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How to Travel Across America by Train

You know what’s better than a road trip across America? A train trip! Most Americans don’t realize that Amtrak—the country’s only passenger rail service—offers rail passes. And if you work it right, you can travel across the entire country for a little less than $500!

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to cruise past the Rocky Mountains or the Cascades? What about winding your way up the California coast? If you’ve dreamed of seeing all the diverse landscapes that America has to offer, then the train is (literally) the way to go.

Rail Pass Basics

Are you intrigued? There’s a little bit of a learning curve when it comes to mastering rail travel, but once you get the hang of the system, it’ll all make sense.

Amtrak offers 3 tiers of passes:

  • 15 Days/8 Segments
  • 30 Days/12 Segments
  • 45 Days/18 Segments

That’s more than a little confusing, right? Basically, a “segment” consists of any distance you travel without getting off the train. For example, you take the train from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, and that would count as one segment. But you could also go from Chicago to Seattle without changing trains, so that would alsobe a segment.

You can disembark from the train and stay overnight between segments. Just as long as you complete your travel within the window of your chosen pass—15, 30, or 45 days—you’re good to go. You could hop out at Glacier National Park, spend the day exploring and the night camping, and then hop back on the train the next day!

Your rail pass starts on the day you choose when purchasing. You have to pre-book your tickets for all the segments in advance, but it’s very easy to change your booking later. You can change your reservations at any Amtrak station, and they’ll print you new tickets at the window.

The Fine Print

The bargain price for the rail pass does not include a sleeper car. The seats in the train are much roomier and more comfortable than an airplane, but they’re not ideal for traveling overnight. Your pass also will not cover meals in the dining car. To be honest, it’s worth having a sit-down dinner once while you’re traveling. Otherwise, you’ll be better off packing a small cooler with drinks and snacks.

Finally, plan for major delays as you travel. The timetable for arrivals and departures is almost always wrong. Amtrak shares the rails with freight cars, which can lead to delays as you wait for them to pass. There’s also the possibility of bad weather, mechanical problems, and other delays.

Is It Bucket-List-Worthy?

In short, traveling across America by train is one of the most incredible ways to see the country. Sure, there are some downsides and frustrations, but for the price and the unique experience, It can’t be beat.

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