Beat the boarding lines on Amtrak

I like Amtrak trains, I really do. On a short trip I almost always prefer the train to flying. No TSA screening, no baggage fees, no expensive cab ride to get downtown, more comfortable seats, better food than flying, and sometimes even faster. But one of the worst things about using Amtrak is its archaic, frustrating and stressful boarding process, particularly along Amtrak’s northeast corridor (Washington – New York – Boston), one of its busiest and most profitable routes. On a recent trip between Washington DC Union Station and New York Penn Station this is how I learned to beat the boarding lines on Amtrak and to make getting a good seat fast, simple and stress free.

Departing from Washington D.C.

Amtrak DC Boarding Area

Amtrak DC Boarding Area

I arrived at Union Station ticket in hand after my internet purchase. My train was scheduled to depart in about 40 minutes. There were already well over 100 people on the boarding line. These trains are all “reserved”, meaning you are guaranteed the right to board the train but don’t have a designated seat. In fact, it doesn’t mean you will actually get a seat if the train is really crowded and certainly doesn’t mean you will be able to sit with your traveling companions or sit where you’d like. You may long for the peace of the Quiet Car but you’re just as likely to end up sitting next to the guy who talks to his stock broker the entire 3 hour trip. The seats are in almost all cases first come, first served.

If you think arriving early to get a good spot on line is the answer, think again. The waiting area can’t possibly accommodate the line that’s forming in any reasonable, orderly way. The line winds back and forth, in and around seats, away from the track entrance, then back again. Soon it’s impossible to even find where the line ends. The “line” becomes one in name only. When the gate finally opens the situation instantly dissolves into complete chaos as the entire waiting area rushes the door from all directions. You may have been waiting in line patiently for an hour, 20 people from the door, only to find that someone who arrived 5 minutes before the gate opened beats you to the train as he edges in from the side while the crowd pushes you further and further back from where you started. When you finally do get through the entrance door it’s a long race up the platform to board the train, find a seat and a place for your luggage before you’re shut out. Sounds like fun doesn’t it? It’s a mess but one Amtrak does not seem inclined to fix.

Departing from New York Penn Station

NY Penn Station Waiting Room

NY Penn Station Waiting Room

At least in DC you knew your gate number long before the scheduled departure so you had some chance of positioning yourself for the coming rush. At NY’s Penn Station the process is even worse. Everyone, and I mean every single person in that giant waiting room who is waiting for an outbound train, regardless of destination, is lumped together in a huge crowd, eyes straining upward to the enormous departures board. Surrounding the crowd on the perimeter of this mass of humanity, are the track entrances. Like thoroughbreds at the starting gate each person in the room is waiting for one thing to appear on that board: his track number. Track numbers are usually not announced until about 10 minutes before the trains actually depart. This means there is NO line until the track number goes up and when it does look out! Everyone who is waiting for that train rushes the track entrance gate which may be right next to you if you’re lucky, or 100 feet away on the other side of the waiting room. Total chaos. Is this any way to run a railroad!

Red Cap to the rescue

Amtrak Red Cap

Amtrak Red Cap

Short of getting Amtrak to see the insanity of this process and fix it (not bloody likely) what can you do? Actually it’s pretty simple. In the age of wheelie bags you just need to remember two words: Red Cap. If you’re not familiar with the term, Red Caps, as they have been known since the early 20th century, are baggage porters. You will find them in all major train stations, immediately recognizable by their red caps (go figure). The Red Cap my friends is the solution to all your problems.Simply find a Red Cap in the station. This won’t be hard. Just look around. Tell him what train you’re on and show him your ticket. You’re in for some good news right away. Miracle of miracles, the Red Cap knows something nobody else in the waiting room knows: he knows the track number for your train. Even better, he’s going to open the gate and take you to the track NOW! Let everyone else wait for the track announcement, you’ll already be on the train. What’s more, he’s going to carry your bags.

That’s exactly what our Red Cap did for us in NY. Leaving the hundreds of people in the waiting room still staring expectantly at the board, we were down on the track before our train even arrived at the station. No worries about where we wanted to sit much less whether we were going to get a seat at all, once the incoming train emptied our Red Cap just took us directly to the car that we asked for, waited for us to select the seats we wanted – pretty easy since the train was empty – and stowed our luggage nearby. It was all done a good 5 to 10 minutes before the mad rush of people arrived from upstairs. Not sure where the best seat is for you? Ask the Red Cap. He knows exactly how the train is laid out.

Cost ? Free. That’s right, it’s free. There is no cost except whatever tip you decide on. Try getting priority boarding on an airline for free! Even though it’s free, be generous with your tip. Do you realize what this guy just did for you?

