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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