Tipping in an Amtrak Dining Car – Why, When, and How Much?

I have a lot of empathy for the people who work in the Amtrak dining cars. Consider the dining car crew on the California Zephyr, for instance. They leave Chicago at 2:00 in the afternoon and they get to Emeryville at 4:15 in the afternoon two days later. That’s if they are on time, of course. They spend that night in a hotel and depart on the eastbound train at 9:10 the next morning, arriving back in Chicago just before 3:00 in the afternoon. Again, assuming they’re on time.   (I just checked and, as I wrote this, the Zephyr is running four hours late on its way into Chicago.)

 The daily routine is a killer: breakfast service begins at 6:30 and lasts about three hours. Lunch begins around 11:30 and ends well after 2:00. The dinner meal can be a four-hour affair. It starts around 5:15 and it’s usually 9:00 or 9:30 by the time the last person finally leaves the dining car.

It’s really a tough job and it’s beyond me why so many passengers – even (and especially) sleeping car passengers – stiff these hard-working folks when it comes to tipping. From my personal observation, most people tend to leave a token tip of a dollar or two … if they tip at all. Some sleeping car passengers seem to think that they don’t have to tip because their meals are “free”. Unfortunately, the IRS assumes the Amtrak servers are getting tips and they are taxed accordingly.

Anyway, my suggestion here is pretty simple: tip the dining car crew the same way you would tip in any restaurant: start with 15% of the menu prices and go up or down from there depending on the quality of the service.
One other thing: some dining car crews pool their tips and others do not. I‘ve developed the habit of asking at my first dining car meal on any Amtrak trip. If the crew pools its tips – and the best crews usually do – I will sometimes give the LSA (Lead Service Attendant) $20-$30 at the conclusion of my final meal on that trip. Otherwise, I’ll tip after each meal according to the quality of the service.

That covers tipping for the car attendants and the dining car staff. Next time: the lounge car attendant.