You might be familiar with Europe’s Interrail system, but did you know that the USA has their own version for interstate travel? When you travel to the USA with ESTA, you can embark on your own rail adventure across the country.
The US equivalent of the Interrail is known as the USA Rail Pass, which is sold by AMTRAK; the country’s sole interstate rail company. AMTRAK have 500 destinations throughout the United States, so there are plenty of tailor-made journeys to be made with the USA Rail Pass.
The ESTA is the travel authorisation you need in order to get to the USA in the first place, so you will need to have an approved ESTA in order to use your USA Rail Pass (in most cases anyway, but we’ll get to that). The ESTA application is filled in online, after which you will receive an email within 24 hours informing you of your approval status.
How does the USA Rail Pass work?
Much like the European Interrail system, the Rail Pass works by allowing you to take a certain number of journeys within a given time period. In this case, there are three options:
Travel 8 segments within 15 days
Travel 12 segments within 30 days
Travel 18 segments within 45 days
Here, a segment refers to each journey on which you board and get off a train. Therefore, if you need to change trains during a given journey, this counts as two segments. These passes are priced at $389 for the shortest pass, $579 for the middle pass and $749 for the longest pass (as of June 2018). These prices are all halved for 2-15 year olds, and free for babies under 2.
The USA Rail Pass in itself is not a ticket, but rather allows you to get tickets for the journeys you wish to make. So, the first step is to purchase the pass in advance (it is important to note that you cannot purchase rail passes directly on trains). Once you pick up your pass from an AMTRAK office, you can start your journey. The second step is to make your individual travel reservations. You must always make a reservation for the train you wish to travel on.
There are a limited number of seats allocated to Rail Pass passengers on each train. For this reason, it’s a good idea to reserve as far in advance as possible. It is still possible to reserve a seat that is not specifically allocated to Rail Pass passengers, however this comes at an additional cost. For instance, if you wait until the day of travel to reserve your train, there is a lesser likelihood of there being any dedicated rail pass spaces left, and thus you may have to pay a surcharge to travel in a different seat.
Once you have your pass, your travel duration period starts on the first date of travel, not the date on which you make your first reservation. At this point, you will have 15, 30 or 45 days until your Rail Pass expires, depending on which one you purchased. Don’t forget, your ESTA only allows you to be in the USA for 90 days at a time; this is the most important time period associated with the ESTA, so make sure you do not exceed these 90 days.
This means that your Rail Pass does not begin at the time of purchase. In fact, once you have purchased your USA Rail Pass, you have one year to exchange it for a physical pass and start your journey. Then, once you receive this physical USA Rail Pass, you have 330 days to complete your travels. It is only when you make that first journey that the clock starts ticking.
When you are travelling with your USA Rail Pass, there are four key things you will need to have with you:
The USA Rail Pass itself. Do not lose this, as it cannot be refunded or replaced, and the tickets issued using this pass become invalid if you do not have your pass.
The ticket for the train you are travelling on. If you lose individual tickets booked using your USA Rail Pass, these can be replaced, but not vice versa.
Your passport. You need to keep your passport with you as ID whenever you are travelling with the USA Rail Pass. If you are a US citizen, other forms of ID are allowed, but as a foreign traveller it needs to be your passport.
Your travel authorisation. Generally, this will be your ESTA authorisation, however in actual fact there is no requirement for you to have this printed, as it is automatically attached to your passport digitally. That said, it is a good idea to print it just in case, or at least to make a note of your unique authorisation number.
With respect to the last point, your travel authorisation may not be ESTA, in which case you will need to have the relevant documentation. If you are travelling with a visa, you will need to keep this information in your passport, and if you are travelling with the I-94W, keep this paper with you. So, when do you not need an ESTA?
If you enter the USA by plane or ship, you will need to have an ESTA, or a valid US visa for your travel purposes. However, it is of course possible for you to enter the USA via rail; for instance, you could begin your rail travel in Vancouver, then head south into the United States. In this case, it is not essential for you to have an ESTA, as you can also fill out a form (the I-94W) before you cross the border. If you do this, you will need to return part of this form when you leave the United States.
In any case, while the ESTA may not be necessary if you arrive in the country by rail, it is still advisable to get your ESTA online in advance, as having this will avoid the need to fill out the I-94W form, and thus speed up your journey. It is also worth noting that your USA Rail Pass is not valid for any trips made in Canada, even if the train goes through both countries. In this case, you will need to pay for the Canadian leg of your journey separately.
There are many routes available, given the breadth of the country and the vast variety of routes you can take. Therefore, we’ll leave the travel design part to you. But it is worth mentioning here that there is quite a variety of quality standards too, and types of train, and therefore journey lengths may not correlate too precisely to distance. For this reason, it’s a good idea to plan your route carefully.
The USA Rail Pass allows you to travel in regular Coach class. However, you still have the option to upgrade to Business class or Sleeping Car accommodation on certain trains, which comes at an additional charge (depending on the train and journey). Most trains also offer food and wifi too.
The main restriction worth noting is that you can only take the same trip between two cities a maximum of four times with the USA Rail Pass. This is essentially so that US residents do not use the pass for their commutes. In other words, you cannot use your pass to go back and forth between the same two places.
And finally, the AMTRAK USA Rail Pass also has a baby brother that only operates within California, aptly entitled the California Rail Pass. This pass allows you to travel 7 segments within 21 days, and costs $159 for adults (as of June 2018).
Travelling by train in the USA is a fantastic way to see some of the lesser seen countryside of the USA, away from the highways. It is not the most efficient system in the world, but the journey becomes far more enjoyable as you get to experience the vast range of scenery as you relax, gazing out the window. Don’t forget, you will need to apply for your ESTA online before you go to the United States, which we recommend you do as far in advance as possible. Under the Visa Waiver Programme, the ESTA allows citizens of 38 member countries to travel to the United States on business or as tourists, for periods of up to 90 days at a time. The ESTA is valid for two years, or until the holder’s passport expires (whichever comes first).
So, what are you waiting for? Get your ESTA online today, get your map out and start planning your rail adventure around the States!
Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.