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 ( 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.

Johnny Jet

About the Author

Johnny Jet
I used to be afraid to fly and at times even leave the house! I conquered my fear (long story) and now I travel to 20+ countries a year sharing my firsthand knowledge, tips and deals with friends, family and readers. Please sign up to our free newsletters and tell your friends!

27 Comments on "The Good, Bad and Ugly about Taking Amtrak’s Acela Express Train"

  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. 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.

    • I’ve never seen anyone with oversize luggage being given a problem on any Amtrak trains unless it was something ridiculously oversized. A bag that’s a bit larger than the limit, or carrying one extra bag, shouldn’t be an issue, especially when traveling to/from a station like Manassas that doesn’t offer checked baggage. But that is of course not a guarantee that you won’t have a stickler for the rules or a freshly-minted conductor who hasn’t yet learned what rules should be bent. You’ll be taking a chance, but I don’t think you’ll have any problems with a slightly-larger-than-allowed bag.


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

  9. 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. 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.

  12. I miss the hourly flights southwest ran from Philly to Providence. The flights ran on average about $70, take off to touchdown 40m min. After over a decade of operation sw decided expand the service with direct flights to Logan and Manchester. Less than 2 years later they cancelled flights from all 3 airports to philly. Genius corporate decision making. Now I’m stuck paying tow or the times the cost for a trip that takes 4-5 hours

  13. nick pollicott | April 6, 2015 at 2:11 pm | Reply

    I used to take this train regularly up until about 5 years ago, escorting British tourists between Boston and New York. The redcaps were always helpful – particularly Joe in Boston. The trains were clean and on time. But the biggest let down were the dining car staff – the most rude and uncooperative I have ever met anywhere in the world- I think the catering staff on Indian Railways could give them some lessons on service and politeness.

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  15. I’m not surprised by the conductor’s behavior. Every trip I’ve ever taken on Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor has felt like riding a railroad operated by the post office.

  16. Here’s a good one: Got done early in Philly and decided to upgrade my Acela Express ticket to a 1hr earlier train….. well the earlier train I paid more for was 1hr late and I ended up leaving the station at the original ticket time for $50 more….the Acela Express is consistently late…usually by 10 to 15 mins and usually twice a week by 1hr or more. It’s a joke…

  17. $49 if you travel at 0300 or 0400or after midnight. All that gets you is permission to get on the train and fight with seven times as many people trying to get on, especially during student break and holiday seasons. If you’re not in line an hour before the train is scheduled to depart, odds are the only seat you will find is a person highly insulted that you want them to re over their luggage for three seats to let you sit down. I’ve seen people,flop in front of the wheelchair seats rather than play chicken.

    Conductor’s behavior should have been reported first opportunity, on or off the train. You never said if you did, or what Amtrak’s reply was. Can only assume you didn’t because any remediation would ruin your story.

    In other words, you get what you pay for, and anyone who orders microwave chicken has only themselves to blame.

  18. Dr Phil 317 | May 20, 2016 at 6:12 pm | Reply

    On the 8:14 Acela out of NYP right now. Approaching Philly, not a bag trip so far. $49 fare for business class. Can’t beat that! I’ll do this again

  19. Amtrak seriously needs to get themselves in to the modern era. It’s depressing to think that we (the US) still has just about the worst rail system in the modern world. I go between Boston and New York on fairly regular basis and the train is nice compared to something like Metro-North, but is still light years away from anything in Europe. I for one would really love to see us (US) up its high speed train game just a bit.

  20. I’m going to be taking the Acela this October. I felt it was worth the time and the money for a business class seat (extra on the northeast regional, and their business class seats are smaller) or a first class seat that includes your own seat by yourself, food and drink, as well as access to the Acela lounge in New York. The lounge access alone imo is worth it when travelling. I found that out when travelling by train cross country and experienced the lounge in Chicago. Free food and drinks in the lounge, free wifi, people to keep an eye on your bags while you explore the city, its worth it every time.
    However, if you’re not looking for an experience, the northeast regional is comfortable, as are the bus lines that go between DC and NYC, just I do prefer Acela. Since I dont fly, my Acela ticket costs about the same as a flight from Baltimore to NY, it takes about the same amount of time, and i’m not getting groped by the TSA and having to take my shoes off.

  21. I was thinking to take the train some day but after I read this ..No way!! I

  22. Amtrak has a big problem with its so called conductors. They should be just called ticket checkers because that’s all they do and nothing more than a high faluting title for little service or help. Most have attitudes of grandeur and don’t care much about the customer. Any chance to harass someone and they will. Zero customer service skills and appropriateness. Same with the Amtrak Police. Stupidity is their number one game. Them and the conductors. Overhaul of the hiring process severely needed. Firings definitely mandatory. Think of how may others suffered and not been vindicated. It needs to stop. You need to report him. Otherwise they just feel nothing can cause them to lose their miserable jobs.

  23. Amtrak Conductors need firing overhaul | October 7, 2016 at 3:29 am | Reply

    Amtrak has a big problem with its so called conductors. They should be just called ticket checkers because that’s all they do and nothing more than a high faluting title for little service or help. Most have attitudes of grandeur and don’t care much about the customer. Any chance to harass someone and they will. Zero customer service skills and appropriateness. Same with the Amtrak Police. Stupidity is their number one game. Them and the conductors. Overhaul of the hiring process severely needed. Firings definitely mandatory. Think of how may others suffered and not been vindicated. It needs to stop. You need to report him. Otherwise they just feel nothing can cause them to lose their miserable jobs. 

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