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eating on Amtrak overview

An Overview of Eating On Amtrak Trains

Amtrak Flex meal
Amtrak’s Chicken Marsala, part of their flex dining program, includes an ice tea, roll, and salad

Planning your first trip can be fun, and knowing what to expect can help you prepare.

Knowing your food options before starting an Amtrak adventure is a great way to get ready.

Eating on Amtrak trains can be a fun but necessary travel experience.

This article gives an overview of your choices when eating on Amtrak’s long-distance and regional trains.

There are links for more in-depth articles on the topic if you need more information.

Getting Started

At this time, meals in the dining car are only available for sleeper car passengers. Coach passengers can bring food aboard or use the cafe car; more on that later.

Amfleet I car
Amtrak’s Amfleet II Long-Distance Coach Car

Let’s get to the fun stuff, grab your favorite beverage, and begin to learn!

The first thing I want to cover about eating on Amtrak trains is to check expectations. If you think eating in Amtrak dining cars is like what you see in the old movies, you may feel disappointed.

Amtrak's new chicken ceaser salad
Amtrak’s new chicken Ceasar salad from a traditional dining car. Photo Courtesy of Amtrak

Some trains have, what Amtrak calls traditional dining, while others have flex dining, and the cafe cars are on all long-distance and most regional trains.

Cafe cars are available to all passengers, but traditional flex dining cars are only for sleeper passengers.

Amtrak is looking at expanding its traditional dining to all long-distance trains and being available to coach passengers. Improvements are coming to the long-distance cafe car menus, including new entre selections.

Whether you have traditional dining, flex dining, or a selection from the cafe car, your attitude can be everything. If you look for the good or bad in any situation, you will find it.

Let’s look at Amtrak trains and what you can expect.

What Is An Amtrak Regional Train?

Regional trains travel under 750 miles and are often state-funded. Seating for these trains is mostly coach-class, although many offer business-class accommodations.

If you plan to take a regional train, you need the following sections; read the whole article if you take a long-distance train in a sleeper.

Eating In Amtrak Cafe Cars

Regional trains have café cars that offer various hot and cold entrees and snacks. Beverages include Coke products, coffee, tea, and adult beverages.

Amtrak Café Car indication
Amtrak uses this symbol to indicate that there is a café car on a train route,

The attendants put your selections in a cardboard tray to make taking your food to your seat or table easier.

Depending on your order, an average meal can cost around $10-$15.

Amtrak cafe cars are open most of your journey but may close for the attendant breaks along the route (or at a few station stops where the train might lose power, such as in Washington DC). If you are on a long-distance train, the cafe car is closed at night.

Keep in mind that not all regional trains have food service, like the Hiawatha. Trains without any food service are often short-run trains. The Amtrak website and app indicate that your train route has a cafe car.

When and where can you get food from a cafe car?

After your ticket gets scanned, you can get up and walk to the cafe. But if you are at the beginning of the route, listen to make sure it is open before taking the hike.

Amtrak Food
You can buy food like this in Amtrak’s Cafe car and return to your seat. I took this photo aboard a trip on the San Joaquin.

The cafe car will make announcements throughout the journey reminding you where the cafe car is and when it is open to get your snacks and more.

You can always ask a conductor if you cannot find the cafe car.

Some routes have cafe cars in the middle of the train while others are on the ends. There is not one set location for these cars.

The cafe car service is a buffer between the coach and the dining car for long-distance cars. The Western train is on the lower level of the Sightseer cars.

For more information on Amtrak regional train cafe cars

Menus can vary based on the region and who sponsors the train, and due to change often.

What Is An Amtrak Long-Distance Train?

Amtrak long-distance trains are those that travel over 751 miles. These trains offer coach-class and sleeper accommodations (the Palmetto does not have sleeper cars), and some have business class.

Amtrak Salmon
Amtrak’s new salmon dish from the dining car. Photo Courtesy of Amtrak

Eating On Amtrak Long-Distance Trains

Coach And Business Class

Coach and business class passengers may purchase food from the cafe car or bring food and beverages onboard. While coach and business class passengers can get alcohol on board, they cannot consume their stash, but the cafe car sells alcohol.

Currently, dining cars are not open to coach passengers, but they could be available to business class passengers to ask onboard staff to verify.

For Sleeping Car Passenger

  • All the scheduled meals in the dining car or Sleeper Lounge come with your room price.
    • Includes entree, non-adult beverages, and desserts
    • Your first alcoholic beverage comes with dinner
    • Tips are appreciated
    • A selection of non-alcohol drinks is available throughout your trip.
  • Your car attendance can bring the food to your room.
  • Sleeper passengers can purchase additional food or drink in the cafe car or consume adult beverages onboard, but only in their accommodations.

Traditional dining is when chefs on board prepare your food. in contrast, flex dining is prepackaged meals heated in convection ovens.

Bringing food on Amtrak trains

You can bring food on the train, but Amtrak staff cannot heat, store, or refrigerate it for you. Do not bring or use a coffee maker, hotplates, or other small appliances on the train because it is not safe for you and others.

Other passengers would appreciate it if you refrain from smelly foods.

Like in restaurants, do not bring food into the dining car or cafe car you did not buy on the train; the exception is food for the young travelers.

Other Tidbits On Eating On Amtrak

I received this meal after leaving Portland, OR., on the Eastbound Empire Builder.

The Empire Builder and Lake Shore Limited are unique within the Amtrak system. Not all parts of these trains are together for the whole route.

Only one section of the train will have a dining or sleeper car lounge during a short portion of the trip, and the other half will have a cafe car.

Your first or last meal may not be in the dining car and could come from the cafe car or a box meal like in the photo.

Eating On Amtrak Wrap-up

Amtrak cafe attendants use cardboard trays to make transporting your food more accessible.

If I am in coach, I budget money for the cafe car. It works out better for me if I buy meals onboard than to bring something.

I’m not particularly eager to carry coolers because I like to pack light. However, I may put snacks in a reusable bag to pack away before getting off the train.

Remember, all the food in the cafe car is prepackaged. Cafe car attendants can warm up the food you bought but not the food you brought.

Riding in sleepers has changed since I first started. Now there are complimentary soft drinks throughout the trip, and that can eliminate some trips to the cafe, but more trips to the dining car and also an adult beverage with dinner, is now complimentary,

I have walked to the cafe car to get a cheese tray to be fancy in my room, and I have met some fantastic people in the dining car, including friends that I still talk to today!

To say informed, sign-up here for the Travels with Kev email list.

Safe Travels!



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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