Amtrack California Zephyr
Tips and Gear USA

Amtrak US Rail Pass – Vacation Alternative to Flying or Driving

Amtrak has a US Rail Pass starting at $459 per adult that allows 8 segments (boarding or disembarking) over 15 days. That’s enough to get you across the USA and back.

I’ve been wanting to get the feel of traveling by train, but for years I’ve heard it’s as expensive as flying and takes forever to get to a destination.  Not so.  If you’re looking for a leisurely, fun, affordable way to travel America, consider Amtrack’s Rail Pass.

I’ve just planned a 12 day vacation for two where Dan Burgoyne and I will ride the rails from Baltimore to California – covering 14 states – and be able to get off the train to visit Chicago, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado National Monument State Park, Grand Junction Colorado, Truckee California, Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley and more.  Cost for all transportation and hotels??? – $1964 – and that includes about 9 meals on the train for both of us.

Here’s how the Rail Pass works:

There are three Rail Pass choices.  All include a number of days the passenger has to use the pass and a limited number of segments. A segment is any time you get on and off a vehicle (train, bus, ferry – yes, these can be included in the rail pass) regardless of the length

  1. 15 Day – 8 Segments    $459 per adult
  2. 30 Day – 12 Segments  $689 per adult
  3. 45 Day – 18 Segments  $899 per adult

Check current prices for Amtrak Rail Passes

What that means is that you can ride the Amtrack trains for one price as long as you keep to the day and segment limitations.  (There are exclusions – the auto-train and Acela Express.) Passengers can take advantage of the cross-country scenic routes such as the California Zephyr which crosses the Rockies and Sierra Nevada mountains, or the City of New Orleans which travels 900 miles through the heart of America from Chicago to NOLA. Other Routes include Southwest Chief (Grand Canyon, Albuquerque, LA), Sunset Limited and the Texas Eagle.  See all the Amtrack routes on their website.

The Rail Pass is good for a coach seat, which reclines for sleeping purposes.  Wide windows make viewing the scenery especially nice.  A dining car and lounge car are available for recreation, meeting people, passing time and moving around.

ROOMETTES – One can also purchase a “roomette” for an additional $200. It’s a private space for two with a big picture window and fold-out table.  The seats convert to a bed and another bunk drops down from above, for those who want to stretch out in privacy while they sleep.  You only pay once for a roomette, and you get it for that entire segment. So If you and your mate are going from Chicago to California (2 days) and you have rail passes, you can upgrade to a roomette for a one time fee of $200 (include you both), and you’ll have it for the full two days.  Also, when you book a roomette, ALL your meals are included for that segment.

So …. I want to do a cross-country trip from Maryland to California, to see the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas as well as some Western towns.  I’d love to take in the scenery along the way in a leisurely fashion. I’d like to be able to hike through the Rocky Mountain National Park, see the mesa in Grand Junction, Colorado, visit Lake Tahoe, see the Truckee River and Donner pass and do all of that within 2 weeks.


Amtrack California Zephyr
California Zephyr – photo from US Dept. of Transportation

My choices -for transport and lodging

Drive our Toyota Highlander and stay in hotels –  (can’t do it easily in 2 weeks).  Gas would cost approx $1000 (calc. 5000 miles rt – 18 mpg –  277 gal. needed @ $3.76 per gal = $1041.52)  Hotels average $100 per night = $1400.  Total = $2441 + stress.

Drive our Toyota and pull the r-pod – Gas nearly doubles with mileage reduction – $$2000 for gas – about $500 for campground fees.  Would be REALLY stretching it to do the trip in 2 weeks.  The stress of pulling the camper and parking it in a new campsite under this time restraint would decrease fun considerably.  TOTAL = $2500 + stress

Flying and renting a car – Airline tickets form Baltimore to Denver – good deals – $450 avg X2.  Car rental approx $500 for the 2 weeks plus gas for going from CO to CA – $500 (conservative).  Hotel costs  – $1260 (conservative).  TOTAL= $3160.

