1. Look into upgrades
If it’s a long-distance train you’re on, a cheap fare may seem enticing and doable, but once you’re in the thick of the journey, you may be wishing you’d ponied up for even a smidgeon more space and comfort.
For example, riding the Amtrak Capitol Limited between Chicago and Washington DC is 13-ish hours of stunning scenery in the autumn, but any other time you’d do better to sleep through it. Before booking your ticket, check out Amtrak’s promo page to see if there are any private cabin sales, or inquire at the station ticket desk if any last-minute rooms have become available. The same strategy goes for Europe’s overnight services.
For shorter journeys, they key to an upgrade may be booking in advance. We found this to be the case with Virgin Trains, where we’ve repeatedly paid less for First Class (better seats, complimentary food and beverage, access to station lounges) than standard, simply by taking advantage of web-only early booking specials.
For special journeys, such as the 5-hour ride each way between Cusco and Machu Picchu's Aguas Calientes station, consider opting for the cheap "Backpacker" or Vistadome train one way, and the luxurious Hiram Bingham Orient Express (pictured above) for the other.
2. Charge up electronics
All trains are not created equal, and power outlets at seats are certainly not standard. Amtrak is working on this, and newer trains (like the Acela, pictured above, and Virgin’s Pendolino) are more likely to have outlets, even if they are occasionally inconveniently under the seats.
Unless the tracks take your train through some truly scenic country, it’s best to be prepared for eventual ennui. Even Tuscany has tunnels, you know.
3. Pack one comfort item
One huge advantage of taking a train is not having to endure the rigamarole of airport security and tight baggage restrictions. Bring your favorite pillow onboard; heck, bring a whole sleeping bag if the journey length warrants it. At the very least, pack/wear that oversized, snuggly sweatshirt because it can serve doubly as storage (for when you fall asleep but want your purse/wallet a bit nearer to your body than simply sitting beside).
4. Know your platform
Your bags are packed and you're ready to go. You're at the station and perhaps you're even looking straight at your train. Double-check that platform and rail car number before settling in!
On certain trains, like night services around Europe, the train splits and one half goes one way (like to Paris) and the other half, another way (perhaps Zurich). Driving a train typically happens while passengers are fast asleep in their bunks or passed out in seats, so you'll only know if you got on the right car when you awake.
5. Scout your route
This is for the photographers out there. Train tracks have the lovely habit of occasionally following coastlines, passing through mountain ranges, and otherwise getting you from Point A to Point B in the most scenic way possible. Of course there are exceptions, but it's only to your benefit to know if your route is following the "fields of flowers" or "backyards of middle America" route.