Riding Amtrak long distance with a guide dog
If you are looking for a unique way to travel from point A to B, Amtrak is an awesome option. Sure, you can jump on a plane and arrive at your destination in a couple hours, but why not take the scenic route and try something new? My guide dog Fauna and I have been a team for a little over six months now, and we have been on several flights, so I thought a train ride would be a good experience for her. I looked online, and even asked many of my guide dog using friends if they had any sage words of advice for traveling via rail with a guide dog, but there was little information available. For some reason, most seem to avoid the train unless they were going on a short route.
Headed out west
I live near Denver Colorado., and decided to take the Amtrak California Zephyr, which travels from Emeryville California. to Chicago through Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno. There were several choices for accommodations ranging from a seat that was wider and more comfortable than an airplane, all the way up to a deluxe family bedroom with multiple chairs and its own restroom. I settled on the basic roomette level which included two beds, meals and a shared bathroom and shower. Travel time from Denver to California was scheduled to be 33 hours, leaving at 8am and arriving at 4pm the following day. This was not my first time on the California Zephyr, I took the trip from California to Denver about ten years earlier and had a great relaxing time. My biggest concern when booking the roomette level accommodations was that Fauna, my guide dog would have enough room on the floor for the long trip.
Fauna and I arrived at Denver’s Union Station about an hour before the train was scheduled to depart. When I booked my ticket, I requested assistance getting to the platform the train would be leaving from. When you book your ticket online, there is a whole section about passengers with disabilities, and if you need assistance. There was also a section about service animals accompanying passengers and their size. I filled out all the details about Fauna and hoped for the best. Upon entering Union Station, it was not immediately clear where I needed to check in, and there were no Amtrak employees around to inquire. From the main entrance, I followed through the terminal and down a set of escalators. A short walk straight ahead and up a second set of escalators put me in the main terminal with passengers in the large wooden seats. It should be noted that this terminal is also the lobby for the Crawford Hotel, so if you find your way there you are doing good. It was here that I found an Amtrak employee and asked where I should check in for my trip. From the escalator up, the check-in area is down the last corridor on the left before exiting to the train platforms (it is not well marked) this is also where you would check in your bags if you are traveling in coach level accommodations. I was in a sleeper car and was instructed to keep my bags with me, and my porter would put them in the racks for me when I got to the train.
The doors to the tracks are well marked and after checking in, we headed outside to find our platform. It should be noted that when I checked in, the employee did not offer nor know where I could find assistance to the proper track. I found this odd since there were so many questions about passengers with disabilities and their needs when booking the ticket. I headed outside to find somewhere to relieve Fauna before heading to the departure platform. I stopped an employee driving a luggage cart and inquired about a pet relieving area and was told there is not one. Nearly all airports have a room or area you can relieve a service animal before you board your plane, so I was a bit surprised there was no designated relief area at the Denver Union Station. Needless to say, we found an out-of-the-way area and did (and cleaned up) our business. With that taken care of, Fauna and I made our way towards the departure platforms and found an Amtrak employee to direct us to the proper location. At this point, I was a bit worried about Amtrak’s dedication to passengers with disabilities, but I’m happy to say that this all changed once we got on the train. Perhaps the Denver crew needs a bit of retraining in the passengers with disabilities department, I understand each crew is different and willingness to help can even vary from day to day depending on the crew working that shift. If anyone from Amtrak is reading this, I would be happy to come in to the Denver station and share my experience with you and even offer suggestions to make your system of dealing with passengers with visual disabilities better.
The train pulled into the station and Fauna and I were escorted to our sleeper car with a large group of other passengers. This is where we met our attendant, who took and stowed our luggage. Our attendant offered help boarding the train and then gave clear concise directions to our roomette – even going as far as watching us to make sure we were going into the right room. We had a short delay before departure due to a maintenance issue, which left us leaving the Denver station about an hour late. This was not a big deal – you can’t be in a hurry if you are taking the train. During this time, the attendant came to our room and gave clear directions to the restroom, shower and refreshment station upstairs. He also filled me in on the use of the lights and pointed out the electrical outlet in the room. He seemed a bit fearful of Fauna (who loves everyone) and told me that he had never had any experience helping a visually impaired person with a guide dog. I used the opportunity to share some facts about the guide dog and her role, and how she helps me. This seemed to put him at ease. I made it my goal to change his perception about a well-trained service animal during our time together.
