Amtrak and Amtrak Vacation Packages
There are Amtrak vacation packages available as well as a number of private operators who offer exclusive and luxurious packages on private passenger trains. U.S. may be the land of the car, but it also one of the greatest countries in the world to be explored by passenger train.
Most tourists and travelers experience America by rail onboard the trains of the state owned and subsidized Amtrak. To view some available all inclusive Amtrak vacation packages departing from London .
Before setting out on a railroad adventure around America, it is worth understanding the precarious situation in which Amtrak exists today. Somewhere between being a private and a public company (all of Amtrak's preferential shares are owned by the U.S. Government) Amtrak has to provide both a public service and seek to remain profitable as a competitive mode of transport and through organized Amtrak vacation packages. Furthermore, Amtrak was organized to handle intercity passenger trains in the USA. Municipalities, or regional government entities, operate commuter trains. At present, Amtrak is the only operator of regularly scheduled intercity trains in the USA. Despite increasing ridership (driven by rising gasoline prices and the increasing inconvenience of airline security measures), Amtrak is dependent on more than a billion US dollars per year in hard-won government funding.
Amtrak's financial situation is not its only problem. While tens of thousands of kilometers of railroads criss-cross the North American continent, virtually all the lines that Amtrak uses are owned and maintained by private freight companies. While Amtrak has a legal right to be given priority over freight trains, in many instances Amtrak services are disrupted due to freight trains which have been given priority over them. Many rail lines are not double-tracked, and passing places are often few and far between.
With the exception of the Amtrak-owned-and-maintained Northeast Corridor (between Boston Massachusetts, New York, Philadelphia Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.) and some service around Chicago, Amtrak services are substantially slower, less reliable, and less frequent than those of virtually every other developed nation in the world. And yet they remain popular with many travelers because of the social atmosphere on board, the lighter environmental impact compared to planes, the spacious design of the cars, the scenic routes, the overall comfort of the train ride, and the Amtrak vacation packages offered. With few high-speed lines, trains in the U.S. often take longer than cars or planes, but the unique experience can trump the long ride.
A trip from one coast of the U.S. to the other is surely one of the greatest railway journeys that you can make anywhere in the world, and with the different classes of on-board accommodation and a variety of tickets, passes, and Amtrak vacation packages available, it can also be remarkably affordable.
* Amtrak / Amtrak Vacation Packages., +1 800 USA-RAIL (872-7245). Amtrak is the quasi-state-owned passenger railroad company of the U.S.. Amtrak operates services over some 35,000 km (22,000 miles) of track, serving more than 500 communities in 46 American states and even 2 provinces of Canada. Trains carry one or more classes of accommodation: coach, business, and sleeper. Coach class is competitive in price with Greyhound bus, while sleeper accommodation is competitive with the price of an airline ticket. Most of the information in this article relates to Amtrak and Amtrak vacation packages.
Timetables and Brochures
All the major rail operators in the U.S. have websites with information about timetables, routes and on-board facilities. However many passengers still prefer to plan their trips using printed timetables and utilizing Amtrak vacation packages. Amtrak, for instance, publish a number of brochures, including the Amtrak System Timetable (with timetables for every Amtrak train and Thruway bus) and the Amtrak America travel brochure. These can be found at most staffed stations, or can be ordered free of charge for worldwide delivery online. Individual pamphlet timetables are also published for every route. Also available are brochures with overviews of Amtrak vacation packages.
If you are planning more than one journey on an Amtrak train, you may be better off investing a rail pass, which allows unlimited rail travel within a certain period and area. You should, however, compare the cost of individual tickets and Amtrak vacation packages when pricing and planning your trip.
* The North America Rail Pass (from Amtrak in the USA & from VIA Rail in Canada) allows for unlimited travel within a 30 consecutive day period in both the U.S. and Canada. The pass allows residents of the U.S. and Canada (although foreigners can purchase the pass if they provide a local address) unlimited travel over 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles) of the two countries' rail network. When purchased from Amtrak, the pass costs US$709 in the off-peak season and US$999 in the peak season. Prices are roughly similar, but priced in Canadian dollars, when purchased from VIA Rail. Seniors (age 60 and above), children (age 2-18), and students (showing the Student Advantage Card in the United States, or the ISIC card in Canada and internationally) save an additional 10% on the North America Rail Pass. The pass has the following restrictions: o You must embark on at least one trip in both the U.S. and Canada. o You must travel on at least one Amtrak train and one VIA Rail train. o Your last trip must end by midnight on the last night the pass is valid. o You may not travel along any one route more than four times (to prevent the pass being used by commuters).
