Amtrak Across the Country
After spending 15 months rambling across the US on our bicycles, we made the command decision to take Amtrak back across the US to spend the winter in Portland, Oregon. Why Amtrak? For us, trains and bicycles seem like a natural fit.
A train is a much more civilized conveyance than an airplane. A train is slow, leisurely, restful; while an airplane is frenetic, stressful, strict. When you’re on a train, you have hours to simply sit and look out the windows, taking in the scenery around you. While you’re moving much quicker than on a bicycle, it’s a similar experience, because you have the time to meditate on each rolling hill and small town you pass through. On a train, you can meet fellow passengers, and share fascinating conversation over a meal in the dining car. Amtrak treats you like a person, allowing you to walk around, stretch your legs, and bring more than three ounces of liquid aboard. And it’s one of the cheapest ways to travel long-distance with a bicycle, as Amtrak only charges $20 to box and check your bike.
We have long been fans of Amtrak. When we were living in Long Beach, taking the train out of the city was the best way to begin a bike trip. We’ve taken Amtrak up and down the west coast many times, even as a way to kick off this journey last summer. But we have never taken a train for more than one night – and we’ve always been curious what it would be like.
So, a few weeks ago, we boxed up our bikes in Boston, and hopped aboard Amtrak, for a three-day ride across the US to Portland.
From Boston, we rode the Lake Shore Limited into Chicago. The train passes through Western Massachusetts, upstate New York, around the bottom of a few of the great lakes, before pulling into downtown Chicago. It took approximately 25 hours, arriving 2 hours late due to freight traffic. We rode coach, in an attempt to save some money, and because we knew we could tough it out in an uncomfortable sleeping position for one night.
From Chicago, we upgraded to a sleeper car aboard the Empire Builder for the rest of the trip to Portland. This train cuts across the very northern part of the US, through the endless plains of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana, before crossing the mountains, and following the Columbia Gorge into Portland. The ride was approximately 44 hours, and was perfectly on time (as we’ve found is our luck whenever we get a sleeper car).
The sleeper car sounds like an over-the-top luxury, but it’s really the best way to spend two nights on a train. Not only do you sleep better, you have your own quiet spot away from the crying children and dozens of bored passengers. In the sleeping cars, the bathrooms tend to be cleaner, you have first dibs on dinner reservations, you may get to join in a wine tasting (depending on the route you take), and there’s a shower, champagne, and a car attendant. (And, here’s a big secret… When you stay in a sleeper car, your fare includes all of your meals!)
The experience of riding on Amtrak may not be the romantic vision we have of the golden age of train travel. You’re not going to meet Cary Grant, your coffee will arrive in a paper cup, and folks will likely sprawl out all over the floor in an attempt to sleep through the day. That said, I’ve always felt like I get better customer service from Amtrak employees than in my combined 20-some-years of flying. When I say they treat you like a person, I’m not joking. The conductors are approachable and (often) jovial. If the train’s late, they’ll tell you (honestly) what you can expect. If the train’s really late, they’ll pass out free snacks and bottled water.
Why do I keep mentioning the train being late? Well, because that’s the plague of Amtrak. For most routes, Amtrak does not own its own tracks. It uses the freight tracks, under agreement with the freight operators, which means that the freight trains have priority. The Coast Starlight is one of the most notoriously-late Amtrak trains. It shares tracks with Union Pacific, which operates a lot of freight traffic along the same route, and can mean a lot of delays. Riding Amtrak can test your patience, if you’re not able to let go of any ideals you may have about what riding a train should be like (i.e. don’t even think about comparing it to the trains in Europe).
Which often makes me wonder what it must be like for Amtrak employees. They must regularly deal with passenger complaints, and they constantly have to apologize for something they have no control over. Honestly, it’s pretty amazing that they would continue to be so helpful and friendly.
But let’s go back to the idea of taking your bicycle with you on the train. Amtrak operates only six trains on which you can simply bring your bike aboard. On all of the other trains, you must box and check your bicycle. This is actually a much simpler project than it sounds. Any staffed Amtrak station that offers baggage service should have bike boxes in stock that you can purchase (but make sure to check ahead). To make your bike fit in the box, all you have to do is remove the pedals and turn the handlebars and roll the bike into the box. Tape it up really well, write your name and phone number on the box, hand over your $20, and you’re good to go. Pretty simple, right? There’s just one more thing… You must make sure that your destination is a baggage stop, or you won’t be able to get your bike off the train. Yes, even though there is a stop in Alpine, Texas, 80 short miles from Big Bend and the perfect jumping-off location for a bike tour, you cannot get your bike off the train there, because Amtrak does not offer baggage service at this stop. Check the schedules carefully.
Or just get a Brompton. We’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately, especially after riding trains throughout the NorthEast. How simple to have a bike that folds so small and so neatly that you can just carry it aboard and put it in the overhead compartment. Think about all the possibilities this opens up… such as getting off the train, with your bike, in Alpine, Texas, and spending a fantastic week rambling around Big Bend country. The bike touring possibilities expand when you have a folding bike. And it would be an even-more-obvious pairing with train travel.
