USA by rail

What is Amtrak?

The US government created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, in 1971 to take over long-distance passenger trains from the private railroads. Amtrak operates a modest network by European standards, but it spans the whole country.

Which route is best?

There are four transcontinental routes to choose from, each with a distinct character. In my opinion, the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco via the Rockies, Colorado Canyons and Sierra Nevada easily tops the list for scenery. But I've a soft spot for the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles through Navajo Indian country, closely following Route 66. There's the scenic northern route to Seattle taken by the Empire Builder through Glacier National Park, and for a flavour of the Deep South, a route from New York to New Orleans on the Crescent and onwards to Los Angeles across dusty Texan deserts aboard the Sunset Limited.

Each takes two nights without stopovers, except for the southern route which takes four.

How much does it cost?

A ticket from New York, Boston or Washington DC to San Francisco or Los Angeles starts at $212 (£133) in a coach-class reclining seat. For an epic 3,000-mile journey and a roof over your head for three nights, it's one of the world's great travel bargains.

For a private sleeper, a "room charge" is added to the basic fare. The charge is per room and it includes all meals (but not alcohol), plus complimentary tea, coffee and juice throughout the journey. The room charge for the three-night coast-to-coast trip varies between $490 (£306) and $890 (£556) for a compact two-berth "roomette".

How to book

The easiest way to buy tickets is online at amtrak.com. You can buy tickets by phone in the UK through their UK agents, International Rail on 0871 231 0790.

Can you stop off?

Yes, although a reservation is required for each leg. You can book a coast-to-coast journey with stopovers using the "multi-city" feature at amtrak.com. A popular stop on the Southwest Chief is Flagstaff, Arizona, for the Grand Canyon.

Holidays and tours

Railbookers (020-3327 0800; railbookers.com) can arrange itineraries to your specification, while Great Rail Journeys (01904 527 120; greatrail.com) offers escorted group tours.

For more information, visit DiscoverAmerica.com

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