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Bikes on Amtrak

Old 02-04-23, 12:17 PM
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Bikes on Amtrak

I want to do some light tours this summer. I'm in San Diego, want to take the train up north a bit and ride south. The problem is Amtrak (according to their website https://www.amtrak.com/bring-your-bicycle-onboard) my bike is too big.

​​​​​​Carry-On/Trainside: Bicycles up to 50 lbs. Standard bicycle sizes apply. Maximum tire width: 2"
Checked: Bicycles up to 50 lbs. and 70" x 41" x 8.5"
My tires are bigger than 2" and my bike is bigger in every dimension then the spec'd limits (I'm 6'5").

Is Amtrak strict about this? Can I slip the guy $20 to get him to take by bike? Do I gotta get a smaller bike?


​​​​​​​
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Old 02-04-23, 12:20 PM
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My tires are 55mm. I guess I could get smaller tires (keeping the weight under 50 lb. should be easy for CC touring) and I'm in specs for carry on limits.
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Old 02-04-23, 12:35 PM
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This would be my first tour. I'm thinking take the train to Solvang and ride south. I could ship the bike to a bike shop in that area, but that would add a layer of complexity to a light and easy first tour.
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Old 02-04-23, 12:42 PM
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My experience was back in 2005 and on the Northeast Corridor, but I can sum it up briefly:
- Read the rules carefully.
- Print out all the rules and carry them on your person.
- Understand that all it takes is one difficult conductor who doesn't care about the rules and you and your bike don't ride, regardless of the actual rules or how polite you may have been in explaining your side of the story, and you have no legal recourse. Now my situation didn't quite get to this stage, but it was clearly explained that if it did I would be completely SOL, and all depending on the knowledge and attitude of the train conductor.
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Old 02-04-23, 12:53 PM
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Perhaps go to the station and talk to the baggage and ticket people in person. My experience with the Amtrak web site is that it is cleverly, and effectively designed to withstand all attempts to get it to divulge useful information.
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Old 02-04-23, 01:04 PM
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Originally Posted by tyrion
I want to do some light tours this summer. I'm in San Diego, want to take the train up north a bit and ride south. The problem is Amtrak (according to their website https://www.amtrak.com/bring-your-bicycle-onboard) my bike is too big. My tires are bigger than 2" and my bike is bigger in every dimension then the spec'd limits (I'm 6'5"). Is Amtrak strict about this? Can I slip the guy $20 to get him to take by bike? Do I gotta get a smaller bike?
​​​​
From your proposed start point of Solvang, I'm guessing that you'd take Amtrak up to SLO, correct? If so, you'd be taking the Pacific Surfliner. Unlike most of the other Amtrak routes, where bikes boxed and unboxed go into the baggage car and are handled by baggage carriers, the California cars have self-serve hooks located on the bottom level near the doors. So it probably wouldn't be a big deal. (If you choose to use the Coast Starlight for a portion of your trip, you will have to deal with baggage handlers for your bike.)

As for tire width, I've used bikes with tire widths around 54/55mm and had no problems with Amtrak (using both the self-serve hooks and baggage cars.)

Here's a photo when I took the Capitol Corridor between Sacramento and Berkeley. The bike hook area is similar to what you'll find on the Surfliner:
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Old 02-04-23, 01:06 PM
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Originally Posted by RCMoeur
My experience was back in 2005 and on the Northeast Corridor, but I can sum it up briefly:
- Read the rules carefully.
- Print out all the rules and carry them on your person.
- Understand that all it takes is one difficult conductor who doesn't care about the rules and you and your bike don't ride, regardless of the actual rules or how polite you may have been in explaining your side of the story, and you have no legal recourse. Now my situation didn't quite get to this stage, but it was clearly explained that if it did I would be completely SOL, and all depending on the knowledge and attitude of the train conductor.
Dealing with bikes on Amtrak has changed a lot in the almost twenty years since you last used it. It's gotten a lot better.
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Old 02-04-23, 01:06 PM
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I don't know.

On most trains I've been on, on board bikes can go on a hook in the baggage car (some also have them in the cars but I've done those less). So my guess is the 2" is related to the dimension of the hook and if you have a tire large enough it doesn't fit on the hook then there will be an issue. If it is 2.25" and fits fine on the hook.... less sure there.

