Travelling over 829 miles from Savannah, Georgia to New York City daily, the Palmetto 89/90 is one of Amtrak’s premier trains connecting the cities along the east coast.
While I am a big fan of flying, I do have a soft spot for travelling by train, especially in Europe and North America. There’s something calming about the methodical click-clack of the rails, watching cities whizz by at a ground level and seeing places I yearn to explore on my next trip.
I’ve travelled on Amtrak – America’s rail network – a number of times in the past, mainly through the north-east corridor. This time I headed a little further south to Baltimore, Maryland to visit one of my best friends.
On the way down, I took the very popular but pricey Acela Express which travels along the corridor from Boston to Washington DC; but coming back I decided to slow it down (and save a few dollars) by riding the Palmetto.
Review of Amtrak’s Business Class on the Palmetto
A Note on Train Travel in America
Unlike in other regions of the world, train travel between cities in America is not that popular. In fact, long-distances are usually covered by car or planes.
One of the reasons for this is that America is very car-centric and gas is cheap; another is that train travel is often far more expensive than a flight on one of the countries many budget airlines. Then, there’s the ubiquity of low-cost bus routes.
I don’t understand why Americans don’t utilise their train network more, particularly with the close proximity of cities along the east and west coasts. The distances are short, traffic is terrible, and trains provide a city center-to-city center service, as opposed to costly taxis or fussing with bus schedules to-and-from the airport on each end.
Best of all, many of the train lines service airports and airlines have set-up seamless train to plane services, like at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International (EWR) and Maryland’s Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI) should you want to make a connection onto a domestic or international flight.
What is it like onboard Amtrak Palmetto Business Class?
The Palmetto is a daily train which travels from Savannah, Georgia to New York City, New York via Charleston, Richmond, Washington DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia.
Named after the Sabal palmetto, the state tree of South Carolina, the train has been running since 1976. Recently, the fleet has been modernised, so you’ll be sitting pretty. In fact, Amtrak is currently refitting their entire fleet with new seats and WiFi across all the classes.
Another train runs a very similar route to the Palmetto, and that is the Silver Service trains (The Silver Meteor and Silver Star) which have fewer stops than the Palmetto and runs all the way to Florida.
As I bought my ticket last-minute, I found that the Acela Express tickets were just too expensive to justify the cost for the 2-hour 28-minute journey. Plus, taking the Palmetto meant I could have dinner with my friend, not rush to Baltimore’s Penn Station and save over $120 with just 20 minutes added to my journey. It was really a no-brainer.
The Palmetto features two classes: reserved economy and business class. There was little to no up-to-date information about Amtrak’s Palmetto Business Class online so I left it to my imagination – and a Google Image Search – as to what to expect on my journey from Baltimore, MD to New York City, NY: big brown leatherback seats and attendants with a southern drawl. Turns out there was none of this with the latest upgrade recently completed on the route.
The Palmetto leaves Baltimore at heading south at 8:42am or north-bound at 9:11pm. With the more frequent services, I found there weren’t many people seated in Business Class.
My first impression was that the car looked very similar to that of the modern Acela Express, and part of me was a little disappointed that a little southern charm wasn’t woven into the new outfit.
Above each seat is large overheat racks perfect for my Victorinox backpack and at either end of the car is space for larger suitcases. While it’s not recommended, if you are sitting at the table of four of the seat of two behind them, there’s also room between the seats facing backward which would also fit a small suitcase or small bag.
The new seats on the Palmetto have a 42″ recline which is lovely, especially for the evening services where you might want to take it easy. If you want to recline it’s important to note that the very last row of seats does not recline quite as far due to the wall behind it.
Features of Palmetto Business Class
Amtrak’s Palmetto’s Business Class car is located at the very front of the train. Seats in Business Class come in a 2-2 arrangement, with some seats facing backward with a table able to be unfolded for more table space in the center, perfect for families or groups of three or four.
Made of leather, I found the seats to be comfortable with their 18″ width, though I imagine it would get a little snug if you were seated next to a larger person due to the non-moving arm rest.
The main benefit of travelling in Business Class on Amtrak is that the seats are larger with more legroom and footrests. There’s also more baggage storage, complimentary non-alcoholic beverages, and reading material.
No beverage cart came around and the attendants didn’t inform you that you could get a drink so I wasn’t aware of this during the journey. Instead, I stocked up on water and snacks at the store inside Baltimore’s Penn Station. It was only after the journey I discovered that to claim your complimentary beverage you need to take your ticket to the Cafe Car.
The Palmetto is fitted with an informal dining Lounge Car where food and drinks can be purchased. Coffee is provided by Dunkin’ Donuts and the food is snacky, think hot dogs, pizza, and potato chips. There’s also bottled water, soft drinks (soda) and alcohol available for purchase with both cash and card.
Is there WiFi onboard the Palmetto?
More recently, the company has unveiled AmtrakConnect WiFi. I’ll be honest: the WiFi is okay but pretty slow. I found it too slow to do more than basic emails, even at night, and it actually worked better on my mobile device than my laptop. It’s also quite patchy, despite the journey running through some of the most populated states. That said, it’s nice that it’s there but I found most passengers – particularly on the faster, more business orientated Acela Express – chose to tether their mobile devices.
