Travel Tips

First time Amtrak user? Here’s how it’s done!

Check the “Weekly Specials” on-line. Amtrak offers certain super-deep discounts on coach travel, but it is only available on-line. Go to www.amtrak.com and look for it after clicking the “Hot Deals” menu tab. Browse “Weekly Specials”. Scroll down the list to see if there are any sales posted for the train you want to use. Over the last year, fares as low as $11.40 each way have been posted for Chicago-Detroit trains. Unfortunately Amtrak’s on-line reservations system is rather repetitive and clunky, so you have to book and get separate confirmation numbers for each leg of your trip. “Weekly Specials” discounts are NOT available by phone or even at stations and change each week. They can only be booked by using the on-line system. “Weekly Specials” are only available for coach travel. If you want to upgrade to business class or a sleeper, you are only allowed to do it on-board the train, with the conductor, on a space available basis. While visiting the Amtrak website, check for late breaking news that may be relevant to your travel plans by clicking here.

Write this number down and carry it with you. It’s Amtrak’s toll-free reservation and information number. It will help you in more ways than you can imagine.

(800) 872-7245

(800) USA-RAIL

You’ll be dealing with “Julie,” Amtrak’s remarkably user-friendly voice recognition system. “Julie” can give you schedules, fares and arrival times.

Book early = Save money.Amtrak has adopted a fare policy which rewards travelers who book early. You can reap substantial savings by booking more than three weeks ahead.

Ask for discounts.Discounts are available for card-carrying members of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the American Automobile Club, and for senior citizens and the handicapped.

Make your reservation. When you have made your reservation, you will be given a reservation number. Write it down and carry it with you until you pick up your tickets. Ticketing problems are rare, but having that simple number will correct 99% of all ticketing problems. Also, if you are going to pick up your tickets at the station, be prepared to produce picture ID.

Business class or coach? For the price differential, we recommend coach except for travel on trains #352 and #354 when boarding at Chicago. Business Class passengers are pre-boarded at Chicago. For those two trains, it is worth the few extra bucks to be pre-boarded and avoid the mob vying for the best coach seats.

On your day of departure, find out if the train will arrive on time by checking the (800) number before you leave home. You’ll need to know the train number (which is on your ticket) and the date. You can use the touchtone feature for this, because it’s just as fast as using an agent. You can also check the train status online by clicking here.

Some stations are busier than others. Check our station page for your station to see if parking is tight, or if the station is usually crowded. If so, arrive about 45 minutes early, or an hour early if you have baggage to be checked. At other stations, you need to have baggage checked at least 30 minutes before departure, so allow sufficient time. If you do not have checked baggage you can show up just before the train leaves, since there is no check-in procedure. CAUTION: be sure to allow enough time for unexpected traffic delays getting to the station!

 In coach,once on the train, your ticket will be taken by the conductor and you will be given a “seat check,” which is a colored strip with a marking on it which tells the conductor how many are in your party and at what station you are de-training. Keep the check in the slot above your seat. If you go to the cafe car, take the check with you. Put it back in its slot when you return to your seat. One nice feature of midwest corridor coaches is that almost all cars now have electrical outlets at each pair of seats. That means that you can plug in your laptop computer without running the batteries down.

 Be courteous with tape players, DVD players, etc. Don’t disturb other passengers. If you’re bringing along your own entertainment, bring a headset. How would you like to listen to some stick-in-the mud’s music for six hours? It goes both ways- other passengers might not appreciate your music tastes, either.

 Food service is provided at several different levels of service. Automat cars with vending machines are no longer used on Michigan trains.

An Amcafe has a standup snack bar which provides sandwiches and beverages. An Amdinette has a snack bar just like the Amcafe (and the same menu), but also has booth-style seating at tables.  The Diner is one of the real pleasures of life. Found on long distance trains, dining cars have full menus, flowers on the tables, and the prices are very reasonable.

Coach passengers pay extra for food and beverages. Meals are included in the ticket price for sleeping car passengers, but alcohol is extra. The food in Amtrak’s dining cars is far superior to airline food, and the equal of most better restaurants. If you’re on a long-distance train which has a diner, don’t try to get a table to yourself. One of the real joys of rail travel is the people you meet. Share your table with other travelers and engage them in conversation- it almost always turns into a pleasant experience.

If you’re in a sleeping car for your first time, take a moment to have the porter describe the room features to you when you board. Superliner and Viewliner deluxe bedrooms have showers. Standard bedrooms usually have a shower down the hall. One nice feature of Amtrak sleepers is that morning complementary coffee and orange juice is available right in your car- just ask the porter.

Tipping. In the diner, tip as you would in any restaurant, even if the meal is included in your ticket price. For sleeping car porters, we recommend about $5.00 per night if good service has been provided.

If you are going to be using an unstaffed station at the start of your trip, or if you are going to be picking up or dropping someone off at a staffed station, take the toll-free number with you so that you can call and check on the train’s status. All stations except Royal Oak have a pay phone in or at the station stop.

In the station section, several locations are noted as gathering sites for railfanis americanis (railfans- the really serious ones). They generally walk around with a railroad radio in their ear, looking terribly concerned. Some of the worst ones can be pests. Most of them are a little weird, some very much so. They’re all harmless, but we do not advise engaging them in conversation. If you do, you will get a nonstop lecture about things you never wanted to know about.

Oakland County passengers may want to consider using Detroit, Dearborn or even Ann Arbor (for people in the Farmington Hills or Novi areas) instead of Birmingham or Royal Oak, particularly in bad weather. Birmingham has a large lighted but unheated shelter and plenty of parking. Royal Oak has a nice lighted, radiant-heated twin shelter but the parking situation leaves a lot to be desired. Because the train must first go southeast before it heads west, it is both cheaper and faster to use Dearborn or Ann Arbor. On the plus side, boarding at the Oakland County stops gives you first pick for seats; further down the line you will seldom get a seat exactly where you would like. Track projects are planned which will speed up critical parts of this segment sometime in 2010.