We were on the lower level of the car, the roomette is small, and has seats facing each other which fold down to a bed at night (your attendant will do this for you, so you don’t need to worry about where the release latches are located.). There is a second bed which folds down from the upper wall. A small stowable table is located between the two seats. When we sat down, there were a couple of bottles of water there for us. More water, juice and coffee were located at the top of the stairs. The restrooms were located across the hall that you enter the train in, and in my car, there were two on the left and on the right was a shower (the first door) and another restroom. Even during morning hours, there was almost always a free restroom, and our car was full. If you have never been on an Amtrak train, you will find them easy to navigate with or without a guide. There isn’t a lot of opportunity to get lost and the walkways are thin and easy to trail your hand along. I found it easy to navigate the way to the restroom without Fauna, which let her relax.
I brought Fauna’s favorite dog mat (it is fluffy and thick with a waterproof bottom – I’ll put a link to it at the end of this article.) and first thing I did was unroll the mat and create a “home base” for her. Fauna is easy-going and takes most new situations in stride without stressing out. I figured the movement of the train would likely rock her to sleep for most of the trip and I was right.
Along your route will be designated “fresh air” stops, where passengers can get off the train, stretch their legs and have a smoke. I planned to give Fauna the opportunity to relieve herself at each of these stops so she would not be uncomfortable waiting for the next stop – in case there was a delay along the way. I explained my plan to our car attendant, and he was more than happy to let me know about 15 minutes before each of the fresh air stops happened. Since we left Denver a bit behind schedule, the crew did not give the whole 15 minutes time for these stops, so I quickly found it advantageous to have the harness on and be at the door for each of the stops to give Fauna maximum time outside. There were no designated relief areas are any of the stops, so we had to make due with dirt, concrete, and a couple parking lots. Make sure that your dog is comfortable relieving themselves on concrete and other hard surfaces before you head out on this kind of trip because there won’t be enough time to find grass during these stops. Most of the time we had barely enough time to do our business and find a garbage can to deposit it in before they were calling “ALL ABOARD!”.
It should be noted that during one of the rest stops, we changed to a new operating crew (not the sleeping car attendant but the conductors), the assistant conductor approached me before we loaded back onto the train and asked about the nighttime relieving needs for Fauna. She told me about the planned longer stops and wanted to determine which stop would be best for Fauna before we turned in for the night. I explained that we usually did last relief around 11pm which there was not a longer stop scheduled fort that time. She offered to extend the time at one of the stops around that time and let Fauna relieve at a non-scheduled fresh air stop. I found this awesome to offer and thanked her for her willingness to accommodate us. She checked with me later in the evening and since Fauna was fine, we decided to forego the unscheduled longer stop and just let her relieve in Salt Lake City which was scheduled for a 20-minute stop. Good job Amtrak and good job on the assistant conductor for considering the needs of the passenger’s companion animals.
The dining car was located two cars behind ours. To get there, we had to navigate a set of very skinny stairs and cross between two cars. Fauna and I practice stairs often and she had no problem with the tight quarters and twisting staircase, which was the only way to get from the bottom floor of the car we were in, to the top level. Make sure your guide is well-versed in stair navigation before you attempt this type of trip. Traveling between cars is the most dangerous part of being on a train. At the end of each car, there is a door with a large push-button to exit. Once the door is open, you will find yourself in a short breezeway with another door with an identical button located on the other side directly in front of you. The area between the two cars shifts side-to-side as the train rolls down the tracks, creating a dangerous toe-pinch situation for people and especially guides. This is a good opportunity to use your dog booties for protection, or, have your guide jump over the gap between the cars to ensure they don’t get pinched. I opened the door and held Fauna back while reaching across to the other door button. Once the second door was open, I had her jump across and never had any problems. The path is thin enough to allow easy navigation and hand-trailing along the wall.
Breakfasts are served from 6:30 to 10am on the California Zephyr and do not require reservations. Once you enter the dining car, the attendants will seat you, so just wait at the door, making sure you are far enough in to avoid your guide’s tail getting closed in the door. The seating is communal, and each table holds four people. Since I was sitting with my guide, I found that the meal crew would often seat me, then ask people as they came in if they minded sitting with a dog at the table. My meal companions ranged from no-one to a couple traveling on the train for the first time, to a single guy that loved dogs and insisted on me sitting at his table. Be prepared to interact with strangers and to talk about your dog and the awesome job he or she does to keep you safe. I used the opportunity to talk about Guide Dogs for the Blind (where Fauna came from) and the awesome services they offer to their clients. I always take an opportunity to educate the public about guide dogs and their important role in society. Most are shocked at how well-behaved guides are, and I genuinely believe that Fauna loves her role as an ambassador of good dogs everywhere.
