The Empire Builder: my top tips for taking the Amtrak train from Chicago to Seattle

Before I travelled on the Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, I found very few helpful tips on what exactly happens on the train, what I should pack, and what to expect from the trip. I had literally no idea what was going to happen when I boarded the train at Chicago’s Union Street Station. Well, it turned out to be an amazingly fun journey, and I wanted to share it with you just in case it helps. This post is going to be an epic mix of my experience, tips I’d pass on to friends, and a random assortment of photos. Enjoy!


Before you board the Empire Builder

~ There’s an Amtrak lounge at Chicago station, called the Metropolitan lounge, which you have free entry to if you have a sleeper car ticket. It’s just been done up, and it’s pretty smart.


~ There’s plenty of seating, free snacks and drinks, and a place to store your luggage. The luggage room gets a bit hectic and I’d be concerned about leaving anything hugely valuable there, but our stuff survived the day there without getting nicked. Including a whole box of donuts so it must be fairly safe.

~ The free food is basically crudites, cheese and fruit, which seemed like a very sensible selection to me (also good for gluten free…).


~ The first meal served on board the train is dinner, and with a boarding time of 2.15pm if you’ve arrived at the station in good time you’re going to be hungry by dinner time. So take advantage of the snacks and make sure you don’t get hangry. That’s not the way to start a trip right.

~ There’s also a serve yourself drinks area with tea, coffee and fizzy drinks. They also seemed to have some wine tasting going on at a separate table.

~ I recommend taking your own refillable cup with you and going for it at the drinks station. There is one bottle of water each in the sleeper car when you arrive, but it was hot when we were there (especially on the platforms) and everyone needs to hydrate.

~ There’s reasonable wifi in the lounge and various places to sit and work, lounge, or drink your weight in fountain soda.


~ I recommend checking in your luggage if you have anything larger than a carry on size. There is very little room in your sleeper car, basically only under your own seat, and this space becomes inaccessible when the beds are made up. There’s definitely no room for a big bag. There is a small luggage storage area within the sleeper car, downstairs, but it’s right where everyone is passing so I wouldn’t want to be digging through trying to find a clean pair of undies out there. Also I think it’s kinder to leave the space for families or those with luggage they can’t check for whatever reason – including those who board part way through the journey at stations where baggage check is not available. So pack your carry-on accordingly. It’s only 2 days on a train so you shouldn’t need much anyway – but you absolutely won’t be able to get to your bag once it’s checked in until you get to your destination so make sure you have everything you’ll need.

~ So after you’ve made the wise decision to check your bag, make your way to the ticket desk. It looks something like this.


~ Bag check in is quick and easy; not quite as hectic as this photo makes it look. They don’t seem overly bothered with weight (I think our bags were 40+ lb each and nobody batted an eyelid, just fixed a ‘heavy bag’ tag to it) and you’ll wave goodbye to your bag until your departure point.

~ Then I’d go and hang around in the Metropolitan lounge, fill up on snacks and make the most of the last wifi you’ll see for 45+ hours.


~ If you’re in the Amtrak lounge, the train will be called for you to hear. Make sure you listen carefully for Amtrak’s Empire Builder specific announcements; ours got a bit muddled with another Amtrak service leaving at a very similar time. Follow the correct instructions (!) to get to the track and queue. Those in sleeper car accommodation board first. Look for your car number and your friendly steward who will be standing at the door checking tickets and making sure you’re in the right place.


~ If you’re in a sleeper, you’ll have one of these aforementioned car stewards. They’re going to be integral to your trip so introduce yourself and be nice. Being Brits and unused to the whole thing, we decided to tip our car steward just after we boarded. I’m not sure that’s normal but it seemed to go down well. I’ve seen various recommendations about how much to tip, but a we went with $20 which didn’t raise eyebrows either way so I’m guessing that was fine. Tipping, man. Such a minefield.

~ Stow your luggage as appropriate. I hope you’ve already checked in any large bags, but if not please leave them in the luggage area downstairs. Don’t be that idiot who drags their bag up the narrow stairs, blocking it for everyone, only to discover that yes their room really is too tiny to accommodate it, then has to drag it all the way back down again. Listen to the car steward.

~ Be friendly and introduce yourself to your neighbours. There’s a good atmosphere on the train and it helps if you get to know people a bit.

Seat types

~ There are three basic types of accommodation on the Empire Builder. Standard seating, roomettes, and bedrooms.

~ Standard seats are the equivalent to a really nice business class seat (just not lie flat, unfortunately). There’s quite a lot of room around the seat, it reclines, and there’s a foot stool that comes up from under the seat.  I saw some people who had two seats to themselves who’d made a pretty successful looking bed out of the chair + footstool arrangement. You get no food included with standard, so many people brought their own or bought from the snack bar. You can eat in the dining car if you pay menu price for your meal. The coach carriages generally had their lights dimmed for the entire journey and there were usually people asleep. It’s very quiet in these carriages so bear that in mind.

~ We had a roomette, which is basically two seats facing each other with a tiny bit of extra space to the side, and a sliding door. Roomette tour coming soon due to popular demand!* It was cosy, but comfortable and perfectly fine for two people with good mobility who know each other pretty well. Food in the buffet car is included with the price of your ticket and bathrooms are shared per carriage.
*It’s Kerri. Kerri is the popular demand.


~ There are also bedrooms, which are more spacious than roomettes and are also only upstairs in the car, whereas roomettes are both upstairs and downstairs. You get a long bench seat which turns into a bed plus a bunk that flips down above, plus an extra fold-down seat (I think?) and you also get your own tiny bathroom which is a loo with a shower above it. I hear the loo is quite loud so bear this in mind…

~ There’s also a family room and an accessible room per car but I think you’d probably have to enquire separately about that.

~ Here’s the carriage layout in a diagram for all those interested. H is the accessible room, F is the family room, A-E are the bedrooms and 1-13 are the roomettes. Downstairs is on the left. We were roomette 11, for what it’s worth.


