Having traveled across the country on Amtrak (both north to south and east to west), I’ve learned a lot about traveling on trains. One of the first things that Amtrak “newbies” wonder about is the Amtrak dining experience. When and where do you eat? Are you seated with strangers – and if so, is that awkward? Is the food any good? Although people have different reactions to their Amtrak experiences, let me summarize my top tips for those unfamiliar with Amtrak dining.
Some trains (like the shorter regional trains) have no dining or cafe options at all. Some have a basic cafe or snack car; menus for these cars usually include basic sandwiches or microwaveable pizzas. The longer trains have dedicated dining cars; these offer sit-down meals where you order from a menu. Hours for cafe cars and dining cars can vary; ask your attendant or listen to announcements onboard for more details on what is available and when. The important thing to remember here is that almost every train is different – make sure you know what’s available before you get onboard, and don’t assume that food will be available just because you think it’s “meal time”.
If you’re on a long distance train (such as the Southwest Chief, the Empire Builder, the Coast Starlight, the California Zephyr, and others), you’ll have a dedicated dining car. It’s usually located near the middle of the train, next to a lounge car. However, it’s a good idea to notice where the dining car is before you board the train if you want to orient yourself. There are two ways to pay for your meals in the dining car: one is with cash or credit if you’re riding in coach. The other alternative is to book a sleeping car, in which case your meals are included in the price of your ticket.
Check out Amtrak’s website to familiarize yourself with the dining options on your particular train. It’s always better to “know before you go” so you don’t find yourself going hungry onboard! I also highly recommend checking out the forums on Amtrak Unlimited – the people there are very helpful, and are used to fielding questions from first time train travelers.
“Amtrak – Meals & Dining” – http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=Page&pagename=am%2FLayout&cid=1248539581465
“Amtrak Unlimited” – http://discuss.amtraktrains.com/