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AARP Smart Guide to Train Travel

Find out how to prepare for a long trip and explore a bucket list

spinner image inside a passenger train with a window view of water and trees
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Travelers may have numerous ways to get from points A to B, but few modes of transit blend relaxation, efficiency and scenery like hopping aboard a train.

“A four-hour train journey from city center to city center is just as fast as a one-hour flight once you add travel to and from the airports and check-in,” says Mark Smith, founder of train-travel blog The Man in Seat 61. “An overnight journey from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. takes less time out of your day than a four-hour relay race of train, airport, flight, airport, train — and is much more fun.”

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The perks of train travel abound, yet rail travel remains a tourism-industry underdog. That could soon change. With new scenic train routes, high-speed-rail innovations and President Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan to bolster Amtrak’s U.S. train routes, the wheels are in motion for a global train-travel boom — and we have everything you need to hop aboard.

We talked with leading rail-travel experts for their tips and tricks. The result? Our jam-packed Smart Guide to Train Travel, which will have you riding those rails like a pro.

Note to readers: Logistics from baggage allowance to seating options vary by train line, route and country. This guide highlights top-level rail travel tips, but it’s best to confirm details with your specific rail line or travel agent.


spinner image Crowds of people in New York's Grand Central Station
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1. Book early

Want to snag the best train-travel deals? “Book ahead for the cheapest prices, just as you would for air,” Smith says. In Europe, the booking windows vary from 30 days to six months, depending on the operator, he adds. Benji Stawski, senior reporter for The Points Guy travel website, notes that Amtrak’s booking schedule is a bit different. “Fares are released 11 months before departure, and often rise with demand. Look out for any sales or promotions; Amtrak offers buy-one-get-one deals from time to time.”

2. Best travel days

If you have some flexibility in your schedule, Stawski has some money-saving advice. “Business-heavy routes are pricier on weekdays,” he says. “Leisure routes might be more expensive on weekends. Likewise, you may be able to save money by booking less desirable departure times, such as late at night or in the middle of the day.” (Stawski notes that the day of the week you actually book the ticket doesn’t matter.)

3. Find low-crowd train cars

If you’re ready to get back into travel, but not necessarily ready for the crowds, Amtrak spokesperson Kimberly Woods suggests referencing the company’s real-time seat availability tracker. “When searching for travel, the percentage of seats sold displays next to each trip option and adjusts as more reservations are made, which gives customers the opportunity to book a train that is less crowded,” Woods says. “If capacity exceeds comfort levels, customers can change their ticket without incurring a fee.” (She notes that a fare difference may apply.)

4. Earn points on train travel

You’ve likely heard of points and miles for air travel, but rewards-travel enthusiasts can also accumulate miles via train trips. “You can earn points on your trips through Amtrak’s loyalty program, Amtrak Guest Rewards. Then, you can redeem those points for free train tickets,” says Stawski, noting that this rewards program is free. Rail lines abroad offer similar rewards program, too, including Via Preference for Canada’s Via Rail and Club Eurostar for Europe’s Eurostar line.

5. Hire a train-travel agent

Booking an established route like Amtrak’s California Zephyr, between Chicago and San Francisco, is relatively straightforward via the Amtrak website or by calling the Amtrak reservations team. But if you’d rather have an expert handle the logistics, or you want to concoct a DIY route with multiple legs, it may be best to hire a travel agent. But don’t just hire any agent, says Jim Loomis, author of All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide. Make sure the agent understands train travel with a simple test: “I tell people to ask, “What’s the difference between a roomette in a Superliner train compared to a Viewliner train?’ ” he says. “The difference is that there is no window in the upper berth on the Superliner roomette. On the Viewliner, there is a window. A good travel agent [for train travel] will have the answer right off the top of their head.” One option Johnston suggests for U.S. train travel is Amtrak Vacations, an Amtrak-specific travel agency.

6. Anticipate delays

Just like flying, train travel often comes with delays (particularly in the U.S., where Amtrak shares railroads with freight trains). That’s why Bob Johnston, a correspondent for, suggests building extra time into your schedule. “Don’t assume a train will be on time; give yourself plenty of time [to catch a connection],” he says. “Let’s say the Lake Shore Limited gets into New York at 6:20 p.m. You don’t want to plan a Broadway show for that night.

7. Snag the best seat

Not all train seats are created equally — and we’re not just talking class level. Johnston shared his simple but valuable seat-selection advice: “You want to sit on the side opposite the sun,” he says. “It’s not just the fact it [would be] beating down on you. You also have to think like a photographer.” Sun rays make window dirt significantly more distracting than on the shady side. And, even if you’re not taking photos, it’s more enjoyable and comfortable to watch the landscapes without eye strain from the sun.

