Amtrak Hacks for your next trip on the Northeastern Corridor (DC to NYC)

Getting sick of driving on I-95 between New York and DC? It might be time to consider Amtrak. Yes, it’s expensive, and you won’t have a car when you get to your destination, but there are a lot of advantages to taking the train. I frequently take Amtrak between the DC and NYC and have a compiled a few hacks that you can use to make your trip along this route more pleasurable and lighter on your wallet.

Booking

Amtrak is expensive. I booked our tickets on Amtrak.com about two months before our trip this weekend, but still had to pony up about $180 round trip per person. And that was for the slower Northeastern Regional that takes about 45 minutes longer than the Acela.

Amtrak

Amtrak’s booking screen

Hacks:

  1. If you want to get a ticket without killing your bank account, you need to buy it weeks or even months before or get a discounted fare.
  2. Amtrak offers a few discounts to consider. The one I use is the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), for a 10% discount on most fares. Seniors get 15% on most fares. Children too. Kids two through 12 years old ride half-price every day. Infants under two ride free.

Amtrak Guest Rewards

Amtrak is pretty stingy with its rewards points. Points are awarded according to how much your tickets cost, so plain old “miles” traveled won’t do it. If you’re taking the Acela a lot, you’re going to rack up some good points very quickly. But if you’re like me, booking Northeast Regional trains to save money, it’s going to take a while to get even one free one-way ticket.

Hack:

  1. Gather a lot of points, but instead of cashing in for a free trip to NYC, consider using them to travel on one of Amtrak’s routes in another area of the country, like from New York to Montreal (the Adirondack), or New York to Toronto (The Maple Leaf), or Seattle to Portland (The Coast Starlight), or another route that might fit your travel or vacation needs. You’d be surprised how far you can travel with just a few thousand points.

Union Station

Union Station in Washington DC

Union Station in Washington DC

Main Hall Union Station

The soaring main hall in Union Station, DC

One of America’s most beautiful train stations, Union Station is a national treasure to be appreciated by all travelers who pass through its halls. The main interior hall is a sight to see. It’s under renovation but will look great once its finished.

  1. Hacks: Make sure to see the East Hall, right off the main hall, for a good example of Egyptian Revival architecture.

Boarding at Union Station

While there is basically no security besides cute Amtrak bomb-sniffing dogs, the boarding process is still a bit stressful because there is no assigned seating on the trains.

About 30 minutes before the train leaves, a line begins to form. During peak hours–even on non-peak hours–the line will grow out from the waiting area and extend almost the entire length of the rear of Union Station’s arrivals/departures hall.

  1. Hack: Get there 30 minutes early so you can sit with your travel partner(s).

Seating

Getting an undesirable seat on Amtrak can sour what should be a perfectly pleasant experience.

Hacks:

  1. If you like your peace and quiet, sit in the Quiet Car. No cell phone talking or loud conversations are allowed. It’s great for the times when you just want to read or sleep.
  2. There’s no real advantage to buying a Business Class ticket on the Northeast Regional. The seating is basically the same quality as Coach. I really don’t know what the difference is, so save your money.
Amtrak Northeastern Regional

Amtrak Northeastern Regional

Food/Drink on the Train

The food on Amtrak is pretty dismal, and expensive at that.

Hacks:

  1. Eat at Union Station if you can, or get take out and bring it on the train. Seats have big tray tables so you’ll have a lot of room to eat.
  2. The train coffee is actually pretty good so if I’m not starving to death I’ll usually just stick with a cup of joe. At $2 it’s comparable to regular prices you’d see at a Starbucks or Cosi.
  3. If you’re a cheapskate, bring a water bottle on the train, and refill it using the filtered water dispensers located near the bathrooms in each car.

Bathrooms

The bathrooms are spacious and generally clean. My wife differs on this and thinks they all smell like pee. The coconut-scented liquid hand soap smells so good I have thought about dispensing some into a plastic bottle for home use.

Views

There are tons of cool things to see between DC and New York City on Amtrak. The route takes you along the most densely populated corridor in the country, and along an interesting geological feature called the Fall Line, the boundary between the Atlantic Coastal Plan and the Piedmont areas of the East Coast. Many big cities are situated on this line, including Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Trenton.

If you’re into “ruin porn,” you’re in for a treat on the Northeast Regional. Amtrak’s trains go right through the seediest industrial wastelands of the Rust Belt. Dozens of decrepit, abandoned factories lie on both sides of the tracks, with the heaviest concentration in north Philadelphia and west Baltimore. At one point I became so interested in these factories that I began to map them out, but didn’t know what to do with the data I gathered so I stopped.

