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The Essentials: Chicago to Seattle on Amtrak’s Empire Builder

Written by Mark McElroy

Riding the Amtrak Empire Builder? Here’s all you need to know.

Tickets. Ticket prices vary wildly. We snagged first class sleeper car tickets — which include all meals — for $500 each. Had we left one day earlier, the same tickets would have cost us $1000 each. If you have any flexibility at all, it will pay to shop around.

What to Pack. Space aboard the train, especially in sleeper cars, is extremely limited. So: go minimal. Soft-sided duffle bags would be ideal; our small Hartmann carry-on luggage squeezed under the sleeper car seats nicely.

If you have huge suitcases, they simply will not fit in your 4×6 room, and you’ll be forced to stow them in large luggage stowage on the first floor of the sleeping car. Since there aren’t any drawers (and only a minimal closet) in your sleeper, you’ll have to run down there every time you need something from your suitcase and bring it up. Rather than deal yourself that kind of misery: pack light and carry one small suitcase or bag per person.

A final note about packing: you are going to be on a train — a closed, controlled environment — for the duration of your trip. Unless you are very unlucky or clumsy, you aren’t going to get very dirty or rumpled. Not fully grasping this, I brought too many clothes. For our two and a half day trip, I should worn a pair of jeans and packed one other, worn one sweater and packed one other.

Arrival at Union Station. There are two buildings labeled Union Station, right across the street from each other. The less impressive one is the Amtrak station. If you’re traveling in first class (with a sleeper car, for example), from street level you go inside, take the escalator down one level, and make a bee line for the First Class / Sleeper Car lounge.

For a train station waiting area, it’s remarkably nice. Check in with the front desk, and listen for your conductor to call for the ticket check after that. When the time comes to board your train, you’ll leave this room and walk 60 yards or so before boarding.

The Sleeper Car. There are different grades of rooms in the sleeper cars. Ours had seats that converted to upper and lower bunks, plus a (very tiny) combination bathroom and shower. Two people who know each other well can be happy in this room. Be aware beds have little padding and will not be as comfortable or wide as you’re accustomed to; as a result, I recommend using both bunks (the one lower bunk is too cramped for two people to enjoy) and bringing sleeping pills of some kind.

There are other first class rooms in other configurations. A “family room” — at the far end of first class — has windows on both sides and a bit more space. Other rooms have seat/beds only, and are expected to share a communal dressing room/bath. So: shop carefully for the configuration that works best for you. (For me, the sleeper car with two bunks or the family room is the only viable option.)

The View. Be aware that, as you go west, you will see lots and lots of Illinois, Minnesota, and North Dakota. Especially in winter, when you reach the Big Sights — Glacier National Park and the Rocky Mountains — it will be dark. These are likely the views you came to see, but on the westward route, you’ll see nothing but the darkness.

Food. If you’re in the sleeper car, you’ll take meals in the Dining Car. Breakfast and lunch are first-come, first-served; for dinner, you must make reservations for one of three seating times (5:30, 6:00, or 7:45). Earlier times are more popular. If you go at 7:45, you may have the Dining Car all to yourself.

If you are in the sleeper car, your meals (but not alcoholic beverages) are included in the price of your ticket. Dining room entrees cost about $12.00 USD each, and the menu (in our case, burgers, barbecue lamb shanks, or pasta for lunch and steaks, burgers, veggie lasagna, or half a roasted chicken for dinner) will be the same every day. (We also had a “catch of the day” special — crab cakes.) Desserts were small cups of Hagan-Daas ice cream or previously frozen strawberry cheesecake in a plastic cup.

In short: the food is not offensive in any way, but not spectacular, either. In the evenings, I recommend the burgers or the steaks, both of which were better than expected.

A note about the Dining Car: for your safety, hesitate at the entrance and wait for the staff to wave you in. They’re carrying hot coffee and hot plates, and, given the unpredictable rocking and rolling of the train, guests who barge without catching the eye of the staff could easily get burned.

The Route. We left on a Saturday, seeing pretty country in Illinois and Minnesota along the way. Most of Sunday was spent in flat, deserted North Dakota and the less attractive parts of Montana. As mentioned before, the best vistas (in western Montana and the Rockies) passed us by in the dark of night, but Washington state, with its steep mountains and fog-shrouded trees was quite nice on Monday.

Be aware the train splits into two parts in Spokane (during the middle of the night on Sunday night, if you travel as we did). The larger half, including the Observation Car, goes to Portland — so no views for you during the last leg of the trip. Just four cars, including the Dining Car, will go all the way to Seattle.

On-Board Activities. There are none, apart from those you make yourself. As little as two years ago, you would have been greeted in your sleeping car with a glass of champagne and some chocolates, and on Sunday, the Dining Car staff would have invited you to a free wine and cheese tasting. Alas, thanks to Amtrak budget cuts, these nice touches are now relics of a bygone era. (Thank the Republicans, who slashed $242 million from Amtrak’s budget last year.)

Staff and Tipping. In the Lounge, you’ll find someone selling canned beverages (including previously mixed margaritas, beers, and wine), sandwiches, chips, and microwave pizzas. A dollar tip per transcation is typical.

In the dining car, you should tip 15-20% of your total tab, just as you would in a restaurant. Our sleeper car ticket included the price of our meals, so we noted the price of our entrees and tipped accordingly. Doing this earned us really great treatment (I’d even go so far as to say “preferential treatment”) from the staff. Examples include being allowed a table to ourselves (instead of seating us with strangers, which is the custom), seating us with interesting or friendly people when tables had to be shared, and setting back a bottle of wine for us when stores ran low.

Your sleeping car attendant sets up your bed and puts it away each day, makes coffee, provides general advice and information, and makes a huge contribution to the quality and comfort of your stay. For a two and a half day trip, a tip of $20.00 (that’s $20.00 per sleeper car room, not $20.00 per person in the room) is fine.

Wifi and Cellular Coverage. Some, but not all, trains offer wifi; ours didn’t. For most of the trip — at least until we hit Glacier National Park — we had good, strong AT&T 4G and LTE coverage, with occasional weak spots here and there in North Dakota. Our T-Mobile devices did well in Illinois, but after that, we had to link them to our AT&T devices, and didn’t have a T-Mobile signal again until we reached Gold Bar, Washington.

In Glacier, the Rockies, and most of Washington state until Gold Bar or so, you will have no data and little cellular coverage.

So: relax. Read. Play a game. Watch the world go by. I was amazed at how many people in the Observation Car observed nothing more than the iPad screen in front of them. I recommend taking a deep breath, setting your devices aside, and just being in the moment. Since everyone tends to snatch up devices and browse, check email, or play games during every spare minute these days, you’ve probably forgotten just how pleasant just being can be.

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Mark McElroy

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