Checked baggage also goes in the baggage car. Amtrak sells bike boxes that are *big* compared to most all airline boxes. I'm 6' 4" and my bike fits easily in an Amtrak box with both wheels on and pedals removed and handlebars taken off.

In slightly smaller airline boxes, I also remove the front wheel and sometimes turn my stem so it points be backwards. In the smallest airline boxes, both wheels come off.

My suggestion would be to go down to the San Diego station and see if they will sell you a box in advance of your trip. If so, see if you can break down the bike enough to fit in the box. If so, travel with Amtrak using one of their boxes. Note however that not every station is a baggage station where they open the baggage car (one way you can sort of tell is to make a trial booking and add the $20 for a bike... If it tells you no bike spots are available when a longer trip to a major station would let you add a bike .... then most likely one of the stops isn't a baggage stop).

Also note that there can be differences between individual trains and the general guidelines are a good starting point but exactly where the bike is placed and individual conductor behavior will differ between trains. In the last few years, I've taken long haul trains mostly in western US and gradually the bike hook in baggage car method has been added to those trains.

Last edited by mev; 02-04-23 at 01:11 PM.
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Old 02-04-23, 01:07 PM
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Originally Posted by Pratt
Perhaps go to the station and talk to the baggage and ticket people in person. My experience with the Amtrak web site is that it is cleverly, and effectively designed to withstand all attempts to get it to divulge useful information.
As I discovered, if you ask n different persons, you may get n different answers. And none of them may matter, as a particular train's conductor can overrule them for his or her train. Which may be thousands of miles away from home.
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Old 02-04-23, 01:07 PM
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Originally Posted by Pratt
My experience with the Amtrak web site is that it is cleverly, and effectively designed to withstand all attempts to get it to divulge useful information.
That used to be true. But Amtrak has gotten a lot more transparent about bike policies. See here:
https://www.amtrak.com/bring-your-bicycle-onboard
https://www.amtrak.com/onboard/bring-your-bicycle-onboard/bike-faqs.html
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Old 02-04-23, 01:16 PM
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Originally Posted by adventurepdx
From your proposed start point of Solvang, I'm guessing that you'd take Amtrak up to SLO, correct?
Not sure yet. Just starting to plan this out. I have taken the train to the Solvang area once, long ago, and it seems like a good place to start (Sideways wine country!).

There are 2 scenarios: taking the bike on the train, or shipping the bike and then going to retrieve it. The first scenario is much simpler and gives me more flexibility. From what you say it looks like I can do the first scenario.
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Old 02-04-23, 02:56 PM
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The tire size limitation is due to hook size. The last time I took the Vermonter I let air out of my 37c tire to make it easier to get off the hook. If your service has trainside checked, the baggage handler could have difficulty with wide tires.
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Old 02-04-23, 03:09 PM
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Originally Posted by mev
...Amtrak sells bike boxes that are *big* compared to most all airline boxes. I'm 6' 4" and my bike fits easily in an Amtrak box with both wheels on and pedals removed and handlebars taken off...
Well that's a good sign. I can take my bike apart and stuff it in a box. Much better solution to have it on the train with me than having to ship it separately and go find it. Just have to see if my on-boarding station has bike boxes.
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Old 02-04-23, 08:57 PM
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I've probably taken Amtrak with my bicycle in tow a dozen times or more and I swear, each experience is never the same, even making use of the same rail line or route and only a few years apart. That being said, I have never had someone take a tape measure to my bike or tires as generally they're in a hurry to get that train a movin'
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Old 02-04-23, 10:05 PM
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I live in San Diego. Last summer I took Amtrak up to San Louis Obispo. I forget the name of the Amtrak train but if you take the 4am train from SD to SLO you can just wheel your bike on board. It is considered a commuter line, so no boxing or other b.s. I think the bicycle car is either the first or last car. Just wheel it on board to the bicycle section and lean it against the wall. Just like on the Coaster Train. You can also pick it up in Solano Beach or Oceanside as well. SLO is the end of the line and dumps you out at about 1pm. It was easier than falling off a log.

