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19 Useful Tips for Long Distance Train Travel

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A few years ago, I needed to travel from the West Coast to the East Coast in a reasonably timely fashion, yet not spend a fortune to do so.

Most people would fly. A round-trip ticket for just me would cost nearly $1,000. It’s always reasonably cheap to take the bus, but the bus isn’t very timely, and there’s always a good chance that you’ll hit a delay.

That’s when I decided to travel by train… and it was one of the best travel decisions ever. It took two days to travel across the country instead of a few hours, but I got to meet new people and do a little sightseeing in communities I’d normally never see. I did so for half the price of a plane ticket.

To experience savings, you’re going to need to travel by coach. The coach section on a rail is a first-come, first-served experience, so these long-distance train travel tips will help you make the most out of the long-distance routes you’re taking by train.

What is Long-Distance Train Travel?

Passengers boarding Eurostar train at Amsterdam Centraal Station under cloudy skies
Boarding Eurostar in Amsterdam (Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers)

A long-distance train is a type of railway transport that covers longer distances than regular commuter or regional trains. These trains usually have more amenities and services than shorter-distance trains, making them a more comfortable option for travelers looking to cover large distances quickly.

Useful Tips for Long-Distance Train Travel

Train travel can be a fun and affordable way to see the country. Here are some tips to help make your trip a success:

1) Plan ahead

Writing on a Paper

Train travel takes up your whole day, and you don’t want to spend that time feeling terrible. Plus, there are certain items you need to buy ahead of time – like a dining train car ticket, sleeper cabin reservation, or assigned seating ticket.

A typical long-distance train journey will last anywhere from 25-65 hours. That’s why it’s essential to be as comfortable and prepared as possible.

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2) Choose the right train

Train on Train Station

Long-distance trains have different ticket prices, safety and comfort levels, baggage services, in-train toilets, and mobile internet availability.

A long-distance rail trip is safer for most people than traveling by car or bus because few pedestrians are on the rails. Trains usually run more often than other forms of transportation. Some trains even have Wi-Fi now, so you can stay connected even while on your journey.

When traveling by train, it’s important to choose the right train. Different trains have different amenities and can be faster or slower.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a train:

  • Does the train have Wi-Fi?
  • What kind of seat is available? (Window seat, aisle seat, etc.)
  • What is the train’s schedule? (Is it a direct train, or does it make several stops?)
  • How much luggage can I bring with me on the train?
  • Is there a dining car on the train?
  • What is the price of the ticket?

Know the long-distance train you’re going to ride

There are several different long-distance trains, each with unique features and purposes. Below are some of the most common types of long-distance trains:

  • High-speed trains: These are the fastest and can reach up to 200 mph. They usually make a few stops and have comfortable seating.
  • Express trains: These trains make more stops than high-speed trains but are still relatively fast. They typically have less comfortable seating than high-speed trains.
  • Local trains: These make all the stops along the route and can be slow. They usually have more spacious seating than express or high-speed trains.

If you’re traveling long distances by train, remember these things!

See Related: What to Do When There’s a Train Strike

3) Consider your budget

Holding a Wallet with Cash and Cards

Trains can be expensive, but deals are often available if you know where to look. When planning a long-distance train trip, it’s important to consider your budget and buy your ticket accordingly.

Some trains are more expensive than others, and different fare options are often available. Buying a ticket well in advance can save you money, as can traveling during off-peak hours.

It’s also important to research the amenities available on different trains, as some offer more comfortable accommodations than others.

4) Buy your ticket in advance

Holding a Card and Using a Laptop

Buying your ticket in advance is always good when traveling long distances by train. To do this, use Omio or Trainline to compare prices and find the best possible price. You’ll get to compare train times and companies to find the right route.

This will ensure that you have a seat, and it can also save you money. It’s important to buy train tickets in advance because they may sell out. Trains can be very popular, especially during peak travel times. If you don’t have a ticket, you may not be able to get on the train.

It’s also important to know what type of ticket you’re buying. There are different types of tickets with different prices and benefits. Make sure you understand the ticket you’re buying before you purchase it.

This will ensure that you have a seat reserved and typically result in a lower fare. If you decide to purchase your ticket at the last minute, you may pay a significantly higher price.

Different Types of Train Tickets

There are a few different types of train tickets:

  • Single: This is the most basic ticket type, allowing you to travel from point A to B.
  • Return: This ticket allows you to travel from point A to point B and back again.
  • Open: This ticket allows you to travel on any train that takes your fancy on your chosen date or date.
  • Round Trip: This ticket combines a Single and a Return ticket, allowing you to travel from point A to point B and then back again.
  • Package Deal: Some train companies offer package deals that include your train ride and accommodation at a set price.