For those that need to work, there are at-seat power outlets. The position of it is kind of awkward if you are sitting in an aisle seat next to a stranger as it’s at elbow height, under the trains window ledge. Hopefully, in future designs, they install it under the seats, akin to that of airplanes.
Can I check on baggage on the Palmetto?
For those travelling with a lot of baggage, the Palmetto allows for checked baggage service free of charge (up to 2 bags per person weighing 50lbs, though additional baggage can be purchased). To take advantage of this you need to turn up at the station a minimum of 40-minutes prior to boarding.
I was a little nervous I would have to check my baggage after a very successful trip to the Under Armour Factory Outlet, but with the service being so quiet, the attendants didn’t say anything about my excess baggage.
The differences between the Acela Express and the Palmetto Business Class
There are four trains which run on the Baltimore: New York City line: Acela Express, Northeast Regional, Palmetto, and Vermonter.
The Vermonter and Palmetto are similar in that they run once a day in each direction. The Acela Express and Northeast Regional both run more regularly, multiple times a day. The Acela Express making limited stops and a high ticket cost, while the Northeast Regional tends to have more affordable ticket prices but makes a lot more stops.
Is there really a big difference in Business Class across each train route?
The Acela Express running from Boston to DC is considered a “superior class” train and due to its limited stops saves about 30 minutes in time compared to the Palmetto or Northeast Regional trains. It’s also the most modern train in the fleet, with Economy, Businesses and First-Class available onboard.
I found the Acela Express to be the most crowded in Business Class, but if you wanted something a little more exclusive you can purchase a First Class ticket.Their First Class service is similar to that of Business onboard trains in Europe and the cost is significantly higher and honestly, for such a short journey I’m not sure it’s worth it.
The Northeast Regional has more stops. A LOT more stops. If you are sightseeing along the east-coast or just seeking a more affordable option, this is probably the train I would choose. That said, the Palmetto was cheaper than the Northeast Regional on the day I travelled, so there’s a lot of factors to take into account.
From what I experienced, there are four ‘big’ differences between the Acela Express and the Palmetto:
- The Palmetto has more stops than the Acela Express. While it’s not a local train by any means, there were two additional stops in New Jersey. That said, it only adds an extra 20-40 minutes onto your travel time so unless you are pressed for time, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.
- The seat width and recline are different. One the Palmetto the seat width is 18″ and reclines 25-35 degrees. The Acela Express offers a much roomier 23″ width and 42″ recline.
- There is only one Palmetto service a day each way, as opposed to multiple on the Acela Express or Northeast Regional.
- The Palmetto and Acela Express are fitted with Amtrak’s new Business Class seats but the Northwest Regional I took on another journey still had the older seats. These will likely be replaced soon as Amtrak is conducting refits of all their trains.
Is it worth upgrading to Business Class on Amtrak’s Acela Express, Northeast Regional or Palmetto Services?
The answer really comes down to what you are looking for.
What I found on the Palmetto is that you are paying for privacy. The location of the carriage minimises foot traffic through the car and the price seems regularly be cheaper than the Acela but on par with the Northeast Regional. (At the time of writing, Palmetto and Northeast Regional tickets cost around US$127.00 for a business class ticket while the Acela Express tickets start at US$276)
Due to the early running time of the Palmetto 89 running south or the late evening service of the Palmetto 90 north, meant that the cabins are quieter – there was a maximum of 8 people in the Business car at any time when I travelled in February – as business people tend to favour the faster Acela Express. I imagine that due to the length of the journey, many people would use the Palmetto in sections but not for the whole South Carolina – New York journey.
When I travelled on the Acela Express, the Business Class cabin was full. Despite my aisle seat, I was feeling a little claustrophobic and made a quick exit to the dining car to hang out until we reached the next station. It wasn’t until we hit Delaware that I was able to finally swap from my seat at one of the tables to the single seating (seats are in a 2-1 configuration).
If you are price conscious, then travelling in Economy is fine. You still have access to the WiFi and can pre-book a reserved seat with in-seat power and slightly less recline. The seats are leather but slightly smaller in diameter, but of course, you can relax in the Cafe Car if you really don’t like your seat or seatmate mate. There’s also a quiet car and seats with extra leg-room you can book into.
If you book in advance you may be able to pick up a bargain in Business Class. Saver Fares are available to those who book 14-days in advance and Amtrak do regularly offer sales. If you really want to travel in Business class (or First class!) you can join and save Amtrak Guest Reward points which you can redeem for upgrades.
It’s also worth mentioning that Business Class tickets on all routes are fully refundable if cancelled prior to departure and tickets incur a 25% point bonus for Amtrak Guest Reward members.
If I can snag a deal, I will travel Business Class again on Amtrak but take advantage of the amenities like lounge access, complimentary drinks, and maybe find my way chug-chug-chugging all the way down to South Carolina!
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Sorry for the dark photos. I’m a big fan of travelling in the evenings to maximise time with
friends during the day, and the train was fairly dimly lit throughout the journey.