~ Overall I’d say the roomette was perfectly fine for our needs, although we did find that because we’re both quite tall we did keep bashing knees due to having two seats facing each other. If either or both of you are over 6 foot I’d say upgrade to the bedroom just for leg room alone (although be aware that the upgrade fee can be steep so think carefully about what you can put up with!). Similarly, if you’ve got limited mobility I’d say go for a bedroom or enquire about the accessible room.

~ For roomettes, I saw a fair bit of debate about whether to try and get one downstairs or upstairs. The consensus seemed to be go for upstairs. However, we had a room downstairs and I think it was better, because…

  1. There are three loos downstairs (per 6 roomettes) and only one upstairs (per 10 roomettes) so I never had to queue
  2. Similarly, there’s a shower downstairs but not upstairs. I only had to do a short dash from my roomette to the shower which I found much more convenient
  3. You can only move through the train via the upper deck (floor? level?) so downstairs felt more private
  4. The steward hung out downstairs, so we had more chance of collaring him if we needed him
  5. Yes the track noise was probably worse downstairs, but to be honest it was all the tooting that the train did that kept me awake. I think this would actually have been louder upstairs
  6. The views from the rooms upstairs would have been better, but we spent most of our time in the observation car anyway (which is also upstairs), as we wanted to listen to the ranger’s commentary, so this didn’t really matter to us

Bathroom facilities

~ I know this really matters to some people so I thought I’d go into some detail.

~ There are four loos and a shower per sleeper carriage. That sounds a bit grim but I hardly ever had to wait for the loo and I never had to wait for the shower. They were in reasonably clean condition, and the setup was basically the same as an aeroplane bathroom. Not a place you want to hang about in but perfectly functional.

~ There’s bar soap and postage-stamp sized towels provided in the shower but nothing else, so BYO toiletries. It’s not the most pleasant shower experience I’ve ever had and you do have to be careful as it’s vaguely hazardous when slippy and you go over rough track, but the water was hot and the shower was actually tall enough for me to fit under it. It did the trick and I didn’t emerge feeling like I needed another shower.

~ There’s hand soap in the loos because they don’t expect you to be completely feral, but anything else you need you’ll have to take with you.


[bctt tweet=”You’re telling me this is a 45 hour long train trip with no wifi, or seat back entertainment? Won’t I be bored out of my brain?” username=”anestingnomad”]


The short answer is, surprisingly, no. There’s a thing called Trails and Rails where Park Rangers from each of the national parks we passed through come aboard and talk about what you’re seeing out of the windows in the observation car. It’s a shame that they don’t pipe this down the trains intercom for everyone to listen to, as sometimes the observation car was a bit crowded and there were some annoying people who carried on loud conversations despite the rest of us wanting to listen to the ranger.


~ Overall, I found that in between meals, which took quite a long time (in a good way), sleeping, the stops where we were allowed to get off the train, and listening to the Park Rangers, there really wasn’t much time going spare where I had nothing to do. Still, I’d recommend:

~ Bring a book that you can dip in and out of in the observation car. Sometimes there’s a gap in commentary or it covers a topic you’re not particularly interested in. It’s good to have something to do in the mean time.

~ If you don’t want to listen to the park rangers but you’re still interested in the scenery then I recommend either staying in your own seat or going to the snack bar and listening to an audiobook. That way you’re still entertained but you can also enjoy the view.


~ Get to the observation car early if you want to stake out a seat for sunset. It’s worth it.

~ Be open to a chat with your fellow passengers, particularly at meal times (see below). They’re generally a friendly bunch and it will make the journey pass a lot more quickly. Just please don’t do so loudly while the ranger is talking.

~ Be aware that when the Empire Builder splits in two at Spokane, the observation car goes with the Portland train so if you’re going to Seattle you won’t be able to enjoy it on the last day. It’s ok though, because we get to keep the buffet car…


~ There’s a buffet car and a snack bar. I didn’t visit the snack bar so I can’t talk about it, but I gather it’s bags of crisps and chocolate bars and maybe the odd pot noodle type thing type of a situation. I think you can get hot sandwiches there, too?

~ The buffet car serves 3 meals a day and there are set seating times for dinner, which you need to make a reservation for. For the other two meals you’re given a time window and you just show up and wait for a seat. Pay attention to those time windows because they’re not necessarily the same day to day.

~ Reservations for dinner are taken on a first come, first served basis and I think there are 3 seatings: 5.30, 7, and 8.45. The 7pm seating is the most popular and fills up first. Reservations are taken by the buffet car attendant who comes round to each sleeper car in turn and takes your preference. She changes which car she visits first on different evenings so as to keep it fair. You’re given a slip with your reservation on as a reminder.


~ Seating is in tables of four, so you will be sharing with however many people it takes to make up that number. Don’t worry, everyone we met was absolutely lovely and we ended up having great conversations over our meal, often staying well after we’d finished to carry on chatting.


~ I’m going to do a separate post about gluten free food because I found very little useful information anywhere about this before I left. However, I ate very well and the staff were able to accommodate my needs very well. So, look out for that coming soon – I’ll take you through what’s available for every meal and which options I’d recommend. (Edit: you can find that post here)

~ There’s also a small drinks area in each sleeper car where they serve coffee and orange juice in the mornings.

~ I’d summarise the meals as surprisingly good for a train. I was always left full and happy. I even got pudding that wasn’t fruit salad. Does it get much better than that?

~ If you’re going to Portland, you won’t have a buffet car after the train splits at Spokane. They will give you your final meal of breakfast in a box instead.


~ Most people in the sleeper cars were 50+, but not all. Don’t be put off by this, it just means they’re delighted to hear stories from ‘you young folk’.

~ Wear sensible shoes. The train sways pretty violently and until you get your train legs, you don’t want to trip and get a hot coffee to the foot – or something worse. Plus, if you get off the train at stops along the way the ground is usually pretty rough and not something you want to wear your best shoes on.


~ Bring layers. The air conditioning is not as fierce as on some trains, but I wasn’t particularly warm, either. And the controls in our roomette didn’t seem very effective. As Natalie Tran’s mother would say, bring jzumper.

