Plan Your Own Rail Journey? Yes!
I’m often asked if someone should plan a train trip by themselves or have a travel agent handle the details? I think it depends on how extensive or complicated the trip is. There’s certainly no reason why you can’t book a simple trip of a few hours duration—Point A to Point B—by yourself.
Longer trips, perhaps involving a connecting train and maybe a couple of overnight stops, are certainly more complicated, but take your time, work up a preliminary itinerary on paper, then plug in the trains using the Amtrak timetables at www.amtrak.com.
At that point, you can go ahead and ticket yourself right on Amtrak’s web site, but you can also call Amtrak’s reservation line (1-800-USA-RAIL), consult with the reservations agent, then have him or her do the ticketing. They’re very good and will be alert to some details or potential problems that you might not know about. For instance, if a certain train frequently runs late, they will know that and perhaps suggest that you take a later connecting train.
You could also consider turning your itinerary over to a rail-savvy travel agent and let him or her double-check all the details, then handle the actual ticketing. A good one may be able to work out a lower fare and will also know some tricks of the trade which you might not think about. For instance, they’ll be able to wait-list you for sleeping car space on a sold-out train. Or make sure you’re booked into the sleeping car that’s right next to the diner so you won’t have to walk through several cars on a moving train for your meals.
Notice that I’ve used “rail-savvy” to describe travel agents you might want to consult. I do so because a lot of travel agents really don’t know much about booking long-distance trains. Not to worry, there’s a simple test. Just innocently ask them what the difference is between a roomette in a Superlunar sleeping car and a roomette in a Viewliner. If they know their stuff, they’ll tell you right away that there’s a wash basin and a toilet in the Viewliner roomette, but you have to go “down the hall” for the facilities in a Superliner.
In the good old days the services of a travel agent came at little or no cost to the traveler. Not any more. Nowadays, you can expect to pay a fee to the travel agent that’s based on the total cost of the booking. However, if your rail itinerary is at all complicated, a rail-savvy travel agent can be a big help and will probably be worth the money.
Finally, I will say shamelessly albeit truthfully that there’s a lot more information in my book about planning a rail journey. All that said, the main thing is to take your time, plan ahead and remember: the train is not just transportation; it’s part of you vacation experience.