So if you’re sick of the insane Amtrak boarding process, just use a Red Cap. You’ll feel like you’re back in an earlier, more glamorous day of train travel and you’ll help a hard working guy make a living to boot.

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Fastest way through the U.S. Immigration line

U.S. airport border control line

Why you should read this

You travel internationally. Avoiding an hour or two standing in long, frustrating immigration and customs lines is well worth the $20 per year fee for this government pre-screening program. You need to know the fastest way through the U.S. immigration line and this is it.

Why this is part of TheBoodLife

It’s all about your convenience, reduced stress and frustration. Cost and time are minimal but the return is great. You’re entitled to the red carpet treatment so enjoy.

The GOES Program

It’s been a great vacation. You’re rested and relaxed. But as you get off the plane stress creeps in. Since you’ve been traveling internationally you still have one big hurdle to overcome. You have to clear immigration and customs. Well maybe you’ll get lucky. Down the escalator with fingers crossed and into the arrivals hall. Ugh, there must be 400 people waiting in line. Your luck just ran out. You can expect at least 1 hour on the immigration line, and maybe another 30-45 minutes to clear customs. There must be a better way.

I have good news; there is. This ordeal is totally unnecessary. You can get through this entire process every time in less than 5 minutes. How? Join the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) GOES program. GOES stands for Global Online Enrollment System and with it you may never wait on a US immigration or customs line again. The enrollment process is simple:

GOES Enrollment Process

  1. Go to the GOES website here, get a user name and password, fill out and submit the online application and pay the $100 enrollment fee. Maybe a 20 minute process.
  2. Wait to receive a Conditional Approval notice from DHS. You’ll need to periodically log in to the GOES website to check for this. This is when DHS conducts your background check.
  3. Once you receive your Conditional Approval you will be advised to schedule an appointment at a CPB office for a brief, in-person interview. The interview must be scheduled within 30 days of your conditional approval. CPB offices are located at most major airports and in some downtown areas. The GOES website has an easy to use tool that allows you to select your location and schedule a time online.
  4. Go to the in-person interview. The interview itself is really short. One of the main purposes for the interview is to fingerprint you. They need your fingerprints because the kiosks you will be using to enter the US will scan and confirm your identity using your fingerprints.

Your final approval is good for 5 years.

At the airport

Back to our example. Now when you see that line of 400 people you simply ignore it and look instead for a GOES sign which will direct you to a bank of kiosks. In five years of using this system I have never had to wait more than a minute or two for a kiosk. Typically there is no wait at all. At the kiosk you will:

  1. Scan your passport so the system recognizes you and confirm your identity.
  2. Place the fingertips of one hand on the scanner where it will read your fingerprints and verify your identity.
  3. Use the touch screen to make a customs declaration – you can ignore the written form you got on the plane, it’s all done electronically at the kiosk.
  4. Receive a transaction receipt generated by the kiosk which you will take to baggage claim and the exit.

For a better look at how the system works take a minute to watch the CBP video.

GOES and Customs

Once you retrieve your luggage you can also ignore the customs line. Again, you look for the designated GOES line. If there isn’t one just walk to the front of the normal customs line (that’s right, you’re allowed to go to the front of the line), hold up the transaction receipt you got at the kiosk so the CBP officer can see it, and walk through.

Yes, it’s really that easy. Since the GOES program is designed for frequent international travelers it doesn’t seem to be that widely used and in fact most other travelers don’t seem aware of it. But the fact is that CBP doesn’t care if you travel once a year or 100 times, you can still take advantage of the program. And I can tell you that once you do you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

Important things to be aware of

The GOES program charges a $100 fee per applicant. That means every member of your family traveling with you has to have his own GOES approval, make his own application, pay the fee, and be interviewed. And yes this includes children. While a $200 fee for a couple may be a no-brainer, $400 for a family of four and the logistics of the personal interview may seem prohibitive even if it is good for 5 years. Only you can decide but in this age where you pay for everything from checked bags to a snack on the plane, $20 per person per year – even if you only use it once a year – seems to me a very small price to pay for your time and the frustration you’ll avoid.

You also need to check to make sure that the airport where you will first enter the U.S. has GOES kiosks. This shouldn’t be a problem at major airports but if your airport doesn’t have kiosks you’ll have to wait on that long line so check in advance and remember, you need to be sure to check the airport where you will first enter the U.S. That is where you will clear immigration and customs although it might not be your home airport or final destination.

For more details about the GOES program visit the GOES FAQs page here.

Now if they could just do something to speed things up at baggage claim!

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