10 tips to make the most of your train vacation

Vacationing by train is a great way to see amazing cities and landscapes without the hassles of flying or driving, but there are a few things you’ll want to know to keep your trip on track.  

Whether you’re planning your very first trip by rail or just your latest journey of many, here are 10 things to do before and during your adventure. 

1. Pick the right length of itinerary

Train journeys come in many sizes, from hour-long sightseeing jaunts to multi-day routes that cross entire continents. North America’s 2 longest routes are Via Rail Canada’s The Canadian connecting Toronto and Vancouver (2,775 miles over 4 days) followed by Amtrak’s combined Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited route, which connects Chicago, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio to Los Angeles (2,728 miles over 3 days).

Not all rail journeys need to be that long, though. Many of Amtrak’s most iconic routes are day trains. These include The Pennsylvanian, which takes riders through the Alleghenies and Pennsylvania Dutch Country in about 9 hours; and the Pacific Surfliner running along the sunny Southern California coastline between San Diego and San Luis Obispo in less than 6 hours.  

Another plus of train travel is the flexible itineraries. Only want to see the scenery between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg on The Pennsylvanian, or between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara on the Pacific Surfliner? No problem—just book the appropriate ticket and your trip can be the exact length you want. And unlike airports and cruise ports, train stations are typically right in the city center, helping to keep your itinerary simple.

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2. Book the right accommodations

Train accommodations fall into 2 broad categories:

  • Seats: Similar to airline seats but typically larger, with more leg room and a deeper recline. Often sold in different classes, such as coach and business, or first class and second class. Some railways, including Via Rail, offer seats that convert into sleeping berths.
  • Rooms: These private accommodations range from small roomettes to full suites. All Amtrak and Via Rail rooms have lie-flat sleeping. Overseas, day trains may have rooms without sleeping accommodations—make sure there’s a bed if you want one.

Seats work fine for day trains, which often don’t have sleeper cars anyway. If you’re able to sleep in airplane seats, seats may also work for you on 1-night itineraries. Seats are more affordable than rooms.  

A bed in a sleeper cabin on a train.

Having your own private room for changing clothes and lying fully flat to sleep is highly recommended for longer routes.

But for multi-day trips, you’ll be much more comfortable with your own private space to change clothes, manage your luggage and toiletries, and fully lie down to sleep. Rooms cost more, but if you’re looking to enjoy your time on the train as much as possible, the expense is well worth it.

3. Know the rules for seat selection

There are lots of reasons you might want to sit in a particular place. Certain scenery might be easier to see from one side of the train. Maybe you’d like to be closer to the dining car, or farther away from the busy dome observation car.

On Amtrak, coach- and business-class seats are usually first-come, first-served. (A few routes, like Acela, have assigned seating in business class.) That’s a good reason to arrive early; Amtrak recommends doing so at least 30 minutes before departure. Conductors may move passengers around to let couples and families sit together, and to make sure passengers are on the right cars to disembark at smaller stations.

Private Amtrak rooms on overnight trains are pre-assigned when you book. If you’d rather have a different room location, you can call Amtrak customer service to request a move (though this is subject to availability).

In Europe, many of the most popular high-speed intercity trains, such as the Eurostar, allow you to reserve a seat or room when you buy your ticket. In fact, many require it. Shorter and slower routes are more likely to operate on a first-come, first-served basis. 

A train going through Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania.

Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania is just one of many sights where you'll have a much better view if you sit on one side of the train versus the other.

4. Research where to sit for the best view

On some routes, the best sights are on one side of the train. On The Pennsylvanian, the famous Horseshoe Curve is best seen from the right side of the train when heading east and the left side if heading west. Taking the Deutsche Bahn through Germany’s Rhine Gorge? You’ll want to be on the left side if heading south, and on the right if going north, to face into the gorge.

Amtrak operates 2 kinds of passenger cars, the single-level Viewliner and the double-decker Superliner. If you’re traveling in a Superliner, the best views are generally on the upper deck.

5. Research timing for the scenery, too

If there are particular things you want to see on your journey, make sure the train isn’t passing them in the night. For example, if you want to see fall foliage during the day on Amtrak’s The Vermonter route, it’s best to take the southbound train—the northbound one passes much of the scenery after dark.

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6. Plan for limited internet access

Since you’ll often be journeying away from cities and highways, internet access isn’t a guarantee. Not all railways have Wi-Fi, and the ones that do often have limited bandwidth.

Many Amtrak routes do offer Wi-Fi, but only for “general web browsing” and not data-hungry uses like streaming music or video. North of the border, Via Rail offers similarly limited Wi-Fi, with many long-distance trains going without.

A woman holding a book looks out a train window.

Bringing books on your train journey is an easy way to keep yourself entertained if there's limited internet.

Bring physical reading materials and download the e-books, music, and video content you want to have available. If you’re traveling with a group, cards and smaller board games are also a great way to pass the time with friends and family. 

7. Keep your devices charged

Your phone, tablet, and camera won’t do you any good if their batteries run down. Luckily most trains these days have plenty of power outlets. All Amtrak coach cars have 2 power outlets per seat pair, which are located below the window; aisle passengers should ask politely if they can reach over to plug in.

Though not necessary, it can be convenient to bring a rechargeable power bank so you can recharge devices anywhere around the train, especially if outlets are in short supply in the dining and observation cars.

8. On longer journeys, decide whether you’re bringing or buying most of your meals

The longer your journey is, the more you’ll be eating on the train. Trains in North America usually have a café car where passengers of all classes can buy snacks and takeout meals. Longer routes may have a dedicated dining car; sitting down for dinner as the scenery flies by is one of the classic rail experiences.

On Amtrak, meals are included for those who book room accommodations. Coach and business passengers pay separately. You can also bring your own meals and eat at your seat, your room, or an observation car—though not the dining or café cars. This can be a more affordable alternative to buying lots of snacks from the café car.

Overseas, dining offerings vary widely. Many fast intercity trains only offer snacks or takeout meals. In Japan, bento boxes known as ekiben are popular to buy at stations and eat on the train. At the other end of the spectrum are more experience-focused overnight routes such as the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Scotland or the Transcantabrico luxury train in northern Spain. These often feature sumptuous dining cars and gourmet menus where the food rivals the scenery.

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Rocky Mountaineer serves 2-course breakfasts and 3-course lunches featuring seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. 

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The view from a train's observation car, with floor-to-ceiling windows.

Trains are meant to be moved around on, such as by visiting the observation car. 

9. Stretch your legs!

Unlike flying or driving, you’re free to get up and walk around as much as you like. Your seat or room is your home base, but you can enjoy coffee and a sandwich in the café car or spend an hour in the observation car at your leisure. Just be sure to observe train etiquette by staying quiet when passing through quiet cars and not monopolizing observation car seats. 

10. Get to know your fellow passengers

The communal train setting is a great opportunity to meet new people from around the world. There’s no airplane engine drone to drown out your voices, and you can often chat in seats that face one another, like in the café car.

Since you may be seeing the same people for many days, being on friendly terms can make the trip more enjoyable. And you never know when you or a fellow passenger might be able to lend a helping hand, such as by keeping an eye on each other’s belongings or offering a charger. 

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