Growing up in a rural area not served by train transportation, I never gave Amtrak much thought. I have now taken three different trips via Amtrak this fall, including transporting myself and my bike back to Minneapolis after my trip to Winona.
Here is what Amtrak will tell you about taking your bike on the train. This post details what they don’t tell you, based on my own experience and some tips from friends I gathered in preparation for my own trip.
A few different routes let you bring bikes on board, but most don’t. You’ll probably be putting your bike in a box and checking it as luggage. You will pay for a ticket that allows checked luggage, pay $10 for that luggage to be a bicycle, and most likely pay $15 for a bike box. Boxes don’t come with tape, and the station may or may not have some on hand, so bring your own packing tape.
Apparently the stations are required to keep 5 boxes on hand, but like train schedules, things don’t always go as planned. Once you have your ticket, call your departing station a week in advance to let them know that you’re coming and will need a box. Just in case.
Amtrak bike boxes are not the same as the ones your local bike shop has laying around. Bike manufacturers ship bikes as separate components – frame, wheels, bars, etc. all disassembled – so these boxes are generally much too small for a functional, put-together bike. Amtrak bike boxes are meant to accommodate bikes with much less disassembling. There is a chance that there will be used ones available at the station (you’d need a mini-van to take it with you and most people don’t), in which case Amtrak will give them to you for free! I did not encounter this on my trip.
The bike boxes are fairly tall and wide but very narrow. To get a bike to fit you will take off the pedals and loosen the stem to turn it sideways (independently of the front wheel). If the bike has drop bars, you will also have to loosen the bar end of the stem so that the bars drop down. You need to practice doing this with the tools you intend to use before you go. You should know how long it will take you to get your bike set and tape up the box, then add time to check in and buy a box from customer service and at least 15 minutes for the Amtrak employees to check and load the box before your train departs. The Winona, Minnesota station recommended that I come an hour before my train was scheduled to leave. Feel free to call your individual station to ask about timing.
You will need to remove all other items from your bike before sealing up the box. The Amtrak employee I encountered wanted me to remove my water bottles from their cages but said nothing about the sleeping pad lashed to my back rack. Pedals can go in the box with the bike, but I didn’t like the idea of my pedals banging around in the box with my bike, so I threw them in a plastic bag and carried them on the train (you’ll want the plastic bag and something to wipe your hands on, because the pedals will be greasy).
At this point, you will tape up your box and write your name and phone number and address all over it, because this box has your favorite inanimate object in the whole world inside of it.
Upon arrival, find baggage claim and wait for your bike box. Make sure that it is yours. You will cut open the tape (hope that multi-tool has a blade) and leave the box at the station because unless a moving van is meeting you at the station, there is no other practical way to transport such a thing.
If you have a folding bike, the process should be considerably easier (at least after Elly Blue publicly shamed Amtrak for not knowing their own policies).
To recap, you need:
- A pedal wrench or whatever tool will remove your pedals (mine use an allen or hex wrench). If you have no idea how to take your pedals off, have a mechanic or a good repair manual show you how. Helpful hint: one of them is probably reverse-threaded.
- An allen wrench in the correct size to loosen your stem. If you have a quill stem, it helps to have something like a hammer to hit it with. If this sounds scary, have someone show you.
- An allen wrench in the correct size to loosen your handlebars (the other end of the stem)
- A grease rag because your hands will get greasy when you take your pedals off (if they don’t, you probably need to do more preventative maintenance).
- Packing tape and a permanent marker for sealing and marking the box.
- Something to cut open the box when you get there.