Is First Class Worth It on the Amtrak Acela Express?

Despite living in the Northeast for 18 years, and taking the Acela Express between Washington DC and New York myriad times, I had never ridden up in the first class car. That’s largely because I didn’t think it was worth the upcharge, and my airline obsession means that I never earned Amtrak Guest Rewards elite status either.

However I had to head up from DC to Wilmington, Delaware to speak about co-brand credit cards and share some data about the effects of regulation abroad. I wasn’t picking up the cost of my own ticket, it was purchased for me, and first class was only ~ $65 more. So I finally had my chance.

It wasn’t my first time in the Amtrak club. United Club members have access and there are day passes floating around. But this time my ticket got me access.

The club is dated. There are packaged snacks, and not much else. Furniture is worn. Bathrooms are dirty. But the place is cleaner, quieter, and far more comfortable than the rest of the terminal. Access to the tracks is also via the club without going back out into the terminal. They announce boarding in the lounge before they start letting other customers onboard. That way you have your choice of seats.

The first class car was the last car on the train. Seats are basically the same as in Acela Express business class. They’re a bit wider, a bit more legroom, but they’re similar. The benefit I think is that there are solo seats (seating 1-2 rather than 2-2) so you can have more personal space if you’re traveling alone.

In my view if you travel alone you want a solo seat. If the first class car isn’t full then it’s better to take two solo seats facing each other, or next to each other, and camping out in both. But if you don’t know whether hte car is full I’d just take a solo seat.

In first class you get a cocktail, there’s a packaged snack mix, and meal service from a tray. Here’s the menus from onboard:

I ordered w Woodford on the rocks. That was brought out prior to meal orders being taken. I skipped the snack mix. And I ordered the beef. My train ride was about 75 minutes, and it was 55 minutes before they had my meal out. The pasta was dry. There wasn’t much beef and it wasn’t very high quality. Frankly Amtrak’s meal made the airlines look good. (Somehow they’ve managed to lose about a billion dollars on their meal service.)

The increment for first class wasn’t much. The benefit of first class wasn’t much. Early access to the train has some value for some people. Club access I suppose does too, and so does the included cocktail and food. But I don’t value those enough to pay for it out of my own pocket for sure.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Based on what the beef and noodles look like I would be terrified to try and order the cod
    Former Delta Exec Richard Anderson that took over the big job at Amslack apparently is now making previously refundable tickets non refundable
    Nothing like an exec who destroyed Delta coming over to demolish Amtrack and alienate customers

  2. Actually, I’ve generally had good food and service on most of my Acela first class trips, and rate it better than most domestic US airline first class. Sounds like the person forgot you weren’t going all he way to NYC. Coupons for upgrades are easy to use, and I’ve seen buy-ups for as little as 10 dollars. The Acela lounges are dingy, but can be accessed with a United Club card, and as you note, their real advantage is to board first.

  3. I tend to enjoy the experience a bit more on my way home. Where I can have a few cocktails, relax and generally just watch the world pass by in peace and quiet. I’d also note most of the food I’ve had over the last 3 years has been decent, if not better than airline food.

    I’m not sure linking to a 6 year old article that’s about long haul shrinkage and loss is relevant.

  4. When did they make it just one cocktail? It was open bar the last time I took it…

  5. As I am published as a pundit critiquing passenger trains, I am sorry you did not reach out to me before your trip.
    1) The Acela lounges are indeed dingy dumps, far far from any airline club lounge free pouring and offering half decent food.
    2) If Amtrak was to operate on a western business model, instead of a Soviet borscht club, it would have long ago outsourced these clubs. 3) However, the secret advantage to the Club is to retain a Red Cap who will get you boarded well before the crowd. For scenery traveling from Washington, you would sit on the right as you board. More importantly, you really want to find a fixed table for two, given that otherwise the seat back trays are typically broken.
    4) Given the questionable competence and lack of supervision of the On-Board staff, it is highly recommended you assert that you are not going all the way to NYC, but rather en route. If the F Class staff (2) were competent, they are to prioritize serving drinks and meals to those disembarking first. If you can, order more than 1 drink up front. Frankly, you should report the unprofessional manner you were handled re delayed meal; unacceptable preparation.
    5) The meal served looked like crap. You should keep to the least elaborate meal requiring any special prep or cooking, as the attendants are not chefs. The meals come on board on a RORO cart (roll on; roll off) that just requires final heat and serving.
    6) I have found the crews on northbound trains out of WAS exhausted due to bringing that train in earlier from Boston, with a minimum turnaround time-off.
    7) FYI-your reference to Amtrak losing almost $1Billion on F&B is excessively far off from the facts and detracts from the validity of your story.

