My earliest memory of a passenger train is from back in the 1970s before permanent press was common. My mother used to hire out our ironing. We crossed a train track to pick up the clothes and we usually got stuck there. I was fascinated by watching the slow-moving freight trains chug by, my mom probably less so.
One day, I saw a different sort of train. The guardrail dropped, and a gleaming, silver train whizzed by so fast it appeared blurry. The guardrail raised and we rolled over the track.
My mother explained it was an Amtrak passenger train. She told me about sleeper compartments and dining cars. Five-year-old me was intrigued. I told myself I would ride a train like that someday.
Someday was this spring. I planned to travel from my home in San Antonio to meet a friend to hike in Big Bend National Park. Amtrak’s Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited trains pass through Alpine, a small town 80 miles from the park, so I decided to skip the drive and take the train.
My train left at 2:30 a.m. (ouch!) and I needed to hit the ground running upon arrival, so I booked a sleeper car. I don’t regret my decision, but here are nine things I wish I knew before I booked an Amtrak sleeper car. As you read through this, you’ll note the overarching theme of “could have done better research.” Hopefully, my experiences can help you have a smoother, cheaper train adventure.
1. How To Get Cheaper Sleeper Car Tickets
I rode the train for the experience and not to save money, although sometimes Amtrak is cheaper than flying or driving.
Before you get too far into the trip planning process, check out the Deals section on Amtrak’s website. You’ll find a list of current specials that sometimes include enhanced senior or veteran discounts on select routes. The holy grail of Amtrak discounts is the BOGO offer. If you’re flexible, this is the biggest money saver. Sign up for Amtrak’s emails so you don’t miss notifications.
I bought my tickets five days before my trip and paid about 40 percent more than I expected. The (expensive) lesson I learned was to buy tickets in advance for the best prices. Two to three weeks out makes a big difference in price.
Pro Tip: Capital One Shopping, Coupon Cabin, and Rakuten may also have coupon codes or discounted Amtrak gift cards.
2. The Differences Between Roomette And Bedroom
If my trip would have been during the daytime or if I could have rested upon arrival (versus driving 80 miles to spend 3 hours hiking) I probably wouldn’t have booked a sleeper car. I had to leave for the train station at 1:30 a.m. and needed to arrive rested, so I booked a Roomette to have a space to sleep on my way to Alpine.
The big difference between a Roomette and a Bedroom on Amtrak are space and price. The Roomette can accommodate 1 or 2 travelers. The Bedroom has more space and a private toilet/shower area and can accommodate 2 to 3 travelers, although I think three would be a tight squeeze. I booked a Roomette and upgraded to a Bedroom.
Sleeper car amenities include blankets, small pillows, bottled water, linens, and access to a coffee station.
Pro Tip: I was comfortable on my short trip, but if you’re spending multiple nights on the train, I recommend keeping room in your carry-on for your own pillow and blanket. I slept in my joggers and socks and the Amtrak blanket didn’t cover the length of my body — it was more like a throw.
By the way, once you get used to the unfamiliar noises and movement, train sleep is awesome sleep.
3. Amtrak’s Dining Car Is Pretty Close To Being Fine Dining
I had breakfast in the dining car and enjoyed views of the West Texas desert and the company of friendly fellow passengers. Meals are included for sleeper car passengers.
There are two dining styles in Amtrak dining cars: Traditional and Flexible. Your attendant will tell you which one is available on your train and assist you with making necessary reservations. They’ll also inform you of meal times via PA system announcement. If you’d like to eat in your compartment, let your attendant know in advance.
Pro Tip: Traditional Dining is chef-prepared meals; Flexible Dining has a smaller menu and consists of hot and cold prepackaged food.
4. Not All Trains Have Wi-Fi
This was a shocker since I’m used to Wi-Fi being universally available. Since I rode during the night, this didn’t hit me as hard as it could have if I’d anticipated being able to work or stream movies.
The stretch of the Texas Eagle I traveled went through rural areas where cell signals are notoriously absent. I had books downloaded, which worked since I spent a lot of time snoozing. While the opportunity to unplug unexpectedly turned out to be nice, I recommend downloading movies or shows before you board the train.
Pro Tip: If you want to embrace unplugged life, stock up on puzzle books or pack a card game.
5. Free Checked Bags
Amtrak allows two checked bags and two carry-on bags per passenger. If you’re sharing your sleeper car, you’ll want to maximize space. Tripping over suitcases will take your compartment from cozy to cramped. Put what you need for the trip in a carry-on and keep your space clutter-free.
Pro Tip: Passengers in an upstairs compartment (Superliner trains) might not want to drag a big suitcase up the narrow stairway, so that’s another reason to take advantage of free checked bags.
6. Amtrak’s BidUp Service
Passengers can use Amtrak’s BidUp to upgrade their seats. I booked a Roomette and used BidUp to upgrade to a Bedroom. Passengers will see the option to BidUp upon booking.
BidUp will give you an idea of what amount you should bid. If your bid is too low, you probably won’t be competitive, although you have no visibility of how many passengers are bidding. BidUp is a game of chance, although not gambling. If your upgrade bid isn’t accepted, you won’t be charged.
I did a medium-high bid to upgrade from a Roomette to a Bedroom and ended up getting the upgrade. This afforded me more space and more money. I received the notice I’d been upgraded two days before my departure.
If you’re a first-timer, I recommend investing the time to research BidUp and read reviews before bidding. Research the price difference between what you already paid and the price of the accommodation you’re bidding on. I’m the perfect example of someone pushing buttons without doing adequate research. I upgraded with minimal savings. I’ll never know if I could have been successful with a lower bid and overspent on space I didn’t need!
7. No Locking Your Compartment From The Outside
I felt very safe going to sleep on the train. My door locked from the inside and my bedroom had curtains so no one could see inside.
When I left to visit the observation deck and dining car, though, I discovered there was no way to secure my room from the outside. I carried my wallet and phone on my person but I took a chance and left my backpack with my laptop and other electronics concealed in my compartment. Everything was fine, but in retrospect, I recommend using an abundance of caution.
8. Tipping On Amtrak
You’ll want to tip your attendant and your dining room servers. Your sleeper car attendant will alert you to stops and mealtimes and assist you with converting your seats into sleeping berths for the evening. They also provide fresh towels, bottled water, and other assistance upon request.
Your food (and one cocktail at dinner) are included in your ticket, but definitely take cash for tips. I recommend tipping the restaurant server per meal and tipping the stateroom attendant per day or at the end of the trip.
9. Amtrak Accessibility Info
If your sleeper compartment is upstairs, you’ll find the stairs steep and narrow. If you have mobility challenges, this might prove difficult.
Amtrak Public Relations Manager Olivia Irwin says, “In addition to handcarts in a number of Amtrak stations, uniformed Red Caps provide free baggage-handling assistance at many major stations. We are also pleased to provide services to passengers with disabilities and have worked to make our facilities more accessible to customers with disabilities.”
Would I Book An Amtrak Sleeper Car Again?
Yes. There’s something about train travel that adds a little more spice to the act of getting somewhere. That said, although my fellow train travelers were sociable, I found myself wishing for a companion to share my experience with. Since I’m a more informed train traveler now and learned a lot from my own mistakes, I’d plan a future trip around fare specials and embrace a slower travel experience.