8. Bring your kids (or grandkids)

Want a particularly memorable trip? Bring your little ones, says Johnston, who took his son on countless trips throughout his childhood. “If you’re traveling with kids, it’s such a confidence-building and knowledge-building exercise,” he says, noting the adventure can double as a multiday geography lesson. “Bring a map and follow your trip. Or with a smartphone, [use] the map app, and it will show you where you are.” 

9. Book a sleeping car

Sleeping-car options on overnight trains may cost more than a coach seat, but Johnston says these cozy, private train bedrooms are a worthy splurge if your budget allows. “If you’re sleeping in your own bed at home, how many times do you have a chance to wake up to the sunrise? How many times do you actually look at the moon?” he says. “You don’t have this opportunity in a hotel room.” Like most things, sleeping-car options vary by line. Some include private bathrooms and an attendant, while others offer a simple bedroom with a bathroom down the hall. 


spinner image A traveler with a two suitecases boards a train
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10. When to arrive

Unlike flying, train travel comes with minimal check-in and security lines. (Some stations have bag checks and metal detectors, and others don’t.) Confirm your arrival time with the specific train line or your travel agent. Donnetta Byrd, the travel agent and rail-travel expert behind Byrd Adventures, offers some general parameters: “For Amtrak or Via Rail, 30 minutes should be enough time if you already have tickets and no luggage,” she says. “Otherwise, try to arrive around an hour before.”

11. Luggage logistics

Baggage policies vary by train line. In Europe, you can bring larger bags, although you’re usually responsible for carrying and storing them on the train car’s luggage racks. In general, North American outfitters like Amtrak and Via Rail offer carry-on and checked-luggage options. But, Johnston says, you won’t find bag-check options at all Amtrak stations; it’s usually just the major ones. And, while some Amtrak stations offer Red Cap service to help passengers get their bags on board, it’s not available everywhere. “You have to be prepared to handle luggage, kind of like you would on and off an airplane with carry-ons,” he says. To avoid any issues, confirm luggage rules with your train line or travel agent ahead of time. 

12. Look for lounges

If you’re getting to the train station early or you have a long connection between trains, lounge access may make your transit day a bit more enjoyable. Byrd says lounge availability “totally depends on the train.” Some Amtrak stations have lounges with free access for certain travelers (Amtrak Rewards members or those in sleeping cars, for example). “Or you may be able to pay [for] a day pass to gain access, starting around $35,” she says. (The same goes for stations in Europe and Canada.)

13. Don’t miss the dining car

Loomis’ favorite part of any train trip? The dining car. “It’s part of what I enjoy most, because Amtrak’s practice is to seat you with fellow passengers. So you [go] in as a single person, and you’ll be seated at a table with three other people,” he says, noting that he’s shared meals with numerous interesting passengers, including the time he dined with one of seven people in the world qualified to service and restore ancient pipe organs. “I absolutely look forward to the three meals a day when I’m on the train. That’s one of the most interesting parts of the whole experience.”

14. Explore the train

One of the biggest perks of train travel over air travel is the chance to soak in the ever-changing views. But Byrd says it’s important to seek out the best views early on, especially on a scenery-focus train like the Rocky Mountaineer, which runs in Canada and a new Colorado-to-Utah route. “Don’t be nervous about getting up to go to the viewing areas,” she says. “I waited quite a while on my first ride because I wasn’t sure where to go. When I finally got up and went between the trains, I’d wished I’d done it sooner.” 

15. Take the perfect train photo

In addition to Johnston’s advice — avoid the sunny side of the train — Smith shared his greatest train-photography tip: “Remember to switch your flash off!” Together, these simple tricks will eliminate glare and let the scenery shine. If you want to get really creative, use your smartphone to capture a time-lapse video, available within the built-in camera on most Apple and Android devices. This is a great way to share the oscillating scenery with friends and family back home. Note, time-lapse videos require patience; roughly five minutes of video condenses down to just 20 seconds. It’s best to prop your phone on a book or pillow, or to use a travel tripod, such as the compact Joby GorillaPod. That way, you can set it, forget it and enjoy the view yourself. 

