Even though we love to road trip, riding the rails has a certain romantic appeal. I’d start with an adventure through the Northern Rocky Mountains on the full Empire Builder route running between Portland and Chicago. Or, finally, fully appreciate the vast expanse of America’s heartland on the California Zephyr; embracing the opportunity to simply look out the window and stretch my legs without counting down the miles to the next rest stop.
We recently spoke to Amtrak about their extensive rail network that connects passengers to more than 500 destinations including more than 260 national parks, historic monuments, and sites.
New this year are a range of programs and amenities that you may or not be aware of.
Trails & Rails
The Trails & Rails program is an Amtrak/National Park Service partnership designed to encourage passengers to take the train to many of our nation’s natural and cultural heritage sights. Stops range from the Erie Canal National Heritage Area to the Lincoln Home Historic Site and the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.
A new route between New York City and Washington, D.C. offers passengers a unique opportunity to connect with public lands officials and engage in a better understanding of the need to preserve and protect these special natural and cultural resources.
Since April 9, NPS volunteers stationed on this route have been helping passengers “Find Your Park” from among the more than 80 NPS sites (and even more state and local parks) along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. The Trails & Rails guides can also assist passengers as they connect to public transportation, provide alternate routes and schedules. Any passenger with a tablet or smartphone may take this information with them.
Pets on Trains
If you have a cat or small dog that meets certain criteria, you may be able to bring it with you on your railroad adventure. Pets ride for $25; a deal if you’ve ever paid for this service at an airline or paid for the “service fee” in a hotel room.
Bicycles on Trains
If you are looking to to avoid parking fees and/or need a mode of transportation once you arrive at your destination, you may now be able to bring your bicycle along on your journey. This option is available on select routes with designated bicycle racks in the baggage cars. Spaces are limited and you need to make an advance reservation to secure your spot (sometimes this is first-come-first serve). Bicycle transportation fees range from free to $20.
Free WiFi is now available on all short-distance routes throughout the country, including in the states of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri (Amtrak says onboard WiFi now serves 85% of its passengers). Outlets are also available at every seat for keeping batteries charged.
Passengers are encouraged to take advantage of special deals and promotions including discounts for AAA members, students, military, seniors, and children (kids ages 12 and under are already 50% off).
Another National Park Service collaboration, 4th graders who are traveling to parks this year receive a 75% discount with the purchase of one regular adult fare on Amtrak. Also new this year is a 15% discount for students age 17-25. Note: Summer is typically Amtrak’s busiest travel season and a good rule of thumb is to book a trip at least fourteen days in advance.
Amtrak has one of the most generous baggage policies in the travel industry. Each passenger can bring two bags and two carry-ons for free (up to 150lbs). Amtrak’s Red Caps service also provides baggage-handling assistance at many major stations, free of charge.
For families taking overnight trips, Amtrak recommends booking sleeping arrangements in advance. You can opt to upgrade to a sleeping car once you’ve started the journey but it may not be available, based on demand. Many sleeper rooms include private bathrooms and showers; Sleeper Service also includes all regular meals for each passenger. Avoid surprises by checking out the virtual tour of the sleeping accommodations here.
Better Rewards Program
The Amtrak Guest Rewards program was relaunched earlier this year, making it easier for passengers to earn and redeem rewards points. Visit https://amtrakguestrewards.com/info for more information.