[Amtrak US #6] making train reservations

After purchasing a USA rail pass and making a travel plan, it was time to make reservations for each train ride. The pass is just a proof that I can do 12 segments of ride within one month. To get a seat for the specific train ride, I needed to make a reservation in advance.

There are two ways to do it.

  1. To make reservation for each train ride as a trip goes on… one or two ride(s) at a time on the road. –> Better if you left your trip schedule to be very flexible.
  2. To make all the reservations at once, before your first trip. –> Better if you made detailed plan for the whole trip in advance. It’s mostly okay to change the reservations afterward, so there’s not too much risk. And it is a MUST if you are going for sleeping cars because they tend to get sold out fast (especially in summer.)

I pretty much finished to make the travel plan of the entire trip and decided to go for #2, to make reservations for the whole trip at once.

I somehow imagined I could do this online, perhaps maybe on Amtrak website. But I was wrong! Amtrak’s instruction on the website was to make reservations by calling them (1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245)), yes, over the phone. (Or you should send an e-mail if you are outside the US.)

This got me a bit scared because as a non-native English speaker, I wasn’t sure if I could complete the task. I had to make reservations for eight train trips and two thruway bus rides (transfer bus that you can ride with USA rail pass) and that seemed a bit too complicated task to finish over a telephone call. I am now living in the US, so I did not qualify for an e-mail reservation thing. Visiting an Amtrak station seemed like the easiest way, since I would be able to hand over to a staff the printed out timetable I made for my trip. One problem was that visiting the station was NOT stated as an option on Amtrak website.

I googled in desperation and found conflicting results. Somebody said that I should stick with telephone reservations, but another one insisted that I didn’t need to and I should just visit the Amtrak station to make reservations.

So, I decided whatever!… to visit the Amtrak station and give it a try. If they say ‘no,’ I will just make a reservation at the station with my cell phone, right? Moreover, I need to visit the station once anyway to pick up my pass, so why not at least ask?

The nearest Amtrak station from my home is (the beautiful) Boston South Station. I could  easily find the Amtrak office on the first floor.

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Amtrak office at Boston South Station

Luckily for me, there was not many customers at the office on the Thursday afternoon.  And more luckily for me, the Amtrak staff I walked up to was a really nice lady who was so very willing to help. I asked her if I could pick up my USA rail pass and make reservations for the train rides too. “Sure,” she said without a hesitation. Very relieved, I gave her my reservation number, passport, and the train schedule table that I made before.

She seemed a bit surprised to see so many lines of rides, but quickly returned calm and made each reservation one by one for me. The process took quite a long time, about thirty minutes in total. The lady had to struggle with some kind of Amtrak system problem and somebody came to help etc… but at the end the task was successfully completed. I came out the station with my new USA Rail pass, and tickets for the every train rides from Boston all the way to the west.

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The kind Amtrak staff printed out the whole schedule for me after finishing the reservation

But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end here. I needed to add one more train ride and make time change for another. So I visited the same station again. I thought it would be no problem at all but this time the staff was not too kind to handle the matter. There were more customers in line (like three or four, then later none) and the staff (a young man this time) seemed very annoyed that he had to do something for the USA Rail pass, making sounds of dissatisfaction with whatever he could. He wasn’t shy to let me know that he was unhappy to meet USA Amtrak traveler and told me “this is why we tell you to do it by phone.” I didn’t understand what ‘this’ was, but guessed it might be very hard to carry out the task related to USA rail pass by Amtrak software because he was saying ‘this’ while looking at the monitor and hitting the keyboard hard. I felt like a kiddo in a principal’s office and almost said I was sorry. But anyway, after like ten minutes I successfully got the new tickets!

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Ready to go! All the tickets for the one month Amtrak train trip

So for the train ride reservation, I suggest from my experience that:

  1. make reservation by phone or e-mail in advance if you are comfortable with phone calls. However, it doesn’t mean you have to do it by phone. You technically can make reservations at the station. Amtrak staffs can do this, but sometimes they don’t want to… so art of negotiation might be needed.
  2. if you are to visit the Amtrak office, choose the time that are not too busy… weekday afternoon for example.

And one suggestion for Amtrak: why don’t you make an easy online reservation system for USA rail pass so you can safe both staff members’  and travelers’ time?

