In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provides tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. When an Amtrak question came across the transom, we turned to Lonely Planet contributor (and major train) fan Lauren Keith.
Question: My trip around Europe with the Eurail Pass was one of the best I’ve ever taken. Is there anything like this in the United States?
Lauren Keith: Hopping off and on trains, waking up to a new city in the morning, carrying your suitcase through elegant train stations, meeting new friends from across hostel bunk beds: taking an extended train trip in this fashion actually is possible in the United States.
Modeled on the Eurail Pass, which allows travel around 33 European countries, Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass might get you across only one international border. But the experience can be just as varied, intriguing and eye-opening as its European counterpart.
The US might have the world’s largest road network, sure – but taking a car-free “road trip” across the country is a ticket to an unforgettable adventure, and may be the most European-style journey you can have on this side of the pond.
I’ve just bought my second USA Rail Pass, and I’m starting to pack my bags for my next Amtrak sojourn. In 2021, I took to the rails on a loop from Kansas City, going through St Louis, San Antonio, New Orleans, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. Here’s a quick dive into the nitty-gritty of the Amtrak pass and some of the questions I was most commonly asked about my trip.
What is Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass?
The USA Rail Pass allows riders to go on 10 Amtrak “segments” within a 30-day period for a set price. A segment isn’t always the same thing as a one-way journey – any time you get off the train is the end of a segment. A one-way journey between Seattle and Denver, for example, consists of two segments because you have to change trains.
Launched in 1976, the USA Rail Pass in its current form differs significantly from the Eurail Pass, and even from previous versions of itself. Instead of regional restrictions, the entire country is now fair game, and the pass is valid for a set 30 days, and only 30 days – travelers no longer have the option of choosing longer or shorter durations.
When can I use the Amtrak Rail Pass?
Once you purchase the pass, you have to use it within 120 days (about four months). After the first segment is traveled, the clock starts ticking, and you have 30 days to take the other nine segments.
How much does the USA Rail Pass cost?
Amtrak sells the USA Rail Pass for $499 at full price – but it’s been on sale for as low as $299 a couple times in the last few years. And at this promotional price, each segment costs less than $30, regardless of length.
What are the USA Rail Pass restrictions?
While the USA Rail Pass is pretty flexible, it’s important to know a few details before buying one.
With the pass, you must travel in coach class. Business class and sleeper cabins (which are soon to be upgraded) are not an option, unless you want to pay for them outside of the pass at the going rate. While Amtrak’s reclining seats are far superior to those of any airline’s economy class (39 inches of legroom compared with 28 inches when flying), they can be a challenge to sleep in overnight.
Passengers using the USA Rail Pass cannot ride the Auto Train (between Virginia and Florida), Acela trains (high-speed trains in the Northeast) or Canadian routes that Amtrak operates with VIA Rail Canada. However, these regions are still accessible to pass holders on other (slower) routes.
Riders can travel between the same two stations only twice (two round-trip journeys), so the pass is best for travelers looking to explore a larger region, or the entire country. If you’re looking to commute between cities or visit friends or family in the same place, opt for a Multi-Ride Pass instead, which doesn’t have this restriction.
Though the USA Rail Pass doesn’t have any blackout dates, only a limited number of seats are saved for pass holders on each service – which means advance reservations are highly advisable. It’s possible that some trains will be unavailable; unfortunately, the number of eligible seats isn’t shown when searching the schedules. You have to reserve seats in advance, and it’s best to book your journeys as soon as you know where you want to go, even if you haven’t nailed down all the details. If you change your mind, you can cancel and rebook any time before the scheduled departure of the train, a super-flexible option.
Where can I go on Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass?
The country is your oyster. Amtrak’s routes roll across the US from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Mexican border to stops in Canadian cities. More than 30 train lines crisscross the entire country on some 21,000 miles of tracks. Trains stop in 500 cities in 46 states, along with a handful of destinations in Canada.
How can I make the most of Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass?
That all depends on you and your travel goals. You could feel the West Coast sun along the coast in California before cozying up in a bookshop among the grays and greens of the Pacific Northwest. You could focus on the East Coast’s big-hitters, such as DC, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. The bold could even cross the country from every direction within 30 days: east from Los Angeles to New Orleans, north from Miami to Maine, west from Chicago to Seattle, and south from Vancouver to San Diego, where you can cross the border to Tijuana, Mexico, on foot.
Although the observation car might sound like the best way to soak up all the extraordinary diversity of scenery on an epic journey like that, I wouldn’t personally recommend it – unless you’re sure you’ve packed plenty of snacks and your body can handle days without fully lying down to sleep. The California Zephyr, one of the longest train journeys in the world, takes 52 hours from California to Chicago, and that’s assuming there aren’t any delays – a rarity.
Start by looking at Amtrak’s route map and deciding which stops are a priority. Remember that you don’t necessarily need to start from your home city: if you want to pack more in, you could fly or take a train (without using your pass) to a hub like New York, Chicago or DC that has multiple options for long-distance routes.
Another important factor is timing. You have 30 days to use your pass, and outside the Northeast, most routes run just once a day – or even as little as three times a week, as is the case for the Sunset Limited (Los Angeles to New Orleans). The small number of services mean that strange departure times are inevitable. My first trips on Amtrak in 2008 left from a small-town station in Kansas with two daily departures: 2:45am going south and 2:59am going north.
Which Amtrak routes are the most scenic?
Amtrak’s long-distance trains are some of the most scenic journeys in the world. The Coast Starlight is absolutely worth a trip, hugging the coast so closely between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara that you seem to hover at the cliff edge, as if on a roller coaster. The California Zephyr takes in the widest variety of landscapes, from the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas to the salt flats of Nevada and Utah to endless bends around the Rocky Mountains.
Even many of Amtrak’s stations are scenic. Los Angeles’ Union Station is an art-deco jewel with its own brewpub. Denver’s Union Station is home to an impressive food hall, and the coffered ceilings of Kansas City’s Union Station (do we see a naming trend here?) are just as gorgeous as those in Chicago and Washington, DC.
Ready to take a midnight train to anywhere? See you on board.