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A Complete Guide for Traveling by Train in the United States
While not as popular as it was before the era of the family car and domestic air travel, train travel in the United States has rebounded in recent years. In fact, around six billion passenger miles are traveled in any one year by train.
Statistically more reliable than the country’s airlines and substantially more environmentally friendly, traveling by train offers spacious seating and relaxed nature that makes it many people’s number one choice. It’s a particularly good pick for those on vacation, since many trains pass through some of the country’s finest landscapes.
The first purpose-built passenger railroad in the United States began operating as far back as 1827, between Baltimore and the Ohio River. Except for a short period during World War I, railroads were entirely privately operated until 1971 when Amtrak came into the picture. Funded by a mix of federal and state subsidies, it was created to save long-distance and intercity passenger rail transportation.
Train service in the United States
Amtrak remains responsible for the vast majority of passenger rail services in the United States. It serves over 500 destinations in 46 of the 48 contiguous states, averaging 300 individual services per day. Its area of highest coverage runs along the East Coast. Depending on how you count them, there are at least four transcontinental routes to choose between, usually starting or ending in Chicago.
These are all rail services operated by Amtrak in the United States:
- Acela: Boston–New York–Washington, DC
- Adirondack: Montreal–New York
- Amtrak Cascades: Vancouver–Seattle–Portland–Eugene
- Auto Train: Lorton–Sanford
- Blue Water: Chicago–Port Huron
- California Zephyr: Chicago–Emeryville
- Capitol Corridor: Auburn–Sacramento–Oakland–San Jose
- Capitol Limited: Chicago–Washington, DC
- Cardinal: Chicago–New York
- Carl Sandburg: Chicago–Quincy
- Carolinian: New York–Chicago
- City of New Orleans: Chicago–New Orleans
- Coast Starlight: Seattle–Los Angeles
- Crescent: New York–New Orleans
- Downeaster: Brunswick–Portland–Boston
- Empire Builder: Chicago–Spokane–Portland/Seattle
- Empire Service: New York–Albany–Niagara Falls
- Ethan Allen Express: New York–Rutland
- Heartland Flyer: Oklahoma City–Fort Worth
- Hiawatha: Chicago–Milwaukee
- Illini Service: Chicago–Carbondale
- Illinois Zephyr: Chicago–Quincy
- Keystone Service: New York–Philadelphia–Harrisburg
- Lake Shore Limited: New York/Boston–Albany–Chicago
- Lincoln Service: Chicago–St. Louis
- Maple Leaf: New York–Toronto
- Missouri River Runner: St. Louis–Kansas City
- Northeast Regional: Boston/Springfield–New York–Washington–Norfolk/Newport News/Roanoke
- Pacific Surfliner: San Luis Obispo–Goleta–Los Angeles–San Diego
- Palmetto: New York–Savannah
- Pennsylvanian: New York–Pittsburgh
- Pere Marquette: Chicago–Grand Rapids
- Piedmont: Raleigh–Charlotte
- Saluki: Chicago–Carbondale
- San Joaquins: Oakland/Sacramento–Bakersfield
- Silver Service: New York–Miami
- Southwest Chief: Chicago–Los Angeles
- Sunset Limited: New Orleans–Los Angeles
- Texas Eagle: Chicago–San Antonio
- Valley Flyer: Greenfield–Springfield–New Haven
- Vermonter: St. Albans–Washington, DC
Several rail services cross the border into Canada, arriving in Montreal on the east side of the country and Vancouver on the west. Some of these services are operated by Canada’s VIA Rail. The Pacific coast of the U.S., Washington State, Oregon and California are all relatively well served by Amtrak trains, as the national route map testifies.
There are currently no train lines crossing the United States’ southern border into Mexico, with the closest stations being El Paso and Del Rio in Texas. They sit right on the border between the two countries.
Interestingly, Amtrak owns just 623 miles of track out of the 21,400 miles it uses, paying a small fee to freight companies for use of their infrastructure. By law, however, Amtrak services are given priority over freight trains.
Other Intercity Rail Services
Intercity services in Alaska are operated not by Amtrak but by Alaska Railroad, linking destinations including Anchorage, Fairbanks and Denali National Park.
In south Florida, All Aboard Florida runs Brightline trains between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, with extensions under consideration to reach Orlando International Airport and Tampa via Walt Disney World. It also plans a high-speed line between California’s Victorville and Las Vegas.