Lunch and Dinner are by reservation, and the meal car attendant or your sleeping car attendant will be happy to set up a reservation for you around your desired eating time. Meals were included with the sleeping car reservations, and before the meal the attendant would bring a small sheet of paper to sign with your car and room number. I used a signature guide to sign and the attendant filled out the rest for me each time. Overall the food is fine, cafeteria-style food and I found the burgers to be very good. The meal car attendant was happy to read me the options off the menu, as a braille or large print menu option was not available. I even ordered off the children’s menu for lunch because a hot dog sounded good.
During one meal service, the funniest moment of the trip happened. I had set a 7pm dinner reservation and arrived about five minutes ahead of my scheduled time, fully expecting to wait until my table was ready. I stood at the door and waited and could hear whistling. A short time later a gentleman said come on down to my table and bring your beautiful pup with you. It was at this point that I realized that the meal car attendant was whistling and gesturing for me to come to the table, when I approached him, I politely asked him if he was trying to wave the blind guy into his seat. He was noticeably embarrassed, and we all had a good laugh. I think he may have learned something that day, as I made sure to handle the situation with tact and humor rather than being upset which many I know would be.
With a 60-pound guide dog in the room with me, there was not enough room for the bottom beds to be folded down and still give her room to stretch out, so I had the attendant fold down the upper bunk and let Fauna have the whole floor area to herself. If you are entering the room, there are small stairs against the wall to your left which allow you to easily enter the top bunk. The toughest part of the upper bunk sleeping arrangement is the band which hooks from the bed to the ceiling to keep you from rolling (or being jostled out) of bed. Once you get the hang of clipping this band into the ceiling all is good. There is an air conditioner slide control on the ceiling, which adjusts the amount of AC allowed into the room through the roof vent. I found it warm during the night and just opened the vent all the way. Exiting the bed for a nighttime restroom break was easy, and I highly recommend bringing a pair of flip-flops with you to keep your feet safe. I slept surprisingly well and so did Fauna.
The car I was in had three restrooms, all had a toilet in the corner (diagonal) with a sink and garbage can to the right or left of the door depending on which side of the train you were on. The restrooms were clean and well-kept during the entire trip. The toughest part was finding the flusher button which is to the left or right of the toilet on the “vanity” the sink was located in. Beware there is an attendant call button in there as well, so if you have no vision, be sure to get a tour of the restrooms from the sleeping car attendant prior to using them.
Taking a shower while the train is moving is quite an adventure even if you have full vision, so prepare yourself. The shower in my car was located on the bottom floor near the bathrooms and was the first door on the right. Towels and bar soap are provided and were located on the shelf to the left as you walked in the door. There is enough room for a guide to accompany you, but I chose to leave her in the room as I assumed the floor would be wet. The water controls were easily figured out and the water was warm the whole time I was in the shower. The showerhead is one of those ones that can be unhooked so be sure you know where it is pointing before you turn it on. There is a large bag on the floor for dirty towels in the shower room, and I suggest bringing your own shampoo as none is provided.
The cost of meals is included with a sleeper room accommodation, but since I was with a guide dog and taking up two spaces at the table, I happily tipped five dollars for each meal. I also tipped $25 to the attendant in the sleeping car. I think at least $20 a night is good, especially if they are taking good care of you. If you are a regular reader of my site, you will know that I believe in tipping well to pay it forward for the next visually impaired passenger. I would have happily tipped the employees helping me to find my departure platform at the Denver station, but alas that was not offered.
As I mentioned earlier, my sleeping car attendant was somewhat fearful of Fauna when we first boarded the train. Throughout the trip, our attendant learned about Fauna, and got to know her during our short time with him. He told me stories of small barking, biting dogs that were accompanying passengers in the guise of a service dog. He had never dealt with a legitimate guide dog and told me that his perception of guide dogs was forever changed after spending time with Fauna. This made me feel good, and I think it is the responsibility of guide dog and other well-trained service animal handlers to demonstrate that service animals can be a useful and helpful companion to a traveler, rather than a barking, biting nuisance. At the end of the trip, I gave our attendant a high-value treat to give Fauna, which is a high honor since I am the only one who feeds or treats her.