Philadelphia skyline

Philadelphia skyline as seen from the Amtrak line

Some points of interest along the route:

  • The vacant blocks of tract housing in the run-down areas of Baltimore
  • The two long bridges that cross the Gunpowder and Bush tidal estuaries in northeastern Maryland. The train seems to float above the calm, shallow water. Awesome during sunsets.
  • Crossing the Susquehanna River as it drains into the Chesapeake Bay. If you look to your left, the island in the middle of the estuary, Garret Island, is actually the remnant of a long-extinct volcano.
  • The Philadelphia skyline
  • Crossing the Schuylkill River near Boathouse Row and getting a glimpse of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and neoclassical Water Work Restaurant and Lounge
  • The huge “Trenton Makes and World Takes” sign on the Lower Trenton Bridge spanning the Delaware River, probably the world’s most indignant city slogan. I think they meant “Trenton Makes What the World Needs” or something to that effect, but it comes off as hey, “You’re taking advantage of us!”
Amtrak view Philadelphia factory

Train view: Hulking factory, Philadelphia

Philadephia Museum of Art along with Water Works in the foreground

Philadelphia Museum of Art along with Water Works in the foreground

Newark, NJ skyline New Jersey Prudential Center

Newark, NJ skyline

Trenton as seem from Amtrak line

Trenton’s f-u to the world, or just a poorly written slogan?

Graffiti in Philadelphia

Factory graffiti in northern Philadelphia

Arrival into Penn Station

The train enters into a tunnel buried deep under the Hudson River and emerges at New York’s Penn Station, one of the most depressing and unpleasant transportation hubs in the United States. But when you emerge from the train platforms onto the main waiting area floor, you immediately feel the energy and noise of the big city, and quickly forget how dingy and tacky the station looked.

…a few days later. The Return to DC

If you thought boarding a train at Washington was stressful, just wait until you go through the boarding process at Penn Station. First of all the waiting area is almost always really crowded. There’s nowhere to sit near the main board.  Once the track is announced, everyone rushes over to the track called. Remember there is no assigned seating so it’s first come first served. For no good reason other than to waste people’s time and cause a commotion and traffic jam, Amtrak’s ticket agents check everyone’s ticket before letting them down the escalator. Why not just let people get on the train? You’re going to check everyone’s ticket anyway.

NY Penn Station waiting area

NY Penn Station waiting area

Hacks:

  • If the announcer says “Track 9 West”, go to Track 9 East. You’ll get to the same track without the big crowd crush. Note: today this hack didn’t work because the East escalator was down.
  • If you have a lot of bags or really want to board early, hire a “Red Cap” baggage handler to carry your bags and get you on the platform even before regular boarding.
  • Grab a bite to eat before getting on the train. If you’re in the mood for pizza, I think the best slices are at NY Pizza Suprema, on the corner of 8th Ave and 31st. For a bagel, the best place hands down is a few blocks away, at Best Bagel and Coffee on 35th St. For healthier fare, Chop-n-Toss has good salads and newly added quinoa bowls.

Hope this advice will help you in your next trip to NYC (or DC)! Let me know if you heeded any of my “hacks” and comment below!

Kevin is based in Washington, DC and writes about his travel adventures in the Mid-Atlantic region and around the world. Through entertaining writing and eye-catching photography, he aims to provide readers with useful information as they plan their next trips.

2 comments

  • Billy

    Thanks Kevin. Will consult this next time I take Amtrak to DC. Here’s a few tips I’d add:
    1. For those who aren’t National Association of Railroad Passenger members (hard to believe but such people do exist) AAA memberships also get you 10% off most fares (assuming you book at least 4 days in advance).
    2. Only a few months of relevance left for this one, but… currently, Amtrak points don’t factor in the cost of a ticket, but only the zone traveled. For example, any trip in the Northeast Corridor is 4,000 points. In addition, Chase Ultimate Rewards customers (e.g. Chase Freedom or Chase Sapphire Preferred) can transfer UR points to Amtrak points. For those last-minute peak tickets costing $120 or more one-way, 4,000 points is a pretty good deal. Unfortunately both of these tricks are ending soon — Amtrak is switching its policies in Jan ’16 so that the points cost of tickets is based on the dollar cost and Chase UR customers won’t be able to transfer points to Amtrak as of Dec ’15.
    3. Here is the best tip I have to offer. I’m burying it here so that as few people find it as possible. There’s a secret waiting area to board trains at Penn Station that make the departure experience significantly less unpleasant. From the main Amtrak lobby you have pictured, head to the center of the room, directly below the Departures board. There are two stairwells/escalators going down one level on either side of the board. Go down the stairs facing AWAY from the bathrooms/TGI Fridays. At the bottom of the stairs you’ll find 4 TV monitors showing departure tracks/times (there will be a small group of people waiting there). When your track is announced (you’ll see on the TV monitor), there are stairwells directly from the lower level onto the track. As you point out, each track can only have one train, so the East/West distinction doesn’t matter. Just head down the track that’s called and kaboom — you’ll be one of the first 10 people on the train. Since the train empties out at Penn, you’ll have no problem getting seats with a group.

    • Thanks Billy, good tips. I am pretty sure I’ve tried your Penn Station boarding trick before, only to be shoo’ed upstairs by pesky security people. I will try again though!

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