Amtrak really doesn’t make it easy to plan multi-city trips. I spent hours at a time attempting to figure out a decent route, only to end up scrapping it and starting all over. The fact that most of the links to information about the rail pass on their website were broken didn’t help me save time either.
What I didn’t realize when I started planning was that I wouldn’t be able to simply choose the cities I wanted to go to and create my own route. This is because they have just a few passenger trains and they each travel their specified courses.
In order to get to a city on a different course, you have to switch lines at one of their main hub stations which can typically be found in major cities. These are few and far between though once you’re smack dab in the middle of bumblefuck America, as you can see in the photo below.
So, in order to use the rail pass within the time period allowed, I had to follow Amtrak’s predetermined train routes. Since you don’t have to waste time trying to figure that little factoid out, you’re already better off than I was.
Here are step by step instructions on the easiest way to plan your Amtrak train trip.
If you’ve done your research, then you know that Amtrak offers three rail pass options. Your first step is to determine which one is best for you.
Using Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, create a spreadsheet. Use the first column to label your rows with the number of segments your rail pass allows, skipping the first box to allow for column labels.
Across the first row, label your columns how you see fit. Here is how I labeled mine:
Upon opening Amtrak’s travel planning map you can see all of the routes that their trains take. You can also see how few of these lines intersect, making it difficult for travelers to switch trains and explore cities on other routes.
Additionally, some of the destinations are at dead ends that would force you to backtrack along the route in order to continue your trip, so keep that in mind when choosing locations.
Enter the Amtrak station closest to where you want to begin your trip into the search box to see your route options. The example above is from Penn Station in New York City.
By clicking on the white dots, you’ll be able to see the name of the station and its abbreviation. Decide on both a train route as well as a direction you want to take.
If your nearest station isn’t located where the lines intersect on the map, this means you have just one route option and will only need to decide on which direction to travel in. In order to travel to cities along other routes, you will need to get to a train station with more options either by train or other means of transportation.
Once you’ve gotten a feel for your options and have selected a train route to start on, decide on the first city you want to travel to. Enter this into the second search box that appears beneath the first one after you’ve selected your departure station. Click “Find Routes.”
Your route options will pop up, labeled by the name of the train. (See above photo.) If there are several routes leaving from your home city, make sure you choose the one that continues in the direction you plan to travel.
After you select a city and click “Find Fares” you will then have the option to choose the date and time of your anticipated travel. When you’ve filled out the form, click “Find Fares” again. At this point, you will likely get an error message that asks you to fill out the departure and arrival city again. I have no idea why this happens, but fill it out again and click “Find Trains.” A list of train options should appear for the trip and date you selected.
If another error message pops up, you either selected the wrong station (as some cities have multiple train station locations), or you will need to change the date and time you requested.
Once you’ve decided on what trip to take, enter your departure city station into box 2B on your spreadsheet and your destination city in box 2C. Be sure to include the station abbreviation letters as well as the train times, as this will be incredibly useful when making your reservation with Amtrak later on.
Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you’ve used up all of your segments. Keep in mind that Amtrak considers a segment used anytime you get off a train or bus, so if you’re switching train lines in the same day, that will use at least two segments. Also, don’t forget to leave the last segment or two open for your ride home.
Yes, that was time-consuming and likely frustrating. If you didn’t give up and come back to it days later, then I give you props because you did better than I did. Have a drink or smoke a bowl. Whatever your poison is, you deserve it at this point.
Buying a rail pass is the easy part of the process. It can be purchased online here or over the phone at 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245). When you call you can either deal with their automated representative “Julie” at any time of the day or night, or you can call during business hours and speak to a human being.
Your rail pass purchase is NOT a train ticket and you have to make a reservation for each trip or segment that you planned out on your spreadsheet.
This can’t be done online, but a reservation can be made over the phone with Amtrak’s customer service team or with one of their ticket agents in the train station. They’re old school like that.
Warning: This will be incredibly time consuming and frustrating.
In order to make your reservation, you will need to call up Amtrak’s customer service team and read them each line of your spreadsheet. They will likely try to pass you off to another member of their team or “accidentally” disconnect you once they hear you are booking your entire rail pass trip.
They may also try to convince you to only schedule the first trip and do the rest later, but do not do this! If you want to ensure you’ll have a seat on each train and be able to book your hotels ahead of time, reserve your seat for each segment.
Have your confirmation number from your rail pass purchase on hand before calling Amtrak. You can ask the customer service representative you get on the phone if you can email them your spreadsheet. However, if you’re as lucky as I am they will think you reading each line to them is easier.
I ended up reading mine three times from start to finish over the course of an hour and a half and eventually she gave up and told me she’d call me back in a few hours when it was done. This was after being passed around and disconnected numerous times. Their system is clearly outdated, so don’t expect this step to be easy breezy.
In my personal spreadsheet (which you can download a template of below), I also added a few columns for my hotel and Airbnb information. This was just to make my life easier and know what address to give my Uber driver after getting off each train without having to sift through a bunch of emails to figure out where I made a reservation while juggling both my luggage and Chelsea.
Having a rail pass means you must use paper tickets and do your best not to lose them. While their website says they can mail them to you if the trip is booked far enough in advance, the person I spoke to on the phone was convinced they didn’t do that. If your first station has an Amtrak booth (not all do), then you can pick up your tickets from a ticket agent right before your first segment. This is also not the fastest process, so get there early. If there isn’t a station with an Amtrak booth near you, perhaps you can convince them to mail you your tickets.
Figuring out my route was by far the most frustrating part of my trip. That could be because I’m not much of a planner though, and even seeing the word stresses me out. Once this is all done you can sit back, relax, and see what amazing (and not-so-amazing) things our country has to offer!
Here’s the route I took from New York (or planned to take) so you need an example to work with:
|Point A||Point B|
|New York, Penn Station (NYP)||Buffalo, NY (BFX)|
|Buffalo, NY (BUF)||Chicago, IL (CHI)|
|Chicago, IL (CHI)||St. Louis, MO (STL)|
|St. Louis, MO (STL)||Little Rock, AR (LRK)|
|Little Rock, AR (LRK)||Fort Worth, TX (FTW)|
|Fort Worth, TX (FTW)||San Antonio, TX (SAS)|
|San Antonio, TX (SAS)||Houston, TX (HOS)|
|Houston, TX (HOS)||New Orleans, LA (NOL)|
|New Orleans, LA (NOL)||Birmingham, AL (BHM)|
|Birmingham, AL (BHM)||Charlotte, NC (CLT)|
|Charlotte, NC (CLT)||Charlottesville, VA (CVS)|
|Charlottesville, VA (CVS)||New York, Penn Station (NYP)|
I’m Rose! Get lost with me as I travel the world with my spoiled dog Chelsea in hopes of accidentally uncovering a few hidden gems along the way. Far from being considered a planner, it’s not uncommon that we stumble upon both the best and the worst of what this world has to offer.
From advice on how to make traveling with a dog easier to the inside scoop on what it’s really like to travel alone as a woman, this travel blog is far from ordinary. Follow us as we explore the smallest corners of the globe, meeting new people and hopefully not getting murdered along the way.