* The USA Rail Pass is specifically offered for foreign visitors. It is not available for Canadian or American citizens or residents (Except for residents of US territories and protectorates). The pass divides the U.S. into zones, and the pass may be bought for one or more zones. The pass cannot be used in conjunction with organized Amtrak vacation packages and other restrictions apply.
Amtrak tickets and Amtrak vacation packages can be purchased in person from any staffed Amtrak station, over the phone (1-800-USA-RAIL in the U.S. and Canada) or on the internet. A number of travel agencies that sell Amtrak tickets and Amtrak vacation packages in other countries are listed on the Amtrak website.
Tickets for most routes are priced in incremental 'buckets': in other words, as seats on a train sell out, the remaining tickets become more expensive. When buying point-to-point tickets, and even Amtrak vacation packages, especially during busy holiday periods, it is important to book in advance. Round-trip (return) tickets are priced by simply adding together the two cheapest available one-way fares.
Many passengers are able to receive a discount on the cost of the ticket. Discounts are available on tickets (but not accommodation upgrades) to members of the following organizations:
* AAA (American Automobile Association) * CAA (Canadian Automobile Association) * NARP (National Association of Railroad Passengers)
Discounts are also offered to war veterans, senior citizen, and students. American students should purchase a Student Advantage card; all other students should purchase an International Student Identity Card (ISIC). In all cases, you should quote your membership number when booking your ticket or Amtrak vacation packages, and show your card with your ticket. To obtain a discount on Amtrak trains, passengers must reserve three days in advance on all trains.
Amtrak offer heavily discounted coach fares on certain trains on the 'Hot Deals Weekly Specials' section of their website. These non-refundable and non-changeable fares are generally available for travel in the next thirty to sixty days on routes that have spare capacity. The page is updated every Friday, and you should check back regularly if you want to snap up a bargain. Long distance coach fares of $70 from Chicago to Seattle (for example) are not uncommon, although they become much less common during the more popular summer months. These fares cannot be upgraded to sleeper accommodation at the time of booking, although you may be able to upgrade to a sleeper if one is available after you board the train.
Since 2005, Amtrak's offering of many of these heavily discounted coach fares has been limited by language in the legislation which grants Amtrak a yearly subsidy. However, this legislative language does not affect routes that receive a subsidy from individual states. Accordingly, those train routes tend to appear frequently on the 'Hot Deals' page of the website.
Boarding The Train
Amtrak tickets generally do not indicate a coach or seat number, merely that you have a place in a reserved coach. Pay close attention to announcements and station staff, who will tell you where to wait and board the train. Attendants will need to see your ticket and/or pass as you board the train, and they will direct you towards the carriage you should sit in. In some cases, your ticket may show a seat reservation number and a carriage number. If this is the case, the numbers of the carriage are displayed on the doors; pay attention to these as the trains rolls in, so you can be at the right spot on the platform in time to get into your carriage. Some stations have indicators on the platform to show where each carriage will stop.
If you have a specific seat number on your reservation, you are advised to occupy it. Otherwise, follow the directions of the conductor who checks your ticket, and once on board your coach, you may select your own seat. Once you find your seat, you will want to stay there until the conductor comes by to check your ticket after departure. Upon doing so, the conductor will place a seat check (a small piece of paper) above your seat, to indicate that the seat is occupied. Take this with you if you decide to change seats, especially if you are leaving the train en route, because this piece of paper carries a station code to help the conductor let you know when your stop is imminent.
The information here relates specifically to services operated by Amtrak and for Amtrak vacation packages. Private train companies and commuter rail services will offer differing standards of on-board facilities.
Coach class - Coach (economy) is Amtrak's most affordable class of travel and is offered on all trains except the high speed Acela Express trains of the north-east corridor (between Boston, New York City and Washington DC). A ticket in coach guarantees you a seat in a carriage with approximately forty to sixty other seats, arranged in pairs either side of the aisle. Seats can be arranged in facing sets of four, but in almost all cases you will find that seats will all face the direction of travel. Luggage racks and spaces for larger items are provided, along with toilets either at the end of the coach or in the lower level of two-level trains.
An Amtrak coach class seat is roughly comparable with a business class airline seat: there is ample leg room, a reclining seat back and fixed armrests on the outside of each pair of seats. If there is a seat in front of you, a fold-down table will be available. On longer distance routes, there is more legroom as well as a deeper recline and a padded rest that folds up to support your legs when you recline.
Business class - Business class is offered on most trains where there is no First (sleeper) accommodation. Seats are arranged in pairs to one side of the aisle, and on their own on the other side of the aisle (called '2+1 seating'). There is more room than coach class, as well as an at-seat attendant service with complimentary refreshments and a newspaper. Long-distance trains and Amtrak vacation packages that travel overnight generally do not offer business class; sleeper class is available instead.