[Amtrak US #5] planning detailed schedule

After drawing the BIG PICTURE on how I wanted to travel the US (with 30 days of USA rail pass), now it is time to make more detailed plan. You have to make reservation for the each train ride, even if you have the pass (will get back to this is later posts) meaning you have to know specific date/time of the trains you want to ride.

I sort of decided the starting date to be July 23rd and ending date to be around one month after that. According to the big picture I want to visit about ten cities (including Grand Canyon), so that means I will spend 2~4 days in each. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well… I don’t know if there’s an easier way, but for me it was a bit complicated task to finish (took whole afternoon.) Maybe it was because I started from punching in the cities on Amtrak reservation site, to find out the best choice of train to hop in. For example, I punched in Boston–>Chicago on July 23rd like this.

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This route was no problem because there’s only one, daily train from Boston to Chicago. I HAVE TO take THE train. But this kind of searching became a problem later because for some of the route, the train was not there everyday! For example from New Orleans to Houston the train leaves only Mon, Wed, and Saturday.   So if you punch in, for instance,  Sunday as a starting day you get something like this. Notice of ‘no train available’ and only one alternative. I felt like ‘hmm…. what if there’s better alternatives?’

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You can play around with Amtrak reservation system punching in random dates, but for me, it did not seem efficient.

Then I found the old fashioned Amtrak time table booklet!

It is a bit ironic because yes, it is old fashioned booklet but Amtrak does not print the hard copy (one that you can pick up at the train station) anymore (at least it seems… making many people furious <related discussion>.) But the good new is that you can still acquire free pdf booklet of the national timetable on Amtrak website. ***Here is downloadable link of June 2018 version of the Amtrak System Timetable***

It is 139 pages pdf of booklet that you can search cities easily by ‘ctrl/cmd+f’. I am a ‘paper’ person so I also printed out the whole booklet.

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<Amtrak System Timetable> printed out

The book has every timetable of Amtrak trains and connecting buses run by Amtrak (you can use a USA rail pass for a ride on these buses.) The chapters are sorted by regions (Northeast, East, Midwest, West, Pacific Northwest, and California) and in the first few pages (‘Amtrak Service Location’) all the cities are listed alphabetically with the page(s) to look up the schedule.

Ok finally, here’s how I constructed the detailed schedule. I will display the steps by example of <New Orleans–> Houston> route. (*I used the free Adobe Acrobat reader for the example.)

  1. (Done before) Draw the big picture and sort out the cities to visit.
    For me it is: Boston–> Chicago–> New Orleans–> Houston–> Tucson–> (by rental car: Sedona–> Grand Canyon–> Las Vegas)–> LA–> San Francisco–> Portland–> Seattle
  2. Look up the name of the city for the train ride in the ‘Amtrak Service Location’ pages (pp. 3~12) . Either departure or arrival city is okay. I looked up ‘New Orleans’ and it has four pages to look up (58, 69, 70, 87.)Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 10.39.21 AM
  3. Punch in the pages () in the pdf reader. I found the route connecting New Orleans–> Houston in page 70. Oh, it is the same train that goes from Houston to Tucson (my next ride)! I can easily the train only runs on Mon/Wed/Saturday ()Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 10.49.02 AM
  4. Write down in separate paper or document file the departure/arrival cities, departure date and time for the ride. In my case, it is July 30th (Monday.) You will have to use this paper/document to make reservations for the ride.For this ride I wrote down (in a piece of paper):
    July 30th (Mon) New Orleans 9:00 AM –> Houston 6:18 PM
  5. Repeat 1~4 until you have the complete schedule!

Later I made neatly arranged spreadsheet to take to the Amtrak station where I picked up the USA rail pass and made the reservations for each ride. Will get back to reservations on later post and for now, here’s the schedule I made using the above steps. The letters look kind of small below, but you can look up the spreadsheet here in case you are interested😁!

 

[Amtrak US #4] Drawing the BIG PICTURE

 

 

While preparing for a trip, the most exciting moment for me is the time looking at the map to choose which cities to visit and what roads to take.

For 2018 Amtrak trip, the starting point for my planning was the map that Amtrak provided on their website.  This interactive map is called ‘Amtrak Travel Planning Map.’ (***I don’t know why, but this link doesn’t seem to work in mobile devices. Will update if I can find the mobile version of the interactive map. Again, Amtrak is not the most user friendly company!)