Rail Pass – $389 X2 – 2 roomette reserves $400 (will include 9 meals X2), hotels for six nights (Truckee, Gandby, Colorado Junction) $600.  Local bus / ground transport – $50.  TOTAL=$1828 with the BONUS of 18 meals.

Let’s add on the other benefits – not having to drive, not having to fight the chaos in the airport, meeting new people and sharing travel stories … and being able to watch the American landscape change from city to small towns, to great plains, to rocky mountains … at a leisurely pace.

The Rail Trip I Planned Using the US Rail Pass:

Remembering what I wanted in a trip … to see some of the small western towns, to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, to visit Lake Tahoe and see the Sierra Nevadas.

DC to Chicago on the Capitol Limited

  • Purchase 15 day / 8 segment US Rail Passes – cost $778
  • Board the Capitol Limited at Union Station, DC on 9/17 (coach seats)
  • Enjoy the Allegheny Mountain views through WV and Western MD before falling asleep
  • Wake up in Chicago.  Board the California Zephyr(reserved roomette) $200

Views of the Heartland and Rocky Mountains

  • Enjoy views of America’s heartland, dinner in the dining car and a good night’s sleep in the roomette.
  • Pass through Denver and get off the train in Granby, CO – (10:37 am).
  • Take shuttle to hotel – where we’ll stay 2 nights. $130 X 2

Small Western Town in the Rockies – Rocky Mountain Nat. Park

  • Explore Granby, enjoy views of the Rockies, relax near Lake Granby, go to bed.
  • Take shuttle and tour of Rocky Mountain National Park, see elk, go fishing.
  • Back to hotel for 2nd night in Granby, Board the Zephyr next morning at 10:37 am ($98 X2)
  • Get off Zephyr in Grand Juction Colorado (4:10pm).
  • Take shuttle to hotel ($90 for hotel)

Colorado National Monument Park – the Grand Mesa

  • Take bus to tour Colorado National Monument and the view the mesa.
  • Back on the Zephyr by 4:10, on our way to Truckee and Lake Tahoe.
  • Arrive Truckee at 9:37 am – shuttle to hotel. check in for 2 nights.  $120 X2

Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley and Donner Pass – The Sierras

  • Take shuttle to explore Lake Tahoe  and Squaw Valley ($3 each)
  • Dinner in Tahoe City.  Back to hotel for the evening.
  • Next day take shuttle to explore Donner Pass and Sierra Nevadas

2 days cross country – With a “sleeper room”

  • Next Day hop back on the Zephyr with reserved roomette ($200)
  • Spend two days and nights on train watching the American landscape rush by

From Chicago to Baltimore via the Central South

  • Arrive in Chicago – board the Cardinal
  • Travel through the Indiana, Kentucky, Mountains of West Virginia and Virginia and DC
  • Arrive in Baltimore

Approximate cost – $1964  Finished in 12 days and only 6 segments of 8 allowed used

The choices are endless when you look at all the different train routes.  If you enjoy the train ride, the time spent traveling is actually part of the vacation.  Check out Amtrak’s Interactive Road Atlas to check out all the routes.

After this trip, I’m anxious to try the train to Vermont and through the Adirondacks.  I’d love to travel across Texas on the Texas Eagle and see the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe.  Or take the west coast rail through California, Oregon, Washington… all the way to Vancouver.    So many choices … so many opportunities.







  1. Loved this, Mindie and love travelling by train. I did a trip to Massachusetts back in August for a long weekend. Granted it was six hours round-trip, but it’s a great way to decompress, to think and write. As an old Amtrak commercial said, “There’s something about a train that’s magic!”

  2. I am keen to read about the rest of your trip – I am hoping to traverse the USA by rail starting in New York in Feb 2012 and ending in New York March 2012. Any tips or advice will be greatly appreciated. I will be travelling alone.

  3. Love trains, love your travel stories! You’ve inspired me to investigate train travel again (after years of stressful airline travel) – thank you!!

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