Ballpark estimate: USA Rail Pass runs from $459-$899+ (extra costs apply for sleeping cars and other travel options)
When you want to travel across the country without having to deal with traffic or airport security lines, taking the train can be an appealing mode of transportation. In fact, Amtrak offers a comfortable way to travel across the United States that’s reminiscent of days long past. An added benefit is that when you take the train cross country, the journey becomes part of the adventure. As the miles pass, you can make new friends, eat well, and enjoy the scenery rushing past your window.
Amtrak is Born
Amtrak is a national rail service that offers service in most states throughout the U.S. The service was created as the result of Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, which was passed by Congress and established the National Railroad Passenger Corporation to take over the intercity passenger rail service that until then had been operated by private railroads. Amtrak officially began providing service on May 1, 1971, serving 43 states with 21 routes.
Traveling to Your Destination
Whether you’ll be traveling from the east coast to the west coast, or vise-versa, there are many major cities from which you can start your journey. On the east coast, you can get the train in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. On the west coast, you can get the train in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego. There are 15 long-distance travel routes from which you can choose, and if you want to stop along the way, you can break up your journey to really explore other parts of the country and get to know the USA in a new way.
Rail Pass Options
When you want to design your own Amtrak journey and plan to break it up into different segments, you’ll probably want to select an Amtrak USA Rail Pass. There are three USA Rail Passes available and you can select the one that best meets your needs through Amtrak’s website. (It’s important to know that the USA Rail Pass is just a starting point for the cost, though. Once you have a rail pass, you still need to book your specific train and if desired, select your sleeping accommodations, which will be an additional charge.)
When deciding the best option for you, there are several variables to consider. This includes how long you plan to travel for, and how many segments or legs of travel you want to complete. For starters, there are three USA Rail Pass options you can customize for your journey, stopping at various points to experience the scenery rather than traveling straight through, and each one comes with a different price, depending on the details.
For instance, you can select the 15-day pass that allows you to experience up to 8 segments or legs of travel. There’s also a 30-day, 12-segment pass. Or, you can opt for a 45-day, 18-segment trip. Note that in all three options, you need to have an advance purchase and travel must be completed within 330 days of purchasing the pass.
Before you plan your cross-country Amtrak trip, there are some logistics to consider, including where you will sleep and what you will eat on your journey.
Most long-distance trains have sleeper options. There are two trains that Amtrak uses and they are the two-level Superliner and the single-level Viewliner. Each one has bedroom accommodations with an option for private or public bathrooms and showers. The Superliner has five different sleeper accommodations. These include the Roomette, which is for two adults and has no in-room bathroom or shower; The Bedroom, which is for two adults and has in-room toilet and in-room shower; The Bedroom Suite, which is good for four adults and has two in-room toilets and two in-room showers; The Family Bedroom, which is good for two adults and two children and does not have an in-room shower or toilet; and finally, the Accessible Bedroom, which is handicap equipped and accommodates two adults and has one in-room toilet, but no shower. The Viewliner has all of the same bedroom selections as the Superliner except for the Family Bedroom option.
Dining on the train is included in your fair when you purchase the sleeping accommodations. (People in coach seats/no sleeping car arrangements have to “eat” the cost of the food themselves.) For people in sleeper car options, you get breakfast, lunch, and dinner included in the price of your reservation. To enjoy the dining car, you must be boarded a half hour before breakfast and lunch food service ends. The hours are 6:30 to 10 am for breakfast and you don’t need reservations. For lunch and dinner, you will need reservations and the hours for lunch are from 11:30 am to 3:00 pm, while dinner is served between 5:00 and 9:30 pm. You must board an hour before dinner service to get this benefit.
If you prefer to skip the formal lunch and dinner seatings, you can always choose to eat in the more casual lounge car. This car has spacious tables and serves an array of light options, including sandwiches, pizza, and snacks. There is also a full bar with beer, wine, and liquor. Lastly, there is a café car that is typically open for the whole journey and makes a good option people on shorter segments or who miss formal meal times. The café car serves sandwiches and pizza and offers a full bar.
If you’re traveling with children, be sure to check out observation car (available on some trains), which is a great way to see the country when traveling though different landscapes. Often Amtrak plays movies in the observation car that have some connection to the region you’re driving through.
How to Book
To check out the pricing for your desired journey and order your ticket, you can go on Amtrak’s website and click on the deals tab. This has all the current promotions that are going on. If you prefer to use a travel agency, you can also tell them what you want and let them arrange all of the details for you. (To get the best prices, you’ll want to book early.)
Cost to Take Amtrak Cross Country
Here is a sampling of what you might spend on the USA Rail Pass:
- 15 days, 8 segment is $459 for adults; $229.50 for children 2 to 12 years old.
- 30 days, 12 segment is $689 for adults; $344.50 for children 2 to 12 years old.
- 45 days, 18 segment is $899 for adults; $449.50 for children 2 to 12 years old.
On top of the USA Rail Pass, you’ll also need to reserve your specific train and if you desire a sleeping car, this is at an additional cost and will need to budget this into the expense. So for instance, from New York City to California, you might spend another $400 to $500 overall, depending on which option you select. While this may sound steep, remember that this is for your transportation, sleeping accommodations, and food, so when you compare it to gas for your car, the price of meals, and the cost of a hotel, Amtrak may actually be a cost-effective option.
Further, if you prefer to travel directly and not in segments (meaning you’ll go straight through to your destination, rather than spreading the different travel points into separate trips), your ticket will depend on when you travel (date and time). To give an idea of what to expect, a straight one-way ticket from Boston to Los Angeles starts at about $232 for a value ticket/reserved coach seat (food is not included at this price), and goes up to about $2,000 for a family bedroom for part of the journey, meals included. (To save money, you can try different seat and sleeping options on the Amtrak website, as well as try different dates to see how the fares change.)
Savings Add Up
AAA members and members of the military and their families get 10 percent off regular priced fare, while seniors get 15 percent off. Also, people who commute on the train and have signed up for Amtrak Guest Rewards can use points to travel and get discounts or free travel. There is also an Amtrak credit card that gives you 20,000 points when you sign up and use the card.
Word of Warning
Note that pass prices are subject to change (keep in mind that different trains have different prices, as do different seat options, and different dates) and are not guaranteed until actual travel reservations are made, so these are just a ballpark and not set in stone. Therefore, be sure to check the current pricing for your logistics when you are ready to book your trip.