Of course check with the station agent about the details. YMMV

ps I think I had to tell the ticket person that I was bringing a bike, don't really remember.

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Old 02-05-23, 03:51 AM
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recommend taking amtrak with your bike on a little test run...maybe from the downtown san diego or old town san diego station after sunrise to solana beach or oceanside and riding back.
whether buying the ticket via the amtrak app or off their website, you will need to indicate that you are bringing a bike onboard (there is an option/screen for this). it is no additional charge.
ime with a bike (approx 20x) on that line between san diego and los angeles, the bicycle storage car is the northernmost (closest to la) car just behind the engine, regardless of whether that
line is heading north or south. the bicycle storage car has approx 5 seats squeezed in between the large bathroom and the bicycle storage area (think there is space for 6 bikes total-3 on each side
of the car). these seats are designated for those with disabilities. you can use them but if a disabled person arrives (and you're not disabled) and there's no more room in that area, you will
need to/be asked to move. dunno how much bigger your bike is than a mtb but have seen plenty of mtb's on there over the years. pretty sure if you've got panniers/extensive bike storage containers mounted
on the bike, you'll have to remove them and bring them with you to your seat. if you're taking the line from sd to la, it's usually pretty quiet on that first 4am weekday amtrak train until just after
6am when the train hits irvine. ridership picks up substantially after that through the santa ana, anaheim and (esp) fullerton (the last stop before dtown la-union station). heading south in the pm, it's just in reverse.
plenty of room once people get off in irvine.

normally, i only take the amtrak between sd and la on mon or tues. have only sat down by the bike area if that day is a federal holiday where there is much less commuter traffic. on a normal mon or tues,
detach my garmin computer, blinky lights, saddlebag and garmin varia radar, use my ottolock to attach the bike to the metal guide rail along the side of the train car wall and climb the stairs to sit on the
second level of the (same) car as the bikes. if you're wearing bike cleats, be careful on the stairs and use the handrail. food/drink car is usually in the middle car on the train if so inclined.

supposedly, amtrak will not be operating nonstop between sd and la during the week without the current disembarking of the train and bussing up to irvine, then reboarding the train to la (or the reverse heading to sd) until late march
or early april. this is due to the track repairs being done in san clemente. apparently sat or sun riding (when it's less crowded), the train is going to/from la without de/reboarding + bus between irvine and oceanside.
personally waiting till repairs are complete before doing a 2 or 3x a year la to sd ride via amtrak but it may prove handy for you to just do a previously mentioned "quickie" to the 1st or 2nd stop to better figure out logistics to avoid
potentially bigger issues/disappointment down the road. hope this helps. if you're credit card touring and staying at hotels/motels/etc for those 3-7 nights, makes a big difference in the amount of stuff (vs camping) that you're
lugging along in panniers. if you do indeed end up riding from solvang area or points north of san diego county back home, it'll likely be worth your time to get the yearly camp pendleton pass to avoid riding on the 5 freeway. worse case scenario,
you can either ride the freeway or catch the train in san juan capistrano and get off in oceanside (or all the way back in sd).

getting to solvang (without riding) involves a bus transfer from the santa barbara station. dunno how that works with bikes, esp a bigger one. amtrak has semi-nearby stations in oxnard, santa barbara (closest), san luis obispo and paso robles. getting off
at any of those stations and riding north or south (and potentially taking the train back some or all of the way back) would be a fun trip with support here and there along with a few decent grades and plenty of scenery. happy touring!

Last edited by diphthong; 02-05-23 at 04:15 AM.
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Old 02-05-23, 07:35 AM
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I find it interesting to see the variety of responses you have to this thread. I attribute this to four factors:

1. The guidelines you pointed at are a good starting point for Amtrak-wide guidelines covering general trains with hooks or as checked baggage.
2. Individual trains will vary in how they are outfitted for bicycles.
3. San Diego has multiple connections into the Amtrak network as well as local commuter train.
4. Local conditions such as track reconstruction or extended outages can also change things.

My experience with San Diego is dated (2009 last time I arrived by train). At that time, there were three general connections: (a) the Pacific Surfliner went up the coast to Santa Barbara or so. It seemed to have bikes go in the passenger compartments (b) the Coast Starlight stopped in Los Angeles but you could connect via Surfliner in San Diego (c) I believe there was commuter rail in San Diego County.

