Planning a Cross Country Train Trip on Amtrak

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Updated 12.01.2019: Are you thinking about a cross country train trip in the U.S.? Guest contributor, Julie Diebolt Price from JDP Travels, takes us inside her USA rail journey traveling from Kansas City to Los Angeles on Amtrak. Don’t miss her train travel tips!

Celebrating retirement and a birthday on a USA rail journey

Plane, train, or automobile? That was the first question I asked myself when we got the family reunion invitation to Missouri. How to make the most of this travel opportunity was vital. I also like to create memorable trips for milestone birthdays, and this is the biggest for me.

Eagerly awaiting my 65th birthday and collecting Social Security this July, I knew that my husband and I would have the opportunity for slow travel. So we combined a boomer road trip with a cross country train adventure.

What a perfect time to retire from working for someone else. I scheduled the Blast Off and packed my bags.

Travel planning for family, friends, and clients, as well as conducting photography workshops and tour guiding fulfill my appetite for exploration. When I travel any distance away from home, I want to get the most out of the effort.

Generally, I design the trip in a big circle so that there is no backtracking or covering old ground. I believe in departing from the origin and returning from the opposite direction whenever possible.

Planning a cross country train trip

Amtrak Train with Conductor
Fresh air break outside Amtrak train car waiting for conductor to call “All Aboard!”

The U.S. map was spread out on the counter so I could get a complete visual of the states to include on this Blast Off Trip that begins and ends in Los Angeles. Kansas City, Missouri is the closest large city near the reunion and has a major airport. Airplane? Nah. Automobile? Not a chance. We drove there several times in the past—don’t want to do it again. 

Kansas City is a significant stop on the Amtrak Southwest Chief line that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles (or vice versa). For the return trip, the Amtrak Sunset Limited originates in New Orleans and ends in Los Angeles. You guessed it, we’re going by train!

How do we get from Kansas City to New Orleans? Road trip!

To break up the return train ride to Los Angeles from New Orleans, we planned layovers in San Antonio and El Paso/Las Cruces. They are more than just whistle stops on the Amtrak line and offered new experiences which we enjoyed.

Always add time to your itinerary, when you can, for unexpected delays or schedule changes. Flexibility allows for not-to-be-missed events.

All the research, pre-planning and many reservations were completed online three to twelve months before departure with some follow-up phone calls. Assistance was also provided by some local Convention and Visitors Bureaus along our route. Some excursions were also coordinated while we were in transit.

Renting a car on a USA train trip

Clock, fountain, and WWI Museum from Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri
We arrive in Kansas City.

Because the family reunion was out in the country, my husband and I needed a vehicle. Enterprise Rent-A-Car is my agency of choice for car rentals because “they pick you up”! Fortunately, there is a location near the train station in Kansas City, and I confirmed that they would pick us up upon our arrival. 

There may be more than one Enterprise Rent-A-Car location near your destination. It is less expensive to reserve a vehicle at off-airport properties. The savings can be significant and worth investigating. That is quickly done on their website.

Train travel is not necessarily cheaper than air travel. Nor is train travel glamorous. It’s more about the experience on the train, watching the scenery and relaxing compared to driving or flying. Think casual and unassuming.

Road tripping from Missouri to New Orleans

Connecting the dots from central Missouri to New Orleans was easy. With only a few hours’ drive between cities, Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi were logical choices for our road trip stops. We had not been to these notable cities in our country’s history. Memphis, the birthplace of Rock and Roll, and Jackson, the City with Soul, provide countless opportunities to experience music, BBQ, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement.

New Orleans begs for more than just a few days of your time. Exploring the French Quarter and cemeteries, taking a ghost tour, and dining at outstanding restaurants should be experienced at a leisurely pace.

Jefferson Parish (we would call it a county), just outside NOLA, offers a multitude of outdoor activities including a not-to-be-missed airboat adventure (complete with alligators) and more fine dining with alligator on the menu. The plantations in Jefferson Parish that are open for tours are a vital history lesson for us all.

Don’t forget to check and double-check your reservations before departure. Sign up for Amtrak alert texts to keep informed while traveling.

During the planning stage, I was delighted to find an Enterprise Rent-A-Car location close to the Amtrak station in New Orleans. I secured lodging a short drive away from Union Passenger Terminal to coordinate the drop off of our car on our departure morning.

We timed our arrival at Enterprise a few minutes before they opened at 7:30 am., waited for them to give us a ride to the station where we arrived precisely one hour before departure. Boarding begins thirty minutes prior. This plan came together perfectly, with no hiccups.

