Road Trip by Rail with Amtrak

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.

You can take your small dog or cat along with you on select trains. Now that Rover can come over, we hope to see you and your pet onboard. Pease refer to the guidelines below. Other restrictions may apply. Note that these guidelines do not pertain to passengers traveling with service animals. Types of Pets Allowed Cats and dogs are the only types of pets accepted on Amtrak, and only one pet and one carrier per passenger will be allowed. Which Trains Accept Pets Pets are currently only accepted on a limited number of trains. Trains not listed here do not accept pets. Carl Sandburg and Illinois Zephyr Trains 380, 381, 382 and 383 and Illini and Saluki Service Trains 390, 391, 392 and 393 Passengers must begin the first leg of their trip at the Chicago, Naperville, Galesburg, Homewood, Champaign-Urbana or Carbondale stations during the hours that the ticket offices are open. Note: Due to the ticket office hours, the only train accepting pet reservations at Naperville is Train 383, and at Homewood the only trains accepting pet reservations are Trains 393 and 392. Passengers may only pick up pet tickets at the Chicago, Naperville, Galesburg, Homewood, Champaign-Urbana or Carbondale stations. Pet tickets cannot be picked up at any other stations. Each Carl Sandburg, Illinois Zephyr, Saluki and Illini service train will have one railcar designated for passengers with their pets. From October 12, 2015 to February 15, 2016, pets will also be allowed onboard the following trains: Northeast Regional service trains between Boston - New York - Washington - Lynchburg - Newport News - Norfolk Downeaster service trains between Brunswick, Portland and Boston - North Station Trains 79, 80 and 90 between New York and Washington Note: Pets will not be accepted on the New Haven to Springfield shuttles, Northeast Regional service trains between New Haven and Springfield and the Vermonter service train between New Haven and St. Albans. Length of Trip Maximum length of travel on the train will be seven hours. Passengers making connections must complete travel within seven hours from leaving their origin station.

You can take your small dog or cat along with you on select trains.

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.

Stay Connected

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.

Save Money

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.

Free Bags

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.

Empire builder near Glacier National Park

Empire builder near Glacier National Park

Sleeping Arrangements

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 for more information.

Happy (t)rails!

About the Author

Julie Henning
Julie Henning is a freelance writer and journalist based out of Eugene, Oregon. She is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and owner of the family-travel website She is a recent past member of the Midwest Travel Writers Association and the Association for Great Lakes Outdoor Writers. Julie is the Oregon Coast destination specialist for Bindu Media, an itinerary-focused website launching in Spring 2016 and featuring the work of 200+ professional, indie travel writers. Julie has been published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal, The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Illinois), the Rochester Post Bulletin, Wisconsin Natural Resources (DNR) Magazine, Sustainable Chicago Magazine, Group Tour Magazine, Student Group Tour Magazine, Silent Sports Magazine, Intercom Magazine,, and FTF Geocacher Magazine. Julie has appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, Ohio Public Radio, and KCBX FM Central Coast Radio and is an affiliate producer with the Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer, a National Public Radio travel podcast. She has blogged for, Travel Oregon, and VISIT Milwaukee. Julie travels with her three kids and black lab as much as possible and lives by the motto, "Not all who wander are lost." Check out some of her best work at

1 Comment on "Road Trip by Rail with Amtrak"

  1. Carrie Stollenwerk | May 3, 2016 at 10:14 am |

    Great tips Julie! This is still on my bucket list to take a cross country trip on Amtrak. I’ve only taken Amtrak years ago within Wisconsin.

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