top of page

Ultimate Guide To Food And Drinks On Amtrak Trains For Coach Passengers In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog

Ultimate Food & Drink Guide for Amtrak Trains

You’ve booked your Amtrak train and it’s a long ride, so what are you going to eat and drink? In this article, we’re giving you a full breakdown of what to expect for food and drinks on Amtrak trains, whether your ride is 4 hours or 46, and what you are and are not allowed to bring with you.


Amtrak Coach Class vs Sleeper Cars

The first thing to understand about food and drinks on Amtrak trains is that the rules and experience are different depending on what kind of ticket you have booked. For coach class, no food or drinks are included, but for sleeper car passengers (aka those traveling in a roomette or other private room), all meals are included, and some drinks too.

We booked our month-long train trip across the United States and back using the Amtrak USA Rail Pass, which meant we were traveling in coach the entire trip, even for the longest route we took, which was 46 hours on the Empire Builder traveling from Chicago to Seattle. With the USA Rail Pass, you are booked in coach and you cannot pay to upgrade to a private room, but if you are booking an individual train ride, then you can choose which option works best for you. Granted, the private room options will cost 3-6x the amount of a coach ticket if you’re traveling solo, and are still at least twice as much for a couple, so don’t get too excited about it being a great deal because your meals will be included.

If you ask us, the private rooms are absurdly overpriced on Amtrak and coach seats are just fine. The exact type of coach seats will depend on which route you’re taking, but they will always be more comfortable than coach on an airplane. We talk about what the seats are like in each route review we do.

For sleeper car passengers, there are 2 types of dining, and which you get depends on which route you take. More information on that can be found in the Dining Car section of this article. These meals are served in a dedicated dining car or through complimentary room service.

Otherwise, there is a cafe car on every train that is open to ALL passengers, regardless of where you’re sitting. For coach passengers, this is the ONLY option for food and drinks on the train; you are not allowed in the exclusive dining car and you do not have access to buy meals from the dining car a la carte.

Observation Car On Amtrak Trains Coast Starlight In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

On double-decker trains like the Coast Starlight, California Zephyr, and Empire Builder, the cafe car is the same as the observation car: observation deck on top, cafe on the 1st floor. The stairs you will need to traverse are narrow and steep, so be careful, especially while the train is moving and especially if you’re carrying hot beverages. If you’re unable to go up and down the stairs, Amtrak employees can help you get what you need (because eating is important, you know).

The good news is that, whether you’re in coach class or in a sleeper car, you ARE allowed to bring your own food and non-alcoholic drinks onboard. With Amtrak’s generous luggage allowance, it’s easy to bring aboard a small cooler with enough to get you through the longer routes.

Important Note: Due to federal health department regulations, Amtrak cannot store or prepare any food that passengers bring onboard, nor are there any self-service facilities, such as refrigerators or microwaves.

You Can Take Food On Amtrak Trains Beginner's Guide To Food And Drinks Review For Coach Passengers In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog
Stop by a cafe on the way to your train and pick up food to take onboard with you! It will be SO much better than the food on the train! These are from Zeitgeist Coffee in Seattle.

Bring Food with You

Yes, you can bring your own food on Amtrak trains, regardless of where you’re sitting, but if you’re sitting in coach class, this policy is going to be your best friend.

The onboard cafe is fine, but the food they serve isn’t great when you’re looking for an actual meal instead of just snacks. We carried a food bag with us filled with our own snacks and foods that wouldn’t go bad without refrigeration, such as:

  • Cured meats - check the labels! You can often find salami that does not have to be refrigerated.

  • Fruit

  • Crackers

  • Chips

  • Protein/granola bars

  • Nuts/trail mix

  • Jerky

In addition to our snacks, we always grabbed a sandwich to take on the train with us for our first and sometimes second meal. Whether it was pre-packaged from the local supermarket or from the sandwich shop at the train station, it was fresher and/or cheaper than buying meals from the cafe car.

