How to take your bike on Amtrak

After biking to DC, I needed a way to get my bike back to New York. There were a few options:

  • Ship it (FedEx Ground would be best)
  • Take it with me on a bus
  • Take it with me on a train
  • Have someone drive it back

Since I was already taking the train myself, I figured that’d be the easiest and most inexpensive way to do so. I was right about the latter, but not about the former.

While Amtrak attempts to explain its bicycle rules, they fail miserably.

Q: I have a bike. I’m taking a train. Can the bike with me?
A: Sometimes.

There are four different situations you might be in:

  1. You cannot take the bike on the train with you
  2. You can take the bike on board the train with you
  3. You can take the bike on board the train with you as checked baggage
  4. You can take the train, and the bike will go as checked baggage on a different train

Bikes on board (walk the bike the train with you)

You can do this on several of Amtrak’s line: Amtrak Cascades, Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin, Pacific Surfliner, Downstate Illinois Services, Blue Water (trains 364 and 365 only), Missouri River Runner, Downeaster
(BRK, POR and BON stations only) and Piedmont.

For those of you (like me) unfamiliar with Amtrak’s naming scheme, here’s a decoder ring:

  • Cascades is the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington)
  • Capitol Corridor takes you from the San Francisco Bay area to the Sacaramento area (California)
  • San Joaquin runs through California’s Central Valley
  • Pacific Surfliner takes you from Los Angeles to San Diego (California)
  • Downstate Illinois takes you from Chicago to other parts of Illinois
  • Blue Water is code for “around Michigan”
  • Missouri River Runner takes you St. Louis to Kansas City
  • Downeaster runs from Boston to Portland, Maine
  • Piedmont means Raleigh-to-Charlotte

Bikes as checked baggage (bike in a box)

In order for you to to check your bike as baggage, both the arrival and departure stations must offer checked baggage service. Unfortunately, Amtrak doesn’t provide this list in a useful format. There’s a list of stations and a search tool. Ugh. How inconvenient.

I put together a script to collect this data from the Amtrak site.

Amtrak stations with checked baggage service are: ABQ, ADE, ALB, ALX, ALY, ANA, ATL, AUS, BAL, BED, BEL, BFD, BHM, BNL, BOS, BUF, CBS, CDL, CHI, CHM, CHS, CHW, CIN, CLB, CLE, CLT, CRB, CSW, CTL, CVS, CYN, DAL, DAV, DEN, DFB, DLD, DNC, EDM, ELP, EMY, EUG, EVR, FAR, FAY, FLG, FLO, FNO, FTL, FTW, FUL, GFK, GFV, GJT, GRO, GRV, GSC, HAS, HAV, HCH, HKL, HMD, HNF, HOL, HOS, HUN, IND, JAN, JAX, KCY, KFS, KGG, KIS, LAJ, LAK, LAX, LKL, LMY, LNK, LRK, LSE, LVW, LYH, MCD, MEI, MEM, MIA, MKE, MOD, MOT, MRC, MSP, MTZ, NHV, NOL, NWK, NYP, OKJ, OKL, OMA, ORL, OSD, OXN, PDX, PGH, PHL, PRC, PSC, PTB, PVD, RGH, RMT, RNO, ROC, RVR, SAC, SAN, SAS, SAV, SBA, SBG, SBY, SDY, SEA, SFC, SJC, SKN, SLC, SLM, SLO, SNA, SNS, SOB, SPG, SPI, SPK, SQA, STL, STP, SYR, TAC, TCL, TOL, TPA, TUS, TWO, TXA, UCA, VAC, VAN, VNC, WAS, WFH, WIL, WIN, WLN, WOR, WPB, WPK, WTH and WTN.

Just because there’s checked baggage between your departure and arrival stations doesn’t mean you get to take the bike on board with you. Not all trains have a baggage car. If your train doesn’t have a baggage car, your checked baggage will be placed on the next train that does, and you can come back to your arrival Amtrak station to retrieve your bike.

As an example, the only WAS-NYP train with a baggage car is the 10pm train.

If returning to your arrival station to pick up your bike is too inconvenient, you can always show up at your departure station the day before, check your bike, and collect it when you arrive.

Actually checking the bike

You can’t just hand the bike over to the baggage clerk as-is—the bike must be in a bike box. Amtrak will sell you one for $15. Most bike shops will give you one for free, as they throw them out.

Once you have the bike and the bike box, you need to pack it up. There are many YouTube videos demonstrating how to do this. Typically, you’ll need a pedal wrench and a set of allen keys. If you have bolt-on skewers, bring along a 15mm wrench.

After the bike is boxed up, bring it to the Amtrak ticket counter. The clerk will take your contact information, charge you $10, and hand you a receipt and a claim check. Next, tape the necessary paperwork to the box (Amtrak should loan you tape) and write your name and phone number on the box with a sharpie (just in case).

Finally, walk around the corner to the spot where you drop off checked baggage, and hand your boxed bike to the clerk.

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