Amtrak Trains: a complete guide for first-time riders

Many people believe the US has a poor public transport network, but you might be surprised at just how many rail routes the country offers. Amtrak, a major train network company, transports around 87,000 passengers on 300 trains every day, including some that go through the nation’s most beautiful routes. If you want to learn more, make sure you stick around for our complete guide to riding Amtrak trains for first-time riders.

In this article, we’ll demystify everything you need to know about Amtrak’s routes, stations, tickets, and policies so you can travel with peace of mind. 

What is Amtrak?

Formally known as The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Amtrak is an American company that operates intercity passenger rail services. It has a history of more than 50 years, with Congress formally establishing the organization in 1971 to save the rail industry from failure as other transport methods boomed. Although Amtrak is a for-profit company, it’s still a state-owned enterprise since the government holds all its stock. 

Amtrak’s vast network covers 46 states, the District of Columbia, and even three Canadian provinces — spanning tourist routes, commuter paths, and more.  The company covers long-distance trips—including cross-country journeys—and regional trips. 

You can find a full Amtrak System Map below.

Amtrak network

Main Amtrak routes

Amtrak might have hundreds of stations, but some are better known than others. The routes below are particularly popular among tourists who often want to enjoy slow travel and soak up the sights in the US and Canada. But keep in mind that these are just some of the options the company offers, as there are many other trains connecting cities all around America. 

Empire Builder

Connecting Chicago to the vibrant cities of Seattle and Portland, this 3-day journey will show you some of the best gems of the American landscape — including the Glacier National Park, the High Plains, and the Mississippi River. The Empire Builder is the perfect route for history buffs, allowing you to recreate The Lewis and Clark Expedition, which helped to map out the uncharted territory of the US. 

amtrak empire builder

California Zephyr

Embark on a picturesque journey from the heartland of Chicago to the iconic cityscape of San Francisco. The California Zephyr weaves through the Rocky Mountains, offering breathtaking views of the Sierra Nevada, the Glenwood Canyon, and more.


Acela trains define high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor, linking major cities like Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Known for their sleek design and advanced features, Acela trains offer a premium travel experience with spacious seating, complimentary Wi-Fi, and efficient service, making them the preferred choice for both business and leisure travelers in the bustling Northeast.

Southwest Chief

Travel from the “Windy City” Chicago to Los Angeles on this journey across the West of the US. You’ll enjoy views of expansive prairies, the red-rock canyons of New Mexico, and the sprawling desert landscape of Arizona. Plus, it earned the nickname “Train of the Stars” due to the Hollywood celebrities that took the route between the 1930s and 1960s.

Pacific Surfliner

If you’re after some sun and sea, the Pacific Surfliner will take you on a coastal journey from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. With stunning ocean views, quaint beach towns, and iconic Californian landmarks, this scenic route has everything you could want from a journey.

amtrak pacific surfliner

Texas Eagle

The Texas Eagle route caters to a diverse range of travelers, starting in Chicago and heading south to Texas. You can choose to extend the journey to Los Angeles, with stops at the Ozark Mountains, vast prairies, and diverse Midwest landscapes. Chicago’s architectural marvels add a cultural touch to this memorable trip.

Amtrak Thruway service

Amtrak’s Thruway Service uses buses to connect places that trains don’t reach directly. It makes traveling more convenient by offering bus connections to and from different cities and towns. This service allows passengers to easily switch between the train and bus, expanding the destinations you can reach with Amtrak. It’s a way to go beyond the usual train routes and reach a wider range of places.

Main Amtrak stations

There are more than 500 destinations in the Amtrak network, but which experiences the most footfall?

The busiest stations are:

  1. Penn Station, New York
  2. Washington Union Station, Washington DC
  3. 30th Street Station, Philadelphia 
  4. Chicago Union, Chicago
  5. South Station, Boston
  6. Union Station, Los Angeles
  7. Penn Station, Baltimore
  8. Albany–Rensselaer, Rensselaer
  9. Union Station, New Haven
  10. Back Bay Station, Boston
Union Station, in Washington DC
Union Station, in Washington DC, by Caleb Fischer

International travel with Amtrak

As mentioned, the Amtrak network includes travel to destinations in Canada. There are three routes that cross the border:

  • Adirondack: Goes between New York City and Montreal, with stops in Upstate New York and Saint-Lambert, Canada.
  • Cascades: Connects Vancouver with Washington and Oregon.
  • Maple Leaf: Follows the Hudson River Valley out of New York City and ends in Toronto, including a stop at Niagara Falls.

