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  1. #1
    Senior Member Neil G.'s Avatar
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    Report: Sending bicycle via Amtrak / Amtrak Express

    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".

    ---------------------------------------

    Outbound: Amtrak
    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.

    Neil

  2. #2
    Bike Nerd Mr. Jim's Avatar
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    Thank you for the report, with airlines fees rising for bike transport knowing about Amtrak Express is very useful information indeed.
    Jim
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  3. #3
    Senior Member neilfein's Avatar
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    Thanks, Neil!
    Tour Journals, Blog, ride pix

    I'm in the celtic folk fusion band Baroque and Hungry. "Mended", our new full-length studio album, is now available for download.

  4. #4
    Training Wheel Graduate twodeadpoets's Avatar
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    Excellent report Neil! I've been very curious about shipping via train for some time now.

    Am doing the C&O trail in two weeks and shipped my bike from Orcas Island, WA to Pittsburgh, PA via UPS. It cost $90 ($2500 insurance included). I got round trip Seattle/Pitts tickets for $220 (though I will have to transfer a billion times). The downside is that since I have to fly back the day after the tour ends and on a weekend, I've decided to spring for the cost of having a DC bike shop do the packing and shipping for me which will cost probably the same UPS fees of $90 plus an additional $60 for the bike shop. Transportation for my trip will be about $400 (not including driving from the island to Seattle and the ferry back home).
    "Ride Like an Orca!" ~tdp
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  5. #5
    It's true, man.
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    That's a great report. I'm quite curious what problems you had getting on your Southwest flight having lost your ID though - that prospect always nags at me.

  6. #6
    for affordable housing
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    Interesting prospect... I wonder, though, how difficult it would be to get a bike shipped to the East coast, since the East Coast Corridor does not (I guess?) carry baggage?
    Quote Originally Posted by colombo357 View Post
    Hey you need to put on the bar tape. Please promise me via PM that you will put on the bar tape, because if you don't, you won't have any bar tape on your bars, and that'd be bad because you're supposed to have bar tape on your bars where the bar tape goes.

  7. #7
    Deluxe Member mattm3's Avatar
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    No baggage service on the East Coast? I think they do have baggage service in general. There are some stations, however, that are unmanned and thus do not allow you to load or unload luggage. But any big station on the East Coast will let you send luggage.
    M3
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  8. #8
    Senior Member staehpj1's Avatar
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    Nice report.

    I used Amtrak for one leg of my recent trip and it worked out well. I rode into the station, took off the pedals, rotated the bars, and slid the bike into the box. Then I strapped the two front panniers together, and the two rear ones and the tent together making the whole load into two carry on pieces. It was all quite convenient.

    I have not used Amtrak Express though, but my try it in the future.

  9. #9
    Senior Member Neil G.'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by truman View Post
    I'm quite curious what problems you had getting on your Southwest flight having lost your ID though - that prospect always nags at me.
    Luckily, my tour ended at a wedding, and my parents were flying in, so my mom was able to collect some alternate forms of ID from my house and deliver them to me. Still, the best thing I had was an expired passport, so there was still some concern.

    I was more concerned with government security than with the airline, though maybe that's just because it was the first time I've checked baggage in the last decade, so I had no idea how that works these days. Turns out that was no issue at all, I just flashed my pre-printed boarding pass, told them my name, and they didn't even ask for ID. If I hadn't been checking baggage, it would have been even less of an issue, because I simply printed my boarding pass at the hotel. I guess if I hadn't purchased an advanced ticket, that would have made things really interesting.

    Then at the TSA security checkpoint, I walked up, showed my boarding pass and my expired passport, and (figuratively!) held my breath. The guy stared at it for a few seconds like they usually do, made his mark on my boarding pass, and as he waved me through, said "you need to get a new one of these!" "Yep, I know!" I replied, and went merrily on my way.

    Overall I was less-concerned about it than *anyone* that I had talked with about it. Just about everyone thought I'd have huge problems, and many thought there'd be no chance I'd get on the plane. But I'd read enough online, and it sounds like even if I had no ID at all, they have procedures in place that would have still allowed me to board. It might have required a full body-cavity search, but I actually thought that might have been kind of helpful after spending a month sitting on a bike seat...who knows what they might have found up there? "Oh, THAT'S what happened to my ID!"

    Neil

  10. #10
    Have bike, will travel Barrettscv's Avatar
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    Hi Neil,

    Stunning photography and trip report!

    Photo's: http://www.gregie.com/gallery/neil/20090425/

    Michael
    Last edited by Barrettscv; 06-03-09 at 05:54 AM.
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  11. #11
    Senior Member jobtraklite's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 4000Miles View Post
    Interesting prospect... I wonder, though, how difficult it would be to get a bike shipped to the East coast, since the East Coast Corridor does not (I guess?) carry baggage?
    ONE train per day does have a baggage car, the earliest one southbound and latest one northbound. So, generally going northbound you would pick up your bike at your destination the next day, and going southbound check your bike the day before.

    Incidently, a year ago I used the service going to Baltimore from the midwest. While I was reassembling my bike in Baltimore, no less than 4 people came to and inquired about shipping bikes via Amtrak.

  12. #12
    Didn't make it Bat22's Avatar
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    I'm using the local Amtrack tomorrow. The site stated that normal bike racks will not
    accomodate recumbents,tandems and unusual (thier word) bikes. Box them as the OP
    described for baggage or express service. I'll find out tomorrow when I show up with
    my Big Dummy.
    Ride like a teen machine

  13. #13
    Avoid trauma Lake_Tom's Avatar
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    I have never traveled on Amtrak. Do they tag the luggage with the destination (Grand Junction) at the counter and then take the luggage out of the cargo compartment at the destination? I have only traveled on Greyhound, where I would have to direct them at the stop.

    This is different than flying where "everything" gets taken out of the cargo compartment upon arrival.
    I smell the spring in the smoky wind.

  14. #14
    Senior Member jobtraklite's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lake_Tom View Post
    I have never traveled on Amtrak. Do they tag the luggage with the destination (Grand Junction) at the counter and then take the luggage out of the cargo compartment at the destination? I have only traveled on Greyhound, where I would have to direct them at the stop.

    This is different than flying where "everything" gets taken out of the cargo compartment upon arrival.
    It is pretty much the same as flying, except that at smaller stations, you pick up your check luggage (or bike) from a golf-type cart on the platform.

    Also, if you change trains, you can check baggage through to you destination, just like the airlines.

    One difference, luggage need not travel on the same train. As you probably know, not all trains have baggage service. You may not know that all existing baggage cars are over 60 year old; and Amtrak has trouble keeping them going on the few trains that do have baggage cars.

  15. #15
    Avoid trauma Lake_Tom's Avatar
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    ^Thanks, Jobtraklite :hi:
    I smell the spring in the smoky wind.

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