The free Amtrak service that makes U.S. train travel easier

How learning to ask for the right kind of help guaranteed a better boarding experience

The first time we traveled via Amtrak from New York to Boston with Eliza, she was nine weeks old and we could scarcely imagine a more terrible boarding experience.

We knew better than to expect Penn Station to be an exemplar of peace and calm, or anything other than its usual elbow-sharpening exercise in competitive escalator descension. But how about when you throw in a couple of bags, autumn jackets, a to-go order from the Pennsy food hall upstairs, a portable crib, and a two-piece foldable stroller with your infant buckled into its carseat at the top?

Then, set this scene against a nonnegotiable, minutes-long boarding countdown spent frantically navigating multiple elevators (remember, no strollers on escalators!) on a puzzle of a station just in time to board without guaranteed seats amidst an impatient stream of fellow travelers.

We literally got our stroller stuck while trying to push it down the aisle of our train car. By the time we figured out where to sit and fit our luggage into the crammed storage racks, Cathlin and I both needed to take deep breaths, I think until we passed New Haven. Thankfully, our daughter never seemed to mind.

Discovering Amtrak’s Red Cap service

Before attempting the same route again a few days before Christmas, I returned to Penn Station alone to ask around if Amtrak would allow early boarding when traveling with a child. Good news: yes, we could—but only with additional assistance! A representative in the waiting area clued me in on the magic of Amtrak’s Red Cap service

It helped for this second trip that we had gone through this gauntlet once before and had begun to reclaim some semblance of sleep. But you can imagine our relief to know we didn’t have to manage the boarding process entirely on our own.

Once Cathlin, Eliza, and I arrived for our train, we proceeded to a dedicated desk in the Amtrak waiting area where an employee, wearing a red cap of course, told us where to sit and when to expect assistance. He came back as promised and chatted with us as an incredibly kind and warm ambassador for Amtrak while transporting our bags and oversized luggage (i.e., the base of our stroller) on a trolley. We took two different elevators down to the correct platform and boarded the train early, all but ensuring we were able to get seats together and didn’t strain our backs in the process.

What you need to know

To make life easier, once you get to Penn Station or any of the stations noted below, head to Amtrak’s information counter about 30-45 minutes before departure and ask a representative to be connected with a Red Cap agent. (Don’t just ask for “help,” which may never come; ask specifically for “Red Cap” service.)

While anyone can make use of this service, it’s meant for those who need extra assistance. So if you’re able to rely on this during your travels, it’ll contribute to a good deal less stress. Keep in mind:

  • Red Cap as a service may be free, but be sure to tip your Red Cap agent. We’d recommend that you tip generously; it’s the right thing to do and worth every cent.
  • Make sure you don’t exceed Amtrak’s luggage limits, though we can’t recall ever seeing them check.
  • If you’re traveling with a child under 2, strollers and diaper bags are free and don’t count towards your carry-on limit.

And don’t forget: when you have positive experiences with any Amtrak personnel, including Red Cap agents, take a few moments afterwards to recognize any employees by name—or if you didn’t catch their names, by location, date, time, and the specific role and reason for your gratitude. You can do so by selecting “Employee Praise/Compliment” in Amtrak’s contact form.

The train stations where you can find Red Cap service

Red Cap service is offered in the 12 busiest Amtrak hubs. On the West Coast, this means: Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. Heading up and down the Northeast Corridor, you have the option in Washington, Wilmington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, New Haven, and Boston. And in the Midwest, there’s Chicago alone. Have you used the Red Cap service at any of these stations? If so, any tips?

For further reading, learn about mastering the art of Amtrak travel in a column Corina Quinn wrote a few years ago for Travel + Leisure.

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