Riding the rails: Tips to smooth train travels
Taking the train is a glorious throwback to a more relaxed time, when the idea of taking four days to cross the country – or a day or two to cross the region – was perfectly ordinary. It's a wonderful way to see the country, though it's not ideal if you get twitchy when you're outside of Wi-Fi coverage. Many Amtrak trains do have Wi-Fi, but the experience can be spotty.
Left to your own devices
At first blush, you and your devices will find the trains quite congenial. You will find outlets near almost every seat on most trains, so keeping your batteries charged or plugging in for an extended work session won't be an issue. Getting a signal is more problematic. Not every train has Wi-Fi, and the ones that do tend to be concentrated in the Northeast corridor and other high-volume regional lines. The signal comes from cellular carriers, and it uses elderly 3G technology, so it's both slow and relatively unreliable.
Lower your expectations
If you planned to spend your on-train time catching up on your favorite shows, you're out of luck. Because bandwidth is so limited on the train, and so many devices are trying to use it, you won't be able to stream movies or music. As a matter of etiquette, the company suggests having only one device logged into the Wi-Fi service at a time, to preserve bandwidth for other users. It's best to reserve the on-train Wi-Fi for relatively undemanding purposes such as checking your email and catching up on the news.
Light at the end of the tunnel
This bare-bones approach to broadband was acceptable in 2010 when Amtrak rolled it out, but it's maddeningly inadequate for contemporary users. As of 2017, the company is well into the early stages of a major upgrade of its mobile Wi-Fi service. This includes an upgrade to faster LTE cellular Wi-Fi, a company-owned track-side network on high-volume lines, and, eventually, satellite service on cross-country trains where other options are impractical.
Making up the difference
If watching the country roll past at eye level isn't enough to keep your mind occupied, and Amtrak's limited Wi-Fi doesn't provide enough entertainment potential – a significant question if you're traveling with kids, especially – you can compensate for its shortcomings with a bit of advance preparation. Load up your devices with videos and music ahead of time for offline use, or pack along a box set of DVDs if you really, really need to binge. You might also make space in your bags for an e-reader or a few honest-to-goodness books, or even some appropriately retro amusements such as cards or board games. If all else fails, and your data plan will cover it, use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot for the rest of your devices.
A few other useful reminders
Chances are you'll be bringing a few things besides your electronic devices, so spare a moment to think about those as well. Baggage is pretty important, and one of Amtrak's advantages over air travel is its generous baggage allowance. You can carry on a total of four items, two carry-on bags of up to 50 pounds each, and two other personal items such as a purse, backpack or laptop bag weighing in at up to 25 pounds each. You can check two bags for free and up to two more for $20 each, subject to size and weight restrictions. You can also bring a small cat or dog on designated runs for an additional $25, though little Trixie has to remain in a leak-proof carrier from start to finish. Again, some restrictions apply, and it's best to talk to the railroad in advance to make sure you fully understand them.