Note that we incurred a drop charge for the one-way rental from Kansas City to New Orleans because we didn’t return it to the point of origin.

Taking side trips on a cross country train itinerary

El Paso Union Passenger Station
El Paso Union Passenger Station, Texas Historic Landmark, Amtrak – El Paso, Texas

Our train trip allowed for taking breaks in San Antonio and again in El Paso. Afterwards, we hopped back on the train to continue the journey to Los Angeles. Of course, it’s important to make arrangements for getting around.

In San Antonio, we did not reserve a rental car. Ridesharing (Uber/Lyft) was convenient and quick. In fact, we took Ubers in all the cities, thus avoiding parking and navigation issues. That made the best use of our short time there. We were able to get a tour of the city, visit The Alamo, and the Riverwalk—highlights of this Texas town not to be missed.

Out of El Paso, we rented a car from Enterprise Rent-A-Car to drive about 45 minutes to Las Cruces. In addition to hitting the Green Chili Trail, the famous Art and Farmer’s Market on Main Street, and the touching Veteran’s Memorial, we had an exceptional insider’s tour of Spaceport America. Space tourists will be hosted and launched from this locale, and Las Cruces is growing to meet the demand for housing and services.

Should you book a roomette or reserved coach on Amtrak?

 Pillows on an Amtrak roomette seat on a cross country train trip.
Amtrak roomette set up with refreshments, pillows, and journal

Initially, we planned on Reserved Coach seats for the entire trip. Amtrak ran a Two-for-One special fare, so it made the train a cost-effective choice.

After further consideration, we decided to upgrade to the Roomette for the outbound journey. We lost the special fare for that segment but felt it was worth it for more sleeping comfort.

Purchase a Comfort Kit from Amtrak for $10, or bring your own: Inflatable pillow, eye mask, earplugs, and blanket. Trains can get cold. Pack a jacket with hood or sweater and scarf.

After experiencing long-distance Amtrak train travel on this Blast Off Trip, following are some pros and cons.

Roomette Pros:

  • Privacy
  • Quiet
  • Cozy
  • More security for personal belongings when out of the compartment
  • The ticket price includes all meals (not alcohol)
  • Shower facilities downstairs

Roomette Cons:

  • Very small for two people—hard to change clothes when the compartment is arranged for sleeping
  • Close to the engine—loud whistle
  • Need assistance to set up sleeping accommodations—timing not ideal
  • The ticket price includes all meals—too much food (like aboard a cruise ship)
  • Not enough storage space
  • Only one electrical outlet in the compartment

Reserved Seat Pros:

  • Lots of legroom
  • Storage space overhead
  • Electrical outlet for each seat

Reserved Seat Cons:

  • Drafty and cold
  • Noisy
  • No privacy
  • Passengers moving continuously between Dining Car, Lounge, and Observation Car

Always bring sanitizing wipes for the seat back tray tables for the train just as you would for airplanes.

Dining on Amtrak

Breakfast of bacon, eggs, quesadilla, guacamole, and coffee served in Amtrak Dining Car
Breakfast of bacon, eggs, quesadilla, guacamole, and coffee served in Amtrak Dining Car

The meals were tasty despite being served on plastic plates. Breakfast included hot cereal, yogurt, a Continental, pancakes, eggs, bacon and more. Lunch selections ranged from hot and cold sandwiches, a salad, and even mussels. Salads (complimentary for sleeping car passengers) were fresh with a dinner roll and a selection of three kinds of dressing.

Mussels served in an Amtrak bowl.
Mussels for lunch in Amtrak Dining Car

The dinner menu included beef, chicken, fish, seafood, and vegan dishes with gluten-free and low-calorie desserts.I must say the coffee, available at all hours, was truly delicious. It was always tasty and fresh.

Salad topped with nuts, onions and tomato.
Fresh and healthy dinner salad with roll served in Amtrak Dining Car

Is Amtrak right for you?

Over and over we heard passengers exclaim, “This is my first trip on a train. I love it!” There is something about a long-distance train trip that must be experienced, and I’m so glad I did. I felt safe in both the Roomette and the Reserved Coach seats and will consider either accommodation for future train travel, whether alone or with a companion.

For now, I have reached the end of the line.

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Disclosure: Julie and her husband were hosted at some venues by Memphis Tourism, Visit Jefferson Parish, and Visit Las Cruces.

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Planning an Amtrak Cross Country Train Trip

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