As we kick around several ideas for our next adventure, we can’t help but consider the possibility of crossing the northern part of the US and Canada – on a multi-modal journey that would combine Brompton and Amtrak.
If you agree with us that bikes and train travel go together really well, consider writing and sending a letter to Amtrak. Amtrak is poised to become an even-more-popular method of travel in coming years, as people get more and more frustrated with flying, and it would be great to see them expand their bike service to each station stop. If nothing else, it would be great for them to know that they serve so many cyclists.
juan garcia November 29, 2010 at 2:19 pm
i have taken amtrak many times, twice with my boxed bike. true…i wish amtrak made it possible to take your bike anywhere and get off at any stop and get your bike off. i know of several people who went with greyhound because they could take their bikes with them wherever they went and got off at. i wish amtrak did this. i love amtrak and will continue to use it in my long distance trips where i need to take my bike.
Tweets that mention Amtrak Across the Country | The Path Less Pedaled -- Topsy.com November 29, 2010 at 2:28 pm
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ThePathLessPedaled, Rod Huntress. Rod Huntress said: @pathlesspedaled is giving serious thought to pushing the envelope with a multimodal Brompton + Amtrak tour http://bit.ly/eyYhRw […]
Kent Peterson November 29, 2010 at 2:41 pm
Great write-up. I know you guys have your hearts set on Bromptons, but I’ve gotten about a zillion miles of fun out of Bike Fridays and my Dahon. Folding bikes and trains are a super great mix.
I’ll hop the train down to PDX soon and you can take my little Dahon D3 for a spin.
Lloyd Lemons November 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm
Enjoyed your post! I am sick, sick, sick of flying and my wife and I have been considering a train trip. It would be our first. Good to know about the baggage stops. It would be terrible to get off the train while my bike continued on down the tracks. Thanks.
Dmarie November 29, 2010 at 3:52 pm
have long been considering a trip on Amtrak. thanks for the insider info!
James danburg November 29, 2010 at 4:56 pm
I am a pretty regular commuter on Amtrak between Albany NY and NYC and also an avid cyclist. I would like to echo the brilliance of the Brompton-Amtrak combination, as that is one of my most common routes for getting around. The Brompton actually easily fits into the overhead luggage space on Amtrak, and also most all airplanes. The down side, as I learned trying to ride up to Lake Tahoe from Reno during a conference, is the dearth of gears. The two I have are entirely inadequate on the hills. If you have only rollers, the Brompton acquits itself well, but more than that is Sisyphian.
Happy training – in both senses of the word!
Robert Rowe November 29, 2010 at 8:35 pm
I can heartily second the humanistic qualities of Amtrak employees. I used to commute 2hrs each way to work via Amtrak, and there were definitely times when their honest, layman’s explanation of delays were very comforting.
I’ve never attempted travelling cross-country, or with a bike, but it sounds like the way to go!
ken nielsen November 30, 2010 at 12:16 am
The Brompton is indeed a great bike. We travel with them when visiting cities but have never used them for touring (Surly LHTs for that).
We have used the Bromptons in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, San Francisco, Chicago, New york, Perth, Adelaide.
I would not like to do a hilly ride on them with loaded panniers
We have never riden Bike Fridays but know many people who tour on those.
Steven November 30, 2010 at 12:52 pm
I am a big fan of Amtrak and think the Pacific Surfliner and Coastal Starlite are pretty good experiences. I took my Dahon folding bike up to PDX last year but had mixed reactions from the station and car staff as what to do with a folding bike. I was told on several occasions that I had to box my folding bike. Each time I referred them to the website for the policy on folding bikes, but it was a common misconception by amtrak staff that all bikes were to be checked. I reported these incidents to customer service on my return.
mel November 30, 2010 at 2:19 pm
I just took Amtrak last week – capitol corridor, from SF Bay area to Sacramento, for Thanksgiving. My first time on the train, also with my bike. I climbed on the car with “Bike Car” label and only saw the luggage rack. It was completely full with everyone going home for the holiday. I didn’t know what to do so I stood there with my bike, jostling it in and out of the way for passengers. This went on for a couple stops. About 20 minutes later I finally turned around, walked into the car a couple steps and saw four beautiful new bike racks, like silver sled runners, all empty and waiting for me!
Lauren M.F. December 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm
I have yet to take my bike on the train (hopefully in the next year or two I will be biking the Mississippi River Trail with my soon to be husband) but have taken a couple of multi day trips on Amtrak. Two of the three were spectacular, particularly traveling from Seattle to Chicago through the unending plains of Montana and the Dakotas. It was the perfect end to a two month retreat at a non-profit on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. I absolutely cannot imagine how jarring it would have been to fly back to Chicago instead of the wonderful two day sojourn that I had the pleasure to experience.
Rock on, Amtrak!
Caroline Helmkamp December 3, 2010 at 2:26 pm
We have also taken our bikes WITH us on Amtrak and been very satisfied.