The map is useful to kind of draw a BIG PICTURE in your head. For instance, my starting point is Boston so I could check where to the railroads extend from Boston. I could go South (to New York), North (to Maine), or to Northwest (to Chicago). I decided to go to Chicago because my final destination is Seattle and it seemed pretty reasonable to head Chicago if you look at the map (plus, I visited NY and Maine many times already.) Then from Chicago I could go further Northwest to North Dakota and Montana, but then my trip will end too soon! So I decided to go South to New Orleans…. and so on.

This is my BIG PICTURE of Amtrak trip 2018!

<BIG PICTURE for Amtrak trip 2018>
Boston–> Chicago–> New Orleans–> Houston–> Tucson–> (This part I decided to travel with a rental car: Sedona–> Grand Canyon–> Las Vegas)–> Los Angeles (Thruway Bus, which is Amtrak USA rail pass covered Greyhound Bus… meaning free with USA rail pass)–> San Francisco–> Portland (Oregon)–> Seattle (then back to South Korea)

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Really, it is just like a starting point and much more details had to be decided later. For example, I had to decided whether I would stop by Cleveland (the hometown of Indians and Cavaliers -good bye King James!-) before heading to Chicago. I decided to skip it for this trip because I had looooooooong way to go and it felt like too much time on Midwest.

My itinerary is a bit unique because I am not coming back to where I started. Well… I think every traveler is one of a kind so there might not be something like THE ‘answer sheet.’ But for a guidance, I borrowed the book <All Aboard> from the library and skimmed through it . It is a nice little guidebook that gives you a motivation and basic info about train trip (like you get free meals if you pay extra for roomette, which I will get back to later.) There seem to be a few more books about train trip like <Tourist Trains Guidebook> , but I haven’t read it yet.

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<All Aboard> by Jim Loomis

These are the suggested itineraries from <All Aboard> FYI. The routes are mostly loops that one can come back to the starting points. The lovely titles of the itineraries are from the author (Jim Loomis, he runs great website about train trip in US.)

»Big City Tour: Chicago-Washington, DC-NY-Boston-Chicago
»Glaciers to Glitz: San Francisco-Seattle-Chicago-San Francisco
»A Western Triangle: Los Angeles-San Francisco-Portland-Santa Fe-Los Angeles
»Big Mountains, Little Towns: Los Angeles-Santa Fe-Galesburg-Granby-Davis-Los Angeles
»Oh, Canada!: NY-Toronto-Vancouver-Seattle or San Francisco
»The Santa Fe Trail: Chicago-Dodge City-Santa Fe-Grand Canyon-Los Angeles-Chicago
»The Ultimate Round Trip: NY-Washington DC-New Orleans-San Francisco-Seattle-Chicago-Boston-NY
»Semigrand Tour: Seattle-Chicago-New Orleans-Los Angeles-San Francisco-Seattle
»Fall Colors I: Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Chicago-Washington DC-Philadelphia
»Fall Colors II: NY-Saratoga Springs-Ticonderoga-Montreal-NY

 

[Amtrak US #3] Buying the USA rail pass

According to Amtrak website, there are at least two ways to buy USA Rail Pass. 1) buying it online at Amtrak website 2) buying it from travel agencies who have access to Amtrak.

As a heavy online shopper, I chose to buy it online. Buying the pass online is pretty much like other online shopping. However, NOT like other stuffs that are delivered to your mailbox, Amtrak does not send you the pass but you will have to pick the pass up at Amtrak station later.
So purchasing the pass is more like purchasing the right 1) to pick-up the pass at the Amtrak stations later 2) to make reservation for each train ride with the info that you will obtain after making the reservation. (I will come back to making reservation for each train ride in later posts.)

Purchasing the USA rail pass can be made here. This is the first page you’ll see when you visit the website.

I chose ’30 Days: 12 segments’ pass ($689) and clicked ‘Purchase Now’ and was led to here eventually. 

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Amtrak is not the most user friendly company (WHY!!!! 😱). As you can see, this page can be pretty intimidating especially if you have not decided details of the trip! I will share what I know+what I did.