This is an exciting way to see some of the best sites across North America, but cross-border travel does require a little more planning than sticking within the US. We’ll cover the requirements in our later “preparation for your trip” section.

Navigating Amtrak ticket options

When you buy tickets for an Amtrak route, make sure you understand what you’re buying. If you go for luxury tickets with cabins and meals, the price can be more expensive than air travel — on the other hand, coach class tends to be a cheaper alternative

However, some people would prefer to choose train travel regardless because of the superior experience. Here’s how the fares differ.

Types of Amtrak tickets

There are two main types of Amtrak fares, with different levels of flexibility:

  • Saver Fare: Budget-friendly with discounts for early bookings. Changes have a 25% fee, but if canceled within 24 hours, you’ll receive a 75% eVoucher.
  • Value Fare: Balances savings and flexibility. Free changes and refunds. Fully refundable up to 15 days before departure, with a 25% fee for changes less than 14 days before departure.

Amtrak also offers multi-ride and rail passes, which are a great way for frequent travelers to grab a bargain. The main three types are:

  • Multi-Ride Pass: Provides a discount for passengers who take several trips between two destinations.
  • USA Rail Pass: Allows passengers to travel between destinations across the country and stop at different destinations along the way.
  • California Rail Pass: Offers a discounted rate for travel to all stations within California for a fixed period.

Seat classes

Amtrak offers three seating classes:

  • Coach Class: The most budget-friendly option.
  • Business Class: Extra legroom and wider seats for more comfort.
  • First Class: The highest level of comfort and luxury (only available on Acela high-speed trains on the Northeast corridor).

Amenities onboard vary depending on your seat class. When traveling Coach Class, the amenities offered are at-seat trays, reading lights, electric outlets, and access to restrooms in each car. 

Meanwhile, Business Class passengers will also receive complimentary non-alcoholic beverages, and First Class passengers will get access to station lounges and complimentary food. On the Acela service, all passengers have access to Café Acela to buy food and drink.

If you’re traveling with family or with a group, you can also choose a roomette, a bedroom, a bedroom suite or a family room, which are more expensive, but perfect for long overnight trips. Accessible seating is available for those with disabilities or impaired mobility.

What you need to know about Amtrak policies

To avoid any surprises, it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re clued up about the rules and regulations, especially when it comes to cancellations and luggage.

How to prepare for your Amtrak trip

Plan ahead: It might sound obvious, but it’s just true: when planning your journey, it’s best to look for tickets as early as possible — Amtrak releases its fares 11 months in advance, and being organized will help you grab the best-value tickets. Don’t forget to buy travel insurance too.

Bring the essentials: On the day of your travel, remember to take your photo ID, passport, or another accepted document with you, and have your tickets ready to show. Amtrak recommends arriving at the station at least 30 minutes before you’re due to leave — especially if you’re using a busier station, where lines tend to be longer.

Required documentation for cross-border travel

Traveling by train is simpler and less stressful than using an airplane in many ways, but you’ll still have to comply with regulations for cross-border travel. When you cross the US-Canada border, you’ll have to undergo inspection by law enforcement officials.

For these journeys, Amtrak requests certain information at the reservation stage. This includes your date of birth, where your citizenship is, and details about your identification method. It’s important to ensure this is accurate and bring the same identification documentation you provided during your booking. Note that you can’t provide a copy — you must take the original document.

Due to these legal processes, you need to arrive at the station in Canada at least 30 minutes before the scheduled departure (or one hour before in the case of Vancouver). Anyone who isn’t a US or Canadian citizen should arrive even earlier. And it goes without saying that only travelers authorized to enter the country will be allowed to travel. 

How to book an Amtrak journey with Busbud

Your first instinct may be to head straight to the Amtrak website to buy your tickets if you want to travel using the network, but there are a few reasons you may want to think again. The platform can be difficult and confusing to use, and it can be challenging to find the best-value tickets.

In contrast, Busbud lets you buy train tickets on a user-friendly, intuitive interface. You’ll also be able to compare prices with other operators, which ensures you get the best price possible.

Don’t worry — you don’t need to create an account to be able to browse journeys and see what’s available (thought we highly recommend it to make it easier to manage your trips and to easily find your tickets).

All aboard!

Train is a scenic and convenient way to travel, and Amtrak will take you across some of the best routes in America (and even Canada). Ensure you understand ticket options, seat classes, and policies ahead of time for a seamless journey, and you’ll be good to go.

Ready to embark on your adventure? Simplify the booking process by using Busbud to plan your trip.