Amtrak travel and more.
Amtrak Guest Rewards
We arrived at the station too umm...early!
Our train was to leave Jacksonville at 10:57 pm. I allowed for travel time to the station (1 hour). And I figured I should allow one extra hour for waiting in lines.
I'll know better next time! We sat in the waiting area for an hour. Here's a picture of the empty train station. Waiting...waiting...waiting. We WILL NOT do this again. Next time I'm going to allow only 20 minutes extra.
NOTE: My new 20 minute rule won't apply if I am checking baggage or traveling during a holiday rush.
*The information provided in this article was current at the time I traveled. If you have specific questions or need to confirm any information for your specific train route or train car, use the link below to check out Amtrak's website.
- Official Amtrak Website
Every single thing you want to know about taking the train. Play around with the Fare Finder and see how much it will cost to go places. Why not?
- AAA Travel
This link will prompt you enter your zip code and direct you to your local club. Joining AAA will give you a discount at Amtrak. Check out the prices to join (if you aren't already a member) and membership may pay for itself.
- Rail Europe
If you are more interested in traveling Europe by rail, this link is for you.
- How to Ride European Trains
A little more about riding trains in Europe. Lots of practical information and personal experiences.
When it was our turn to board, I informed the conductor "Two to Columbia". He flipped his seating charts over and over and sighed. He checked them again, hesitated and said, "Seats 59 and 60." Humm, I wondered...What's the problem? Why doesn't he want to give us those seats? Why did he hesitate? Well, it was soon very clear.
Imagine a train car. Two seats on either side of a middle aisle. All seats have windows etc. Did I just say all seats have windows? Wrong! The first set of seats at the very front of the train car DO NOT HAVE WINDOWS! These very seats were the seats assigned to us.
Not only did we not have a window, we were staring at a wall covered in brown carpet. And because we were at the front of the car, a bright light above us lighted the doorway. Trying to sleep with this bright light was a challenge and I ended up putting on my sunglasses hoping it would help. You can see the bright light and the brown carpeted wall in this picture.
We must have looked pathetic trying to get comfortable in those seats, because the conductor came by and tried to cover that light with an Amtrak brochure. Bless his heart. When it didn't work he promised to move us at the next stop (Savannah, GA). And he did. YAY!
I originally thought our new seats were in some sort of upgraded accommodation, but soon realized they were just "regular" coach seats. The new seats were a major improvement and we were able to get some sleep.
Look at the nice big window at our new seats!
Train Travel Checklist
Don't leave home without these items
1. Train tickets! If you ordered your tickets to be delivered through the mail, you will receive your actual train tickets from Amtrak. If you purchased them online and are picking them up at the station, be sure to take your Confirmation printout with you! If you are boarding from an unstaffed station and didn't have time to have your tickets mailed to you - you will HAVE TO HAVE your special code Amtrak provided.
2. Light weight blanket! I had no idea we would want some sort of blanket for the train ride. The train can get chilly and if you sleep on the train, you will want one for covering up. See the link below for the perfect blanket/pillow for a train ride.
3. Pillow. Amtrak will provide you with a pillow that measures about 18" x 10" and is about an inch thick. I'm not being ungrateful, but just want to give you a heads up that you will want your own larger, thicker pillow.
4. MP3 player. I highly recommend an MP3 player for your trip. My daughter brought her MP3 player and used it several times. Since we traveled at night (dark outside), both on our way to South Carolina and on our way home to Florida, there wasn't much to see and she enjoyed taking along some music.
5. Crossword puzzles or a notepad. No reason to let that travel time go to waste. On the back of the seat in front of you, there will be a flip-down adjustable table. You simply release the switch and you'll have a simple desk.
6. Water and a few snacks. Carry these in a tote bag and they will not count as carry-on luggage. On our trip up to South Carolina (first half of the trip) we ran out of bottled water! So we decided to walk down to the dining car to purchase something to drink. Little did we know the snack area had already closed for the night. Don't run out of something to drink like we did.
Great trip and now we are headed home.
More personal stories of Amtrak train trips - Adding here as I find similar stories of train tavel
*If YOU have blogged about a train trip, please let me know in the guestbook. I will add a link to your blog to offer a good variety of people's experiences on train travel.
- Taking a Train Across the Country (United States)
Ryan stopped by and said hello in the guestbook. He has a blog where he chronicled a trip across the US. Check it out. His story is in two parts. He gives colorful descriptions of some of the folks he meets along the way.
Did you have a good experience?