How To Prepare For 2024 Amtrak Holiday Travel
How To Prepare For 2024 Amtrak Holiday Travel

How To Prepare For 2024 Amtrak Holiday Travel

When someone talks about holiday travel, do you get mixed emotions? I do! I am excited about Amtrak Holiday Travel because seeing friends and loved ones can be relaxing and exciting.

But there is the stress of booking, dealing with crowds, ensuring you have what you need, and more—and sadly, dealing with those travelers who did not plan early, do their research, and now they are stressed out.

Over the years, I have traveled on Amtrak for the holidays or dealt with travelers on an average trip. It is not hard, but it is busier with many newbies.

If you are new to Amtrak or traveling, fear not! This article is here to help you on your first Amtrak holiday travel season.

How Early Should You Start Planning For Amtrak Holiday Travel?

Empire Builder
Amtrak’s Empire Builder (Photo Courtesy of Amtrak)

Do you need to plan early? It depends on a few things, but more than likely, yes.

The earlier you book, the easier it is to plan or deal with issues that can come up.

Trains and particular accommodations can get sold out early.

Most local commuter railroads do not offer reservations. If you can get on a packed train, you might need to stand, or they may not let you on if it is too full.

How early can you book?

Amtrak allows reservations up to eleven months in advance. That could be a little extreme, but it is essential to remember that you can plan your Amtrak holiday travel early.

Why Plan Early For Amtrak Holiday Travel

There are several reasons you should consider booking early, and here are a few I can think of that I use even if it is not for the holidays.

Besides better prices, you increase the chances of getting the route and accommodations you want, especially if you wish to have two roomettes across from each other or a bedroom suite.

Plus, if you are the first to request work, you will likely get the time off before those who turn requests in later.

You have more time to schedule rides and figure out if you can check bags and other details. Additionally, you can see if you need to update or get new luggage.

What To Consider To Have A Smoother Amtrak Holiday Travel Experience

There are a few things to work out for a successful trip. The basics include your destination, lodging, how you are getting around, luggage, plus gifts and whatnot.

Where Are You Going?

For most of us, our destination gets set by others during the holiday, and if that is the case, it can save you some time on research. But if you want to get away for the holidays that is not to friends or family, you may need to do some research.

SF Ferry Building

Train stations can be like airports; they will get you close, but maybe not to exactly where you need to go.

For example, I used to take the train to Omaha to visit my sister, who lived in Pappillion and Bellvue, Nebraska. Omaha was a short drive for her.

Sometimes, you may have a little longer drive, as you may need to do for airports. The Omaha Airport, for in this case, was more out of the way.

Where Are You Staying?

After you have a destination, lodging comes next. Are you staying with people you know, or must you book something? If you are staying with people, ensure they have space for you and clear the dates before booking.

wood building house roof
Photo by Geri Art on Pexels.com

Staying with others often happens over the holidays, and I have much experience.

Again, make sure you clear the dates and times with whom you are visiting before you buy tickets.

If you want to get away from friends and family (I get that), this is a more significant decision.

Where you stay ties into how you get around once you get there, so consider that.

How are you getting around?

With some trips, family or friends will serve as your transportation, which is always a good option if you don’t abuse it. Renting a car is also an option once someone picks you up.

Renting a car is great if you want to explore more than others or are not always going in the same direction.

Using apps like Google Maps or other map apps can let you know your public transportation options. Rideshares may or may not be running in the areas you travel to over the holidays; these services do not run at scheduled times like taxis because they operate when the drivers are available to drive. Check out this article for more information on getting it once you arrive. Cabs are available at most times.

Luggage

Make sure that the luggage you have is travel-worthy. Bad zippers do not get better, and holes do not get better. If you have wheeled luggage, remember the wheels and the handles work well. I would only travel with faulty luggage if I knew I was getting a new piece for the holidays.