~ The train is VERY LOUD at night and toots its horn roughly every five seconds. I didn’t find the motion bothered me but the noise really did. I highly recommend ear plugs and an eye mask as a bare minimum.

~ By the coffee and orange juice stand there was a sort of reading material amnesty area, where people left magazines and books they’d finished with. I thought this was a really nice idea, so make sure to check it and/or leave something yourself if you don’t want it any more.

~ Take the opportunity to get out and see the stops when you can. There should be an hour long break in Minot, North Dakota. It’s quite an interesting town. Let me know if they’re still digging up the entire centre of town when you visit.


~ You’ll also get to see great swathes of the country which you wouldn’t necessarily be able to otherwise. The Empire Builder passes through not just the Cascades…


…but the Rockies as well. Watching that scenery glide past the windows was just thrilling in a way I really can’t describe.


It’s a little tricky to get photos out of a window in a moving train, and speeds do vary although we seemed to go a bit more slowly past particularly pretty stretches. I hope you get the general idea.

I had the most marvellous trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder, and I’d highly recommend investigating this as your next memorable trip.

Oh and you also get to arrive into one of the prettiest stations I’ve ever been in. What a welcome to Seattle!


So, have I convinced you? What would you pack for this train trip?

Have you seen the post where I show you around our roomette (and, crucially, the bathrooms)?

What about the one some anecdotes and truly awful selfies from the trip??

Or the cruise to Alaska we embarked on directly after this?


Pin me for later:

What better way to see more of the continental United States than by taking an epic train trip from Chicago to Seattle. In this post I share with you my top tips on taking the Amtrak Empire Builder



  1. 26th October 2016 / 10:30

    This was fun to read about! I love train travel, way nicer and less stressful than planes, but I’ve never been on a train for THAT long before. I wouldn’t mind trying it out!

    • 27th October 2016 / 11:35

      This was by far the longest I’ve been on a moving vehicle, the next closest thing would probably be flying from the UK to Australia but that’s only 22ish hours and the train was over 45! And still the train was an infinitely more pleasant experience! Now if only I could take the train to Australia…

      • Pat
        17th August 2017 / 09:28

        Can anyone please tell me if the roomettes can be locked from the outside? Or is there a space for a padlock? I don’t like the idea of going to dinner or the toilet or shower and having my roomette unlocked.

        • 17th August 2017 / 09:53

          [I now reply to comments via email, but am leaving this reponse here in case it helps anyone else]

          Hi Pat,

          No, the roomettes can only be locked from the inside with a sliding bolt thing. There is nowhere to put a padlock.

          In terms of safety, yes that did bother me somewhat at first. However, your car steward keeps an eye on security at all times and nobody is going to wander onto the train when you’re stopped at a station. I would say the downstairs rooms are somewhat more secure as you can’t walk past them (the ‘through’ corridor is upstairs) and your steward will quickly notice if someone is about who doesn’t belong in the carriage.

          Of course I wouldn’t recommend taking very valuable possessions onto the train, if you do then I would make sure they are either a) checked into your bags, I believe they’re held securely although I couldn’t vouch for it, or b) portable!

          • Pat
            17th August 2017 / 10:13

            Thank you so much for the quick response. The only reason we are even taking a train is because we are travelling with an irreplacable bass guitar that we don’t want to book on an airplane. So I think we’ll drive! (from Albany to San Fran, no less.)


  2. 26th October 2016 / 13:43

    haha popular demand = moi! i love it. seriously fascinated by this bc i really just fly all the places. but it sounds like such a fun adventure! so many great tips and details – down to the boarding process and the restrooms which if we’re being honest – is very important ha.

    xoxo cheshire kat

    • 27th October 2016 / 11:36

      Yep, I’ve always flown before, too. I guess there aren’t many places with train trips quite like this, and they are quite expensive, but the experience is amazing. And it’s all very comfy and well thought through. Everyone cares about loos! It’s important!

  3. Jen
    26th October 2016 / 15:02

    I love Amtraks!!!! They are so fun and like you said being able to see parts of the country you never would have seen is pretty amazing.

    • 27th October 2016 / 11:37

      Definitely! I’m sad the company seems to be making a loss and some of these routes might die out. I think it’s an excellent way to see the country, especially for someone like me who is new to the place. Also it was great to do so whilst meeting new people, not having to worry about getting tired from driving, not being able to drink, rest stop food… Just so much better!

  4. 26th October 2016 / 16:22

    Wow, thanks for this super informative post! I’ve been really curious about taking the train in the States and I feel like I have a much better idea of what to expect after reading this. I’m not sure if I could handle a trip that long, though.

    • 27th October 2016 / 11:39

      I did go into all the detail 🙂 but I am a person who doesn’t like to make a decision without all the facts, so I like to extend the same courtesy to others! You know what, the trip actually went by really quickly. The first night’s sleep was a little rough but the second was way better. And even if you get a bit tired, all you have to do is have a nice sit, look at some scenery, read a book and eat a lot of food. So it’s not too taxing. I would highly recommend it in case you hadn’t already guessed!

  5. 26th October 2016 / 17:30

    I’ve never even heard of this train before, but what a cool way to get from Chicago to Seattle. I’ve only traveled by train a few times and never for a super long period of time, but I surprisingly really liked it. It’s a nice way to travel while relaxing and still being a bit mobile. These are awesome tips and such great info for anyone looking into this train! Can’t wait to see the roommette tour 😀

    • 27th October 2016 / 11:40

      Exactly, I love that you’re not cooped up in a plane or car seat. You can walk about as much or as little as you like! And you don’t have to worry about food at all, you just turn up and someone feeds you a decent meal that you don’t have to pay for. Then you can watch scenery for a bit, do star jumps on a random platform, and generally have a whale of a time! Roomette tour coming asap!

