The Good, Bad and Ugly about Taking Amtrak’s Acela Express Train

Amtrak Acela Express NY to Wilmington Delaware Aug 2014-003Last week I took Amtrak’s Acela Express train for the first time in a few years and I realized I’d completely forgotten what it was like. I was traveling from New York’s Penn Station (one of America’s worst train stations) to Wilmington, Delaware. Since it had been so long since I’d taken Acela, I actually felt like a complete rookie traveler and ended up making all kinds of mistakes—like getting to Penn Station super early. I didn’t know if I needed to get my prepaid printed ticket stamped in advance or not. I didn’t.

Here are my other observations and experiences:
Acela is a fast train that can travel at speeds of up to 150 mph (only in certain locations). What’s nice is that taking the train to and from New York and Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore or Washington DC is so much more convenient than flying or driving. Did you know that it only takes 2:50 to get from New York to DC and 1:07 to get from New York to Philadelphia or 1:30 to Wilmington, Delaware? No wonder so many people commute or take day trips.

Amtrak Acela Express NY to Wilmington Delaware Aug 2014-010However, it’s not cheap during the week. A one-way ticket from New York to Washington two months in advance is $259 for business and $375 for first (the only two classes offered on Acela). But if you aren’t in a hurry, you can get cheap tickets ($49) on the Northeast Regional, which is frankly just as comfortable and only takes 50 minutes more. See screenshot above.

But many business travelers love Acela because:

  • It’s quicker with faster stops
  • There are Express trains offered every hour on the hour during peak morning and afternoon rush hours between New York, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other intermediate cities
  • There are at-seat electrical outlets and conference tables
  • They have free Wi-Fi—I used a VPN (PrivateWiFi.com) so I was on a secure signal
  • They usually aren’t paying

What I learned is that:

  • There are no assigned seats
  • There are two types of seating in business class: a four-top with a table in between, and two regular seats side-by-side, facing either forward or backward; in first class, they have those and single seats facing each other
  • There is lots of overhead space
  • The Quiet Car was really quiet (and full)
  • If you travel off-peak, you have a much better chance of getting an open seat next to you
  • Amtrak has live tracking, which you can see when you agree to their internet terms and conditions
  • Tip: Bring bottled water

On the departure leg, the 9 am train, I was in business class and it was great as I had an open seat next to me and in front of me. And we were on time.
Amtrak Acela Express NY to Wilmington Delaware Aug 2014-009But the return journey wasn’t and that was because of one individual…the conductor. Which was a shame, because the company that booked my same-day return ticket put me in first class so I could relax and enjoy the complimentary in-seat meal and beverage service. The first 10 minutes were great since I was in a comfortable seat with an open seat across from me. The waitress quickly came over and handed me a menu, and then took my dinner and drink order (jerk chicken and bottled water), as well as my ticket.

Two minutes later, I was eating my jerk chicken (it was pretty awful) when the conductor (D. Purvis) came by and said really loudly to me, “Big problem. Your return ticket has been refunded and you need to buy a new ticket before we reach Philly.” I thought he was talking to someone else until I realized he was looking right at me. I was not only dumbfounded but embarrassed as well, as the snooty passengers dressed in suits across the aisle looked at me like, “I knew he didn’t belong up here.”

Then Mr. Purvis stood over me until I called Amtrak to speak to an agent. It took about five minutes with all of their prompts, but it felt like hours with him hovering over me like I was about to eat my free meal and run. This is after I’d already sent inquiring messages to the person who booked my ticket (but didn’t get a reply as they were in meetings).

The conductor then said that the on-site cash price was $261 but it might be cheaper by calling—and that I couldn’t book via the web. Then, the moment I got a hold of the agent the conductor said, “Hang up.” I said, “Excuse me?” “Are you Johnny?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. He said, “Hang up, you’re okay then.”

He said “sorry,” and started to walk away. I said, “Sorry doesn’t cut it after you treated me like a convict and gave me an upset stomach over you getting my ticket number wrong.” He looked at me like I was crazy and walked away, while the other passengers gave me the nod like I was right.

I was fuming for a few minutes but then I realized—why was I so mad? I should have been happy because this guy just inadvertently prevented me from eating the horrible chicken, stale bread and fattening pudding that I would’ve eaten just because it was there. Thank you, Mr. Purvis, and please, next time, doublecheck your passengers’ tickets before making them feel like a hobo.

Would I take Acela again? Absolutely, as long as someone else is paying. Otherwise I would take the Northeast Regional train since it’s a quarter of the price in advance and you don’t have to deal with airport security, small planes and weather delays.

Comments

  1. thank you for sharing a real person experience…….we, average travelers, get this treatment all the time and still have to sit in bad seats……

  2. Just took Boltbus from Manhattan to Philly. 2 hours each way. $15 and $12 respectively.
    Very comfortable. Sometimes they have WiFi.

  3. nice review, except that most of us locals don’t take amtrakl. We take one of the “chinatown buses” in this case $20 one way and takes 2 hours 20 minutes. 2 stops in NYC, and 1 in Wilmington.

  4. Sparky Allen says:

    How strict are they about enforcing the bag size for carry on on the Amtrak that run between Manassas and Union Station in DC? Anyone have any idea? Thanks.

  5. What an AWFUL EXPERIENCE AND RUDE AND CRUDE PEOPLE YOU RAN INTO!!!!

  6. Too many workers like your train conductor(Pervis) need remedial customer friendly service training. But that’s not going to happen unless customers report their behavior to management. Maybe, you’ll squeeze in the time to do it.

  7. Sounds a bit ridiculous that they could screw up something so simple. My friend used to take it from NYC to DC. He said he could usually find round-trip tickets under $150 if he booked far enough in advance.

  8. Anonymous says:

    What were you do moving in Wilmo – I could have picked you up at the train station! Live and work there.

  9. Cyndi Powell says:

    Aha! I finally find a real review about Amtrak. I rode the Coastliner overnight this past spring…what an experience. Surly, lazy crewmembers who literally woke us up at 7am by shouting over the intercom “WAKEY WAKEY”…this after a sleepless night on a terrible pad in their ‘sleeper’ car. Seriously, a toilet stall has more room. I could go on and on…but just do not take Amtrak. They are horrible. Johnny…you should do an expose’ on these guys on the overnighter.

  10. Suzanne Fluhr says:

    I don’t think the Acela is worth it most of the time. The trip duration from NYC to Philadelphia is 1:07 on the Acela and 1:20 on the regular Amtrak train. I know time is money, but that’s too much money—for not enough time, IMHO.

  11. I love AMtrak, Johnny. You neglected to mention the Amtrak station at BWI airport that lets people fly long flights into Baltimore and then catch Amtrak to nearby locations. BWI is so much easier to clear (luggage, customs, etc.) than Philly, Newark, JFK, And, with Amtrak, you’re in the middle of the city and don’t need a long cab ride. Yes, you get the occasional employee who is having a bad day, but for my money Amtrak’s the only way to go. It’s not always great if you have to be someplace on time for a meeting or catching a flight. Plan ahead, take an earlier train, and enjoy your trip.

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