33 hours is a long time to get to any destination. If you are brave enough to travel from California to Chicago, the whole trip will take you 48 hours, and that doesn’t account for delays. I took the time to listen to some audiobooks and write for my blog. I also took some photos out of the window (all the images in this article are from my trip), and just enjoy watching the world go by. Some Amtrak trains offer free wi-fi, but that was not available on the California Zephyr. Most of the time traveling through the Rocky Mountains, you will also not have cell service, so plan accordingly. Bring a good book, or head down to the observation car and meet some new people. Everyone is making the choice to take the slow road to their destination just like you, and I have to say I have met some of the most interesting people while traveling via rail.
At the end of the day, as you can see from this photo Fauna was ready to get off the train and was tired. After our train journey, we went on to see my son graduate from college, and then took a car trip to Las Vegas to celebrate. Keep an eye out for articles on those adventures.
I highly recommend taking the train. It is a different kind of adventure and it will mean so much more when you arrive at your destination. I think making the trip part of the adventure is something everyone should experience, and with the tips and tricks here in this article, hopefully you will give it a shot.
Do’s and Don’ts
Do bring a good book and take time to relax and watch the world go by.
Do take time to head to the observation car and meet some new people.
Do bring some playing cards and relax in the bar car for a drink.
Do remember to tip the people who are helping you. This will make your journey smoother.
Do plan ahead for relieving stops for your guide.
Do remember to bring new toys or bones for your guide to keep them busy on the journey.
Do remember to bring high-value treats in case your guide gets stressed by something along the way.
Do always pick up after your guide on rest stops.
Do remember to give your guide plenty of water on the trip.
Do remember to bring shampoo and other toiletries for the showers.
Do bring some snacks in your bag for you and your guide.
Do bring your change of clothes for the next morning.
Do bring sleeping wear for nighttime.
Don’t be in a hurry.
Don’t worry about sitting with people you don’t know at dinner. Just talk to people, they are nice.
Don’t worry about things you could be doing other than sitting on the train, enjoy your time.
Stuff to bring
Tie Down cables – if you guide has troubles sitting in the room with you with the door open. It will get stuffy if you keep the door closed all the time. Fauna was fine during my trip, but I did have a couple tie downs with me just in case.
Familiar blanket or bed – I spread this out as soon as we entered our room to make a home base for Fauna. This helped her a lot and she spent the bulk of time during the trip napping.
New bone – Fauna loves new bones, especially if they are flavored. I use Nylabone and they last forever. There is something special about a new bone for guides.
Food – I portioned out my guide’s food in baggies, so when dinner time came, it was easy to feed with no measuring.
Waste bags – I always carry them in my bait bag, make sure to bring enough for the entire trip even accounting for more defecating than usual due to a stressed-out guide.
Hand sanitizer – This speaks for itself, but it is really useful for all the areas on the train with where people are touching like the big buttons that open the doors between cars and bathrooms.
Collapsible bowl – A folding bowl for food and water fits easily into your bag and makes feeding and water times easier.
Clorox wipes – for the restrooms and your room when you arrive. Trust me.
Power cables – Don’t forget your charging cables for your phone, tablet or laptop.
Audiobooks – Sitting and watching the world go by with your nose in a book defeats the purpose of being on the train, bring a few audiobooks and listen while you watch out the window.
Tipping money – for the people helping you, pay it forward for the next visually impaired passenger after you.
Flip-flops – for the shower, trips to the bathroom at night, and the morning when you get up. Keep your feet safe.
Sleeping attire – Don’t forget your jammies. If you are in coach, everyone will be wearing them so don’t be shy about getting comfortable for the night hours.
Money for snacks and drinks – There is a snack car with all sorts of yummy snacks as well as a full bar.
Here is an Amazon link for Fauna’s favorite mat:
I hope you found this article interesting and helpful! I love to hear from my readers, you can catch up with me on social media, if you have anything to add to this article, feel free to drop me a message.
Charity Work: http://www.bodyscapes.photography/
Travel & Review Site: http://www.blindtravels.com/
Instagram and Twitter: @nedskee