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  • How to Plan a Cross-Country Train Trip glacier-national-park-train Full view

    How to Plan a Cross-Country Train Trip

    Ever since I heard about Amtrak’s observation car, I had a dream to take a cross-country train ride.

    Then, I decided to make it happen. Planning this solo trip with a budget required a little planning (and not a ton of info online), so here’s how to replicate a similar, epic trip.

    How to Plan a Cross-Country Train Trip

    1. Determine Your Goals

    Are you trying to see the views? Is there a national park on your bucket list or states you want to hit?

    Amtrak has several routes that span a couple of states or across the country. Check their Route Planner to find the one for you.

    For my journey, I selected the Empire Builder to hit Glacier National Park and several states I hadn’t been to (Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Idaho).

    2. Use Technology

    Since I use Gmail/Google for everything, I downloaded Google Trips, a free app for your iPhone or Tablet.

    The perks: Add cities to your agenda and star things to do, read about landmarks, food and drink, transit, download offline maps and more. Plus, the app pulls in reservations from gmail so all your info is handy in one place.

    3. Plan your Segments

    Amtrak has reasonable fares cross-country, but this sentences you to a train for multiple hours. Rather than splurge on a sleeper car (they’re quite pricey – try adding on $300 – $700/segment); it’s just as fun to get off the train, explore a city for 24 hours and find an Airbnb to crash.

    Depending on the number of stops, you might save with a USA Rail Pass, Amtrak’s stateside version of the Eurorail. The starting Rail Pass is 15 days, includes 8 segments and costs $459 – so my segments were cheaper without.

    4. Pack For Comfort

    I essentially backpacked – and for those seasoned backpackers, the season/climate never tend to make it easy for you.

    cross country packing

    So what went in my bag? For attire, I packed the Noah’s clothes ark for hiking/outside and “sightseeing”/city clothes. I hit Trader Joe’s for a few protein-dense/dried foods for snacks and breakfast. Due to my previous trips, I’ve kept a travel first aid kit and toiletry bag. My comfort items include a Kindle (thank goodness for free library downloads), travel journal, DSLR & laptop for work.

    Lodging-wise, I camped a couple of nights, stayed in Airbnbs and KOA cabins – making a tent and sleeping bag critical. During my overnight train segment from St. Paul to Williston ND, I lucked out with side-by-side seats so popped a couple of over-the-counter sleep aids and was knocked out overnight, with a few helpful items: travel blanket (I used an old Pashmina to double for an extra layer OR blanket), inflatable camper pillow (great for camping and the train); eye mask and warm socks/slippers.

    5. Leave room for flexibility!

    Although I pre-planned my train schedule, accommodations and car rentals (in ND & Spokane), I left most of my daily agendas open. On the train before each city, I highlighted a few areas I’d like to see but left room for changes.

    In Milwaukee, it rained Sunday morning so I recharged by sleeping in and swing by my Airbnb hosts’s work for a brewery tour and tasting. In St. Paul, my Uber driver recommended the Minnesota State Fair – which ended up being one of my trip highlights.

    Another perk of reading Airbnb reviews and picking awesome hosts – they were all super helpful and let me leave my bag for a few extra hours as I explored! When I was ready for my train, I collected my belongings and hit the road again.

    6. Enjoy the Ride!

    Much of our traveling is about getting to and enjoying the destination, but train travel allows you to enjoy the entire journey. I camped out in the Observation car anytime it was daylight, watching the countryside change from the Mississipi River to prairies and mountains.Amtrak's Observation Car

    It also helps if you’re open to chatting to fellow travelers. As a solo traveler, I found myself chatting with retirees and recent graduates about their journeys instead of reading the 6 books I downloaded. (Ambitious, I know.) Everyone I met was happy to share about their journeys, like Christine who was heading to Vancouver with an outdoor group or give tips about my upcoming destinations. Besides, how often are you chatting with so many fellow Americans from all over in one place?

    Another bonus: Specific Amtrak segments include the Rails & Trails program in partnership with the National Park Service on the Observation Car, where they teach you about the areas you see, pointing out various wildlife and landmarks along the way.


    Readers, have you planned a cross-country train ride? What would you recommend?

    Julie Hancher

    About Julie Hancher

    Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake.

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