There is another option too. You can SHIP your boxed bike to an Amtrak station with baggage handling and collect it when you arrive by another mode of transportation. That costs more than the $20 when the bike accompanies you, but it is much cheaper than flying with your bike, and Amtrak has the large boxes for shipping which the airlines no longer have.
dougP December 3, 2010 at 5:34 pm
We have traveled on Amtrak several times with our bicycles and can attest to the courteous professionalism of the Amtrak staff. It’s such a stark contrast to air travel, it’s hard to believe. They’ve always helped us work out where to put our bikes and give us plenty of notice when we need to be getting them ready to jump off the train. We use the Pacific Surfliner where you hang your bike on a hook in a car, not as checked baggage. Great way to travel.
SpencerSalmon December 4, 2010 at 8:58 am
If you guys were awake while you when through Fargo, ND you passed the bike shop I work at. It is the old train station. http://www.gncycles.com/ We have a great cycling community!
Barturtle December 5, 2010 at 10:09 am
I was just on the Empire Builder on the 22nd, after taking the Hoosier State from Indy to Chicago. Alas I was without my bike (no baggage check in Indy) but the Twin Cities has awesome transit and walking, so I was good without it.
Karla December 6, 2010 at 12:42 pm
I too love Amtrak – shopping in advance and having flexibility on dates has allowed me some incredible deals on the sleeper cars over the years.
A combined bike tour and Amtrak trip has been on my list for several years. After considering folding bikes, I just purchased a full-sized touring bike with S&S couplings (http://www.rodcycle.com/articles/travel_option.html). Getting the bike into the case will take longer and more effort than with a folding bike, but my plan is to spend most of my time biking so wanted a traditional ride.
Just spent some time in France and Spain – the regional trains we rode are set for simply wheeling a bike onboard! I will write Amtrak. Thanks for the prompt.
Balint December 26, 2010 at 12:52 am
I’m a Hungarian, just for comparison about the trains here. Domestic trains are cheap, but international trains are really expensive, normally more expensive then low-cost airlines. On most trains there are bike carrying coaches (http://criticalmass.hu/files/nemet_vasut.jpg) where you can put your bike yourself up and down. I think bike carrying on trains is probably more widespread here, trains aren’t so late, but the whole thing is more expensive.
Charmaine February 1, 2011 at 12:41 pm
I have brought my Brompton on Amtrak several times, to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. It’s VERY convenient – you never have to worry about your bike – it is right with you, enjoying the ride also. 🙂 When you get to your destination, grab your bike on the way off the train, unfold it, and away you go! Can’t be easier than that!! 🙂 I highly recommend it! Lots of fun. 🙂 Charmaine
max August 5, 2013 at 10:30 am
I’ve used Amtrak to get to Oregon on several occasions, but just booked a ‘thruway seat’ from Vancouver, BC to Seattle with a bike. . .
I paid the extra $5 for the bike, but am curious if anyone knows if there will be an actual space for the bike on the bus like the train has or if I’ll have to box my full size bike.
paula joy October 15, 2013 at 6:39 pm
Hi. I love taking the train AND my bike…but I use a New World Tourist folding touring bike made by BIke Friday. I am a real fan! It’s a great bike and once I got used to packing it, it takes relatively less time than it did the first few times, and checks with no problem on planes or trains. I biked across one part of Vancouver Island from Victoria BC to Sooke BC and had a blast on it, fully loaded. Great way to have celebrated my 60th birthday. I’ve recently checked the bike in its 30″ Samsonite suitcase on a train that went to Montana, to bike a bit up near Whitefish, and also, flew from Sacramento to Portland. Bromptons are great folding bikes too, I’ve heard. I think the Bike Fridays, however, are more specifically designed and accessorized for fully-loaded touring, if that is what one would enjoy doing. Just my two cents. My wish, if anyone knows where to find more info on Trains and Bike Touring: Please send me a link: email@example.com
I’d especially love to hear about touring logistics to travel by train to National Parks, do short tours, then hop back on the train to another National Park, etc., etc.
FYI, if this is helpful to anyone: For the BC trip, I was able to hang my Bike Friday on a hook safely in the Baggage Car on Amtrak train from Portland to Seattle, where I ferried over (fully loaded, just wheeling the bike on and off the ferry), but from Sacramento to Portland, I would have had to check the bike in its suitcase to get that far.
Bill February 13, 2016 at 4:14 pm
This is comforting to read. I’ve taken my Brompton on airplanes a handful of times without any issues and am planning a trip from NYC to Sacramento on Amtrak with Brompton and then flying back to NYC from SF with the Brompton. My plan was to stay in Coach the entire time, so that’s 3 nights in the seat. Are there showers for Coach passengers or will I have to go back to my dirtbag touring hygiene routine?
Laura March 11, 2016 at 5:01 pm
Hi Bill. Enjoy your adventure! Unfortunately, no, the showers are only in the sleeper car section.
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Thanks for the mention of Alpine and Big Bend. They may get a new station in the future, and we HOPE that will make it easier to bring a bike to the Texas Mountains. Loved this post, and would have even if you hadn’t mentioned our little corner of the world.