  6. 26th October 2016 / 17:49

    I would love love love to go on a train trip like this! In fact I’ve been toying with the idea of taking the train from Narvik to Stockholm for ages! I really like the idea of having a whole compartment to yourself, no matter how tiny. Usually on trains, there’s always people talking loudly on the phone or something and that annoys the hell out of me. But if you have your own private space, you can enjoy the landscape and scenery in peace 🙂

    • 27th October 2016 / 11:42

      Ooooh you should definitely do that. I’d love to read about it! I bet Norwegian trains are amazing.

      Having a compartment felt really cool. Just like in classic novels. I’m sure it’s nothing like what Agatha Christie wrote about but it felt that way to me! I also loved being able to escape from the annoying general public – although I have to say that apart from some obnoxious talking people in the observation car, everyone else was most civilised. Which made a nice change!

  7. 26th October 2016 / 18:04

    So cool! Thanks for this in-depth post, super useful information! I never even thought of how the trains would constantly be tooting its horn! I still have as a goal to take the train across Canada (which I may have already written on one of your other train posts…), which takes a week and it looks so beautiful!

    • 27th October 2016 / 11:44

      It was not at all something I’d have thought would happen, but apparently it’s regulation. I guess the track goes through the actual middle of nowhere so you wouldn’t want anyone or anything getting caught on the tracks. I think I wrote on your last comment that some people on our train had done the Canada train and said it was even better, so you should definitely go for it!

  8. 26th October 2016 / 18:22

    Great post! I’ve never done anything more than a day ride on the amtrak, so it was very informative and useful information to have. Looking forward to your post on the roomette!

  9. 26th October 2016 / 18:22

    Um, where can I sign up? Taking a long train ride like that just sounds so unique and like a great way to get to see the country too. I love that they had park rangers that told you all about what you were seeing along the way, but that is weird that they don’t put it over the intercom. I think that I’d get lost in a book on that train ride without WiFi, which is definitely a good thing to do!

    • 27th October 2016 / 11:47

      It was genuinely a fantastic experience. I really hope you do make it! I’d recommend booking well in advance as I think the roomettes sell out/go up in price pretty quick. I think you can even book with some reward points (maybe Chase?) and make it a bit more affordable. It was strange they didn’t put the ranger over the intercom, because there are different channels so people can switch it off if they find it disturbing. And I didn’t have quite as much time to read as I thought I would, which was disappointing! But also sort of a good thing!

    • Catherine
      12th March 2019 / 02:21

      There may be park rangers on the train in the summer. We just traveled to Portland from Chicago (second week of March) and there were no rangers and no commentary. Believe me, that was just fine. Totally relaxing to watch the country roll by.

  10. 26th October 2016 / 20:41

    This sounds just so amazing, in every way! I never knew anything about this train, is it generally well known? Sign me up now!! 😀

    • 27th October 2016 / 11:48

      I have no idea, I’d never heard of it before this trip, whereas I had heard of similar long distance trains in eg Canada, Orient Express, etc. I wonder how well known it is in the US? If I’m judging by some of my US commenters, not that well known!

  11. 27th October 2016 / 05:02

    I’ve only experienced long train travel in Europe, and I quite enjoy it. I’m not really sure why I never thought to look at Amtrak options while living in the States.

    • 27th October 2016 / 11:49

      I get the feeling it’s not as well known? Also I think these Amtrak trains are more of a leisure type option, rather than something you use when you just need to get from A to B. Which is probably why they’re losing money….

  12. 27th October 2016 / 18:16

    oh my goodness, talk about detailed girl! you go. i would take a roomette tour, so you can add me to the demand. i honestly don’t think i will ever take this trip personally, but i felt like i did reading all this. the rangers talking about stuff sounds super awesome, the sharing bathrooms less so. haha. KC would LOVE to share tables with people. he loves talking to strangers.

    • 1st November 2016 / 11:29

      Ha yeah I really went for it didn’t I?! I couldn’t find anything useful on the internet before I went so I thought I’d help a sister out. Also now you don’t have to do the trip because you basically did in this post! Now you just need to know about the accom so roomette demand noted 🙂 I’m not normally a fan of talking to strangers but everyone was SO NICE that it honestly was one of the best things about it! Coming from me that’s big.

  13. Mili
    28th October 2016 / 00:13

    Wow! This was such a cool post to read! I don’t think I know anyone who has ever taken a cross country train trip. Thank you for being so thorough in your review! I’ve only flown over the Rockies and admired them from a bird’s eye view, but they look even more stunning when passing through. I had no idea that there was enough time to get off on the stops and look around. The only time I’ve ever traveled long distance by train is in Italy and everything was so quick, quick, quick!

    Aaand you’ve totally convinced me that I need to make a cross country trip via train! In HS my friend and I thought that she would be going to school in St. Louis and I in Chicago and we would take trains to visit each other. That didn’t pan out since she ended up going to school in NYC and I in Los Angeles…and a train ride wasn’t really any option for that journey lol. But now I need to find an excuse to use the train 😉

    Mili | Sharmtoaster

    • 1st November 2016 / 11:36

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I don’t know anyone who’s done it either, and information on the net was pretty limited so I really had no idea what to expect before I went. Hopefully this will help someone else out! Flying over the Rockies must have been so cool, I always forget that you can often see some pretty cool stuff from flights.

      Most stops along the way you couldn’t get off, and the longer stops were usually about 10-20 minutes long with our one major stop at Minot which was a full hour. So that was pretty cool, I wish we could have got off at more places because it’s very unlikely I’ll ever get to go back there again! I’d particularly have liked to get off at Whitefish because it seemed like a beautiful place to explore.

      I’m so glad I’ve convinced you! I think Amtrak do a few different routes so hopefully you’ll find one that works for you. I’ve heard that this one (the Empire Builder) and the Coast Starlight (Seattle to SF I think) are the best ones in terms of scenery and train standards, but I’m sure the internet will help you with your decision. Let me know when you take one, I’d love to see how you go!