If Texas Central Railway plans go through, the Lone Star state will see Japanese shinkansen ‘bullet’ trains connect Dallas with Houston via the Brazos Valley in 90 minutes. With construction already underway, the scheduled operation date is the first half of 2026.
Commuter Rail Services
In the United States, one of the most popular forms of train transportation is the so-called commuter rail. That is a passenger rail transport system that connects a large city with the suburban areas in its vicinity. As the term suggests, commuter rail services are primarily used by professional adults who commute to and from the city for work. For that reason, the schedules for these trains are usually built around the early morning and late afternoon rush hours.
In general, every major metropolitan area has its own transportation authority that governs and manages the regional commuter rail services. Some commuter rail lines are operated by Amtrak and sponsored by the respective state(s) that they serve. Currently, in the United States, there are 32 commuter rail systems across 27 states:
- A-train: Denton County (Texas)
- Altamont Corridor Express (ACE): San Jose–Tri-Valley–Stockton (California)
- Caltrain: San Francisco–San Jose (California)
- Capital MetroRail: Austin (Texas)
- Capitol Corridor*: Sacramento–San Francisco Bay Area (California)
- Coaster: San Diego–Oceanside (California)
- Downeaster*: Brunswick–Portland–Boston (Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts)
- FrontRunner: Ogden–Salt Lake City–Provo (Utah)
- Hartford Line: New Haven–Hartford–Springfield (Connecticut, Massachusetts)
- Keystone Service*: Harrisburg–Philadelphia–New York City (Pennsylvania, New York)
- Long Island Rail Road: New York City–Long Island (New York)
- MARC Train: Baltimore–Washington, DC (Maryland, West Virginia, District of Columbia)
- MBTA Commuter Rail: Boston–Worcester–Providence (Massachusetts, Rhode Island)
- Metra: Chicago (Illinois, Wisconsin)
- Metrolink: Greater Los Angeles (California)
- Metro-North Railroad: New York City–New Haven–Poughkeepsie (New York, Connecticut)
- NJ Transit Rail Operations: Northern New Jersey–New York City–Philadelphia–Atlantic City (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
- New Mexico Rail Runner Express: Albuquerque–Santa Fe (New Mexico)
- Northstar Line: Minneapolis–Saint Paul (Minnesota)
- Regional Transportation District: Denver (Colorado)
- Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit: Santa Rosa–San Rafael (California)
- South Shore Line: Chicago–South Bend (Illinois, Indiana)
- SEPTA Regional Rail: Greater Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware)
- Shore Line East: New Haven–New London (Connecticut)
- Sounder: Everett–Seattle–Tacoma (Washington)
- SunRail: Greater Orlando (Florida)
- TEXRail: Fort Worth (Texas)
- Trinity Railway Express: Dallas–Fort Worth (Texas)
- Tri-Rail: Miami–South Florida (Florida)
- Virginia Railway Express: Greater Washington, DC (Virginia, District of Columbia)
- WeGo Star: Nashville (Tennessee)
WES Commuter Rail: Portland (Oregon)
*These services are operated by Amtrak with a commuter rail focus and sponsored by the respective state(s).
Popular train destinations in the United States
With 500+ destinations to choose from, those without a pre-set itinerary might find it hard deciding where to head. To help you out, we’ve gathered the most popular train destinations in the United States here:
As the national capital, Washington DC is home to the White House, the US Congress and some of the most important museum collections in the country. Whether it’s the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz or the Wright Brothers’ plane, the Smithsonian Museums are a good place to start. Then stroll or row your way along the Potomac (winter ice permitting) before taking in some shopping in Georgetown. Although it’s not at the heart of the rail network, it’s still possible to reach Washington DC via the Capitol Limited service from Chicago (an overnight service of 760 miles) or with the Acela from Boston.
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New York, NY
What is there to say about New York that hasn’t been said already? Perhaps that it can be reached from Canada along the route of the Amtrak Adirondack from Montreal, Washington, DC, and even Miami, Florida. Whichever train you arrive on, take a moment to absorb the grandeur of Penn Station’s Moynihan Train Hall before hitting the Statue of Liberty, Times Square and the shows of Broadway.