1) Choosing the pass.
It is pretty easy. You can choose which pass is right for you. (post about choosing which pass it right for you)

2) When is your first day of travel?
If you have fixed the starting date of the travel, you can just state the date. However, I wasn’t 100% sure what date I was to begin traveling (I only had an approximate range.) In this case, you don’t have to be super specific about the date… unless it is way too off (like one year.) I don’t even understand why one needs to put this down, because when I got the actual ticket I did not find any info about this date.

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I chose July 23rd as starting date

There are still the rules to keep in mind. According to the e-mail I got later:

<all travel must be completed within 330 days of reserving the first travel segment or within the selected travel duration of the pass once the first travel segment is reserved, whichever comes first. Pass prices are subject to change and are not guaranteed until actual travel reservations are made.>

In short, you have to finish the trip within around one year after the purchasing of the pass or before your pass’ duration ends (which is obvious, you have to finish the trip within 30 days if your pass is 30 days pass…hmm….)

3) Where and when will you pick up your pass?

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So many stations to choose from!

This one really got me confused. How will I know for sure which date I will pick up the pass? Life is so busy, right? It can sound even more problematic when you are an international traveler, coming to US and you are not 100% sure which train station is the best for the ticket pick-up. What I can say is that you can be pretty flexible about the pick-up date. I KNOW it because I put in ‘May 25th’ as a pick up date but I went to the station (South Station in Boston in my case) on 29th… and it was just fine! There is a fine print on the page saying ‘NOTE: If you do not pick up your pass by the date you specify, your pass will be canceled’, but my pass was safe and alive. (The lady at the station didn’t seem to care at all about this date.)

I am not sure if you can change the pick up station though. (I will add the info to the post if somebody gives me a feedback on this?) I have a feeling I can be flexible too, because it wasn’t like they have a printed pass waiting for you or anything. They print the ticket only after you present them the ID and the reservation number.

After you are finished with selections on these three factors, rest is just like other online shopping. You sign-in/sign-up for Amtrak account or you can choose to pay with a guest account. Amtrak accepts most of major credit cards, including Union Pay, JCB, and UATP(?).

Well.. this was about purchasing the pass online. There is another way of buying the pass, by contacting travel agents who sell Amtrak tickets. Considering all the hassles, it sounded nice if I could ask an expert about details. However, I have not succeeded on finding the mean to search for Amtrak agent near me. Perhaps, if you call Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL = 1-800-872-7245), they might be able to tell you.

 

[Amtrak US #2] Choosing the right USA rail pass

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/amtrak.com

First step for USA train trip… after you made up your mind to go on a trip of course, is choosing the right pass for YOU.

There are three kinds of passes, depending on the duration of a trip: 15, 30, 45 days. You can take a quick look here. Unlike Eurail pass, USA rail pass is not ‘unlimited.’ It has limited number of ride segments. ‘Segment’ is a term used by Amtrak that is similar to the ‘number’ of rides, but a little bit different… will explore more on this on following posts shorty.

For now, this is the simple info table of three passes. Prices are final including tax (I wasn’t charged for any extra.)

15 days

30 days

45 days

Segments

8

12

18

Price (adult)

$459.00

$689.00

$899.00

Price (child 2-12)

$229.50

$344.50

$449.50

I am planning for one month of trip so it seemed pretty obvious to choose 30 days pass. But at the last moment I kind of hesitated between 30 days and 15 days because I found out there is separate California Amtrak pass!

California pass is for 7 days of four one way rides and Amtrak sells it for $159. (You can look it up in here. However, not like USA rail pass, you cannot purchase a California rail pass online, you have to call Amtrak 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245) or travel agencies.) Depending on the itinerary, it looked like it might be better to combine 15 days USA rail pass+7 days California pass.

But I decided to stick with 30 days pass because

  1. 30 days pass was cheaper when you consider ‘per day’ price:
    *simple comparison
    15 days USA rail pass+7 days California pass= $459+159= $618—> $618/22 days=$28/day
    30 days USA rail pass=$689—>689/30 days=$23/day
  2. I am planning to travel all the way north to Oregon (Portland!) and Washington (Seattle!) before I go back to Korea.

If you are planning to end your trip in California, 15 days USA pass+7 days California can be nicer because absolute price (though not per day price) is cheaper.

Ok, next step is actual purchasing of the pass(es). So let’s get the credit card ready and head to… 🚂the website.