This can be a great way to save money if you plan to spend a few days at your destination.

5) Travel during off-peak hours

Crowded Pedestrian

Trains are often less crowded and less expensive during off-peak hours. If you have the flexibility, consider traveling during these times.

Train travel during off-peak hours is the best way to ensure a comfortable and relatively hassle-free experience. Due to the limited availability of seats and the high volume of passengers, train travel can be quite crowded and uncomfortable during peak hours.

Furthermore, ticket prices are usually higher during peak hours. Therefore, it is advisable to travel during off-peak hours, which usually coincide with the early morning or late evening.

6) Pack light

Open Luggage and Packing

Packing light reduces the stress of lugging around heavy baggage. You’ll have to carry your luggage, and there might not be a lot of space on the train.

Carrying a much lighter weight will allow you to move about much easier than balancing heavier weights on one shoulder and dragging your feet forward. Ensuring that every bag can be tucked neatly under an arm is key, as it makes walking through stations and down aisles much simpler.

I use the Peak Design Duffelpack for one-bag travel, as it can be used as a duffel bag or a backpack.

7) Be aware of the baggage policies.

Red Tiny Luggage

It is also important to know the baggage policies of the train company you will travel with. Most companies allow passengers to bring two pieces of luggage, but size and weight restrictions may exist. It is always best to check the baggage policies before packing your bags.

Knowing your train’s baggage policies can help you avoid surprises or penalties when you go to check your luggage. Each train company has different restrictions on what you’re allowed to bring, how much you’re allowed to bring, and even what type of luggage is acceptable. Knowing these restrictions can help ensure your trip goes smoothly without unpleasant surprises.

8) Make a pre-departure checklist

Writing a Checklist

There are many reasons why creating pre-departure checklists for smooth travel is important. Here is a pre-departure checklist:

  • Make sure you have everything you need for the journey
  • Avoid any stressful surprises or delays along the way
  • Keep your belongings safe and secure
  • Avoid any costly mistakes or inconveniences
  • Preparation is key for a successful long train journey!

9) Check the weather forecast before departing

Looking on a Laptop

When weather conditions are expected to be adverse, travelers should carefully weigh the benefits and risks of taking a train. If you’re going by train, winter is the time to pack hot tea, coffee, or even hot chocolate in case the heat fails or it’s too cold to leave your cabin.

10) Familiarize routes

Putting Pins on a Map

Familiarize yourself with the route before you travel. This will help you know when to get off the train and make necessary transfers. Not all trains run on time, so it’s always a good idea to have a backup plan.

For long-distance train travel, familiarizing yourself with routes and knowing the train stops cannot be overemphasized. This helps ensure a smooth and uninterrupted journey.

By familiarizing yourself with the routes, you can easily spot potential delays and take necessary precautions. Knowing the train stops lets you plan your itinerary and maximize your time.

11) Bring your own food and drink

Hand Holding a Packed Meal

Train food can be expensive, and it’s often not very good. You can buy a dining car ticket, but bringing your food helps if you want to save. It is important in long-distance rail travel because you cannot access a restaurant or vending machines.

If you are on a budget, it can save you money to pack your snacks and drinks instead of buying them on the train. Additionally, it is much easier to control what you eat when you bring your food if you have any dietary restrictions.

Train food isn’t that bad. I invested in an omelet and had a pleasant conversation with a newlywed couple enjoying the second day of their honeymoon, and it was nice to be out of my seat for a while.

My omelet was $11, and no credit cards were on the train. In your carry-on bags, bring lots of packable snacks and meals that you can eat right there in your seat to save money.

Tuna, fish, and crackers were a staple of my diet on this trip, though lunchables, sandwiches, chips, sodas, and other items can all be brought on board. You’ll save plenty of money and won’t have to worry about carrying a lot of cash—a double win!

12) Dress comfortably

Hanged Clothes

Comfortable clothing is also key for long-distance train travel. Since you will be sitting for long periods, it is important to wear clothes that won’t make you uncomfortable. Additionally, if you are traveling overnight, you may want to bring a change of clothes in case you get cold during the night.

The temperature on a train can vary a lot, so it’s also best to dress in layers. This will allow you to adjust your clothing depending on the weather conditions and the train’s warmth or cold.

13) Take the seat next to the outlet if you can

Outlet Under the Table

If you’re bringing your laptop, tablet, or smartphone, you’ll likely need to charge it while you’re on the train. When you book your coach ticket, you’ll be told that there are outlets in the dining car, the observation car, and the lounge where you can charge your electronics.

They’ll also tell you that coach outlets are limited… but they don’t tell you that there are only 2 to 4 outlets per car, and they’re right next to a specific seat!