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Perhaps best known as the home turf of Starbucks, there’s a lot more to Seattle even if you just scratch the surface. It is easily accessible from West Coast destinations such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Vancouver. In addition to its iconic Space Needle, some of the must-see attractions in this laid-back and oh-so-cool city include the Amazon Spheres glasshouses, Great Wheel at Pier 57 and tours of the spectacular Puget Sound.
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Unofficial capital of the U.S. rail network and starting point for the historic Route 66, Chicago is the meeting point of transcontinental routes from California and Oregon as well as regular train services from Washington, DC. Its commanding position on Lake Michigan means that even this far inland it’s possible to enjoy a day at the beach. Other attractions include the flash stores of the Magnificent Mile, exhibitions of Museum Campus and arena tours sports fans wouldn’t want to miss including that of Wrigley Field.
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Gateway to the Rocky Mountains, there’s a reason Denver, Colorado is known as the Mile High City. As a visitor, it’s best to head to the LoDo neighborhood where the streets are a mix of independent gallery spaces, cafés and bars. The city’s roster of museums includes the famous Art Museum part-designed by Daniel Libeskind, although most people spend their time in the great outdoors with skiing a popular pastime in the winter months and hiking, kayaking and climbing keeping people busy in the summer.
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The most scenic train routes in the United States
The U.S. isn’t short of scenic train routes, with extraordinary vistas extending from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico and the watershed of the Mississippi River. Here are our picks of the very best:
Running from New York to Montreal in Canada, the Amtrak Adirondack winds its way through the Hudson River Valley, an area known for the beauty of its mountains and forests. Add to that the chance to see your train reflected in the still waters of Lake Champlain, and there’s no difference whether you’re traveling in winter, spring or summer. But travel during the fall when the trees along the route are a blaze of colors and you'll feel like you are cutting right through a fairytale. During fall time, you’ll also be able to enjoy the dome observation car, which is specially added during the leaf peeping season.
If transcontinental trips by train are more your thing, it’s hard to beat the California Zephyr. Connecting Chicago with San Francisco over two days and 2400 miles, it’s a journey which crosses the Mississippi River and the Great Plains of Nebraska before rising to Denver, Salt Lake City and the Rocky Mountains, capturing views of the Pacific Ocean. Roughly following the route of the first east-west crossing of the country by rail, there’s even commentary for the most impressive sections.
Extend your trip on the west coast by jumping aboard the Coast Starlight between Seattle in Washington state and Los Angeles, California. It’s unlikely you’ll catch sight of the latest Hollywood heartthrob, but just as you tire of the Pacific beachfronts, you’ll encounter blue-hazed vineyards, Mount Shasta and the Cascade Mountains.
For further ideas, check out more of Amtrak’s most scenic train routes.
How to book train travel in the U.S.
There are several ways to purchase tickets for Amtrak services, and whilst most ground travel companies in the U.S. have a reputation for being a little behind the times, these include electronic purchase methods requiring nothing more than a smartphone.
Book train tickets online
The easiest way to purchase tickets online is through a service like Wanderu, using either the Wanderu website or by downloading the Wanderu app. It is available for iPhone and Android devices. You can also book tickets online on the Amtrak website and the official Amtrak app. In addition to credit and debit card transactions and the use of gift cards, payments online and via the app can be made with Apple Pay, Google Pay and PayPal as well as e-vouchers and Guest Reward points.
Buy train tickets at the station
Should you wish, you can purchase tickets for any Amtrak service at most stations – specifically those which have a manned ticket office. Purchases can be made in cash, with major credit and debit cards, and using Amtrak gift cards. If the gift cards are not enough to cover the journey, the remainder can be paid for by another means. Main stations also have automated Quick-Trak Kiosks.
Buy a train ticket onboard the train
Although it is possible to purchase tickets onboard trains, the only tickets usually available are full unrestricted fares. It’s therefore advisable to avoid this option, as you will end up paying a much more expensive fare compared to what you’d spend if you book your ticket online or at the station.
Amtrak uses a dynamic pricing model. This means the earlier ticket purchases are made, the more likely it is you will find good deals on tickets. Remember, train tickets for popular times of year such as Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to sell out quickly, so plan to book those trips as early as possible. That way, you’ll avoid having to take a train at an inconvenient time and paying a premium for it.