This isn’t to sh*t on the cafe car though, because you need to have that onboard and they are super helpful for the last couple meals on those super-long train rides when you just want a hot meal. More info about the specifics of the cafe car are in the next section of this article. The point is that you should absolutely use a food bag as one of your personal/carry-on items when you board a train that is any longer than 6 hours. At least that way, you won’t be forced to spend money in the cafe car when you get hungry.

During our month-long train trip, we saw a few people bringing on tiny coolers as a carry-on, and we thought that was super smart! After our trip, we purchased a soft, collapsible cooler to use as a beer cooler for camping, but we realize now that it would have been perfect for our train trip too. Do yourself a favor and get one, plus a couple of freezer packs, and you’ll be golden on the trains.

Just to cover our asses, I need to tell you that Amtrak technically has a policy that you can only eat food you bring onboard with you at your seats, so not in the observation car. We were unaware of this policy during our trip and we ate almost all of our meals at the tables in the observation car and no one ever said we weren’t allowed to, so it’s either a new rule or one that they don’t consistently enforce.

One other quick, funny story: we’ve heard of other coach passengers pre-ordering pizza from a local shop and having it delivered directly to the train platform during one of the fresh air breaks, and then being the envy of all the passengers. While it can be a good idea, let’s also acknowledge that there are a lot of things that could go wrong with this plan, such as the train being delayed or cutting the fresh air break short, or your delivery driver being late and missing you altogether. But if you can get the timing just right, awesome!

Amtrak Cafe Car Menu On Coast Starlight Food And Drinks On Amtrak Trains In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog

Cafe Car Food in Coach on Amtrak

The cafe car is the only option for coach passengers to buy food on Amtrak trains, and sleeper car passengers are welcomed to it as well if you want a snack between your meals or additional beverages.

However, the food… well, let’s just say it’s not great. It will get the job done when you’re hungry, but think of it more like a concession stand instead of a cafe. All of the hot food is simply reheated in a microwave to order; there is no kitchen.

The menu and prices will differ depending on what route you’re taking, but you can view current menus on this page of Amtrak’s website. Here are some of the typical options:


  • Breakfast sandwich

  • Oatmeal

  • Egg bites

  • Bagel with cream cheese

  • Blueberry muffin

Lunch and Dinner:

  • Cheeseburger

  • All beef hot dog

  • Mac & cheese

  • Cheese stromboli

  • Turkey and cheese sandwich

  • Cup of Noodles


  • Cheese and crackers

  • Hummus with veggies

  • Chips

  • Nuts

  • Cookies

  • Candy

You can expect to pay between $3-$7 for a breakfast item, around $6-$8 for lunch and dinner items, and anywhere from $2-$8 for snacks.

We didn’t eat many foods from the cafe car because we always brought our own food, but for the last meal or two on our longer train rides, we were thankful the cafe was there for a hot meal. Adam tried the cheeseburger, and I the hot dog, and they were both just fine. It kept us from going hungry, but I wouldn’t call it “good” food. The hummus is a nice addition though when you just want something a bit more fresh than all the salty, processed foods.

Drinks are also served from the cafe car, which we’ll discuss in the drinks section below.

There are no set hours for the cafe car, but it does close periodically so the attendant can take a break (and go to bed, on those long train rides). On most of the trains we rode, the attendant made announcements over the intercom about 10 minutes before they closed down for a break so passengers could run down and grab something real quick, and then they made another announcement when they reopened. They generally let us know well in advance what time the cafe would be closing for the night as well. If you don’t hear the announcements, feel free to ask.

The cafe car is almost always going to be ahead of you if you’re sitting in coach class or behind you if you’re in a sleeper car/private room. On the double-decker trains, it’s on the lower level of the observation car.

Cafe Car On Amtrak Trains California Zephyr Food And Drinks For Coach Passengers Guide In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog
Cafe Car Seating on the Amtrak California Zephyr

Dining Car for Sleeper Car Passengers on Amtrak

If you’re in a sleeper car, you will be provided with 3 meals a day, so all you would need to bring with you are snacks unless you have specific dietary restrictions. There are 2 versions of dining on Amtrak trains - Flexible Dining and Traditional Dining - and which you get depends on which route you take.