      • Leslie
        16th January 2019 / 19:13

        I LOVE Whitefish! It is utterly stunning. I went last summer, amazing. I’m actually trying to find a way to live there haha. I was so excited when I saw the train stop in Whitefish…although it’s 96 hrs from me in Fl to Whitefish by train…Granted, I stumbled upon your post because I’m looking into going from Fl to Portland Oregon in the next few weeks with my service dog. The train seems much more comfortable and all around easier for me than the stress and rush of flying. Supposedly they let you off at most stops for pup potty breaks (the stops where most people can’t get off). Granted, it’s only like 10 mins which is why service dogs are trained to go on command haha. I was originally thinking I’d drive, it’s a 44 hr drive direct to Portland. However, I can’t drive direct so you have to add in lodging (probably camping!) and then just the fuel costs alone are $240 each way! It’s just over $300 for a value fare on the train and no work for me, sounds like a winner! Flights may be faster (and honestly, cheaper right now), but the stress is just too much for me. Plus, the scenery! After falling in love with Glacier National Park in person I would just love to travel through that entire region with nothing but time to watch the world go by. Thanks for such a well written article. I found it quite helpful and encouraging. The only trains I’ve been on were things like Belfast to Dublin, a few hours but no big deal.

  14. 28th October 2016 / 02:43

    This sounds amazing! I haven’t traveled much by train, and my experience has been pretty hit or miss, but I really want to do a cross country trip 🙂

    • 1st November 2016 / 11:38

      I think this is not at all like your regular train experience, it’s definitely tourist market focussed and it’s like a little holiday in a trip. It’s now convinced me that long distance train travel is the way to go and I’m investigating where I can go next! I’m hoping all experiences will be as good as this one but I think that may be overly optimistic. The cross country element was so cool, seeing the landscape change and beginning to grasp just what a huge country the US is compared to little old UK!

      • Patricia Dickman
        27th March 2021 / 05:37

        I have just found your blog about the train to Seattle and am delighted. Everything we wanted to know was right there, Thanks. My husband and I are taking the train next month and meeting our son before he leaves for South Korea with the US Air Force. We are then driving his truck back to Pennsylvania where we live (Carlisle). I am also a Brit and the longest train journey I have taken was Heidelberg, Germany to Barcelona, Spain or Heidelberg to Copenhagen.

  15. 2nd November 2016 / 07:38

    Great post Rachel – this train trip is on my bucket list. We took the Coast Starlight last year from Seattle to San Francisco then on to LA. Would love to travel more by train in USA. We also stayed in a roomette – my husband found the top bunk a bit claustrophobic. We also met some interesting characters on the train – very keen to chat about Europe and ask questions.

    • 2nd November 2016 / 09:00

      Oh I’ve heard great things about that route, lots of people were talking about how great the views are. I’d love to do that route too! Yes my husband wasn’t a huge fan of the top bunk, but it’s such a lot more money to go for the bigger bedroom cabins so he just had to suck it up, poor boy! We had some interesting conversations along the lines of Brexit vs Trump…!

  16. 2nd November 2016 / 19:39

    I love the sound of this journey. I have a possibly slightly odd like of being on long journeys – there’s something about being able to just look at the world go by that I really enjoy. On a train and with these views – even better. A brilliant guide too – it’s going on my increasingly long bucket list immediately! 🙂

    • 7th November 2016 / 14:39

      I know what you mean – when I knew I was on that train for the next 45 hours and all I had to do was kick back, relax, enjoy the view and anticipate my next meal I just felt incredibly relaxed! Not like being on a plane, where everything is stressful and you’re rushing from check in to security to the gate and queuing a jillion times for everything. Plus the views! They really were great. I’ve never been to that part of the US before so it was all new to me. It was a great way to see the place if you ask me.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the guide, and I hope you make the trip one day!

  17. 4th November 2016 / 03:07

    Great review and pics! Last month I took the Southwest Chief from LA to Chicago then the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland. I flew home from there because I didn’t have any more time lol. I look forward to more trips. Maybe the Coast Starlight next!
    I posted a 360-degree photo of my roomette here:

    • 7th November 2016 / 14:40

      Oooh great, I’d be interested to hear what the Southwest Chief was like. I’m following your link now! What did you make of the Empire Builder?

      I’ve heard great things about the Coast Starlight. If I’m able to do another Amtrak trip again, I’ll definitely go for that one.

  18. 15th November 2016 / 12:17

    This was such an interesting read! It seems so romantic to me to go on a long train journey (like how people had to travel in the old days). I would love to do this someday! But I’m one of those people who are picky about having to share bathrooms with so many other people and hate public bathrooms in general, so I may have to wait until I’m richer to splurge for a bedroom!

  19. KenP
    21st December 2016 / 04:18

    Thanks Rachel, for such a lovely and well rounded description of travelling by rail in the western US. I am sure that our overseas visitors will find this information very valuable given the depth of the reporting. I actually prefer the downstairs rooms because, as you have pointed out, they are more private. The ride is better down there and in the upper bunks in the upper level, you get a lot more sway. The coach seats as you stated are generous in room, but many people have a hard time sleeping in them. When you factor in the meals, you are really only paying a small premium for booking a roomette vs a coach seat and I would definitely advise that. Adventurers might be interested in going one way from Chicago (on the Empire Builder as you did) then going down the west coast on the Starlight, and then back to Chicago either from San Francisco (California Zephyr) or Los Angeles (Southwest Chief). All these legs use the same Superliner two-story equipment and traverse different but equally spectacular scenery.

  20. Mary Jo Holmes
    8th February 2017 / 13:30

    This article was great. I am interested in taking a long train trip and this woman explained a lot of things that I wanted to know. If Amtrak could put more articles like this one on their website for other routes around the country. I think people are a little afraid and don’t know what to expect, but when they know about the route they are more likely to book a train trip.