Amtrak tickets go on sale 11 months ahead of departure. If you’re unsure whether it’s worth waiting in the hope of finding your tickets on sale nearer the time, it’s worth noting that Amtrak will usually match the later lower price if you contact them directly. Booking at least two weeks before departure will save you an average of 20% on many routes, according to Amtrak themselves.
What kind of fares are available on Amtrak trains?
There are three main ticket types to be aware of: Saver, Value and Flexible fares. All are limited in number – when they’re gone, they’re gone. Saver fares are the cheapest but they are not available for all services and routes. Value fares are released for all routes, and tend to be a little more expensive than Saver fares. Flexible fares aren’t actually all that different to Value fares except on their refund and cancellation policies (see below). Business fares, equivalent to first class in other countries, are also available on most services.
Can you modify or cancel an Amtrak train ticket?
Modifying a trip with any ticket type is generally a simple process and can be done on the Amtrak website via the ‘Modify Trip’ function. All you’ll need is your reservation number (at the top of your ticket) and the email address you used to make your booking.
Changes made to Saver fares will cost an additional 25% plus any difference in ticket cost. Changes can be made with no fees for the other ticket types although you will still need to cover the difference in cost if your new ticket is priced higher than your initial purchase.
Outright cancellations are also easy to complete, although the amount of refund you’ll receive will depend on the type of ticket you originally purchased. To guarantee a full refund, you will need to purchase a Flexible, Business, or Sleeper fare and cancel before the scheduled departure time of your train.
For more information on trip modifications, check out our guide to Amtrak ticket changes and cancellations.
Tips for finding deals on train tickets in the U.S.
Standard discounts include children under two years of age traveling free. This is limited to one child per ticket bearing adult. Children between two and 13 travel at reduced fares.
Those over 65 are able to take advantage of a 10% discount on some fares, generally excluding the cheapest such as Saver fares. The discount does not extend to the cost of a sleeper compartment or roomette either.
Look out for Amtrak discount sales, which take place regularly throughout the year. If you’re going to be using their services a lot, you should also consider joining their Guest Rewards program. Similar to air miles, you can put collected points towards a ticket cost or upgrade. If you have an Amtrak Guest Rewards number, you can enter it during checkout when you book your Amtrak train ticket on Wanderu. For more information, check out our guide to earning Amtrak reward points on Wanderu.
Joining the National Association of Railroad Passengers (approximately $35 per person but just $50 for a family per year) allows you to apply a 10% discount to some fares. If you’re planning a long trip or use Amtrak a lot, this can lead to substantial savings over your period of membership.
Travelers to the U.S. can also take advantage of USA Rail Passes. Amtrak has three different versions of the pass covering: eight segments in 15 days of travel, 12 segments in 30 days, and 18 segments in 45 days. A segment is a single train journey, be that a two-day coast-to-coast epic or a 45-minute journey between suburban stations, so choose wisely.
Plan it right and large savings can be made with USA Rail Passes. However, you will still need to make a reservation (at no charge) on your trains of choice and that’s only possible when Saver and Value fares are still available to book. Unfortunately, this means it can be difficult to get onboard the most popular routes with a rail pass.
Types of train services available in the U.S.
Amtrak offers some of the most comfortable trains of any passenger rail services in the world, even with standard ticketing. It should be noted that, although generalizations can be made, specific routes may vary from the norm detailed below.
For instance, all Amtrak services have standard class seating – known as coach class – except for the Acela running between Boston and Washington, DC. The country’s only high-speed rail service, Acela’s trains reach maximum speeds of 160-180 mph.
Coach class uses airline-style seating. Passengers can typically expect reclining chair backs, drop-down tray-tables, individual reading lights and power outlets. On longer journeys, there is also additional legroom.
Business class is the next level up, usually offering ticket holders leather seats, additional legroom and complimentary non-alcoholic drinks. These seats are generally located within a dedicated train car or section of a train car. Passengers purchasing business class tickets are also welcome to use business lounges at some stations whilst awaiting their departure time. It is the most common form of higher-tier ticketing.
First class tickets are currently available only on the Acela. First-class train cars are located at the end of the trains operating this route. Acela passengers receive a complimentary meal and an alcoholic drink as well as access to ClubAcela lounges.
