Some Do’s and Don’ts for Amtrak Dining Cars.

One of the most enjoyable things about train travel is the experience of having a nice meal with convivial company in an Amtrak dining car. I look forward to that experience on every long-distance train trip I’ve ever taken and have seldom been disappointed. For me, the biggest disappointment is to find myself eating alone because there aren’t many people in the diner and I’m seated alone. 
It only takes one or two meals in an Amtrak diner before most passengers become aware that there’s a system in place. Once you figure that out and adapt to the system, things usually go pretty much like clockwork. Here’s how it all works:

Reservations.  No reservations are necessary for breakfast, just show up. The diner usually starts serving at 6:30. Sometimes it’s also first come, first served for lunch; other times there will be reservations for specific seatings. Reservations are always required for the dinner meal. Someone from the dining car will go through the train handing out chits for specific seatings.

Don’t seat yourself. When it’s time for your seating and you head for the diner, wait at the entrance to the car until one of the dining car staff directs you to a table. On a moving train, the last thing the crew needs is to have passengers milling around in the narrow aisle.

The Order. As soon as you sit down, one of the servers will hand you an order form and, if your traveling in a sleeping car, will ask you to write down your car and room number and then sign it in the spaces provided at the bottom. There are little boxes on the form for the various menu items, but DO NOT check those. The servers have to check the boxes and they also make notes on the form.

Pay for the booze. Meals for sleeping car passengers are covered in the fare, and that includes coffee, tea and an assortment of soft drinks. Beer and wine are not included and you’ll have to pay for those.

Don’t dawdle too much. Enjoy your meal. Take your time. And by all means relax and get to know your dinner companions. You’re welcome to have a second cup of coffee if you want to. But be understanding when a server asks if you would mind wrapping things up so he can prepare the table for the next seating. 

Tipping. Many sleeping car passengers think that they don’t need to tip in the dining car because the cost of their meals is included in their fares. Tipping is always discretionary, of course, but you should tip in an Amtrak dining car just as you would in any other restaurant. Use the prices appearing on the menu as your guide. Note, also, that the IRS assumes the staff is getting tips and they are taxed accordingly. Some dining car crews pool their tips, but others don’t. So I leave a tip after each meal. And, just as in a regular restaurant, if you should get mediocre or poor service adjust the gratuity up or down as appropriate.

Taking your meals in an Amtrak dining car is always enjoyable and it’s one of the pleasures that’s unique to train travel. Knowing the “rules” makes it easy, too.