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Boarding An Amtrak Train

One thing that every Amtrak passenger should know is the process for boarding an Amtrak Train.

The conductor helps a passenger Boarding An Amtrak Train
Amtrak conductor assisting a passenger to the right car. Photo Courtesy of Amtrak

While this process can vary from station to station, the overall concept is the same. Boarding an Amtrak train can be fast and easy if you are ready and know what to expect, and it would be faster if everyone else knew too.

This article will cover a variety of experiences such as boarding Amtrak regional, Acla, and long-distance trains.

While this article does not cover every train and station, it will give an excellent overview that you can adapt to your needs.

Grab a snack or tasty beverage and prepare to learn; I am glad you are here.

Before You Leave For The Station

Buy Your Tickets Before You Leave For The Station

There are a few things I would suggest you do before leaving for the station.

Quik-Trak Ticket Machine
Amtrak’s new Quik-Trak Ticket Machine

The first thing before leaving for your trip is to buy your tickets before your day of departure. You can buy them online, in the app, over the phone, or at staffed stations. This move is essential if you are departing from an unstaffed station.

Some staffed and unstaffed stations have ticket machines that you can use to make reservations or print out tickets.

Buying your tickets ahead of time may give you a better price and peace of mind because you do not have to worry about getting to the station and having the train sold out.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, but it is not a bad one for beginner Amtrak travelers to follow.

Do not plan to buy tickets on the train. Most Amtrak trains do not allow you to purchase tickets on the train. If you board a full train without a purchased ticket, you could get let off at the next stop.

Verify Everything Is Right

A week or so before a trip, I log into my Amtrak account or app to verify my ticket info. I ensure that nothing changes and that I have everything correct on my tickets and with my hotels and schedule. Also, check for any service advisories.

Sometimes there are changes like departure times or rooms that you may have missed. If barcodes do not show up, call Amtrak as soon as possible. You could also call Amtrak to verify.

Research Your Stations

Many Amtrak stations, especially in small towns, are unstaffed.

Chicago Union Station
Chicago Union Station

Unstaffed stops could be a building to wait in or a platform. Either could be a flag stop.

There are also staffed stations along the system, especially in bigger cities. Some of these stations even have lounges.

Doing some research before you leave can save you from last-minute panics. This way, you know what to expect.

Suggested questions to research about your stations:

  • What services do they offer?
  • Can you park for as long as you need?
  • Do they have an indoor waiting area?
  • Can you check bags?
  • Are there bathrooms?
  • Other needs you may have.

Making a dry run is a great way to get to know the station. If you plan to depart from a staffed station, you can buy your tickets there; this way, you can become familiar with the station and ask questions to someone from that station.

How Early Should I Arrive At The Station?

30th street station PHL
30th Street Station Philadelphia

While it is up to you when you arrive at the station, Amtrak suggests you arrive 30 minutes early if you do not check bags and 45-60 minutes if you need to check bags.

Take into account some time for traffic, paying for parking, and figuring out where to go. The train will likely not wait for you if you are late.

At some stations, the doors to the train close five minutes before departure, so keep that in mind.

Boarding an Amtrak train at some stations starts ten to twenty minutes before departure.

At other stations, as soon as the train arrives, people board, and when the scheduled time hits, the train leaves with or without you.

Check Your Trains Status Before You Leave

Before leaving for the station, check the status of your train.

You can use the Amtrak app, call Amtrak, or on a few third-party sites.

Amtrak offers an alert service that texts or emails you if the train is running late. You can sign up for this when you purchase your tickets or if you forget afterward.

Do I Need To Check In Like Airlines?

You do not need to check in 24 hours before with Amtrak, like when you fly. The only time you may need to check in is if you use a lounge, more on that later, or some stations check to make are you are where you need to be for your journey.

Getting Your Luggage Ready

Whether you carry on or check, all bags must have a tag with your name plus your phone or email address or both.

Travel bag
My bag was packed, tickets ready, and my travel socks!

Carry-on

Amtrak has a generous carry-on baggage policy allowing you two personal items and two suitcases up to 28,” and everything must weigh under fifty pounds.

Checked Bags

You can check bags on many Amtrak trains if your begging and ending stations must have checked bagged service. The app and train indicate if you can check bags on your journey.

Stations With Self-Service Checked Baggage

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.

Checking Your Bags Mid-route

I have an advanced Amtrak check bag travel tip for you.

You can check bags mid-route. For example, if you travel from Sturtevant, WI, to DC, you must carry your bags onto the Hiawatha, but when you get to Chicago, you can check your bags there and grab them in DC.

Getting Ready To Board An Amtrak Train At Unstaffed Station

For unstaffed stations, check for signs with boarding instructions (there may not be any).

People waiting to board Amtrak Train, The Hiawatha arriving in Sturtevant, WI
The Hiawatha arriving in Sturtevant, WI

If there is only one platform at the station, things are more straightforward; wait behind the yellow line for the train to come. If there are two, check for signs.

A few unstaffed stations have announcements, such as Sturtevant Depot, where there are two tracks.

At this station, conductors or other Amtrak staff can remotely inform passengers the train is coming, what train track, or other announcements.

Whatever the case, gather your belongings and tickets ready as soon as you see the headlights because the train will arrive soon!

At flag stops, the train only stops if you purchased a ticket before the train’s arrival.