In my 2009 case, I was coming from further north (Portland) and boxed my bike in both PDX and San Diego and it transferred along with myself in LA. That was 13 years ago and since then I don't know how Coast Starlight has updated (e.g. with hooks in baggage car similar to Amtrak Cascades and Sunset Limited?).

Still think it might be helpful to check on notes for local outages and also understand which train services your route and what mechanisms it has available for bikes since that gives clues on what choices are possible.

Update: Also remembered, I traveled from San Diego to Portland on Amtrak in October 2016. On that trip I boxed my bike in San Diego.

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Old 02-05-23, 07:36 AM
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Go to the station and find out from the staff there.

Different train routes can have different procedures.

Last time I rode Amtrak was nine years ago and I am sure it has changed, so I won't go into details that might no longer apply.


Originally Posted by adventurepdx
...
Here's a photo when I took the Capitol Corridor between Sacramento and Berkeley. The bike hook area is similar to what you'll find on the Surfliner:
If the procedure is to use hooks in an area like that, you might be able to hang it from a rear wheel and pull the front wheel off the bike if the bike is too long to fit. Then strap the wheel to the bike so it does not get lost or damaged. Leave your water bottles empty so they do not leak or fall out from the weight.

The 50 pounds likely is for the bike without your luggage. Amtrak has generous carry on criteria for all your luggage, much more generous than an airline.

There was an Amtrak employee at the nearest station to my home that would not let you strap two panniers together to call them one item, so I ended up buying a light weight mesh duffel that met their size criteria that I could put a lot of my stuff into, that mesh duffle weighed almost nothing and sat in the bottom of a pannier for my Pacific Coast trip. Photo below was my carry on luggage for my Amtrak trip home from that Pacific Coast trip. On that trip, I also had another duffle that I used for checked baggage, that is not in the photo.

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Old 02-05-23, 08:25 AM
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Originally Posted by robow
I've probably taken Amtrak with my bicycle in tow a dozen times or more and I swear, each experience is never the same, even making use of the same rail line or route and only a few years apart. That being said, I have never had someone take a tape measure to my bike or tires as generally they're in a hurry to get that train a movin'
I've also taken my bike on Amtrak many times. You can never predict what is going to happen.
Despite all the pretty Amtrak web pages about bikes on trains.

Amtrak is a dysfunctional organization with aging equipment and terrible employee relations.
(Even though Amtrak is a public entity, the higher-ups gave themselves six-figure $ bonuses.)
Meanwhile the people in the front line - the ones you will be dealing with - get peanuts.

https://transportation.house.gov/new...ch%20in%202021.

I'm surprised to see a photo in this thread of a bike on the train with packs and panniers attached.
You are supposed to have the bike stripped down. Or else they probably won't take it.
In California, most trains with roll-on service usually have two bike cars - -
but equipment shortages may mean there's only one. Or none.

Who knows? Amtrak sure doesn't.
No way of knowing until the train shows up.
Most of the time, the station agent will do everything possible to make it work.
But other times you'll get a low-life who just says, "Tough luck."

I have supported Amtrak for almost 50 years -
despite late trains, poor service, surly employees, zero train service in my home state.
But my experiences of late have tried my tolerance to the breaking point.

I hope things work out well for you - and they very well might.
But, don't be surprised if it all goes south either.
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Old 02-05-23, 08:56 AM
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Yes Amtrak has it's problems, but I wouldn't put it in the useless category either for bike touring. Every once in a while I need to anticipate a delay but otherwise it serves a purpose.

I've used it in two general models:
(1) Long distance one-way for not too much when it connects where I want to travel. In last five years I've had five of those trips:
2018 - train from Austin to El Paso. Cycle home.
2018 - train from Minot to Chicago to Austin after driving to Abilene and cycling to Minot
2018 - train from Austin to Texarkana. Cycle to Memphis. Rental car to Memphis and train back to Austin
2019 - train from Austin to Tucson. Cycle to El Paso. Train back to Austin.
2021 - rental car Austin to Albuquerque. Around ABQ a few days with my bike. Train to Chicago. Around CHI for a few days. Train back to Austin.

