I just completed a 4-week tour through the canyons of Utah and Arizona (starting in Grand Junction, CO and finishing in Tucson, AZ), and I used Amtrak to transport my bicycle at both ends of the trip. Most notably, I flew back home from Tucson to Chicago, but I used Amtrak's shipping service, known as Amtrak Express, to send the bicycle. It seems like this is a relatively unknown service, so I thought I'd write up my experience so future tourists can find the information they're looking for when they search the archives for "Amtrak Express".
This was the more conventional leg of the trip. My riding partner and I would ride Amtrak from Chicago to Grand Junction, CO, taking our bikes with us as checked baggage.
We packed all our equipment into his SUV and drove to Union Station in downtown Chicago. Put the front wheels back on the bikes (and temporarily put my panniers back onto my racks) and rolled 'em into the station to the ticket counter. After showing our tickets, we paid the additional $20 per bicycle to send them with us ($15 for the cardboard bike box, $5 for the service). Then the ticket agent took us down the elevator to the basement where helpful Amtrak employees built up a couple of their bike boxes for us.
The boxes are so large that the only requirement is to remove your pedals and handlebars; otherwise the bikes can stay completely assembled. Technically you're supposed to put nothing but the bicycle in the box, but the employees on duty had no problem with us stuffing some extras in there such as helmets or small bags.
In addition to the boxed bike, I included three of my panniers as checked baggage (no extra fee), and took one pannier and my handlebar bag as carry-on luggage. My riding partner uses a BOB trailer, so he simply put a baggage tag on the fully-assembled trailer and included that as checked baggage, and carried on the BOB bag.
When we arrived in Grand Junction, we waited a few minutes for them to unload our stuff from the baggage car. The boxes were in very good condition, and we opened them and did the minor reassembly of our bikes right there outside the station on the train platform. Within 30 minutes of the train's arrival, we had begun our ride, climbing up into the Colorado National Monument. That type of speedy transition would have been impossible with any other shipping method, and it was critical because it was 4pm and we had to climb 2000ft. before nightfall!
So the total transport for one person was $141 ($121 train ticket + $20 for the bike). Of course the downside is that it takes 27 hours to get from Chicago to Grand Junction.
Inbound: Amtrak Express + Southwest Airlines
My original plan was to ride Amtrak from Tucson back to Chicago, but a transfer is required, making the whole trip take 2.5 days, so that's a lot less appealing than the outbound trip (the route is less-appealing too). When I found a $129 one-way airfare on Southwest, I jumped at it. The options for getting our bikes to the airport, packed, and sent on the plane seemed limited (we were departing on Memorial Day, decreasing the chance of getting help at bike shops), so Plan B then was to disassemble and pack up the bikes at a FedEx/Kinkos location and ship them that way.
But then I discovered Amtrak Express, which is a package shipping service that allows you to send packages even if you aren't riding the train yourself. On-line information is extremely limited, so I called them up to get a quote and learned that the total for a bicycle would be $70 ($55 for the shipment from TUS to CHI + $15 for the bike box). That's a fair bit cheaper than FedEx would be, a lot less work on our end, and less likelihood of damage in transit.
So the Tucson packing experience was similar to Chicago, except that the station is a lot smaller, so the ticket agent just brought a box out into the lobby and my Dad & I packed it up. This time I managed to jam a whole pannier inside, which would allow me to fly with no extra fees (two checked bags + two carry-ons). The funny part was that we just left the box sitting there in the middle of the lobby, but the agent assured us that it wouldn't go anywhere and would be taken care of.
One caveat with Amtrak Express is that they don't have guaranteed arrival dates. Passenger baggage apparently gets priority, so Amtrak Express shipments can get bumped, but I bet that rarely happens. However, the agent said it would not be making it out on the train leaving a few hours later that (Saturday) night, and there are only 3 trains a week from Tucson to Chicago. So it wasn't until Thursday morning that I got a call informing me that my bicycle had arrived in Chicago, but I think that's about as fast as it could have arrived, given the limited service.
I was informed that they hold shipments at Union Station for 48 hours, after which they start charging you for storage (I didn't inquire about those fees). I drove down to the station that night (before the 8pm closing of the Amtrak Express service), talked to a ticket agent who called down to the basement, then led me down to the elevator again, and I found my bike box waiting right at the counter where we had packed ours up 4 weeks earlier. This box wasn't in quite as good of shape, but I think that was my fault, due to the pannier rolling around in there. Everything inside seemed just fine though.
I did the simple re-assembly right there, signed a couple forms, and was on my way! No one even asked for ID at either end of the process, which was convenient since I had lost my ID halfway through the tour.
Total return transport for one person was then $199 ($129 plane ticket + $70 for the bike). About $50 more expensive than if I had been on the train, but it saved me 2 whole days in extra vacation time.
So these days when there are a lot of questions and costs associated with taking bikes on planes, I think Amtrak Express can be considered as a very good alternative. It's cheap, it's easy, and they treat the bikes well. Maybe the flying + Amtrak Express method works best at the end of the tour when you don't immediately need your bicycle, but I'm sure it would work pretty well at the beginning of a tour too, as long as you timed it right to send your bicycle out a few days before you flew. Obviously you need to be traveling to a city that offers Amtrak Express service (most stations with checked baggage do it, but not all), so you'll need to call them up to get confirmation and a quote.