Tips for taking the train

As you all likely know by now, I LOVE taking the train, and I take it as often as I can. Over the years of traveling by train, and often with a young child, I’ve gathered quite a bit of tips, which I often share with friends when they are going by train for the first time. Below are those tips, and as I find more, I’ll add to the list. Share any tips you have for riding the train that aren’t listed below.

  • Buy your ticket at least three days in advance to take advantage of discounts ( senior, passengers with disabilities and their companions, NARP, active military personnel, veterans and students). While Amtrak USED to offer a AAA discount, sadly, it no longer does. I’m very sad about that.

    Child looking out the train window at the Pacific Ocean
    My daughter looking out the window at the coast as we travel from SLO to Santa Barbara on the Pacific Surfliner.
  • If taking the Coast Starlight, book as early as you can. Because there is only one train a day running in each direction, it fills up quickly and the cheaper seats sell out first.
  • It’s not necessary to print your ticket if you have a smartphone. Take a photo of the barcode (that’s the important part) or save it to your Wallet if you have an iPhone. The conductor scans it once and then puts a tag above your seat.
  • If you change seats, take the tag the conductor leaves to your new seat. That both marks the seat as taken and also lets the conductor know what stop you get off at.
  • Bring your own food, while Amtrak sells drinks and food, the selection is limited and more expensive than buying elsewhere. Wine and beer are for sale on the train; however, passengers are allowed to consume alcoholic beverages they bring on board if it is consumed in a sleeping car for which they have a ticket for. To read about Amtrak’s food and beverage policy, CLICK HERE.
  • Arrive at the train station early, even if the app reports that the train is running behind schedule. Trains from San Luis Obispo (except for the Coast Starlight) originate from the SLO station, so are on time.
  • Don’t check your bags unless you have a LOT of bags. There are baggage racks when you enter the train cars, both on the lower and higher levels. I haven’t an had an issue with the safety of my bags. I don’t leave anything of value unattended.
  • There are plugs to charge electronics in each row, but not all the outlets work. If you definitely need an outlet, check it before you sit down.Child sitting on train platform by Amtrak train
  • There is free WiFi on most trains, but it’s not very strong or reliable.
  • Cell service is spotty in places, so be prepared for being disconnected from the Internet for a good deal of your journey.
  • If you have a long journey, bring a light blanket or small pillow for extra comfort. There is a lot of leg room and Coast Starlight and other long run trains have foot rests and seats that recline a good deal (way better than a plane). Some trains for shorter runs have those as well, but do not expect those.
  • Bring something to do on the train that you don’t need data or cell service. If you have Amazon Prime or Netflix you can download movies or episodes onto your device for viewing off-line.
  • Bring headphones or earplugs if you like to be in your own world.
  • Hands wipes are essential for cleaning up after yourself and keeping your hands clean.
  • If you have a power bank for recharging your devices, bring them.
  • If you have a young child, either get a seat that backs up to another row or if you have a party of 3 or more, get a row of four seats facing each other. My daughter loved sitting in the little “cave” created by two rows backing up to each other. She’d sit in there and play or watch something on a tablet. It kept her occupied and happy.
  • Bring extra toys or activities for young children.
  • If your child needs a little moving around, take him or her to the first level, which is often empty or more empty that upstairs.
  • If traveling with children, sit by the bathroom so your child can go to the bathroom on his/her own if old enough and you don’t have to leave your seat.
  • Watch which way the train arrives, so you know which seats face forward. If traveling along the coast (SLO south), I recommend sitting on the ocean side of the train. If you are traveling through Los Angeles’ Union Station, the train will reverse directions, so you will want to change seats if facing forward is important to you. A lot of people get off and on at Los Angeles, so it’s a good time to change seats.

    people sitting sitting in the observation car on the Amtrak train
    The observation car in the Coast Starlight Amtrak train

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