    Ex-Delta CEO Anderson is lost as Amtrak CEO and punching far above his capacity in this position.

    Frankly, the best we can do is to provide for franchise bids and/or open access on the Northeast Corridor in order to operate this transport system as a business; not perpetuate the Lionel monopoly it has become. Certainly, it would help to have an experienced railroader at the throttle.


  6. Comparing Acela first class service and Club Acela to airlines is like comparing domestic first class on AA to long-haul first class on Etihad. They’re two completely different species. As one who travels the DC-NYC route at least once a month and has the discretion to either fly or train, I can explain the appeal:

    1. Acela First Class is something awarded to frequent riders– not something people generally pay for out-of-pocket. At least not the people I encounter. I believe that you get upgrade certificates every 10 or 12 trips– I have a stockpile of them so I’m not up on the latest rules.

    2. The appeal of Acela service for most of my fellow “regulars” is not the food. It’s the convenience of being able to escape Manhattan at the height of rush hour and the flexibility to change travel plans painlessly. To those who prefer spending time and money in a cab getting to JFK for that $59 JetBlue fare, I say to each his own. If you enjoy doing that at rush hour several times a month, you are a more patient man than I am.

    3. Don’t expect epicurean delight or service comparable to the Etihad Residence. Acela is just the least bad way to do the NYC-DC run. Keep your expectations low and you might just enjoy the unlimited cocktails after a long day at the office.

    4. I’m no Amtrak fanboy. But in many ways, it’s far less miserable than the current state of domestic air travel. With all of the majors competing to deliver a worse experience than Spirit (and AA leading the pack), Amtrak has its appeal. There’s an antiquated charm to having a bit of leg room and space for a carry on.

  7. I rarely take Acela – I think the regular trains (Northeast Express, I think) that ply the route between NYC and DC are way more comfortable than the seats on Acela, both in regular coach as well as the business class that these trains have. I like the idea of Acela, but usually the price premium over the regular Northeast Express train is too steep to justify the 20-30 minute time savings. Every once in awhile the Acela will have the same price or sometimes be even cheaper than the Northeast Express; it is in that instance that I will consider Acela. More often than not, though, I can get a way cheaper ticket on Delta or AA to LGA from DCA, so I’ll do that. I agree, though, the lounges, both at Union Station and at Penn Station in NYC, are absolutely NOTHING to get excited about.

  8. “However, the secret advantage to the Club is to retain a Red Cap who will get you boarded well before the crowd.” – The really secret thing to do is to follow the Red Cap who is boarding the people who paid him to get on first with their luggage. They know what track the train will be on and leave the lounge minutes before boarding is announced. (In DC, you have to be in the lounge for this, as it has a separate exit to the tracks, but a United Club member card gets you in. In Penn station, stand outside the Acela lounge and watch.)

    In my experience, attendants have asked where I am going to when I board, and if that is Wilmington or Philly, gotten me food pretty quick. I’ve also had good service, and not had to wait much for drinks. By the way, they have sparkling wine, which most US domestic air first class will not have. Funny thing is, when I ask for one, everyone around me starts asking for one, too.

    Incidentally, first class on the high speed European trains will generally only get you a snack (decent quiche or the like) and one beer or wine, though with a reserved seat. (And clean lounges in some cities, though usually bereft of food and beverage – the NS lounge at AMS limits you to one soft drink or coffee!)

  9. I’ve taken Acela many times, and first class only a couple. I definitely like their “business class” cabin better, even at the same price. It’s true that you get the benefit of boarding first, but you are in a different cabin, so I don’t know what that buys you, other than getting out of the station and into a slightly more comfortable seat.