Flexible Dining

Flexible Dining is the less desirable of the two options, but still better than just the options in the cafe car. The food for Flexible Dining is reheated food (from frozen, if we had to guess), but you get a lot more options than you would in the cafe car, plus it’s full-service. Specific selections vary by route, but you can view the current menus on this page of Amtrak’s website.

Flexible Dining is offered on the following routes:

  • Lake Shore Limited

  • Capitol Limited

  • Cardinal

  • City of New Orleans

  • Crescent

  • Silver Service

  • Texas Eagle between Chicago and San Antonio (then it switches to Traditional Dining between San Antonio and Los Angeles)

The nice thing about Flexible Dining is that you don’t have to make reservations for the dining car; you can just show up when you’re ready to eat, which is especially nice on long train rides, as you can just go with the flow and not have to look at the clock. There are specific hours for each meal though, listed at the bottom of this page on Amtrak’s website. You also get unlimited soft drinks onboard Flexible Dining trains too!

Traditional Dining

Traditional Dining is the best food you’ll find on Amtrak trains, but that doesn’t mean it’s spectacular. Although we don’t have personal experience with it yet, I’ve seen a number of its meals in my research, and it looks like low-level-diner quality. BUT Amtrak does say they are “chef-prepared meals”, so it’s still way better than the reheated foods in Flexible Dining and the cafe. Plus the dinner is 3 courses!

Specific menus vary by route, but you can view sample menus on this page of Amtrak’s website. Traditional Dining is offered on the following routes:

Reservations are required to eat lunch and dinner in the dining car with Traditional Dining, but you also have the option of room service. You’ll make these arrangements with your room attendant once you are onboard the train.

With both Flexible Dining and Traditional Dining, you are able to either eat in the dining car or in your private room, and you get room service free of charge. Another big bonus: you get 1 complimentary alcoholic beverage with dinner!

Just to be extra clear: coach car passengers are NOT able to eat in the dining car and are NOT able to purchase meals from the dining car. The cafe car is the only option for coach passengers.

Although having the meals provided onboard Amtrak trains is obviously a big plus, in my opinion, it does not warrant the ridiculously steep price increase from coach class. Maybe someday we’ll try it out, if we rack up enough reward points or if Amtrak wants to sponsor us 😉, but otherwise, I suspect that we are going to stick to coach class.

Pro Tip: Sign up for Amtrak Guest Rewards to earn points just like airline miles that you can use for future travel, but make sure the name on your account is exactly how it’s spelled on your ID.

Breakfast On Amtrak Cafe Car Guide For Coach Passengers Food And Drinks Coffee And Donut Holes In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

Drinks on Amtrak Trains

Now for the fun part… drinks! One of the nicest benefits of taking Amtrak trains instead of driving is that you can really enjoy the views with a drink in your hand, so take advantage of it!

Non-Alcoholic Drinks

All passengers are allowed to bring their own non-alcoholic beverages onboard Amtrak trains, which can really add up in savings over the course of a long trip. I really enjoy hot tea, so I brought my own individually-wrapped tea bags and asked the cafe car attendant for a cup of hot water, and it made a huge difference for me on the trains, being able to sip on my specialty teas in the morning instead of the generic stuff they sell in the cafe car. If you don’t mind instant coffee, you could do the same thing with a cup of hot water.

On that same note, if you bring your own sodas, you can ask the cafe car attendant for a cup of ice at no charge.

Pro Tip: Cafe car attendants accept tips, so if you’re asking for a free item such as hot water or a cup of ice, consider tipping $1 instead.

In the cafe car, they serve:

  • Coffee

  • Tea (hot or iced)

  • Sodas

  • Juice

  • Milk

  • Energy drinks

  • Hot chocolate

  • Bottled water

Expect to pay around $3 per drink in the cafe car, but remember that sleeper car passengers on trains with Flexible Dining also receive unlimited soft drinks on their train rides.

