If you plan to travel on Amtrak overnight or even for just a short day trip, an Amtrak coach seat is definitely your most economical choice.
To help you enjoy your travel aboard Amtrak in a coach seat, I’ve listed my tried and true tips for travel in a coach seat. I’ve also added personal advice for passengers in coach seats, based on my experiences.
And yes, I’ve slept in an Amtrak coach seat on several overnight trips.
Amtrak Coach Seats – Travel Tips and Advice
First, you need to have a reservation to travel with Amtrak. The sooner you can reserve your ticket, the better the price.
Amtrak, like the airlines and even some cruise ships, will increase their rates as less seats become available. You can reserve your ticket online, by phone or through a travel agent.
Whether I’m booking a coach seat or overnight sleeper, I always call to speak with an Amtrak reservations person. When you first call Amtrak, you get “Julie”, Amtrak’s automated agent-voice. Don’t want to talk to a robot? Every time “Julie” asks you a question, simply reply, “Agent”. Nothing more.
After three attempts to direct you “to the best department”, the voice gives up and connects you to a real-live Amtrak reservation agent. Works every time.
Only select Acela trains on the east coast offer assigned seating when you make your reservation. All other trains, your seat assignment is completed at the station when you check in or by the conductor as you board your train.
How to Choose the Best Unassigned Coach Seat
Occasionally, there may be a train that allows you to choose your seat when you board. If this is the case, and the coach car looks full, you’ll want to glance up at the little ticket in the slot over the coach seat. See the orange ticket in the photo above. See here it says, “CHI”? That means the person is going to Chicago.
In this case, Chicago is the terminus. I just wanted you to see where these tickets are displayed. So if you’re taking a train that allows you to choose your own seat, look for a seat ticket with a destination abbreviation that is before your stop.
There’s a chance that you’ll have both seats to yourself but there’s also a chance that it might get a new passenger in it. But it doesn’t hurt to play this game.
Check In at the Amtrak Station
Nothing like at an airport, it is suggested that you arrive at the station about 45 minutes before the expected arrival time. If you plan to check luggage, the cut-off time is 30 minutes before departure, so definitely get to the station an hour before departure.
One of the best things about traveling on Amtrak is that you can almost bring your entire wardrobe. But there are some restrictions.
With coach seats, there’s only overhead storage for small carry-on luggage, same size requirements as the airlines. But if you’re traveling with oversized suitcases, you’ll need to check them at the station. There’s a generous 50 lb. limit for two checked bags, but it’s free!
However, not all stations offer checked baggage, so inquire when you make your reservation. Here’s a list of Amtrak stations that provide baggage handling services.
Be Courteous to Other Coach Passengers
Etiquette is an absolute necessity when traveling in an Amtrak coach seat. Yet easily overlooked. Common sense should prevail, but sometimes not everyone plans ahead.
Earphones are required for all devices. And it’s nice if you keep your personal space tidy. Leave the tuna fish sandwich and dill pickles at home. If you don’t want to visit the café car, pack a picnic lunch and snacks that won’t be offensive to others.
Using the Public Bathrooms in Coach
It’s a public bathroom, so clean up after yourself. It only takes a paper towel to wipe down the splashes around the sink or wherever. Your coach attendant can’t clean up after everyone so be considerate of the next person.
Ladies, if you happen to board the train at the very first or second station on the route, the bathrooms will be very clean. If you need to “go,” visit the restroom earlier rather than later. I guarantee it will be a much nicer experience.
Cozy in Coach Seats on Overnight Trains
If you’re traveling aboard Amtrak on a coach seat overnight, it might help if you bring a small pillow and blanket from home. Sometimes in coach, the air conditioning can get a little too cool, especially during the night.
Also, even though it’s “lights out” at 10PM, if it helps you to sleep, bring an eye mask and ear plugs. Just don’t miss your station because of ear plugs!
For most coach passengers, a truly good night’s sound sleep isn’t really possible. Plan your evening accordingly.