Travel bag
Packed for an Amtrak adventure

Packing – The Lighter, The Better

The lighter you pack, the more accessible traveling becomes.

Remember that not all stations have checked bag service; to check bags, both the start and end stations must offer the service. If you can carry on only, you do not have to worry about that.

Amtrak has a generous carry-on policy. If you cannot check, you must carry your luggage to your seat and put it on the overhead shelf or luggage racks within the car. Some cars may require you to take your luggage upstairs.

Don’t Forget Comfort & Entertainment

A travel blanket, pillow, sleep mask, ear plugs, and the like can make your trip more comfortable. An Amtrak comfort kit has all these in one, or you can create one.

If you look out the train windows, you may catch some epic views, but if you want movies or anything like that, you must provide that yourself. This article on Amtrak entertainment ideas may help.

Do not forget to pack some snacks and beverages for your trip. If these do not fit in my luggage, I put snacks in a small reusable bag I can stow in my luggage after consuming my snacks. The other option is to bring extra cash for the cafe car.

How To Travel With Gifts (Or Don’t)

The easiest way to travel with gifts is not to do it, but there are a few ways to deal with them.

These days, we have more options than ever. Companies like Amazon allow you to send your packages to a drop box, where you can pick them up when you arrive or send them to a friend or family member.

You could also pre-order your gifts from stores that allow drive-up pick-up.

The Cost Of Amtrak Holiday Travel

The cost of Amtrak tickets can vary from moment to moment because tickets are based on supply and demand. However, a few trains have set prices.

The ticket counter at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station.
The ticket counter at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station

Amtrak uses dynamic pricing, or call bucket rates. Once all tickets at one price level sell out, the cost goes up to the next level until the train sells out.

The system works both ways, so the price can decrease if people cancel or change their plans. Fortunately, this has happened to me too when booking, and it is always a happy surprise.

If you can devise a plan early, even if you are not ready to buy, you can jump on a sale if one shows up.

Amtrak Holiday Travel Could Include More Than Trains

Amtrak thruway bus
Amtrak’s Thruway Bus service

While Amtrak is known for train travel, it also partners with other ground transportation to create Amtrak Connecting Services.

This service includes other trains, such as commuter trains, ferries, taxis, shuttles, and buses. Some of the buses chartered by Amtrak and even branded,

When you see mixed service when booking, part of your journey will not be on the rails; with this service, you may have to move your bags between transportation.

You Can Mix Accommodations Types On Your Adventure

You can book mixed accommodations on multiple trains to maximize your travel dollars. And if this is your first time at Amtrak, you can get private rooms on some trains!

Amtrak Cardinal
Amtrak Cardinal

Here is an example: you could take two long-distance trains from Chicago, IL, to Richmond, VA, and book rooms on both trains.

While it would make sense to get a room on the Cardinal or Capitol Limited, would it make sense to get one on the Silver Star or Meteor for 2.25 hours? If you have unlimited travel funds, then by all means! There are advantages to rooms on both trains, such as the uses of the lounge in DC.

You can book a room on your first train and coach on the second train to save money; the same is valid for business class.

Scheduling Your Amtrak Holiday Travel

There are a few things you should consider when booking an Amtrak trip.

Plan For Travel Time

When considering Amtrak travel during the holiday or any time, you must consider when you are on the train. If you are going from California to Chicago for Thanksgiving, you need to Monday to be there by Wednesday afternoon.

Don’t Book Tight Connections

I can take one of three trains from my area to Chicago, which is excellent for flexibility. I could also book to leave later than Amtrak suggests. Fight that temptation! Especially around the holidays, things get more congested, and more can go wrong.

If you book your ticket, as Amtrak offers, you can get guaranteed transfers, which means Amtrak will work things out to get you to your destination. It’s not always how you want, but they will get you there. If you book your trip together in one direction, Amtrak can see how many people are connecting to a different train. If you book tickets separately, they do not see you are connecting.

