I was a little nervous about beginning our train adventure. My only previous Amtrak experience was a two hour hop from Washington to Philadelphia, and now we were about to embark on a three day land voyage from Chicago to Portland on Empire Builder and on to San Francisco on Coast Starlight. This had the potential to either be a fantastic way to see large swaths of the country I’d otherwise normally fly over, or it could be a claustrophobic disaster.
Still, any concerns were outweighed by excitement when boarding was called inside the Amtrak lounge at Chicago’s Union Station. Passengers waiting in the lounge – including a mix of Amtrak passengers with elite status and those riding in roomettes, bedrooms and upper class seats on outgoing trains – were allowed to slip out a fire exit directly onto the platform, rather than having to fight any crowds from the terminal’s standard passenger flow.
Exploring the Sleeper Car
Our train sat immediately before us as we exited the lounge, and we found ourselves in the very last car. I was impressed by the double-decker superliner. I’d wondered how the largest “family bedrooms” could fit in these cars without impeding walkways, and I now knew the answer: all walkways between cars were found on the second floor, allowing the very front and very back of the sleeper car to be used for these largest of bedrooms, along with a few roomettes.
Upstairs, a row of roomettes could be found on both sides of the sleeper car. Towards its front, the path suddenly veers right, with the walkway shifting from the center of the car to the far side. This makes room for the standard bedrooms, which offer much more space than the roomettes.
Riding in a Roomette
For our journey, we’d be in a roomette the entire time. To call it cozy would certainly be an understatement! The two seats immediately face each other, and it’s easy for two adult passengers to get their legs tangled.
There were climate controls, a bright reading light and controls for the overhead lights found on a capacitative panel next to one of the seats:
These two seats fold down rather easily to form a flat, bed surface. Above is a cantilevered bunk bed that can be lowered at bedtime. This top bunk comes equipped with a cargo net that can hook onto the ceiling, to ensure the upper passenger doesn’t go tumbling at any point during the night.
Though certainly small, I didn’t plan on spending much time in our roomette when we weren’t sleeping, and what time we did spend in there during the days was perfectly comfortable.
There’s simply no room for luggage larger than a few backpacks in the roomette, though there is a open, double-decker luggage rack on the lower floor of the car that allows for easy access to larger baggage throughout the trip. It’s possible to check additional luggage and retrieve it at your final destination, as well.
I went down the hallway to explore one of the full-sized bedrooms and was impressed. The bedrooms offered a substantial amount of additional space when compared with the roomette, and included private shower facilities. I might have sprung for the bedroom had I known that in advance.
The roomettes share a shower on the lower floor that, while cramped, proved perfectly adequate for the trip. Water usage is controlled by a timed-release button that can be pressed as often as needed, but temperature control was excellent and towels were provided, along with a basket of toiletries.
Each sleeper car has its own attendant. Our attendant, named Alfredo, was more than happy to prepare our beds each night. I saw other attendants pick up meal orders for passengers who prepared to eat in their bedrooms instead of the dining car, and others that offered a basket of fruit to their passengers, along with the standard coffee available in all cars. It’s common to tip attendants for their services; I’d recommend something along the lines of $10 per day per passenger.
Exploring the Empire Builder
With our belongings settled into our roomette, I wanted to go exploring. I was curious to see what other kinds of cars were to be found on the train, given that we were basically the caboose. A couple more sleeper cars, basically identical to ours, were next. All of the sleeper cars were probably 80% full at most at the peak of our journey, though most bedrooms remained vacant when we departed Chicago. It seemed most sleeper car passengers joined us en route later in the day and on the next day, as we passed through Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.
Next came a few general seating cars, which were perhaps 40% full. Nearly all single passengers were able to claim a row for themselves, given the clumping of families and couples into adjacent seats. These seats recline a fair amount, though there’s certainly no lie-flat bedding as can be found in the sleeper cars. Even so, the general state of the standard seating car was much better than I’d expected. I would consider a general ticket if I were roughing it on my own for a day or so in the future.
Ahead of a few standard seating cars, we found the observation car, located adjacent to the dining car. The observation car was somewhat reminiscent of a diner, with a mix of booth seating and pairs of seats facing out the windows. The upper, panoramic window panels made this a great place to hang out during the daytime. It was never terribly crowded and far more spacious and bright than the confines of the roomette. There are also a variety of power plugs in the observation car, while there’s just one to be found in the roomette, making this a popular spot to power various gadgets.
Downstairs from the observation deck was a small convenience store, offering a variety of sodas, wine, beer, candies, salty snacks and so on. Some of the more substantial offerings were ramen noodles, personal pizzas and boneless buffalo wings. In one of history’s greatest tragedies, the convenience store ran out of Mountain Dew on day two of our trip, though it was otherwise a nice option for grabbing a drink or snack in between meals.
Dining on Amtrak
General passengers have the option to pay to eat in the dining car, but at $20 or more per person for most meal options, I think nearly all general passengers opted to subsist on whatever the convenience store had to offer instead. Sleeping car passengers – those with either bedrooms or roomettes – have their meals included, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I was really pleasantly surprised with the quality of the food. I was prepared for domestic airline-quality options, but instead the typical fare was probably in line with, say, Applebee’s or Friday’s. Far from amazing, but perfectly edible, and maybe even a little bit yummy in spurts so long as your foodie friends don’t wise up to the fact that you’re enjoying a meal they’d frown deeply upon. I thought the peppercorn sirloin served the first night was perfectly fine. The french toast I had the following morning was legitimately good, as was the chicken caesar salad I had for lunch:
One unique feature of dining with Amtrak: expect to be seated with others if traveling on your own or as a couple. Partly due to space constraints and partly due to an insistence that it’s part of the Amtrak experience, the dining car attendant will almost certainly seat you with others at every meal.
I was wary of this at first, but we ended up sitting with a variety of pretty interesting people. Some were heading for home somewhere in the Dakotas; others were continuing on to Seattle and simply were in no hurry and hated flying. Others were, like us, mostly along for the ride for the ride’s sake. Only at one of about eight meals were we seated with a bad tablemate, and his worst offense was keeping very quiet at breakfast, which wasn’t a bad thing at all.
Sleeping on Amtrak
Alfredo set up our beds in a jiffy once we requested some help around bedtime. There’s certainly not enough headroom to sit up in the upper bunk, and the lower bunk will require most to watch their heads. That said, the beds were more than long enough to accommodate my 6-foot-plus height.
The first night didn’t offer much sleep, as there’s a train equivalent to getting one’s sea legs on a cruise ship. The rocking back and forth of the train chugging along, mixed with the creaking and squeaking of various components in our roomette and nearby made for a less than heavenly sleeping experience, as did having just one thin pillow. Sleeping was progressively easier on our second and third nights.
If you’re able to sleep on a red-eye domestic flight, you should have no problem stretching out in an Amtrak roomette. While curtains mostly block light from peeking through the window, if you prefer to sleep in the darkest possible conditions, you may wish to opt for the top bunk, given that it rests above the window.
Would I ride with Amtrak in a roomette again? Yes. This is not a glamorous experience, but it isn’t really meant to be, in my opinion. I would exclusively ride with Amtrak on routes like Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief. In other words, I’d only ride Amtrak for an extended period when the journey itself is the destination.
The chance to see incredible landscapes and take in huge swaths of America at an altitude much lower than 30,000 feet is really unique, and not one replicated by simply going on a road trip.
I’ll share more in the next dispatch about the most important and valuable feature of our ride on Amtrak: what was outside of the window!