With Amtrak setting records for ridership and revenue this year, it’s a fair assumption that many of us are opting to travel by train this holiday season. And why the heck not? There are so many reasons to ride a choo-choo: Coach seats are often very affordable, and there’s none of that TSA frustration. Plus, with a whole train of cars to wander, some with better views or food for purchase, you’re able to enjoy freedom of movement while being taken to your destination. And, if you pony up for a spot in the sleeping car, you can even BYOB!
But, with Amtrak scaling back on dining cars, what should you expect, and what should you pack, to avoid getting hangry during your ride?
Flexible Dining – Eastern Routes, Sleeping Car
First of all, the dining car changes only affect trains east of Chicago—and there is still food available on those trains, it’s just a bit more casual. What Amtrak offers on these trains is called Flexible Dining, and it’s for sleeping car customers only (included in the ticket price). Fret not, coach passengers, for you always have the Café car available, with quick-service food and drinks for purchase.
What’s the difference? Flexible Dining offers more of a full meal than the Café car, with entree choices like red-wine braised beef with polenta and haricots verts, or vegan Asian yakisoba noodles with vegetables. Meals can be delivered to your sleeping car room, or picked up from the designated lounge car. This food is hot and ready-to-eat, served with peel-away packaging and plastic containers. If you’re the drinkin’ type, the first beer, mixed drink, or glass of wine is also included in the sleeping car ticket.
Breakfast is continental, with fruit, muffins, coffee, and more waiting for you in the lounge car in the morning.
Related Reading: How to Make Great Coffee On the Go
Café Car – Most Routes, All Passengers
The selection in the Café Car is a little more basic, but you definitely have options. The menu differs by route, but what you can generally expect are breakfast items, sandwiches, soups, burgers, pasta, salads, snacks, and beverages for purchase.
On the Northeast Regional line menus, you might grab a turkey and cheddar sandwich, a vegan burger, or some mac and cheese. On the Pacific Surfliner menu, you might choose a breakfast burrito, a slice of DiGiorno pizza, or a salad.
On any of these lines, you can buy beer, wine, or spirits, too. And remember, you’ve got to stay in the Café Car or the Lounge Car when you eat and drink your purchases.
Note: Use cash or card in the Café Car, but in case the card-reader is slow (it can happen in areas without cellular signal), it’s always good to have a little cash to expedite your checkout.
Traditional Dining – Western Routes, All Passengers
Dining cars are still up and running on routes west of Chicago, meaning both sleeping car customers and coach passengers can make a reservation for a full-service meal at a four-seater booth on these trains. And yes, this means you’ll likely sit with other passengers if your own group is less than four.
This Traditional Dining is the closest thing to restaurant eating you’ll get on an Amtrak, though the place settings are still disposable, and the meals don’t exactly scream “homemade!!” Still—the selection is pretty good, and those wanting comfort food might opt for an Angus burger on a brioche bun for lunch, and thyme-roasted chicken for dinner. A vegetarian could have the black bean and corn burger for lunch, and the rigatoni with soy sausage for dinner.
Breakfast isn’t very vegan friendly, but egg-lovers will enjoy choosing from omelettes, pancakes, or cheese quesadillas with eggs and tomatillo sauce (amongst a few other options).
Sleeping car passengers get these meals complimentary, including a garden salad and non-alcoholic beverages (alcohol may be purchased). Another good reason to have some cash on-hand is to tip your server, since it is a sit-down experience. Coach passengers must eat in the dining car, but sleeping car passengers can choose to have their meal brought to their rooms—this is a great option if you are in the sleeping car and also chose to BYOB…
BYOB is a thing on Amtrak if you bought a sleeping car ticket, and the rules are pretty simple: You can only consume your own booze in your room, and, conversely, you cannot drink your own drinks in the public areas of the train.
To truly enjoy BYOB in the sleeping car, remember that there are no refrigerators at your disposal. If you want to drink beer, make sure you are storing it in an insulated lunch box or a small cooler. If you want to drink wine, you might opt for red in order to worry less about keeping it chilled. You can ask your attendant for plastic cups, if you need.
But, if you want to live it up and insist on bringing the bubbly, pack something like these Corkcicle Stemless Champagne Flutes, insulate your bottle in something like this Le Creuset Wine Cooler Sleeve (it should at least buy you a few hours), and toast to the romance of train travel.
Corkcicle Stemless Champagne Flute, $19.95 on Amazon
Raise a glass on the rails.
Or do like I did and wrap your bottle in a freezable medical knee brace, and bring some recycled jam jars (to minimize plastic waste). It’s choose-your-own-adventure for fanciness!
Amtrak has this transparent guide about what they can and cannot do regarding dietary restrictions. And, they note that they can’t always guarantee supplies, and that of course there might be delays. Use this information to guide your planning for bringing meals and snacks, which is allowed for all passengers. Again, remember that you will not have a refrigerator available, and there is no way to heat up any food you bring.
For snacks, then, think of substantial foods with protein and fiber to keep you going if the train vendors don’t cut it. Trail mix is always a good bet, but for elevated snacking, treat yourself to a package of cheese Whisps or Epic Maple Glazed & Smoked Salmon Bites. Whisps are 100 percent cheese and require no refrigeration, making them an ideal high-protein snack for the train. The salmon bites packaging recommends refrigeration after opening, so better to share these with your travel buddy and finish them in one go. Pair either of these with a box of wheat crackers and some apples, and you’ll have a packable meal reminiscent of a picnic!
Also surprisingly doable is an avocado (with a sprinkle of everything bagel seasoning if you please). Plasticware on the train will do the trick: plastic knives have enough serration to cut through the skin, and a plastic spoon can help scoop out the inside. Or, do one better and BYO- Roaming Cooking Reusable Travel Utensils! Spread the avocado on crackers or mini toasts for a quick breakfast or light lunch. Bringing a durable, lightweight plate, like of of these Lassig Bamboo Plates, will make the whole process easier. Toss a few napkins into your bag, and you’ll have prep and clean-up handled whether at a coach seat or in the sleeping car chambers.
Travel Utensil Set, $9.89 on Amazon
Always be prepared (to eat).
Other portable food options include protein bars, both store-bought or homemade (try our Superseed Bars recipe!). Enlightened Bada Bean Bada Boom crunchy, dried broad beans are another excellent option for some protein, and these are plant-based, to boot!
As a final recommendation, I’d stress the importance of bringing a big leak-proof container of water. There are bottles of water on the train, but as time goes on, supplies may dwindle some, and it’s better to be prepared. Plus, it’s more environmentally friendly to use your own bottle and refill at the water stations on board! Try something like this Contigo 24-Oz Autospout Water Bottle, which is leak-proof, and also has a pop-up straw for easy-drinking. Staying hydrated during the day and throughout the night will be so much simpler with a large, refillable bottle.
Contigo Water Bottle with Straw, $8.09 at Target
Stay hyrdrated, stay happy.
Understanding the food landscape of the train and what to bring should make for smooth train travel this holiday season, and beyond. Even if you don’t get that traditional dining car experience, there is plenty to eat and drink whether you buy it on the train or bring it. And, best of all, you can leisurely snack and sip while watching the world pass by with those lounge car views you only get when you choo-choo choose train travel!
Header image courtesy of Patrick Bennett / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images Plus