If you book outside of what Amtrak suggests and something goes wrong, Amtrak is not responsible for accommodating you.

Get To The Station Early

If you are a new traveler, try not to put too much pressure on yourself; train travel can be relaxing and fun but intimidating sometimes.

One way to take the pressure off is to get to the station early; that way, you also have some flex time in case of weather and traffic.

Thirty minutes is good if you are going to a small station and not checking bags. When you leave a station in a big city, like Chicago, Washington DC, LA, or other larger stations, getting there earlier is better for finding out where you need to go without rushing. If you leave a station where the train originates, they can board trains early, sometimes as much as 30 minutes.

If you are checking bags, you must do so at least forty-five minutes before departure.

Not All Stations Have Checked Baggage

With Amtrak, most unstaffed or platform stations do not have baggage service.

The Amtrak app or website can tell if your station has a baggage service. The originating and destination stations must offer baggage service if you want to check bags.

Not all stations have a staff or even an indoor waiting area. This site or the Amtrak app can help you with that.

You May Have Layovers With Amtrak Holiday Travel

Like most modes of transportation, layovers happen. When I travel, I always have a layover in Chicago because I live in Wisconsin. When booking, ensure you have enough time for your layover, especially from a commuter railroad to Amtrak.

LA Boards
If you are at LA Union Station and need information on your train, you can check it out here.

Layovers are often at staffed stations. With Amtrak, you can leave and return to the stations without going through security again. (Amtrak does not have the TSA like airports.)

If you leave the stations, ensure you are back in time. Remember, if you are late, Amtrak is not obliged to “make you right’ at that point.

When planning a trip, I look around the train station to see if there are places to eat, get coffee, or visit during my layover. I like to do this beforehand to avoid wasting my layover time.

If you cannot check bags at the first station, you can check bags mid-trip from your layover stop to your destination. Often, you need to do so 45 minutes or so before departure. Check with the station staff for more information.

Checked and Carry-on Luggage On Amtrak Trains

Know how much luggage you can bring to save a headache during Amtrak holiday travel. Ensure you have a tag with your name and address on the outside of all your bags. Amtrak has rules on suitable containers for train travel.

Carry On Allowance

Amtrak Allows 1 Personal Items
Up to 25 lbs. and 14 x 11 x 7 inches each

And 2 Carry-On Bags
Up to 50 lbs. and 28 x 22 x 14 inches each
Pacific Surfliner: up to 28 x 22 x 11 inches each

Checked Baggage

2 Bags Free
Up to 50 lbs. and 75 linear inches*

2 Additional Bags
$20 each

Oversized Baggage (76-100 linear inches*)
$20 each

*Linear inches: length + width +height

Trainside Checked Baggage Service

Self-serve trainside checked baggage service is available to and from the following stations only: Charleston, WV; Cincinnati, OH; Columbus, WI; Crawfordsville, IN; Dyer, IN; Hammond, LA; Lafayette, IN; Meridian, MS; Mount Pleasant, IA; Rensselaer, IN; Texarkana, AR; Tuscaloosa, AL; Winona, MN.

Medications When You Travel

Do not forget to pack your medication when you travel; it doesn’t hurt to determine if you can get refills while away from home. Never place the medicines you need in your checked bags because if your luggage gets lost or delayed, you will not have it when needed.

You cannot access your checked Baggage along your journey or your car on the Auto Train.

Amtrak cannot store or chill your medication, so plan accordingly. If your medication needs to be kept cold, you must find a way. Amtrak might be able to get you to ice if you ask nicely.

Have Your Paperwork & IDs Ready

To save yourself some trouble, ensure you have everything up to date before departing. This is easier to do when you plan early.

Bring A Government ID

WI Real ID
An example of Wisconsin’s Real ID (photo courtesy of the WI DOT)

Before your bags get packed, ensure your IDs or passports do not expire while you are away.

Amtrak does not have a check-in like the airlines, but they have random ID checks. Besides, it is always wise to carry a valid ID when traveling.

