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The Ultimate Amtrak Survival Guide

Written by Adrienne Wolter, Community Blogger | Sep 30, 2013 11:00 AM
Horseshoe Curve

Photo by Loco Steve

Horseshoe Curve in winter, one of the best train viewing locations in PA.

Riding the rails is a great way to get from Harrisburg to many major destinations, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City. There’s no need to worry about navigation, traffic, tolls or crowded rest stops. Best of all, there’s no need to pay for gas! If you've never taken Amtrak to get to your destination and have decided to give it a try, here are some important things to know before you climb aboard.

Philadelphia Train

Photo by Kyle Gradinger

Acela Express crossing the Schuylkill River before arrival at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.

What and How to Pack

Be sure to have your tickets on hand, and make sure the receipt is attached. If removed, the ticket is void. Keep your tickets in a safe place until it’s time to hand them over. Also, be sure to have a valid photo ID, which is needed for buying tickets, storing, and checking baggage, and may be requested by an Amtrak employee aboard the train.

Passengers are limited to two pieces of carry-on luggage in addition to up to four checked bags. (But they're pretty accommodating - when I rode Amtrak home from Philadelphia after returning from study abroad, I had three heavy suitcases that they let me keep with me on the train.) If you need medication, you are allowed to bring it with you on the train. Don’t put it in checked baggage, since you will not have access to it during your trip. You may also bring blankets and pillows, purses and coolers, and smart phones. Just keep in mind that space is limited, so plan only what you can handle. If traveling with a baby, you may bring items such as strollers and diaper bags which will not count as carry-on luggage.

Make sure you have a change of clothes in your carry-on if your trip is overnight, and pack some snacks and water as well. Food can be pricey on the train.

Passengers are allowed to check up to four pieces of luggage. Make sure your luggage is appropriate; in other words, no trash bags or packing boxes. All your bags should have ID tags with your name, address and phone number provided.

Harrisburg Train

Photo by Jayme Frye

The Reading Railroad Bridge spans the Susquehanna River into Harrisburg.

At the Station

You should get to the station at least 30 minutes before your train is scheduled to leave. However, if you will need extra help with baggage, are bringing large items on board or are heading to a very busy station, you may want to arrive even earlier. In busy stations, lines can start to form up to 45 minutes before departure, so arriving earlier will ensure you a better seat if you bought unreserved seating. Consider what time of day you are traveling; you don’t want to be late because of rush-hour traffic.

Before you go it’s a good idea to check the status of your train, in case it is running late and you need to reschedule. Call (800) USA-RAIL to be sure your train is running on time.

After checking in, you can relax if there's time or make your way to your platform. Each station offers parking, restrooms and lounges for passengers holding various tickets. Some stations offer food or vending machines and kiosks with newspapers and magazines, so you can buy any last-minute items you've forgotten.

When the time nears for you to board, follow the signs to your train. Train numbers and destinations will be clearly posted. You will wait, typically in a lobby area with benches, until the doors to head down to the tracks open. Head down the stairs and board your train. If you need help or have questions, workers should be on hand to assist you.

Pittsburgh Dome

Photo by Zach Frailey

The beautiful dome at the Pittsburgh Amtrak station.

All Aboard!

Various seating options are available, such as coach, business class or first class. Coach is your least-expensive option, and seats can be either reserved or unreserved. If you're used to traveling by airplane, you will probably find Amtrak very comfortable in comparison! These seats have ample legroom and can recline if you want to nap. Each seat also has fold-down meal trays, reading lights and electrical outlets. You will have overhead storage for your carry-on luggage. If you travel business class, you are entitled to complimentary drinks and newspapers. In addition, though tiny, each car has a restroom.

First-class seating is available only on Acela Express trains. You will have at-seat attendants and complimentary food and beverage service. First-class passengers also get access to ClubAcela lounges at stations where they are available.

If you are traveling long-distance, you can request a sleeping room at the time you make your reservation. This will be an upgrade from your regular fare, but many perks are included, such as meals, linen and towel service, and complimentary water and newspapers. These accommodations can sleep from two to four people. Though they don’t feature anything fancy like radiant floor heating, you can adjust the heating or cooling to your comfort level.

Also, you don’t need to worry that you will sleep through your stop! Amtrak employees will make sure this does not happen, so get that shut-eye while you can.

Harrisburg Amtrak Station

Photo by Adam Moss

Home sweet home: the Harrisburg Amtrak station.

Dining Options

Various food options are available on Amtrak depending on the type of train and length of your trip. Most long-distance trains have full-service dining cars offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it is recommended that you make reservations to prevent overcrowding.

For medium journeys, lounge cars offer informal dining and carry-out options. Casual seating is available for eating, reading or just relaxing. You can socialize with fellow passenger and give yourself a change of scenery from your seat. A café car is available on short trips, with table seating and carry-out food like pizza, snacks and drinks.

Traveling by train is a memorable experience, and is proof that getting to your destination is half the fun! Enjoy the sights, sounds and memories of riding the rails.

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