Amtrak, the nation's intercity passenger rail operator, has issued suggestions to make travel on its trains easier, particularly for those riding the rails to ski country.
They suggest arriving at the station at least 45 minutes before departure time, especially if you need to pick up tickets. Suburban Amtrak stops can be less crowded than downtown locations at busy times.
Amtrak personnel also advised passengers to know luggage limits. Travelers are allowed two carry-on bags; laptops, purses and briefcases do not count in the limit. You can check as many as three bags, none of which weigh more than 50 pounds. Make sure all your luggage is tagged with your name and address, inside and out.
Ski and snowboard equipment may generally only be handled as checked baggage on Amtrak trains, and not as carry-ons. Items are permitted onboard when they can be safely stowed in the exterior lockers of Superliner equipment, or onboard equipment that is specifically designed to safely and securely accommodate them.
Passengers must show valid photo identification when purchasing tickets. In fact, passengers should carry valid photo ID at all times, as it may be requested while the train is in motion.
Amtrak issued its latest schedule, with 300 daily trains on 21,000 miles of routes in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces, earlier this month. There are two such timetables issued each year.
You can request a copy of the System Timetable by calling the toll-free Amtrak phone number (1-800-872-7245) or through Amtrak.com.
Travelers headed to the snow might consider the California Zephyr, which originates in Chicago, and goes to Denver and Grand Junction, Colorado, (Vail, Aspen, and Winter Park, among others) then on to Salt Lake City (Park City, The Canyons, Deer Valley, Snowbird and Alta) Reno, Lake Tahoe, and San Francisco. You cross two mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, if you go all the way.
The Empire Builder leaves Chicago and stops at Minneapolis; White Fish, Montana; Spokane; ending at either Seattle or Portland. The Southwest Chief goes from Chicago to Los Angeles (Mammoth Mountain), with stops at Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
The Amtrak Cascades connects Portland, Oregon, with Seattle, Wash., and Vancouver, B.C.
Amtrak's Northeast Regional Service starts in Virginia and ends at Boston, where skiers and riders can connect to train or bus service to a number of spots in New Hampshire, including Lincoln (Loon Mountain) and Conway (Attitash, Cranmore, and others snow-spots).
The Maple Leaf will get you from New York to Toronto, while the Adirondack goes from New York to Montreal, with a connection to Lake Placid. The Vermonter starts in Washington, D.C. to St. Albans, just shy of the Canadian border in Vermont, with a number of stops which make Green Mountain snowsports resorts accessible. The Ethan Allen Express heads from New York City to Rutland, Vermont (Killington, Pico, and others.)
The train operator recently launched a French-language version of its Web Site, Amtrak.com. The new version is reached by clicking the Francais link on the Amtrak.com homepage, or at Francais.Amtrak.com.
The English version of Amtrak.com is already used by many Canadian visitors, who comprise the second highest source of users. Amtrak.com also is also available in Spanish and German.
"Outside of the United States, Canada is our top market in the Americas," said David Lim, Amtrak's chief marketing officer. "France is not far behind. We want all our French-speaking passengers worldwide to take advantage of the many services available to them on Francais.Amtrak.com."
He noted that ridership between Canada and the United States is on the rise, with travel to and from Vancouver, B.C., Montreal, and the Canadian border (mostly Toronto) showing impressive gains when compared to the same time period a year ago.
Travel between Vancouver and the United States is up 82.8 percent over 2009.
About 40 percent of Amtrak's ticket sales come through the Web site. Amtrak claims to be one of the first national travel providers to implement an advanced voice-activated telephone system (Julie), and electronic ticket kiosks (Quik-Trac.)
There's a special deal for skiers and snowboarders headed to Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana. Travel on the Empire Builder between Dec. 1, 2010 and March 31, 2011 and you'll receive a 20 percent discount on adult fares from a number of cities. Read OnTheSnow Midwest Editor Mike Terrell's report on his Amtrak trip to Whitefish.