  21. 2nd March 2017 / 21:18

    Great exposé Rachel. I am leaving one month from today (on April 2) on the Lake Shore LTD and then the Southwest Chief to LAX and back… just for the ride. I have taken the LSL 5 times but never got further West until now. My experiences in meeting people have been memorable and I am looking for more. I will be writing an experience journal such as yours and being an avid photographer, I am looking forward to fretting over which shots to use. I work the summers on the Lake Winnipesaukee Scenic RR in NH as a fireman… my attraction to trains runs deep. Funny you mentioned the continual horns (19b as they’re called)… I kind of found them synchronous and mesmerizing in the middle of the night going through the corn country of Ohio and Indiana even if I did arrive quite tired.
    Thanks for the story.
    Cheers!– Chris

  22. Vanda
    4th April 2017 / 08:19

    Great article, and so helpful being first hand. I want to visit friends in Arizona and UK to Washington dc flights are cheapest. I was toying with getting the train from Washington to Flagstaff so I could see more of the country. This has encouraged me to definitely consider it. As a Brit I would never have thought of the tipping, so thanks for the heads up!

  23. Cathy
    16th May 2017 / 07:52

    Your detailed post was so helpful. I read it just before taking the Empire Builder from Seattle to Whitefish, MT, (disembarking for a day) and then traveling from Whitefish to Minneapolis. While I’d read the Amtrak website, I did not realize there was a shower and multiple “loos” in the sleeper car, until I read your post. I had a downstairs roomette during the first leg of my trip and was upstairs during the second. I agree with the advantages you mention about staying downstairs. Another advantage was the ability to stand in the entrance/exit area, to take pictures through the window of both sides of the train. It was nice to be on my feet too. Happy travels!

  24. Sandy
    8th July 2017 / 16:43

    I wish I’d seen this before my trip (Late September 2016). Went Southern Wisconsin to Whitefish Montana, and it was our first Amtrak trip. We had a roomettes both ways and found it cozy and very comfortable. The people who worked on the train were great, and most fellow passengers were friendly and fun to chat with. Plus, the food was outstanding on our trip. It was such a wonderful experience & I can’t recommend it highly enough. I hoe they keep these trains running, as it would be a huge loss if they stop.
    I’m glad you had fun like we did! We’re going again this autumn! 🙂

  25. DeAnn Jenkins
    18th July 2017 / 23:09

    Thank you so,much for the valuable information you provided. We are scheduled for the train at the end of September. My question is even thought I,know there will,not,be any wifi,available, I do enjoy playing games on my iPad. By any chance is there a way in the roomette to charge my devise?

    • 8th August 2017 / 11:07

      Just wanted to post my reply here – I now reply to all comments via email, but wanted this one to show up to any others concerned about power supply. Yes, there is a power socket at head level next to one of the seats in the roomette. My additional tip would be to bring a power board/power strip so you can plug in more than one thing at once. If you’re anything like us, you’ll have a small army of things that need charging!

      Also if you’re from somewhere with different plugs, that way you can use one adaptor at the wall then plug in all your devices as normal. For us it was a lifesaver during our travels!

  26. Cathy
    18th July 2017 / 23:47

    Yes, each Roomette has an electrical outlet on the wall up above the seat back. I used mine a lot!

  27. Judy Salmon
    14th August 2017 / 12:16

    Thank you for a very informative and entertaining post. I have been researching this train/route for almost a year now. I am hoping to go out in early 2018 to see my son who is stationed near Seattle. The cost is a bit prohibitive for me (1,000 US) but am going to try to manage it. I have wanted to do a solo train journey for quite some time. Your review has just reinforced that :).

  28. 27th August 2017 / 23:33

    Rachel I will be taking the Empire Builder in September from Chicago to Portland. I start by myself and then meet up with 3 friends in St Cloud, Minnesota. My worry is we won’t be able to all sit together as we just have general seats, no sleeper. Did you see people holding seats or can they assign all our seats together since they give you a car number to board? Thought I would ask you first and then call them. Your information was very informative and I appreciate you taking the time to tell us your experiences. I am rather nervous about the trip until my friends board with me!

    • 28th August 2017 / 11:26

      [I now reply to comments via email, but am leaving this response here in case it helps anyone else]

      Thank you for your kind words and for seeing me as some kind of Amtrak Guru! I’ll gladly take the praise, but I only wish I were a little more experienced on the topic.

      The bottom line is, yes I think you’ll have to ring Amtrak for this one, sorry. I don’t have personal experience in seating in the general seats so would hate to misguide you.

      From memory, the general seating areas were pretty empty when we got on in Chicago, and you could probably do your best to bag a few seats. I’d say it also depends on whether you all want a double seat to yourselves – that may be a bit more tricky. But if you don’t mind sharing 2 seats of 2 then you may have better luck. Even when the train filled up a bit more (by Minneapolis I think things were getting busy) there did seem to be space for most people to have a double seat to themselves.

      The other advice I have is to make friends with your car steward. You’ll have one even in the general carriages. Even if they’re not able to assign you seats together on the phone, if you speak very nicely with your steward they might be able to ensure you have a set of 4 reserved until your friends join you.

      Good luck and enjoy the trip! Don’t be nervous, it’s so much fun. People are friendly and I’m sure you’ll have a blast even before your friends join.

  29. Cookie
    8th October 2017 / 01:55

    Rachel – this is a great post and very informative. I am one of those older citizens that will have a sleeper…:) I am on a couple of FB Amtrak pages – but I must say this gave much more information. My sister and I will be leaving end of this month from Chicago to Seattle…Can you advise if the bed were comfortable – I keep getting different stories…Just wondering if I should take extra cusion for the bed. Thanks and again enjoyed your post and can’t wait for my first Amtrak trip…This is one of my retirement gift to myself..

  30. 31st October 2017 / 03:18

    Thanks for this fun and detailed report on your trip, I’m glad you had a good time. We travel a lot by train in the US and elsewhere and have always found it enjoyable. A note on train horn use in the USA. Federal regulations require a specific horn pattern of long, long, short, long when approaching “a public highway-rail crossing at grade” (what is called a ‘level crossing’ in the UK). As noted earlier, this is called for in my employee rule book under rule 19 subsection (b). Also note “unnecessary use of the engine whistle or horn is prohibited.” We recently returned from a trip to New Zealand and Australia that included a trip from Sydney to Perth on the Indian Pacific and from Darwin to Adelaide on The Ghan ‘Explorer.’ Both are great trips with much better food than what is served on Amtrak and we recommend them both highly.