Regular First Class - The only first class service offered by Amtrak that does not include a sleeper is found on the Acela Express trains along the northeast corridor. These trains offer only First and Business class service for both individual tickets and Amtrak vacation packages. First class includes complimentary at-seat meals.
First (Sleeper) Class - Amtrak markets and prices sleeper accommodation as First Class, with a level of service that aims to be equal to that of a hotel. In addition to a private room on board the train, first class passengers including those that elect the options as a part of their Amtrak vacation packages can take advantage of a number of other amenities, including:
* Pre-departure access to Club Acela and Metropolitan Lounges in: o Boston South Station o Chicago o New Orleans o Miami o New York Penn Station o Philadelphia 30th Street Station o Oregon o Raleigh o Minneapolis o Washington, D.C. Union Station * All on-board meals included in the cost of your ticket * An on-board attendant service * Fresh linen and towel service * Complimentary bottled water * Complimentary daily newspapers
First class accommodations are priced in addition to the lowest available coach fare, and are priced in incrementally priced 'buckets' according to availability. As each 'bucket' of rooms sells out, the price goes up. It is worth noting, however, that after an Amtrak train departs its originating station, if there are any sleeper accommodations still available on the train, they revert in price to the cheapest originally available price. For example, if a train has one remaining room available prior to be departure, it would be priced in the most expensive 'bucket'. Once the train leaves, however, a coach passenger on-board the train can approach the conductor and upgrade to the sleeper for the price the room would have been when it first went on sale.
Amtrak operates two types of sleeper carriage: the precise standard of accommodation that you will have depends on the type of train you will be riding on. Check the timetable or Amtrak website to discover which sort of train you'll be riding on.
Superliner Coaches - Superliner two-level coaches are used on all long distance trains west of Chicago, and certain other routes. They offer superior ride quality and views than single level coaches and are typically the option of choice for most Amtrak vacation packages. Most accommodations are located on the upper level, with toilets and other facilities located on the lower level. See the inside of Superliners here in Quicktime Virtual Reality along with other available trains and accommodations on the Amtrak website. Superliner sleeper cars offer the following sleeper accommodations:
* Roomette (for two people, with no en-suite toilet or shower) * Bedroom (for two people, with an en-suite toilet and shower) * Bedroom Suite (two bedrooms connected by an opening door) * Family Bedroom (for two adults and two children, with no en-suite toilet or shower) * Accessible Bedroom (for two people with an en-suite toilet, but no shower)
Accessible Bedrooms should only be booked by those with reduced mobility or a physical disability. Family Bedrooms and Accessible Bedrooms are located on the lower level of the Superliner carriage.
Viewliner Coaches - Viewliner single-level coaches are generally used on all long distance trains and Amtrak vacation packages that operate in and out of New York Penn Station (where Superliner trains are too tall to enter the tunnels that approach the station). They are distinctive because of the two rows of windows on the side of the train, allowing both upper and lower berth passengers a view from their beds. They offer the following sleeper accommodations:
* Roomette (for two people, with an en-suite toilet, but no shower) * Bedroom (for two people, with an en-suite toilet and shower) * Bedroom Suite (two bedrooms connected by an opening door) * Accessible Bedroom (for two people with an en-suite toilet, but no shower)
While there are no actual limitations, accessible Bedrooms should only be booked by those with reduced mobility or a physical disability, and family bedrooms should only be booked by families traveling together.
Eating And Drinking On Board
On the shortest of journeys, Amtrak offers an at-seat trolley service of drinks and light refreshments. On most journeys however, there will be a dedicated café or lounge car that offers a marginally broader selection of hot and cold drinks and refreshments, although all snacks will be pre-packed and all hot snacks will be microwaved. Café and lounge cars offer an open area of seating around tables that will be open for most of your journey, so even if you don't purchase something from the café you are welcome to sit in the café, enjoy the view and maybe meet some other passengers and on-board staff.
On almost all long distance trains and Amtrak vacation packages, Amtrak offers a dedicated restaurant car, that will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meals are generally prepared off the train before departure, and then heated and plated on-board. The standard of food is generally equal to an overpriced mid-range restaurant, although the atmosphere of dining on board with other passengers and the passing scenery more than compensates for this. The Amtrak Lead Service Attendant, or LSA in Amtrak-speak, who runs the dining car will sit travelers together to fill a table, instead of assigning individuals or couples to a table by themselves (however, the LSA will sit a family together). This practice tends to surprise those unfamiliar with it. In many cases, a traveller will find an interesting conversation happening that would never come about otherwise. If one has the budget -- even in coach -- visiting the dining car for a meal is worth it, simply for the experience.
