Interesting Feedback from a Recent Long-Distance Train Journey.

I just received an email from an old prep school classmate with a couple of interesting observations about an extended trip he and his wife recently took on Amtrak. They enjoyed it, but came away with some interesting comments. We’ll talk about the first one today, and save the other for the next time.

These folks live in Colorado so they started by catching the Southwest Chief for the overnight ride to Los Angeles. That’s where they connected with the Coast Starlight to the Bay Area, then back home to Denver on the California Zephyr.
He did his ticketing through a local travel agent, who assured him, when asked, that she could “do trains”. Apparently not, because he was able to spot a couple of things that didn’t seem right and it took one of the Amtrak reservations people to get it all straightened out.

(I do want to say here that in my experience the Amtrak reservations agents really do an excellent job. I personally wouldn’t hesitate to go that route.)

There are any number of travel agencies, both large and small, that specialize in rail travel, but the plain fact is, many travel agents don’t know very much about booking Amtrak, especially if it involves overnight travel in sleeping car accommodations. If you’re planning an extended rail trip and don’t want to book it yourself, make sure you use a rail savvy travel agent. You can find out quite easily who is and who isn’t. Just play dumb and ask a simple question:

What’s the difference between a Superliner roomette and a roomette in a Viewliner?

Answer: A Viewliner roomette includes a wash basin and a toilet, plus there’s a second window for the upper berth; the Superliner roomette has no window for the upper berth and the lavatory is “down the hall”.

If the travel agent comes right back at you with that answer, you can probably assume he or she can book your rail itinerary and get it right. If you don’t get the right answer right away, find someone else or book direct with Amtrak.

That said, working with someone who knows her stuff can make a big difference. For example, a knowledgeable travel agent should make a point of booking you into the sleeping car that’s right next to the dining car. That’s a nice touch, because it can be a long and difficult walk if you have to pass through two or three cars going to and from meals and the train is passing over some rough track. Or he’ll make sure your roomette is on the upper level in the middle of the car because the view is better and there’s less track noise.

If your rail itinerary involves more than one train … if there are connections … if you want sleeping car accommodations, but are unfamiliar with Amtrak’s equipment … and if you just don’t want to deal with it yourself, by all means use a travel agent, especially if there are other details that need to be handled: hotels and tours, for example. A good one, who has experience booking rail travel, is worth the money and can often find ways to reduce the cost to you.

Finally — shameless plug coming — there’s a lot more about all of this in my book, ALL ABOARD-The Complete North American Train Travel Guide.