The electrical outlets are near the middle of the car, and the ability to access that outlet is priceless, so do your best to prioritize that seat.

If you can’t get it, don’t worry – if that person gets off the train, ask the conductor to move – and be sure to take your destination tag with you to the new seat!

14) Stretch your legs often

Woman Stretching

Walking on a train is an interesting experience. You must re-learn how to walk because the train cars sway back and forth.

The first couple of times I journeyed forth to explore the train or just meander to the washroom, one good way was all it took to buckle my knees and place my head firmly in the lap of one very surprised man!

The more you walk, however, the more you’ll be able to anticipate which way the train will go and adjust your gait. You’ll also get the feel of when you should hold onto the backs of a couple of seats and brace yourself!

Don’t worry – everyone goes through this, and if you’re on the train for more than a day, you’ll find that jealous eyes will look at you as you quickly traverse a car while others are stuck finding their heads in the laps of other surprised people.

15) Bring a neck pillow

Three travel neck pillows in varying shades of gray, designed for comfort and relief during travel.

Generally, it was hard to sleep well the first few nights while away from home, so my sleep expectations were not high for the train—especially in the coach.

When I got there, I realized that a few hours of sleep was actually too high of an expectation! I’d brought my regular pillows with me, which made it difficult to get comfortable in the seat. Coach train seats are even harder to sleep in than airline seats!

Bringing a neck pillow will help brace your neck and prevent the worst discomfort that can cause you to toss and turn. Make sure to bring a blanket with you, too – it gets surprisingly chilly on the train at night.

Because you’re in a car with several other people, there will be constant sounds going on that you’ll want to drone out, so headphones with some music are also wise. That’s also why you’ll want to try to get that seat next to an electrical outlet, too!

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16) Take advantage of layover stops

Gare du Nord Paris train station with Beaux-Arts architecture and sculptures
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Trains are notorious for not being exactly on time. Based on your train ticket, you’ll know how much time you’ll have at any given location, so I knew I would have some extended time in Chicago and Buffalo.

If you know, you’ll have an extended layover, rather than sitting in the train station or a designated rest stop for what could be most of a day, spend a few bucks and get a rental car.

I grabbed a taxi in Chicago and went to the lakefront for the day. With plenty of museums, shops, and parks nearby, I could easily fill the six hours I needed to wait for my next train.

In Buffalo, it meant exploring upper New York for a day, having some New York-style pizza, and seeing Niagara Falls. The rental car costs only $11 + gas for the day, and with the right deal, it can be had for as little as $6 per day + fuel.

17) Bring movies with you

Netflix on a Laptop Screen

Even if you have mobile internet or even portable satellite service, there will be places where you don’t receive a signal. If you’re relying on cell or mobile service, don’t even bother – you won’t have more service than you will.

Looking at the passing countryside can be fun, especially when going through canyons or the mountains, but you’ll often travel in a ditch where all you see is a grassy embankment.

To pass the time, bring some movies along with you. A laptop or iPhone works well, but any portable movie device storing several movies will be your best friend during these long lull times.

Some train services offer a portable movie-playing system that you can take with you and then ship back to them once you arrive for a small fee, but these are only available at major hubs. If you get on mid-route, you won’t get a chance to get one.

18) Be prepared for delays

Man in an Escalator

When planning a long-distance route, it is important to prepare for possible delays. This means having a plan B in case of a delay, such as reserving a hotel room close to the train station.

19) Be ready for border crossings

Canada Border Signage

Many people travel by train to different countries daily, which means passing through customs while on the train. Everyone in the family, including any children traveling with you, will need a passport or enhanced identification to cross any border from the United States.

Without these, you’ll be taken off the train. You can also be taken off the train for a variety of other reasons, so be prepared for an extra day at the border if a customs official finds your trip suspicious in some way.

The gentleman who sat next to me on the way back from Canada was visiting his family in the States for the first time in 4 years. Because it had been four years since he’d been to the States, he was taken off the train.

Keep in mind the cash requirement for the train as well. If you stay on the same train from Canada to the US, the train will likely stop accepting Canadian money once you cross the border, and vice versa.

If you believe you’ll need a snack or beverage while on the train, have a few dollars of both currencies. A long-distance train trip can be fun and memorable but miserable if you aren’t fully prepared.

Use these long-distance travel tips to plan your next trip by train. You’ll be able to save money and time, but you’ll also get to explore new places and relax while keeping most of the modern amenities that make life comfortable. And if all else fails, you can always buy a beer or three during the day to make the time pass by more quickly.

The train is comfortable and well-equipped, with air-conditioning, a dining car, a cafe car, and sleeper cabins. Traveling on the Reunification Express is a great way to see and experience the country’s culture.

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