(2) When I was in a city with a regional route to cycle on part and take a train the other part. When in Portland, I did all the variations of Seattle to Portland, Vancouver to Seattle, Eugene to Portland, Salem to Portland many times on the Pacific Cascades. When I lived in San Jose, I did the SLO back to San Jose four or five times.

I haven't had much issues with employees or customer service in my travels. I've seen occasional long delays (more on long haul routes than short ones) but generally structured my travels so they adjusted.

For most all those trips, Amtrak was a better alternative for me than others either because of cost or ease (e.g. packing/unpacking for airlines - or ability to make short term tickets or one way). In return, I structured my trip keeping in mind Amtrak routes and anticipated some uncertainty in schedule.
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Old 02-05-23, 09:11 AM
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Originally Posted by jamawani
...
Amtrak is a dysfunctional organization with aging equipment and terrible employee relations.
....
I will gladly take Amtrak over any airline to travel with a bike.

What I really like about Amtrak is that a week before you travel, your ticket will still be affordable. So, if doing a longer bike tour, you don't have to get your ticket months in advance like you would on an airline.

My biggest complaint is that there are not enough Amtrak routes, my options are quite limited on Amtrak in the middle of the country.
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Old 02-05-23, 09:57 AM
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IMO, if you are using a rail line that follows a common bicycle trail such as the Katy Trail (Missouri River Runner Line) or GAP / C& O (Capitol Limited Line), it's a good idea to consider booking months in advance, because they will often have an insanely limited number of bike spots available on that train (as little as 4 or 6 bikes per train) and often you can get shut out if you haven't made your reservation months in advance. Less a problem if you're solo but if it is my wife and I or a small group, we've often had to alter our riding dates because we have tried to get our bikes on, even weeks ahead during popular touring times.

And here often is what will shut you out. I want to ride from St. Louis to Kansas City 250 miles, but they won't allow my bike on because just yesterday some bike commuter booked for just 9 miles outside of Kansas City in, and only at that point will I become bike number 5 after 241 miles. So frustrating, especially when that person eventually cancels but you can't know that in advance and when you get there, you see that the train could easily handle twice the number of bikes that they allow.

I know I stated that each train experience can be more or less accommodating than another, but I have never seen a time when they will break the limit number of bikes allowed on a train for even a few miles.

Last edited by robow; 02-06-23 at 02:58 PM.
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Old 02-05-23, 11:21 AM
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Originally Posted by robow
Here I would disagree with you if you are using a rail line that follows a common bicycle trail such as the Katy Trail (Missouri River Runner Line) or GAP / C& O (Capitol Limited Line) because they will often have an insanely limited number of bike spots available on that train (as little as 4 or 6 bikes per train) and often you can get shut out if you haven't made your reservation months in advance. Less a problem if you're solo but if it is my wife and I or a small group, we've often had to alter our riding dates because we have tried to get our bikes on, even weeks ahead during popular touring times.

And here often is what will shut you out. I want to ride from St. Louis to Kansas City 250 miles, but they won't allow my bike on because just yesterday some bike commuter booked for just 9 miles outside of Kansas City in, and only at that point will I become bike number 5 after 241 miles. So frustrating, especially when that person eventually cancels but you can't know that in advance and when you get there, you see that the train could easily handle twice the number of bikes that they allow.

I know I stated that each train experience can be more or less accommodating than another, but I have never seen a time when they will break the limit number of bikes allowed on a train for even a few miles.
I am not going to get in a debate with you. You clearly encountered an unfortunate situation.

Katy Trail. We planned to ride Amtrak at the start of our trip, but not at the end, this was 2010. Thus there was not an Amtrak availability issue at the end to mess things up. Two of us wanted to ride from Kirkwood (a suburb of St Louis) to Sedalia on Amtrak, then ride our bikes back to Kirkwood. (Kirkwood had free parking, St Louis did not.) The date we picked, could not take both bikes onto the train, so we picked an adjacent date. This was days in advance, so we left home one day different than our original plan. From the clear limit of four bikes on the train, we were quite confident that there were four bike racks and the limiting factor was the racks. But when we got on the train, the train conductor instructed us to lay our bikes down on a front row of seats, there were no racks. That really baffled us as to why there was a limit of four, it would have been easy to load more. But we were on the train so we quickly forgot about that. If that is still the situation, I can see where you are unfortunate, as there should be some more space for a bike somewhere on the train.