  31. Gerald Lee
    1st November 2017 / 05:07

    Enjoyed reading this tremendously. Will be travelling on the Empire Builder soon, and I noted on the webpage that there is Wifi available but you mentioned that there isn’t? Are there much opportunities to leave the stations during stops at all? We will be travelling in a family of 6 and we are all thrilled, being our first long-haul train experience. We are also assigned the sleeper roomettes on the upper deck for our trip. Should be really fun! And thanks for the write up!

    • Pieter Lips
      1st November 2017 / 06:02

      The Amtrak web page should tell you which trains offer WiFi. Note that if a train cannot receive a cell signal there is no connectivity by WiFi. Lots of the Empire Builder’s route will likely have no connection even if WiFi is offered. Also, the connection will be slow, no streaming. Look at the car plans shown, the roomettes near the center of the car are the most comfortable, it’s bumpier over the wheels. The Conductor might be willing to move you if a wheel has a flat spot (bang, bang as the wheels turn). $20 per roomette when you get off is a fair tip for your sleeping car attendant, if you have been well taken care of. Also, tip the dining car staff 15% of what your cash meal would have cost. Take small bills, wine and beer have to be paid in cash, I think. Have a great time! We’ll be on train #8 in December, eastbound trains have even train numbers.

      • KenP
        2nd November 2017 / 02:05

        Amtrak has gone almost all cashless just like the airlines. They take credit cards in the lounge and diner for all added purchases. You will need cash for tips which are much appreciated by the crew. Don’t believe the marketing hype that the car attendants will be at your beck and call; they have too many people to take care of and if you need to have lunch delivered to your room, you should tip on the spot.

      • Catherine
        12th March 2019 / 02:14

        There is no Wi-Fi but I was able to connect with Mobile Data 90% of the time. I thought I’d be out of touch for 2½ days, but that wasn’t the case at all. I was out of touch perhaps a half hour here and there through the wilds of North Dakota or Montana, never for long. Missed a couple of phone calls, but was able to connect a little later.

    • KenP
      2nd November 2017 / 02:15

      Certain station stops (about every 4-8 hours) are crew change points where they also water the cars and fuel the engines. This usually takes about 20 minutes and if the train is late, they try to shorten that up. These are also called smoking stops and the conductor will announce on the train what the layover time will be. If it is just a quick stop to pick up passengers, they will tell you not of get off the train. Most of the train bails out at the smoking stops but don’t wander far from the platform as the train will not wait for you and they do not count people reboarding the train. You could get left behind! Do, however, take the time to wander the platform and get some fresh air.

  32. 28th December 2017 / 04:48

    Thanks Rachel, great info and photos on the Empire Builder. We are catching same tomorrow morning. My wife does a blog on our house sitting adventures (

  33. Amanda
    11th February 2018 / 08:21

    Thank you so much for this post. I’ve come back and read it twice now in preparation for my first Empire Builder trip from Chicago to Portland this May 2018. I am so excited and your post was so helpful!

    • Rachel Carlson
      18th October 2018 / 08:07

      Amanda, any more tips you can offer? I’m taking my first Empire Builder trip from Chicago to Portland next month November. I’m in coach, do you know if they offer you blankets/pillows? Or should I bring my own?

      • KenP
        22nd October 2018 / 13:51

        @Rachel They used to supply pillows but stopped that. They never have suppled blankets. Read this from Amtrak’s blog and you will be an expert:
        I often bring a light wight sleeping bag and slippers for overnight. They also sell “survivor kits” in the lounge car that consists of a light weight blanket (like on the airplane), neck pillow, ear plugs and night shade. However, you can take up to 4 bags on board, so you can bring all your personal bedding that your need!

        • Rachel Carlson
          2nd November 2018 / 04:25

          Thank you SO MUCH for the link and the tips!!!

  34. Pieter
    13th February 2018 / 03:29

    Two more notes: The straps on the upper bunk (where I sleep) don’t go around you like a seat belt, but attach from the side of the bunk to the ceiling to keep you from tumbling off if the train lurches violently. I’ve never had this problem.
    Also, notes on the train horn. US Federal regulations call for a mandatory horn signal in advance of every grade crossing (called level crossings in UK parlance). A train may go for many miles between crossings or have them a number of times in a mile. A signal of; long, long, short, long is what you will hear. Additionally two short signals means the train is starting.
    As you mentioned the roomette has only a single electrical outlet, US grounded style and provides 110v power, we travel with plug strip for that reason.

    • Catherine
      12th March 2019 / 02:10

      When my mom and I were in the accessible sleeper room, we never heard the whistle, since it’s the last car on the train. Just as a point of interest, the whistle call, long-long-short-long is Morse code for the letter Q, and means “The Queen is coming!” How cool is that?!?

  35. Stephanie Kilian
    1st March 2018 / 14:13

    We have done Empire Builder several times, with roomette, in coach, and we prefer coach. I felt claustrophobic in the small roomette. We kept bumping legs, sitting across from each other, and the bed was not that comfortable, I kept thinking that I would fall out.

    Conversely, in coach, my husband and I sat next to each other, in two seats, together, like a love seat. I prefer to sit downstairs, close access to bathroom, and no people walking through the cars, it is quieter. My spouse prefers upstairs, to have better view.

    For sleeping, we were cuddled together, with a blanket, and pillow, perfectly cozy. I wore yoga pants, slip on shoes, brought socks, a tee shirt and sweater. This was perfect. I also brought a sleep shade. We brought our own food, but paid for breakfast.

    • Paul Bayer
      19th March 2018 / 07:55

      Stephanie, or other, do they provide you with pillows (like airline) in coach seats? or do you recommend bringing your own? blankets too I assume? Thanks,

  36. Diane Canary
    29th March 2018 / 02:00

    Thank you very much for this information. I took this train a few years back, and I am getting ready to take it again. You did a good job of information, plus the comments below the blog had a few more tips.