Drinks On Amtrak Trains Cafe Car Guide For Coach Passengers In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

Alcohol on Amtrak Trains

That’s right; you can DRINK-drink on Amtrak trains too! Of course, don’t get super drunk. They can and will kick you off the train if you’re belligerent or disturbing other guests.

Coach class passengers are NOT allowed to bring their own alcohol (which we definitely did not do 😉), but it is available for purchase in the cafe car.

Sleeper car passengers ARE allowed to bring their own alcohol, but it can only be consumed in your private room. This means that, unfortunately, you cannot take your own wine to dinner in the dining car, nor a nice scotch to the observation car. However, your first alcoholic drink with dinner is complimentary, so you can still enjoy a glass of wine in the dining car at no extra cost. Again, this does NOT apply to coach car passengers.

Coach passengers must purchase their alcoholic beverages at the cafe car, and sleeper car passengers are also welcomed to do so. These drinks can be consumed anywhere on the train.

Specific drink selections and prices vary by route, but sample menus are on this page of Amtrak’s website. You can expect to find small selections of:

  • Beer (bottled and canned)

  • Wine (single-serving bottles)

  • Hard seltzers

  • Liquor (whiskey, rum, vodka, and gin)

  • Pre-made cocktails (such as a margarita or Moscow mule)

You can also ask the cafe car attendant for something like a whiskey coke and they will pour it for you, without you having to purchase the soda separately.

Water on Amtrak Trains

This was a big question I had going into our month-long trip across the country and back: “Is water provided on Amtrak trains?” The answer is YES.

Adam and I have big, refillable water bottles we take with us everywhere. I have had serious problems with dehydration in the past (I’ve been hospitalized for it twice), but I’ve noticed that when I bring my own water bottle, I drink WAY more water, so this thing goes with me literally everywhere now.

At the top of the stairs in the coach cars, you’ll find water stations where you can refill your water bottle. Sometimes they’ll provide small cups at the water stations for a quick drink before you go sit back down, but not always, so you should absolutely bring a bottle with you. However, we also had a hard time filling ours, because the water spout (which is built into the train) has a rather small opening, so we had to angle the bottles weird to get them in there and could never quite fill them up all the way. Inevitably, water would spill out onto the floor and we would just have to clean it up the best we could with the tissues we had or with paper towels from the restrooms downstairs.

We drink filtered tap water at home, and we thought this water tasted just fine. If you’re super picky about the water you drink, then I suggest you bring your own. The cafe car sells bottled water, but it will cost you $2-$4 per bottle.

Los Angeles Union Station Food At Homebound Brew Haus Amtrak Station In The Great Wide Travel Blog
Eat right before you get on the train. Most major stations have great options, like Homebound Brew Haus at Los Angeles Union Station

2-Day Meal Plan

For those really long train rides where you don’t break up the route, it’s in your best interest to pre-plan your meals, because eating every meal from the cafe car will be boring and more expensive than it’s worth. Take advantage of Amtrak’s policy that allows you to bring your own food onboard!

For reference, here’s an example of how we would meal plan for 2 straight days on the train:

Day 1

  • Breakfast: Breakfast sandwich or bagel and coffee from a local cafe. Buy on our way to the train station and eat onboard.

  • Lunch: Sandwich, chips, fruit, and soda brought onboard. Pick something up from a local supermarket or grab something from a sandwich shop at the train station before boarding.

  • Dinner: Cured meats that don’t need refrigeration, cheese, crackers, and nuts, all brought onboard. Buy at the local supermarket before boarding.

Pro Tip: Check the labels on cured meats like salami at the supermarket. If it doesn’t say something like “Keep Refrigerated” then it will stay fine at room temperature.

Day 2

  • Breakfast: Protein bars and fruit we brought onboard, plus coffee from the cafe car

  • Lunch: More cured meat, crackers, chips, nuts, and beef jerky. Consider getting hummus from the cafe car for a fresh option.