    Note that United Airlines Club membership gets you into the Acela Club at all times. The club itself usually gets you early boarding, even if you’re not in first class, but it depends on the station (In Philadelphia, there are even elevators *inside* the club that take you directly to the track).

    I did find the service people (porters?) in first class to be exceedingly friendly and helpful. The food is as bad as it looks, so I always refuse it. On both occasions the porters went the extra mile and brought me something from the snack car that was to my liking.

  10. I’m glad you were honest about it not being worth it. It doesn’t seem worth it to me either and I’m way too cheap so sticking to coach is probably for the best haha. Cheers.

  11. Thing is, the Acela trains aren’t THAT much faster than the regular NE regionals. While I’m glad you got that experience, it absolutely isn’t worth the upgrade to first unless you are going to be on the train at least to NYC. I rather second the comment that unless the galley staff are specifically told you’re only on for an hour, they’re not going to rush your meal. Furthermore, it is just reheated, so beef was certain to be awful. The vegetarian option is much less likely to be destroyed by the process. On true long-hauls with an actual dining car, there’s a real kitchen with a real chef so meals are substantially better.

    tl,dl: Grab take out from someplace in Union Station and do the regional unless someone else is reimbursing for acela.

  12. As I am usually traveling for work, I take the Acela because I find it generally more on time than the regionals, particularly the regionals that are originating somewhere other than the station I am boarding at. If I am traveling for leisure and on my own dime, then the regional is fine.

  13. I agree it is definitely not worth the money for 1st Class. You do not get an assigned seat. We boarded at Newark heading to DC and first class was packed. We ended up at a table for 4 which a charming fellow had staked out as his own little fiefdom. Much huffing and puffing when we asked if the seats were taken. And when a 4th passenger joined, it was crowded to say the least and difficult not to knock knees with the passenger across from you. I think we might have had a better ride in coach – seriously. The food is Amtrak food – nothing more need be said. Best advice, bring your own sandwich or salad. From DC to NY, greatest part of the trip was realizing Dick Cheney was across the aisle.

  14. It’s been a few years, but I routinely took the Acela first class between NY and Philly at least once a week for a couple of years. I have only good experience to recall. I thought the food, including the presentation and the service were way better than the airlines. I agree with the Club comments, but I think everything is relative. They were far better than the regular terminals, which are almost scary! The airline clubs have to work harder to be better than their terminals… Plenty of drinks, in fact, most times the server would leave n extra bottle of Vodka with by Screwdriver of Bloody Mary, which I never needed and wound up with a stash of bottles in my house…

  15. The utility of Acela (or Amtrak in general) vs flying is really specific to the time of day, price, etc. It used to be that Acela was a no brainer. But if you can get to LGA in under 45 minutes, the shuttles to BOS on DL/AA/B6 are often $100-$150 cheaper each way. And if you can expense the cars to and from the airports, flying is better.

    DC is a bit different as the Acela trip is shorter. But DCA and LGA are both very close to the city centers. I can also get really cheap redemptions on AA last minute (7,500 miles) out of DCA when the equivalent Amtrak is $200 or more. I have friends in DC – when I visit, I will often book any available DCA-LGA flight with points and simply show up to the airport when I want to leave and do free standby.

  16. I am an Amtrak Select Plus or whatever it is as I do BOSNYC twice a month and greatly prefer Acela instead of Airport/parking/security/gate/misery/gate/taxi and repeat.

    First class on Acela is worse than plain old business class. Typically all single seats are taken so I almost always get stuck in a booth, facing backwards, crammed in with 3 others. Not what I want in a 4 hour trip. I’m afraid to visit the Club. How could it possibly be any better than the DMV?

    No freakin way will I pay a Red Cap $25 to slip me onto the the train early. They should be paying ME to put up with their rediculous boarding procedure.

    Free drinks and cheese plate is fine. But it’s rush you the drink, rush you the menu (big deal), rush you the meal, then 3 hours of nothing until the end when I’m apparently Iexpected to TIP THE FIRST CLASS STEWARD!??

