AmTrak – All the Way Across the Country

AmTrak_HereSheComesEarly on, before we started our travels, Adam and I talked about our goals. It went, as many of our discussions go, something like this:

Me: “So, my goals for the first part of the trip are to see some national parks, relax and enjoy the outdoors, keep in touch with friends and family, write some fun blog posts, and maintain my sanity and our marriage.”

Adam: “Yeah, let’s see some shit and ride the train across the country.”

So, here we go:

AmTrak_RouteGraphic
Here’s our route. Starting on the bottom right in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, we rode the Capitol Limited to Chicago, then took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. The back half of the train went down to Portland.

 
The Basics: If you so desire, rather than flying or driving across the country, you can take AmTrak.

Cost and Timing: ~$1400 for two tickets from DC to Seattle in a superliner sleeper car. All meals included, but it takes almost 3 full days to go from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to Seattle, Washington.

Cool Fact: The Empire Builder line stop at the east entrance to Glacier National Park, and there are all kinds of tourist trips that combine the train ride with a guided tour of the park. You can also get a national park passport stamp on the train, if you are geeky enough to know what that means.

AmTrak_SizeableCabin
Adam’s Overall Opinion: It’s great. (He’s always been a man of few words…)

My Overall Opinion: Amtrak is incredibly inefficient on time and cost, and it’s not nice enough to be a vacation in itself. We did see beautiful countryside and enjoyed not driving, and therefore reading, blogging, and drinking Bota box wine in our cabin. There was no bar car and we were only 3 for 7 on interesting meal conversations. The train was comfortable, food was solid, and the cabin was great, but I wouldn’t take it again without a good reason like an otherwise hard to reach destination, lots of friends on the train, or free tickets.

Here’s some other benefits we enjoyed:

  • Here's a shot of our bunks. While tight within the cabin, they were still roomier than our tent and very comfy.
    Here’s a shot of our bunks. While tight within the cabin, they were still roomier than our tent and very comfy.

    Minimal security made for fast loading and unloading in city centers. Adam was happy to miss being herded through security lines and keep his shoes and belt on. It is incredibly convenient to get to downtown train stations and to get on and off the train.

  • Bathrooms and showers were similar to what you find on airplanes, and they had soap, towels, good water pressure and hot water. Showering is fun while the train is rocking.
  • Sleeping and leg room is good – the cabin was much roomier than our car or an airplane and we both slept well in the bunks, especially after the first night.
  • BYOB. You’re allowed to bring and consume as much food and beverage as you like in your cabin. Next time we’ll bring two boxes of Bota!
  • You see beautiful countryside in places. We particularly enjoyed the stretch from Everett, Washington down to Seattle, and had a beautiful view of the Puget Sound where we saw many herons.
AmTrak_Dinner
Mmmm…. solidly tasty steak dinner and even tastier dessert.

Neutral Facts about the Train: 

  • We met some interesting people at dinners, which have community seating. Adam and I were always seated with two new friends. We had an amazing spectrum of personalities there, from exciting and interesting travelers, to crazy farm people from Montana, to one guy at breakfast who didn’t seem to want to talk at all. (Which is hard for me.) We went 3 for 7 on people we’d like to chat with again.
  • The food was solid, though the menu didn’t change any of the nights. Choices included steak, chicken and salmon.
  • Alcohol prices: $5.50 – $6.50 for a boring beer, $16.50 for half a bottle of white or red. I was glad we BYOB’d.

Other Cons:

  • Aside from being expensive and rather slow, there weren’t a lot of major cons on the trip. We knew what we were in for.
  • We were about two hours late into Chicago and two late into Seattle.
  • The bar car was more of a concession stand, not a place you would hang out and make friends. Adam’s romanticized ideals about train travel are shattered.

Here is a graphic representation of sleeper cabin essentials: 

  • AmTrak_Essentials

 

So, here’s the full story of our adventure…

We began at a small station in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. There were no staff there, so it was tough to figure out that the train was running 15 minutes late. However, all was made well when the train pulled up and two engineers got out and asked for us by name. The station is apparently too small for the whole train, so they stopped the train for us then pulled forward to let on the rest of the passengers. Sleeper cabins are first-class! We excitedly climbed on to the sleeper car and learned the basic location of our sleeper cabin, the restroom, the dining car, and an observation car with great floor to rounded-ceiling glass windows.

We had dinner reservations at seven, and the first night’s dinner was solid. We had a choice of steak, salmon, veggie pasta, and steak or salmon on salad. There was a first course salad and dessert of tiny haggan daaz ice creams. There were a chardonnay and a merlot on the menu, for $6.50 a glass, but we waited until after cabin for the boxed wine I packed. We also chatted with a very nice Welsh couple who were on a train and city tour of the country, stopping in major cities and national parks.

Helpful instructions for operating your cabin.
Helpful instructions for operating your cabin.

After dinner, we enjoyed a bit of time reading before converting our cabin into a sleeper. The single bunk beds were relatively roomy, though it was a bit of a challenge to get up into mine and then attach the side safety net so I wouldn’t roll out. There is very little room in the cabin once you fold down the beds and shut the door. Adam was careful to lock the cabin door so no bears could come in and eat our snacks in the middle of the night. We spent the night lulled and rocked by the clacking of the train and the shrill screech of the train whistle.

The next day, we were pleased to discover that there’s mediocre coffee available right near the cars, and we enjoyed a quick cup before heading up to breakfast, which included an omelet option, a scrambled egg option, and a healthy cereal and yogurt option. We also learned there that the train would be 2 hours late into Chicago, because of storms. AmTrak largely uses private freight rails, so their trains are often delayed when those companies prioritize their own freight.

Fortunately, we had plenty of time for lunch and very much enjoyed seeing our sisters and some other friends, and making a quick stop to the DMV to track down a registration sticker that somehow got lost in the mail.  I realized later we should’ve planned a one night stopover to reduce straight train hours and hang out more in Chicago but by the time we tried to change our tickets everything was booked.

AmTrak_SceneryXCountry

As we headed west, we went from cloudy forests and rivers, to open plans in Montana, to the Cascade Mountains in Washington. There was lots of other beautiful scenery but it is hard to get a good shot from a moving train.

AmTrak_EnjoyingViewOur second and third days were a lot like our first. We enjoyed the scenery, caught up on some more reading, wrote a few emails to be sent in Seattle, and did a little pre-planning for other upcoming sites. Meals were exactly the same, and we got better at converting the cabin back and forth from a sitter to a sleeper. Overall, it was a fun trip, and completely worth it just for Adam to be able to say he rode that train all the way across the country.

Some other random pointers:

  • Again, on food, don’t bother with the healthy entrée option. It’s smaller and not flavored. We packed some extra protein bars and trail mix to supplement the meals. There’s minimal food for sale: pizza, sandwiches, candy bars, and the like
  • Cabins don’t lock except from the inside, so I carried most of our major valuables around in my backpack when we went to meals or to the observation car. We did lock ourselves in at night even though it did get a little stuffy.
  • Our first train was on the second level, which had a better view but rocked more. I think for sleeping the lower level was better. Red wine is still best though.
  • Our carry-on luggage fit under the seats in our cabin. There’s room for luggage elsewhere on the train, but it was nice to have everything handy.
  • The cabin only has one electrical plug, so I sometimes charged things in the hallway since we were sometimes using battery faster than we could charge.
  • We didn’t get t-mobile service consistently, but text messages came in and out pretty regularly.

Well, after all this, if you really are still up for riding the train, let me know. Adam may very well be up for another trip.

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