Tickets

Staying organized will help you be a more efficient traveler. With Amtrak, you can use either digital or paper tickets. I am in the habit of having both.

Amtrak ticket
An example of an Amtrak Ticket

I stay organized with a blue plastic folder with flaps on the top and a small pouch to keep all my travel papers organized (the color is not essential).

This style works well for me because the flaps keep my documents from falling out, and I use the pouch for regional or Amtrak tickets I get from station agents or machines.

My schedules, tickets, and other reservation information are in this folder. For me, the folder is easy to pack and find when needed.

With electronic (etickets) tickets, they often need the internet to work, so if you do not have internet or wifi, they might not come up. One solution is to take a screenshot of your ticket or use a virtual wallet found on many phones or can be an app. The wallets often do not need the internet.

Credit and Debit Cards

Amtrak Credit Card
Amtrak Credit Card (From Amtrak.com)

You can prepare with credit and debit cards in a few ways. First, make sure that your cards do not expire while traveling. Often, new cards are sent out early to avoid this problem.

Check if you should report your travel to your cardholder to avoid issues with your card. Some cards do not require you to report travel if within the USA. Often, the app or website allows you to let them know where you are traveling, but you may have to call. Check with your financial institution.

If you plan on traveling more before starting your holiday, see if you can get a credit card to help you travel more. The Amtrak Credit Card often offers a point bonus; why not double or triple dip with points?

When Amtrak Holiday Travel Goes Wrong

Planning and avoiding tight dates and connections is one way to make travel easier and avoid missing things.

While we plan for the best, things can go wrong.

Sometimes, the reasons, such as the weather, are out of everyone’s control. Other times, things “just happen.” Occasionally, we cause problems because we do not do our research or think that travel would be like the movies and it will work out like Hallmark. Another hidden expectation is that nothing will go wrong with our trips.

No matter how I travel, I always plan on delays because, mentally, it is easier for me to deal with things when they happen. I am pleasantly happy when things go well without delays. This could mean leaving a day early or taking an earlier train so I don’t have a tight connection.

In October 2023, I took Metra to O’hare to catch a flight. I had three options, and I went with plan B because plan A was too early. Something went wrong with the train, and I was forced into plan C, which worked but made things tight, and my stress level was a little high. But if I had gone with plan C as my first choice and something had happened, I would have had to change my flight or call a rideshare.

When Something Goes Wrong

While not easy, staying calm if something goes wrong on your trip will help you and the person helping you.

man wearing white dress shirt with black necktie
Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

Yelling at the people attempting to help you does not solve anything and can worsen things. The calmer you are, the better for you and the person trying to help you.

The people assisting you, in most cases, have nothing to do with delays, lost luggage, or other issues you may encounter. While these people represent Amtrak or any other carrier, they have limitations and are humans.

If something goes wrong, be realistic about what you expect for compensation. Just because your trip was delayed does not mean you deserve your money back, especially if you did arrive at your destination.

When things go wrong, try to be friendly, listen, process how people want to help you, and then talk. I strongly advise you to check out this podcast, which covers the topic better than I ever could. I know this is easier to say than do.

Amtrak Holiday Travel Wrap-up

Remember to relax and enjoy the time you spend with your loved ones or those you must tolerate for the holiday season. If this was your first trip, celebrate your travel achievement during the busiest time of the year. If you can deal with this, you can deal with anything.

With Amtrak holiday travel, remember to smile, be prepared, and roll with the punches, and you will be fine. Traveling is an adventure, and things happen; when they do, you get fantastic stories to tell later.

Safe Travels!

Kev

Kevin Monteith

Kev Monteith has been traveling on Amtrak since 2012. With over a decade of experience, he has been on over 800 trains, covering over 200k miles of rail. Kev enjoys helping others achieve their travel dreams by providing support and information. Outside of travel, Kev enjoys making music as an organist and outings with family.

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