1/17/2023 | By Donna Brody

Veteran train traveler Donna Brody looks at the benefits and basics of train travel for seniors and offers tips for travelers.

Retirees often joke that “every day is Saturday” as they enjoy the freedom from an eight-hour workday and 40-hour work week. Some seniors are anxious to fill that free time with travel. Trips to exotic places with temperate climates, journeys to ancient ruins or majestic mountains, or simple jaunts to an out-of-town craft fair or to visit the grandchildren are all options for active older adults.

Depending on the destination, the time of year, and the traveler’s health, statistics reveal that most seniors will probably choose to journey by plane or automobile.

But, for some, the idea of busy airports jammed with people, strict TSA procedures, the inevitable long waits and the unexpected delays, baggage restrictions, and few meal options lessen the appeal of airline travel.

Even auto travel has drawbacks for older adults: a lengthy time in the car as well as the cost of fuel, meals, and lodging.

There is a third option that some older travelers might not have considered – the train. According to Amtrak, “Passengers over 65 make up 24% of Amtrak riders.” There are a number of unique benefits to train travel that might just make seniors’ vacations more comfortable and memorable.

As a primer, Amtrak is the only long-distance, intercity passenger rail line in the United States. In 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak’s original corporate name) consolidated 20 different private passenger railroads into a single network. Its first official train ran from New York City to Philadelphia. Today, Amtrak serves more than 500 destinations.

Amtrak trains fall into two categories: long-distance trains and short-distance trains, including Northeast Corridor trains that run between Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. There are also some shorter distance train services in Pennsylvania, California, and Illinois. Short-distance routes are designed for day trips between major cities. They don’t have sleeping cars or full dining services, but most do include a business class car with larger seats and non-alcoholic beverage service as well as a “quiet” car where cell phone use and loud talking (above a whisper) are prohibited.

Conversely, long-distance trains involve travel over a period of days through several states and offer options for sleeping.

Benefits of train travel for seniors

happy older woman looking out of a train window. Image by Artanika. Veteran train traveler Donna Brody looks at the benefits and basics of train travel for seniors and offers tips for travelers.

Amtrak travelers 65 years of age and over are eligible to receive a 10% discount on most Amtrak rail fares. On cross-border services (operated jointly by Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada), a 10% discount is available to travelers aged 60 and over.

Besides the senior discount (on fares that are otherwise cheaper than most airline flights), there are many other reasons to choose train travel over planes or automobiles.

Room to move

First, train’s coach seats offer more legroom. Passengers can also get up and walk around while the train is moving or take advantage of the lounge cars and café cars. More than just a pleasant advantage, this can help prevent blood clots that can form during long stretches of inactivity. Overnight trains offer dining cars that serve three meals a day, with full menus. Long-distance trains have “smoking” stops built into the schedule at intervals along the route, and even non-smokers can use these opportunities to walk along the platform to stretch their legs and get some fresh air.

Room to snooze

Sleeping accommodations are available on long-distance trains, a top benefit of train travel for seniors. Charges for these rooms can be pricey, but customers can choose among several price points, based on size and amenities: roomettes, bedrooms, bedroom suites, family bedrooms, or handicapped accessible bedrooms.

To avoid the extra cost, some passengers choose to sleep in their coach seats, which recline and include small pillows. Amtrak coaches have outlets near every seat, so passengers can use laptops, charge phones, and watch TV and movies on their own electronic devices. Wi-Fi is available on most long-distance trains, though it is sometimes spotty in remote terrain.

Rooms with a view

By far the most exhilarating thing about a train journey, though, is the ever-changing scenery.

No conversation is necessary as whitewater rapids give way to craggy mountainsides, to enchanted snow forests, to desert cacti. The vistas can be spectacular. Extra-large windows in the Sightseer cars on some routes enhance the view. Even the sight of junk yards and abandoned, boarded-up buildings hint of mysterious backstories.

So, pack your imagination and hop aboard a train for a unique travel experience.

Tips for Amtrak train travel for seniors

  • Temperatures can vary in train cars, so always bring a heavy sweater or sweatshirt to wear as needed, year-round. Long pants and closed-toed shoes are also a good idea rather than flip flops or sandals.
  • Some travelers on trains are looking to socialize with their fellow passengers, especially in the Café, Dining, and Sightseer Lounge cars – others are not. Always respect people’s preferences.
  • If you choose to sit in the quiet car, remember that cell phone use is prohibited and speaking louder than a whisper is frowned upon.
  • Passengers are allowed to bring their own food on the train, but it must be consumed in their seat. Full meals in the Dining car cost more than snacks and sandwiches in the Café car, and if traveling alone or in a twosome, you will be seated with other passengers in the Dining car. Alcohol is served in the Café / Lounge car.
  • Long-distance travelers who don’t pay for sleeping quarters should bring blankets and larger pillows.
  • Each passenger may bring two personal items and two larger bags on board. The luggage racks on the lower level of coach cars fill up fast. There are ample overhead storage racks above the coach seats, but you’ll have to carry your own luggage up a narrow stairway to your seat. Checking large bags at the station might be a better option and is free. Red Caps can provide luggage assistance at larger stations.
  • Keep medications and other necessary items with you.
  • Most trains do not have assigned seats in coach, but groups and families can usually find seats together. Conductors do sometimes assign seat numbers on certain crowded trains. Once your ticket is scanned, you can move about the train, but don’t remove the seat check the conductor placed above your seat, and don’t leave valuables in plain sight.
  • Trains don’t always run on time. Most of Amtrak’s travel is over tracks owned by freight railroads, which have priority. Build some flexibility into your schedule and always pack water and snacks just in case.
  • Amtrak accommodates passengers with accessibility needs, too. Browse the Accessible Travel Services web page for more information.

Donna Brody

Donna Brody is a former community college English instructor who retired to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She enjoys freelance writing and has self published three romance novels. Besides writing and traveling with her husband, she keeps busy visiting her seven grandchildren.

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