Dining Aboard Amtrak When You Have a Coach Seat
Due to recent cutbacks, dining cars on various trains were removed. However, the future of Amtrak is looking brighter and you’ll soon have dining cars back in service. Unlike when you book a sleeping room, those who travel in coach seats do not receive complimentary meals.
If you decide to take your meals in the dining car, reservations are required for lunch and dinner. A dining car staff member will walk through the coach cars and offer you three dining times to choose. Lunch is usually from 12 until 2:30 and dinner is served around 5:30pm until 8:30pm. Breakfast is open seating.
Dining Car Procedure for All Passengers
Whether you are in a coach seat or have a sleeper, when you step into the dining car you must wait to be seated. It’s community seating, four passengers per table.
If you’re traveling with someone, you’ll be seated side-by-side, not across from each other. If you decide to bring your backpack or purse with you into the dining car, it’ll have to either be placed on your lap or against the side of the car. It can be a bit of a tight fit.
Remember to tip your waiter, just as you would at a restaurant that isn’t on wheels.
Getting Food From the Café Car to Bring to Your Seat
There is almost always a Café Car on every train and you can pay with cash or credit card. Lines forms at peak hours, so again, plan ahead. It’s appropriate to leave a tip for the always-busy snack bar attendant. Usually $.50 – $1-2 dollars, again, depending upon the purchase cost.
And you can bring your meal back to your coach seat. Remember to pick up any needed condiments while you’re there so you don’t have to trek back for what you forgot.
Sometimes the snack bar has to close, usually when passing through a “dry” county or when the attendant takes a meal break. Closings are always announced and advanced warning given.
Arrival and Departure Times – Be Prepared
Ground travel comes with its inherent hiccups. Weather is one of them, especially in winter. Ice storms, blizzards, sudden downpours in the desert, even remnants of hurricanes can cause disruptions.
Then there’s the Big Guys…the freight trains. Except for tracks within the Acela network and the northeast corridor, Amtrak trains are at the mercy of the freight trains.
Big railroads like CSX and Burlington Northern own the tracks and have right-of-way privileges over passenger trains. I give Amtrak a 60-minute on-time window before I consider the train to be running late.
When a long delay happens, there’s nothing you can do except sit back in your seat, watch a video on your tablet or iPad, read a book, or get up and visit the lounge or observation car.
Amtrak is prepared for traffic delays and weather-related issues. Until Amtrak can finally own its own tracks, a cool head, calm demeanor and a few snacks and beverages from home will get you through these disruptive situations.
Amtrak Coach Seats for Family Travel
An Amtrak train ride in coach seats can be a fun and interesting experience, especially for families. Kids love it because they can stand up at their seat and stretch. Or stretch out and doze on an empty seat.
INSIDER TIP: There are a few coach seats on the lower level of Amtrak Superliner trains. Ask an Amtrak reservation agent for one of those if you want a quieter, less crowded area on the train. This can make for a much nicer Amtrak overnight in a coach seat.
If your kids get bored, depending on your route, head to the Observation Car. Boredom is seldom an issue. What kid (or grown-up) doesn’t love trains?
Travel Cheaper in Coach
While overnights in coach can mean a not-so-perfect night’s sleep for some, it’s still the best value for your travel dollar. After lights-out at 10PM, the coach car quiets down and it becomes peaceful and calm. Be sure to pack earphones so you don’t disturb your neighbor.
Save more money when you bring your own food and beverages. Dinner in the dining car for coach passengers isn’t cheap. Though meals are included for those in sleeping accommodations, Amtrak coach passengers can easily pay $25 for a steak, salad and dessert dinner.
I hope these Amtrak coach tips and advice are helpful. Know what to expect when traveling in an Amtrak coach seat. You’ll save money, see gorgeous scenery and meet interesting people from all walks of life. Enjoy the journey!
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I’m the editor and creator of CruiseMaven.com, a solo traveler cruising the world on waves and wheels, collecting recipes along the way. I hope my articles and photos entertain, advise and inspire you to travel the world without flying. Take a breath…stop for a local meal and a glass of wine along the way.