As The Train Pulls Up

Keep an eye for your accommodations at unstaffed stations as the train rolls into the station.

People Boarding An Amtrak Train, The Empire Builder Stopped at the Sturtevant Depot.
The Empire Builder Stopped at the Sturtevant Depot. (This was a temporary stop in 2020)

For example, if you have a sleeper, those cars are usually on the front or end of the train, so if you did not see them as the train rolled in, walk towards the back.

There are two trains where the sleepers are on both ends. These trains split or come together somewhere along their route.

Those are the Lake Shore Limited and the Empire Builder. For those trains, the Boston (448/449) and Seattle (7/8) sleepers are often at the beginning, and the New York (48/49) and Portland 27/28) on the tail.

After the train stops, conductors and staff will get off the train, give instructions, and help you get on the right car.

Getting Ready To Board An Amtrak Train At A Staffed Station

Where You Can Wait For Your Train

If you are at a staffed station, check if there is a lounge. You can use the lounge if you have reservations for a sleeping car, Acela First Class Passenger, and sometimes business class. (depending on the station).

Mackenzie at the Omaha, NE, station, waiting to People Boarding An Amtrak Train
Mackenzie is ready to board the California Zephyr at the Omaha, NE station.

If there is no lounge or you do not qualify to use one, there is a waiting area for you to wait.

Some larger stations like Chicago have a Great Hall and food courts to use as you wait for your train.

If you get to a staffed station early, you may be able to store your bags for a small fee. See the agent for more information.

In my experience, the cost has been between free and $10.

Verification & Checking Bags

Some smaller staffed stations like to verify that you are at the station at the right time for the train and on the travel date. I mainly experienced that in Omaha.

Reminder, if you want to check bags, the Amtrak rule is you must check your bag 45 minutes ahead of time.

Some stations may let this rule slide; it is best to assume they do not. Remember that both stations need to offer check bag service.

As the train pulls up

Amtrak's Silver Meteor
Amtrak train pulling into Orlando, FL.

When your travel time is close, make sure you can hear announcements or at least one person in your party if you are not a solo traveler.

It is also an excellent time to ensure everything is ready, meaning your belonging are together, and your tickets are out.

When it is time to board the train, the staff will help you get to the right spot on the platform. If you are at the initial station, you could load early, especially if you are in a sleeper. This practice could happen at some of the longer stops.

Finally, Boarding An Amtrak Train

The train is here, and it is time board, or is it? It is!

Long-distance Trains Coach Class

Walking to the train, look for the conductors and staff who will direct you to the right car.

My sleeper car on the 421 Texas Eagle 2014

Often coach passengers on long-distance trains receive either a seat check or tag, which is the seat assignment.

Long-distance Trains Sleeping Accommodations

If you have sleeper accommodation, you are assigned a car and room after completing your reservation, so check your tickets.

Walk to the car that matches your reservation; the car number is the four-digit number by the door.

Often the car attendant will meet you at the door unless you are boarding late at night when a conductor may help you.

Regional Trains

Some regional trains are open seating, meaning you can enter any door and sit anywhere.

Acela in 30th street station
My first Acela pulling into the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, PA

Occasionally conductors will assign you a car; sometimes, this is due to short platforms where not all doors will open.

If you are a business class passenger, look for that car or ask a conductor.

Acela

On Acela trains, when you book, you are assigned a car and a seat that you can change for free.

As you walk up, look for your car number, enter, and find your spot. Do not ignore your assigned seat, especially at tables, because there are people who picked those spots.

When Do Your Tickets Scanned Or “Lifted?”

Eons ago, and as seen in every old movie with train travel, you see the conductor walk through the train with a paper punch and punch your tickets. If that is what you expect for your Amtrak journey, there will be some disappointment.

TIcket lift
Amtrak conductors may scan your tickets before you get on the train or after you are onboard.

These days, conductors use an iPhone-type device with a scanner to scan your bar or QR code.

The same barcode could get scanned a few times along your trip, depending on the number of segments.

When It Happens

Depending on how many people are boarding, the conductors may scan your tickets before or as you board, or they may wait till you board the train and are seated.

There has been a time or two when I was the only one boarding the train, and the conductor looked at me and asked Kevin? I said yup, and he hit the button, and that was that.

If you are in a sleeper, the conductor may consult with your car attendant and lift your ticket manually. Meaning they may never scan your ticket.

Boarding An Amtrak Train Wrap-up

Following these few steps will make boarding an Amtrak train easier:

  • Be ready
  • Pack light
  • Do research the stations you use to know what to expect.
  • Have your tickets ready, either on paper or electronically, to make the boarding possess quicker.
  • Listen to announcements if at a staffed station or unstaffed station with a PA system.
  • Keep an eye on the train’s status.
  • Don’t push and shove; the train will leave after all passengers are onboard.

Boarding Amtrak trains is not complex when you know what is going on and are ready to go.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you found what you were looking for when it comes to boarding an Amtrak train.

Please check out my other article about riding Amtrak. If you found value in this information and want to ensure the site continues, help out here.

Safe Travels!

Kev

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Kev

Kev has been traveling with Amtrak since 2012, celebrating his tenth year this year. Over those years, he has been on over 700 trains covering over 200,000 miles of rail. Kev enjoys helping others achieve their travel dreams by assisting them to get started. Kev enjoys making music as an organist.

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