    My upgrade coupons expire. I would never dream of paying extra for that lesser experience.

  17. Wow! What a bunch of whiners and complainers! I am going from MET to PVD in first class for the first time (coupon), and I am impressed. A couple of nice ladies are bringing me food and drinks while I work and relax in a comfortable seat with free wifi, power outlets, and a table instead of a boingy tray thingy. Compared to air travel .. well, there is no comparison. I can show up at the station 15 minutes before my train time. Compare that to minimum 1-1/2 hours before a flight. Trains are rarely more then a few minutes behind schedule, while I feel lucky if my flight leaves within 1/2 hour of “on-time.” (Quotes are because airlines count up to 15 minutes late as “on time.”) Sure, the food is not expensive-restaurant quality, but it beats the hell out of the best airline cuisine.

  18. Is this the complainers room?…listen, I just took the California zephyr, and I am still shaky on my feet. using freight rails for a passenger train is terrible. Plus the room I purchased was not a room. Amtrak needs to remove the shower compartment, put up a shelf for luggage. I uused the shower and dressing room downstairs. more room, and it does not interfere with your partner, if she is sleeping. A total waste of space, which makes 51 hours plus in a so called room a claustrophobic experience. My porter, not once, had the promised coffee, at 6 AM, so I opened up the window and had a quick smoke. Yea he showed up and I lit him up and he had nothing to say, I gave him a 5 dollar tip and told him I expect coffee, I paid for coffee…..still didn’t get it, so I had to go to the dining car.Amtrak was better than the airline. that’s all I can say. once you are in a terminal or train you are at the mercy of that corporation of thieves, and they are. all accomodations are uncomfortable, and bizarre. TSA at the airport was different on every flight made. I am now 63. I flew a lot when I was in the military, smoked on commercial airlines, was comfortable, always a meal served, and sterwards, always asked can I get you a drink….NO MORE. I am perfectly satisfied, living my life with a fishing pole in my hand, and not at someone else’s mercy. whats the saying. No Place Like Home. believe me, I saw Europe as a young man, and did my bucket list trip to California. There is no place like home, where you can scratch where it itches, and walk around naked. yea man. Travelling is for suckers.

  19. My father is in his 80’s and loves trains. He’s excited about taking the Acela, so we are flying into NYC and taking the Acela to BOS South Station. He broke his neck a few years ago and cannot turn his neck to be able to see out the window if sitting facing forward or backward in a seat. Any suggestions as to if I should purchase Business Class or First Class to have any available accommodations that he could sit facing out the window? Four years ago we took the Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco and had bought tickets for the smallest roomette. He could sit kind of sideways in the seat to see outside and also no seat back directly in front of him to block the view of the large window. We also spent a fair amount of time in the observation car where the seats are directly facing the window. I don’t mind spending the money for First Class if it would be a better experience for him. Also, is there assigned seating in business class or first class? I’m thinking the 1-2 seats he could at least sit a bit sideways to see out better. Any suggestion are very welcome!! This is a once in a lifetime trip for him and I want it to be as great as possible!

  20. I’m never taking the Acela or going Firat Class again. My wife and I got seats facing the back of the train with two people who refused to put their bags in the overhead storage, so we had to sit with our legs scrunched under us the entire time. We had much less legroom than in coach. I had called Amtrak for these reservations because their train schedule is inscrutable and this is where their employee put us. I thought this would be a great experience, but it cost five times as much as flying, it took three times as long and we arrived in worse shape. Never again!!!

  21. I wanted to book 3 first class tickets from New work (penn) to Washington dc (union) and back.
    That will cost me usd 2100 !!!!!

    Why are these prices so high?

    I am from the Netherlands and not used to these prices for first class

  22. I just googled Acela 1st vs biz and came to this thread. Short answer, thanks for the advice.

    As for long haul trains such as the California Zephyr and Coast Starlight, I had a wonderful experience in a Roomette Denver/Sacramento/Portland. Back then, Amtrak served real meals (included) for bedroom and roomette passengers. I slept like a baby onboard.


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