GAP and C&O. There was no limit on number of bikes when I rode that, the limit was how big the baggage car was and how many bike boxes it could hold. We did this trip in 2013 before the roll on roll off option existed, thus bikes had to be boxed. Boxed up our bikes in Columbus Wisconsin and took the train from Wisconsin to Chicago. Changed trains in Chicago and rode to Pittsburg. Then rode GAP and C&O to DC. At some point after Cumberland but before we got to DC, we decided which day we wanted to take the train back home and made the reservations for the return at that time. Spent several days in DC sightseeing while staying at the HI Hostel in DC, I spent almost all of that time in the Smithsonian. Rode our bikes to the Amtrak station, bought boxes and boxed them up for the return trip. Everything went smoothly.

The last time I rode Amtrak was in 2014 for Pacific Coast. Took Amtrak from Wisconsin to Portland, then a bus to Astoria that was part of our Amtrak ticket. Rode our bikes to San Francisco. About three days outside of San Francisco, we made our reservations for the Amtrak return. We planned for two days of sightseeing in San Fransisco, but if we delayed our Amtrak trip by a day, the fare was much cheaper, cheap enough to cover the costs for another day of sightseeing, so we stayed for one more day of sightseeing.

I am not saying everything Amtrak does is perfect. They parked the train in Shelby Montana for about 10 hours on my return home when I rode Amtrak to and from Whitefish to ride the Glacier Watertown Loop. But fortunately they announced to everyone on the train that we were going to stay there due to a rail repair for at least eight hours, so everyone was free to spend some time off the train as long as they were careful to return on time. There is not a lot of sightseeing to do in Shelby, but I have been treated much worse by airlines on several occasions. I have done a total of three trips on an airplane with a bike, but only one of those three trips had me arriving on the day I should have arrived at both my destination and again arriving on the correct day at home at the end of the trip.

Now that Amtrak offers roll on and roll off options, there is a limit on the number of racks, but it is my understanding that you can still box up a bike at luggage stations and avoid that problem. If Amtrak no longer allows you to box up a bike as luggage in luggage compartment, that is news to me.
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Old 02-06-23, 09:21 AM
  #24  
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Originally Posted by HelpSingularity
I live in San Diego. Last summer I took Amtrak up to San Louis Obispo. I forget the name of the Amtrak train but if you take the 4am train from SD to SLO you can just wheel your bike on board. It is considered a commuter line, so no boxing or other b.s. I think the bicycle car is either the first or last car. Just wheel it on board to the bicycle section and lean it against the wall. Just like on the Coaster Train. You can also pick it up in Solano Beach or Oceanside as well. SLO is the end of the line and dumps you out at about 1pm. It was easier than falling off a log.

Of course check with the station agent about the details. YMMV

ps I think I had to tell the ticket person that I was bringing a bike, don't really remember.
^^This^^. Its the Pacific Surfliner trains. IF you buy your ticket on line you designate at that time you'll have a bicycle, and that reserves a spot for your bike. You need to take any bags/panniers off before you store it, too. The train car with the bicycle storage can be either the first or last car on the train, look for the blue bicycle graphic sticker on the side of the train (its kinda tough to see if the train is whizzing into the stop at a good speed); If you're boarding at the first stop in San Diego you could go early and find the bicycle car easily enough. . As for handling your bags on the train, I'd suggest going to IKEA and buying one of their cheap big shopping bags they sell, put your bags in that and strap it with a bungee for easy carrying, and do this BEFORE the train arrives - dispose of the bag in SLO. All this info is accurate for pre-pandemic times; last time I rode the SLO-OC route was in 2016.
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Old 02-06-23, 09:33 AM
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Originally Posted by ooga-booga
recommend taking amtrak with your bike on a little test run...maybe from the downtown san diego or old town san diego station after sunrise to solana beach or oceanside and riding back....
Excellent idea.
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