On routes that involve overnight train rides, such as the California Zephyr, sleeping compartments are often available at additional cost for those who would prefer not to sleep in a chair. A number of different versions exist depending upon the exact route, with roomettes, bedrooms, family bedrooms and suites as the potential options. Prices for sleeping compartments generally also include two or three hot meals daily eaten in the dining car, and en-suite bathroom facilities featuring showers. Passengers also get lounge access at many stations.
On commuter rail, usually all train cars and seats offer the same amenities. Unlike Amtrak trains, there are no business or first class tickets. While there is usually no free WiFi on commuter rail, most trains come equipped with bathroom facilities.
One very important thing to keep in mind about commuter rail is that ticket prices differ between peak and off-peak hours. Peak hours are the hours in the morning and the afternoon when the highest number of passengers ride the train. Those are the hours when people are commuting from suburban areas to the city in the morning, and then again when they are headed back home in the afternoon and early evening.
While tickets are more expensive during peak hours, there are also more trains available then. Usually, during off-peak hours, there will be one train running every hour, while during peak hours there are multiple trains running every 20-30 minutes. If you are visiting a city for leisure purposes, we recommend checking the local commuter rail timetable and planning your trip during off-peak times. That way, you will not only spend less on your ticket but you will also avoid the crowds of commuters as they make their way to work and back.
Getting to the train station in the U.S.
There’s no official requirement to arrive at any U.S. railway station at any particular time before your scheduled departure. It’s best to aim to get to the station at least 20 minutes ahead of your train’s scheduled departure time, in case you are delayed by traffic, struggle through rush hour commuters with your luggage, or need to check something with station staff before boarding your train. If you’re departing from a larger station, leave a little more time again for getting lost.
Typically speaking, there will be some kind of waiting area, although this may consist of nothing more than a few hard seats at the smallest of stations. Larger stations will have premium lounges for those with the right ticket types alongside a slew of newsagents and food stalls.
As hubs for transportation, most stations should be reachable by public transit, although you may prefer the better reliability of taxis or Uber/Lyft rides. The latter tend to be easy to come by in large cities and are often slightly cheaper than traditional taxis. But the price and duration of your trip to the station will depend on traffic and the time of day, among various other factors.
Getting on the train in the U.S.
Have your ticket to hand as you will need to present it before boarding most Amtrak services. It can be in the form of a paper ticket or an e-ticket displayed on your phone.
You will also need to show some form of government-issued ID. If you’re traveling from abroad, your passport is the obvious answer. Otherwise, you’ll need to rely on a driving license, college ID or similar proof. The card for your local library won’t cut it! Photocopies of identification are not accepted either.
For more information, check out our complete guide to the type of ID you need to travel by bus or train in the United States.
On-board experience on U.S. trains
Generally speaking, trains are a mix of airline style 2+2 seating separated by a central aisle and groups of four seats facing each other around a table. Most seats will be beside a window. Transcontinental services aimed at the leisure market tend to include a special viewing car with panoramic windows and comfortable seating on a first-come first-served basis at the rear of the train.
Some trains have a bi-level format with two decks. Those on the lower deck will find themselves slightly lower than on a usual train, while those on the upper deck arguably have the most panoramic experience. These include services from Chicago to the west coast, New Orleans to Los Angeles, and Washington, DC to Chicago.
Close to all intercity Amtrak services advertise complimentary onboard WiFi, although reliability and slow speeds remain a problem, especially when the train goes through areas with limited network coverage. The company has also created a number of travel guides and podcasts to add to the enjoyment of its routes although cars don’t usually have television screens.
Carry-on baggage is accepted on all services, with some also catering to check-in baggage in special cars. Passengers are able to bring two carry-on bags at no cost, with charges for additional baggage starting at $20. For more information, check out our complete guide to how much baggage you can bring on a train.
Food & beverages
Long-distance routes will usually have a dining car serving full meals three times a day. This is usually an added expense for coach passengers and complimentary for business or sleeper passengers. Of a good standard, the food is well worth the money.
Reservations for the dining car are sometimes made earlier on in the day or the night before to prevent all the passengers turning up at the same time. Some trains have now switched to an at-seat meal service instead of using a dining car. Alcoholic drinks are available, alongside the big names in soft drinks.
Restrooms are a standard feature of intercity services. You won’t find showers or washing facilities unless you’ve booked a sleeper compartment.
Top train routes in United States
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Trains by State
- trains to Arkansas
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- trains to Nebraska
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- trains to District of Columbia
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