16. A road-and-train-trip pairing

When it comes to road trips and train travel, you can have your cake and eat it, too — particularly with Amtrak’s lesser-known auto-train option from Washington, D.C., to Florida. With this auto-train option, you can bring your vehicle onboard with you. “You get the same accommodations — a coach or [sleeping car] — but you put your car on the train,” Johnston says. This eliminates the need for rental cars or Uber and Lyft rides from the station, he adds.


spinner image travel supplies including, a hat, earbubs, headphones, a digital camera, sunglasses, flashlight, face mask, belt, casual shoes, casual dress shirt, jeans and small suitcase.
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17. Pack slippers

Depending on the sleeping car you’ve booked, you might need to leave your train car to use the facilities down the hall. That’s why Loomis always packs bathroom-trip attire. “I pack and sleep in a pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt, and I bring my rubber slippers,” he says. “If I have to get up to go [to the bathroom] at 2 in the morning, I don’t have to get all dressed. People will find it makes their life on board a lot easier.”

18. Keep your charger handy

Whether you’re following the digital train map or capturing the stunning landscapes with your smartphone camera, Byrd says it’s important to get ahead of dying phone batteries. “You may want to pack a mobile charger or backup battery [in your carry-on] for the time you’re on the train,” she says. “You don’t want your battery to die as you’re trying to photograph amazing scenery.”

19. Organize with packing cubes

It’s tough to fully unpack in small sleeper-car spaces. That’s why Byrd suggests packing cubes to keep your items organized. “I love to use packing cubes to pack items according to what day I plan to wear them,” she says. Byrd’s organization strategy works whether you’re on an overnight train trip or if you’re taking the train from city to city, with stopovers in each place. “This makes it more organized when you are changing hotels and repacking each day.”

20. Prepare to carry valuables

If you’ve booked a sleeping car, pack a bag to keep your valuables on you in the bathroom or dining car. “You can lock [your sleeping car] from the inside, but when you leave your room to go out to breakfast or lunch, you can’t lock your door,” Loomis says of Amtrak’s overnight trains. In his decades of train travel, he’s never had an issue with theft, he says. “When you leave your room to go to breakfast or dinner, close the door and pull the curtain so people can’t see. And don’t leave [valuable] stuff.” The same inside-lock-only feature goes for most rail lines in Europe and Canada. (For extra precautions, you can also bring a portable travel safe, available from brands like Pacsafe.)

21. More train-travel essentials

Stawski shared a few additional odds and ends to optimize your time on the train: “My number one tip is to dress comfortably and wear multiple layers, as trains can vary in temperature,” he says. “Beyond that, bring a travel pillow, blanket, eye mask, snacks and drinks [even if you plan to eat in the dining car], headphones, various forms of offline entertainment — books, cards and podcasts — toiletries and an extra set of clothes to change into upon arrival.”

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spinner image A Bernina Red Train travels through the Swiss Alps. Trees and snow-capped mountains are along the route
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Bucket-list Train Trips

Our rail-travel experts have decades of firsthand train-travel experience. We asked them for their favorite rides to inspire your own train excursions. Let the wanderlust ensue.

Amtrak Empire Builder: Chicago to Portland or Seattle

Jim Loomis, author of All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide, describes this three-day, two-night trip — from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest — as a “glorious ride.” In addition to the scenery on both ends of the trip, travelers get to admire the sprawling North Dakota landscapes and Montana’s soaring mountains, including Glacier National Park, along the way.

Amtrak California Zephyr: Chicago to San Francisco

Loomis also raves about the three-day, two-night California Zephyr. “It’s probably one of Amtrak’s most scenic trains,” he says, noting the views of the Colorado River, Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada range are among the trip’s top attractions.

Amtrak Coast Starlight: Seattle to Los Angeles

Bob Johnston, a correspondent for, recommends this two-day, one-night route to enjoy some of the West Coast’s best scenery. “It’s daytime between Seattle and Portland, then it’s overnight from the Cascade

range around Eugene, Oregon, down to the Bay area, then from San Francisco through Oakland, down to L.A.,” he says.

Caledonian Sleeper: London to Scotland

Mark Smith, founder of train-travel blog The Man in Seat 61, suggests the Caledonian Sleeper from England to Scotland, one of the most scenic two-day, one-night journeys across the pond. This route runs through iconic destinations like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and the Scottish Highlands, with stunning views best enjoyed from the train’s cozy sleeping cars.

Bernina Express: Switzerland to Italy

The Bernina Express is another one of Smith’s favorite routes. This four-hour train ride, the highest railway in the Alps, crosses the mountains from Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy. Much of this rail line has UNESCO World Heritage status, awarded for the civil-engineering mastery required to build the railway along the Alps’ rugged terrain. Views transition from glaciers to palm trees on this journey, with sweeping windows that make this jaw-dropping scenery the star of the show


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