Good morning Ellen,
Firstly, seats CAN BE assigned as you board the train. It really just depends on the crew working the train. Each crew has a different way of handling things. Some crews may tell you just to find a seat and they will put the stub above you when they collect your ticket, others may assign you a seat number as you board. I have had both ways done on trips. It all depends on the crew.
As far as for how full the train will be, thats a loaded question, because it just depends on how many people are traveling that particular day on that particular route. The trains have been quite full as of late.
As far as for alternate food options. In the lounge car, I have tried the hamburger, which is good, I hear the sub sandwiches are ok too. There are a whole bunch of options for you to choose from. You may just have to try something out to see if you like it. Everyone has different tastes. The cheapest dining options in the dining car are breakfast and lunch, dinner can get a bit pricey, so if you are trying to save money, I would have breakfast and lunch in the diner, then have an alternate supper in the lounge car, thats just one way. Feel free to bring snacks/drinks aboard in your bags, that is A-O-K.
Another thought, try to sit in the middle of the car if you can, because if you sit towards the end of the cars, then you have to hear the door sliding open and close all night long as people go to and from other cars. They usually turn the lighting down at about 10pm or so. That is sorta the offical "quiet time". Since you are traveling the whole route, you have 2 nights on the train.
If you are traveling alone. I would definitely take things like phones, cameras, and stuff with you when you go to the lounge or diner. Dont leave money or your wallet on your seat, thats just an open invitation. As far as for your bags, depending on what you are bringing with you, you can leave one on your seat just to let others know that the seat is taken. A stub will be placed above your seat to let others know that the seat is taken, but not all passengers understand the stub concept. I once came back from the lounge car to find a girl sleeping in my seat.
Also, about coach, it can get pretty chilly at night, especially traveling at this time of year. Dress appropriately for the weather conditions. If you can, bring a small pillow with you, Amtrak has pillows, but they arent very big, or all that comfy. Maybe bring a small blanket with you as well.
If you need further clarification, feel free to respond and we can help you as best as we can.
Otherwise, have a safe and wonderful trip aboard the CZ.
Edited by Amtrak Cajun, 01 March 2013 - 12:57 PM.