As mentioned above, all meals (but not alcoholic beverages) are included in sleeper tickets. Coach passengers can pay according to the menu. Per meal, the breakfast menu is the cheapest and dinner is the most expensive. Reservations are required for lunch and dinner; after boarding the LSA will travel through the train taking reservations. Reservations are handled in time increments, so during meal time the LSA will periodically announce when each group of reservations will be served.
Many seasoned travelers and those traveling with Amtrak vacation packages bring their own snacks with them on the train, and then supplement them with the odd item from the lounge or café car.
With the exception of sleeper passengers who consume them in their own cabins, passengers are not allowed to bring their own alcohol on board any Amtrak train.
Unfortunately, those are common on long-distance Amtrak routes. This is because private railroads own the tracks used by Amtrak, and they are more concerned about their own freight trains then about Amtrak's passenger trains.
Chicago is the long-distance rail center of America. Many routes and Amtrak vacation packages converge on the Windy City and could require a passenger to change trains here, when traveling cross country. However, New York is the most popular railroad opportunity in the country, with a high commuter ridership and its possession of the most-used Amtrak station.
Amtrak offers 34 passenger train routes. Some of the more popular routes for travel and Amtrak vacation packages are the Acela Express, California Zephyr, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, City of New Orleans, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, and Sunset Limited.
* Acela Express. The Acela Express takes you from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. via New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This is the only route in the country which resembles a high-speed rail line, with a top speed of 150 mph (241 km/h). There are multiple daily departures. Length of ride is seven hours.
* California Zephyr. Amtrak's California Zephyr travels from Chicago, Illinois to Emeryville/San Francisco (San Francisco is a short bus ride from Emeryville) via Omaha, Nebraska; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Reno, Nevada. Service is daily and takes 51 1/2 hours to complete.
* Capitol Limited. Runs from Chicago to Washington, D.C. via Cleveland, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Service is daily and takes 18 hours to complete.
* Cardinal. The Cardinal connects New York City with Chicago; via Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati, Ohio. The train operates three days a week and is a 26 1/2 hours trip. Recently, Amtrak has upgraded the food service available on this train with a "Diner-Lounge" car. "Diner-Lounge" cars are being tried by Amtrak owing to US Congressional mandates to reduce the losses incurred by providing food service on intercity passenger trains.
* Carolinian. Travels from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina; via Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.. Service is daily and takes 13 1/2 hours to complete.
* City of New Orleans. This route takes you from Chicago, Illinois to the "Birthplace of Jazz" — New Orleans, Louisiana; via Memphis, Tennessee. The ride is 19 hours long and operates daily.
* Coast Starlight. Runs from Los Angeles, California to Seattle, Washington via Santa Barbara, California; San Jose, California; Emeryville, California (a short Amtrak bus ride from San Francisco); Sacramento, California; and Portland, Oregon. Although the moniker is "Coast Starlight", the coast is visible for only a short while between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. Service is daily and takes 35 hours to complete.
* Crescent. The Crescent runs from New York City to New Orleans, Louisiana; via Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia. Service is daily and takes 30 hours to complete.
* Empire Builder. The Empire Builder runs from Chicago to either Portland, Oregon; or Seattle, Washington via Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Glacier National Park. This route operates daily and is a 46 hour ride. The Empire Builder was the single most-ridden Amtrak train in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. Over 503,000 people rode this train in FY2007, which ended September 30, 2007.
* Lake Shore Limited. Runs from Chicago to either Boston, Massachusetts or New York, via Cleveland, Ohio and Buffalo, New York. Runs daily and takes 19 1/2 hours (Chicago-New York) or 22 hours (Chicago-Boston).
* Pacific Surfliner. Runs from Paso Robles, California to San Diego, via San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, and Orange County. A perfect way to beat the Southern California traffic. Also great for visiting Disneyland. There are multiple departures every day and it takes about 6 hours to complete the trip.
* Palmetto / Silver Meteor / Silver Star. Three different trains which travel from New York down the eastern coast. The Palmetto travels from New York City to Savannah, Georgia, via Charleston, South Carolina. The Silver Meteor travels from New York City to Miami, Florida; via Charleston, Savannah, and Orlando, Florida. The Silver Star follows essentially the same route as the Silver Meteor, except it takes a different route through the Carolinas and makes a detour to Tampa, Florida. All three trains run daily, and the length of the trip is up to 28 hours.
* Southwest Chief. The Southwest Chief travels from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California; via Kansas City, Missouri and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Service on the 40-hour route is daily.
* Sunset Limited. Travels from New Orleans, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California via San Antonio, Texas. Service is three times a week and is 48 hours from start to end.
* Texas Eagle. Travels from Chicago, Illinois to San Antonio, Texas; via St. Louis, Missouri, and Dallas, Texas. Service is daily and takes 32 1/2 hours to complete.
(courtesy of www.lostluggagetales.com)