Flying Not An Option … Have you thought about Amtrak?

June 10, 2014 — Our family only flies when absolutely necessary, usually to see relatives.    Recently, however, we’ve been thinking more about Amtrak because in many ways it seems like rail travel might be a safer and easier way to go compared to airline travel if you are dealing with food allergies.  For example, if someone is eating nuts around you in a train car, at least you can get up and move to a different car.

I decided to see what else I could find out about rail travel by calling an old friend of mine who is Amtrak’s spokesperson.  Marc Magliari has worked for Amtrak for many years, and he was more than willing to provide me with tips and ideas on how to make rail travel safe for food allergic passengers.

Magliari’s first piece of advice is to pay a bit extra to get a sleeper car if you’re going to be traveling overnight.  With your own sleeper car,  you’ll be less apt to be impacted by what others are eating around you.  He recommended getting a sleeper car at the end of a hallway, which is prone to less foot traffic.

Keep in mind that while Amtrak cleans the sleeper cars and provides fresh, clean sheets, you may be contending with upholstery and carpeting that may contain food proteins or nut particles from previous passengers.  In terms of ventilation, there is an air exchange on each sleeper car, so it is possible that if someone is eating nuts in a nearby room there may be some airborne risk if you happen to be in the same rail car.

If you’re traveling a shorter distance and you don’t need a sleeper car, and another passenger is eating an offending food, Magliari recommends asking the conductor if you or the other passenger can be re-located to a different car.  Magliari notes that often your request can be accommodated.

In terms of dining options, I was pleased to learn that they have all of their  menus online.  Even better, they have all the nutrition and ingredients listed, including allergens.  The only issue I have with this information is that it is a bit outdated.  The ingredients were last updated in May 2013.  If you decide to order something off of the menu, just check with the food server to make sure that none of the ingredients have changed.  They do offer vegetarian and kosher meal options as well.

If you’re like us and need to carry your own food, you should bring your food in a cooler.  Magliari says they’ll provide ice for your cooler, and they’ve got electrical outlets in the sleeper cars so you could bring along a hot plate if need be.

If there is an emergency onboard, Magliara says the train will meet EMS personnel in the next town.

If there are family allergies to pets, you should be aware that dogs and cats are now allowed on trains between Chicago and Quincy, Illinois.  The Illinois Department of Transportation asked Amtrak to try out the pilot pet program which runs through November 2, 2014.  Magliari says there will be at least one car that is pet free.

Based on this information and our own allergy and asthma profile, here’s what I would bring along on an Amtrak trip:

  • Medicine, of course, including Auvi-Q
  • Portable Nebulizer
  • Pillow, sheets and/or seat covers
  • Small air purifier (if in sleeper car)
  • Mask
  • Food/Snacks
  • Cooler and hot plate
  • Wipes

If you’ve already taken Amtrak, please let us know how you found the experience.

Safe Travels —


By the way, the cheapest time to travel Amtrak is in the fall and in January and February.  Book early, and you’ll get a better rate.  There are different types of sleeper cars based on where you’re traveling and on which rail line.  Be sure to check their website for additional information on the types of sleeper cars that are available.

You can find additional information on Amtrak’s pilot pet program by visiting






2 thoughts on “Flying Not An Option … Have you thought about Amtrak?

  1. Karen Joseph

    Hi Amy,
    Thanks for looking into this interesting alternative. Travel by rail is so fun!
    We took at trip to Glacier National Park years ago and thought we were set for the dinner aboard the train since they had Hebrew International hot dogs which met my son’s dietary needs. We discovered that they came inside the bun so he could not eat them. We traveled with back up frozen dinners but the staff said they were not allowed to heat them. They did direct us to the snack car and with some pleading, they did heat our son’s meal.
    Do you happen to know if they now allow the use of a microwave on board? Managing with a hot plate could be challenging.
    Thank you!

  2. Elizabeth Monaghan

    I’ve made several long distance trips on Amtrak with my young sons, including my 2 1/2 year old with multiple food allergies. We take the train instead of flying whenever possible.

    I find that eliminating a lot of the airport-related stress (like getting my child’s food and medicine through security) helps the trip get off to a smoother start. It’s so much nicer to arrive at the train station with my giant cooler and walk right up to our rail car.

    Because my son is allergic to so many foods, he only eats what we have prepared for him. We take extra wipes to the dining car and wipe down the seat, the window, and the table — anything his little hands will grab. The dining car attendants have always been helpful with providing hot water to mix his oatmeal, a piece of whole fruit that is safe for him to eat, etc. (With the exception of oatmeal packets, I only pack pre-cooked meals like pasta, baked sweet potatoes, steamed vegetables, and sandwiches, and keep them on ice in the cooler.)

    We always get a bedroom and go through a routine of cleaning many of the surfaces with wet wipes. The bedrooms are typically pretty clean. I pack a blanket that I can spread over the seat, if necessary. An advantage of the bedroom is running water, towels, and washcloths, which can be useful, and the porter is *usually* pretty easy to find when you need extra supplies. Plus, there’s a private toilet and shower.

    Even if you’re not traveling overnight, a roomette or bedroom might make a trip with small children more comfortable.

    We usually avoid the snack bar area, but when there’s an observation lounge, we stake out a few seats and once again wipe everything down. The kids do amazingly well watching the landscape roll by, playing with their own toy trains, talking to the conductor, and so on.

    We’ve made round-trips from New Orleans to Chicago, New York to Miami, Chicago to Los Angeles — many overnights and many miles on Amtrak with our food allergic son. Unlike flying, taking the train is a pleasurable part of the trip. The vacation starts as soon as we arrive at the station. I can’t say that about airports!

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