One of the questions about train travel that keeps popping up usually comes from someone who’s planning a long-distance train trip and wants to know if it’s better to use a travel agent.
My advice is usually to use a travel agent if you really don’t want to try doing it yourself, and especially if your rail itinerary is in any way complicated … that is, if it involves several connections or if you need professional advice on hotels and activities.
The problem is, many travel agents — maybe even most of them — really don’t know very much about booking long-distance trains in the U.S.
As an example, suppose you’re going from St. Louis to a family wedding in Santa Fe. You don’t like to fly, so you want to take the train. Take a look at this brief itinerary. No rail-savvy travel agent would suggest it. Can you figure out why?
7:55 a.m. – depart St. Louis on the Texas Eagle
1:52 p.m. – arrive Chicago
3:00 p.m. – depart Chicago on the Southwest Chief
2:24 p.m. (next day) arrive Lamy, NM (Santa Fe)
This itinerary allows just over one hour for your connection from the Eagle to the Chief in Chicago. Consider: by the time the Eagle gets to St. Louis, it will have traveled more than 2400 miles since leaving Los Angeles. What are the chances that it will be more than 90 minutes late by the time it gets to Chicago? Well, for the past year, the Eagle has been on time only 45-percent of the time. In other words, you should take an earlier train to Chicago. There’s one that arrives at 10:00 a.m. and another that will get you there at 12:20.
Use a travel agent to book your rail itineraries if you wish, but to make sure you get someone who is rail savvy, ask him or her a simple question:
What’s the difference between a roomette in a Superliner and one in a Viewliner?
If the travel agent knows that a Viewliner roomette has a sink and a toilet in the room, but those facilities are “down the hall” in a Superliner, he or she probably knows how to plan and book rail travel.
I still say, if you take your time, double check everything, and then run it by one of Amtrak’s reservation agents, you can plan and book your own itineraries. Just take your time, read everything, and when in doubt about a rail connection, spend the night and take the next day’s train. Besides, planning a rail adventure is half the fun!