Finding a Rail-Savvy Travel Agent.

I’m often asked by people planning their first long-distance train ride if they should work with a travel agent. Really, it depends on how complicated your itinerary and other details are going to be. If you’re traveling solo or as a couple and it’s one train from Point A to Point B, there’s really no reason why you can’t book it yourself.
If it’s your very first long-distance train ride, I’d use the Amtrak website for research and planning, but then and on help from an Amtrak reservations agent for the actual booking, especially if you not certain on a couple of the details. The toll-free number is 1-800-USA-RAIL. The call will be answered by an automated female voice, but just say the word “Agent” a couple of times and you’ll soon be speaking with a human being.
But if it’s your first time and if you’re thinking about an extended rail itinerary—meaning travel on two or three long-distance trains with perhaps a connection or two—consulting a rail-savvy travel agent is probably a good idea and worth the usually modest fee.
First-timers often need help with several decisions: What type of accommodations would be best? Should we try to make a connection or play it safe by staying overnight and taking the next day’s train? Which is the most scenic train? Is it possible to stop off somewhere for a couple of days along the way. Can we check our bags? And so on and so forth.
A rail-savvy travel agent will have the answers to all the usual questions, but they can bring a lot more to the table. For instance, they can wait-list you if there are no bedrooms available on the California Zephyr for the day you want to travel. Or, if you think you might have difficulty walking in a moving train, an experienced travel agent will make sure you get a bedroom in the sleeping car that’s right next to the dining car, not three cars away.
But here’s the problem: For many travel agents—probably most—the bulk of their business is selling airline tickets and booking hotel rooms and cruises. They don’t know much about booking long-distance Amtrak travel. To make sure the person you’re working with is rail-savvy, ask him or her a simple question:
What’s the difference between a roomette in a Superliner sleeping car and a roomette in a Viewliner sleeper?
Answer: every roomette in a Viewliner sleeping car has a toilet and a wash basin in the room, and there’s a window for the upper berth. Roomettes in the Superliner sleepers have no window for the upper berth and the lavatories are “down the hall.”
If your travel agent doesn’t know that, find one who does.