  • Dinner: Buy entrees from the cafe car, such as a cheeseburger or hot dog, and pair with whatever remains of the chips, nuts, fruit, and other snacks we brought onboard.

It’s important to note that this whole meal plan is done with just 1 food bag for the 2 of us, and it wasn’t even insulated. Now that we know we can take a tiny cooler onboard with some freezer packs to keep food cold, it opens up a whole range of other possibilities, like bringing our own hummus and more cheese because we can keep it cold and keep it from going bad while we’re onboard. Now that we know this, we may even be able to get away with not buying any meals from the cafe car, at all!

Amtrak Cafe For Coach Passengers Guide To Food And Drinks Review In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

Dietary Restrictions

Passengers with strict dietary restrictions, such as a food allergy or needing gluten-free, should plan to bring all the food they will need onboard. Here’s our easy-to-read breakdown of Amtrak’s guidelines based on several common dietary restrictions, but you can also view it in their language on this page of their website.

Vegan: Limited quantities of vegan meals are available in the cafe and on trains with Flexible Dining for sleeper car passengers and no advance notice is required. However, on trains with Traditional Dining, advance notice is required. Call 1-800-872-7245 at least 72 hours prior to departure.

Gluten-Free: Amtrak does not offer food that is guaranteed to be gluten-free. While they do have some snack options that are naturally gluten-free (such as hummus with veggies or salads on some routes), they can’t guarantee that there hasn’t been cross-contamination. You should plan to bring all of your own food.

Nut Allergies: Although Amtrak offers plenty of options that do not contain nuts, they cannot guarantee that there won’t be cross-contamination or that you won’t be exposed by fellow passengers around you. Make sure you have all necessary medical equipment with you at all times, such as an EpiPen. For life-threatening allergies, Amtrak recommends you bring all your own food.

Kosher: You must request and reserve kosher meals in advance, and it may require an additional fee. To reserve your kosher meal, call 1-800-872-7245 at least 72 hours before departure.

Amtrak also advises to “Plan for Contingencies” because trains are sometimes delayed in receiving food supplies, and therefore onboard options may become limited. There were certainly times on our trips when they sold out of a number of popular items, but it wasn’t a problem for us. If your options are already limited due to dietary restrictions though, then you could end up in trouble.

Amtrak Observation Car Tables With Cup Holders For Drinks On Amtrak Trains In The Great Wide Amtrak Blog

Quick Reference Guide


Included in Your Fare

Coach: None

Sleeper car passengers: 3 meals per day and 1 alcoholic beverage per day. Some routes also offer free soft drinks.

What You Can Bring with You

Everyone: Food and non-alcoholic beverages

Sleeper car passengers: Alcoholic beverages to be consumed in your private room only

Pro Tip

Get a small, collapsible cooler and some freezer packs to use as one of your carry-on items for long train trips!

Cafe Car

Open to all passengers. Serves a small selection of items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus lots of snacks. Has lots of non-alcoholic drink options and limited selection of alcohol.

Dining Car

Open to sleeper car passengers only. Not available on all routes. Some routes have Flexible Dining with reheated food and other routes have Traditional Dining with “chef-prepared meals”.

Our Verdict

The cost to upgrade to a private room on Amtrak is STEEP, and not worth it even when you consider that your meals are included. You’re allowed to bring your own food, so do it! It will be better food and probably cheaper too.

Pin this article!

Phoebe Meador Is A Travel Writer For In The Great Wide Amtrak Blog


In The Great Wide Travel Lifestyle Blog Phoebe and Adam at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh, Scotland

We’re Phoebe & Adam
the couple behind
In The Great Wide!

This is our travel lifestyle blog where we not only share stories from our adventures while traveling the world, but also our thorough research of the places we visit & practical advice on how to save money so you can travel more too!

Featured Blog Posts

Recent Blog Posts


bottom of page