  37. 16th July 2018 / 00:23

    I’m on my way to Chicago via Detroit (train) and will be taking the Empire Builder to Portland! I am SO glad you’ve put together this guide, gives me a great sense of what to expect. Happy travels!

  38. Rachel Carlson
    18th October 2018 / 08:02

    Rachel, HELLO!

    First and foremost, LOVE your blog name: A Nesting Nomad. My Instagram handle is pdxnomad. My business name is Caretaking Nomad. I am seven years into my business of professional caretaking, house sitting, pet setting, My homebase is Portland, OR. I don’t have a dedicated home but I’m very fortunate to have a host home that takes me in during my client gaps. That said, I travel all across the land taking care of client homes and animals. I dont’ own a vehicle so I travel via Amtrak to two Seattle clients. I was recently there last month. I LOVE Amtrak! I was doing research on the Empire Builder as I will be traveling via Amtrak on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland after Thanksgiving in Chicago. I’m so excited as I love train travel though have yet to be on the Empire Builder. Your information above was very helpful so thank you very much for that! I can’t afford a roomette for this trip but one day will do a roomette with my boyfriend. Hope you’re doing well and are still going on many adventures. Thanks again for the information!

    Rachel (YES, true story! I’m so glad you spell it properly too!)

  39. 26th February 2019 / 02:35

    Thanks for all your very, very helpful tips and insights. I’m traveling on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland next week with my 88 year old mom. We’ve done African safaris and Baltic Sea cruises together, and now this. We’ve talked about making a cross-country train trip for several years and we are terribly excited. We’ll be in the accessible sleeper, so I’ll let you know how it differs from your experience.

    • KenP
      26th February 2019 / 04:45

      That will be interesting!. Most of us who have travelled extensively on Amtrak have no idea what to tell our impaired friends about the efficiency of the accessible sleeper. Thanks in advance. B/T/W, this time of year the train will climb the Rocky Mts. in the dark and you will miss seeing the edge of Glacier Park. However, the Cascades are equally as beautiful so be poised to get up with the sun on your last day on the train.

      • Catherine
        12th March 2019 / 02:02

        Hello, Ken P, I’m back from the Empire Builder trip in the accessible sleeper. It was a good experience. The H sleeper is on the lower floor, right by the entrance to the car, down the hall with the toilets and shower. It spans the width of the car, so there are windows on both sides. The beds are the same as in a roomette, that is, two singles, with the upper bed a pull-down,, but the plus is that there’s floor space in the middle, suitable for a wheelchair. The commode and sink are on the right of the door, the beds on the left, with a central open area. Glamorous it’s not, as you are gazing at your bathroom, but there is a drape you can close down the middle for privacy for either side. There is room service, so if the traveler is not able to climb the steps to the upper level where the dining car is, food can be brought to the bedroom unit. The hard part for an impaired traveler is that the observation car and dining car are on the upper level, and the cafe is on the lower level down from the observation car, so even to get to the cafe one must climb stairs, traverse several cars to get to the observation car and then go downstairs again to the cafe. The dining car is even more cars down the train (up the train, really, as the H car is the last car on the train). If someone is truly wheelchair bound they would not be able to visit the dining car or the observation car. The noise of the whistle that Rachel mentions was never even heard, since the H car is at the very end of the train. The normal sound of train wheels on tracks is ever-present, but not an issue, and there is some lurching from time to time, but all of that is part of the experience. My mom is not in a wheelchair, she’s 89 years old and has 4 artificial joints so it was easier for her to be in this unit, but she was able to climb the stairs a couple of times a day for meals and to sit in the observation car. We slept well and ate extremely well. You’re right, it was pitch dark when we got to Glacier, but I was up at 5:00 a.m. on the last morning and watched the entire journey through the Columbia Gorge, which was spectacular. We saw many eagles, a coyote, an elk herd and thousands of spooked ducks plunge into the river as the train went by. Truly wonderful.

        • KenP
          12th March 2019 / 05:15

          Thank you Catherine, for this insight into traveling in the accessible sleeper unit! Yes, being in the Portland bound sleeper car puts you some distance from the dining car (which, as you noticed, went to Seattle after the train was split in Spokane). Sounds like it all worked out if you are mobile enough to climb the stairs once in awhile. If you were to take the train eastbound in the summer, you will enjoy Glacier in the daylight-something to consider for a future trip. So glad that you enjoyed the journey!

          • Catherine
            12th March 2019 / 05:18

            I did enjoy it, and now I’m hoping to persuade my husband to take the California Zephyr to Glenwood Springs Colorado in July. We’ll see, but I’m definitely up for another cross-country journey by train. Happy travels to you!

          • 27th June 2019 / 17:26

            Thank you Ken and Catherine for this really useful insight! I’m so glad you had a good trip Catherine, and thanks for sharing the ins and outs of travel with mobility restrictions. The accessible sleeper sounds very well set out, although the gazing at the bathroom comment made me laugh. I think it’s great that they bring meals to your room, because as you say, those stairs are steep and more than a little tricky while the train is in motion. I’m really glad your Mum was able to enjoy the views and the community of the dining and observation cars (it was one of my favourite things about the experience!) and please let me know if you manage to take the California Zephyr? I’d love to travel on it myself.

            Also thanks again to you Ken for your helpful responses and willingness to contribute and help out other train travellers. I really appreciate it!

            Happy travels to you both!

  40. 26th February 2019 / 04:52

    Thank you, Ken, I will be up at dawn, I’m sure. Won’t have completely adjusted to PST so I should be wide awake early. Will keep you posted about the accessible unit.

  41. Renee W.
    26th June 2019 / 01:50

    I am taking the train out west to see my sister, but I only got a coach seat. Can I leave non valuable items over head by my seat or will people go through my bags?? I would hate to carry all my bags to the observation car. Any advice?? Thanks

    • 27th June 2019 / 17:20

      Just adding on to the reply I sent you via email, as I think this is a really great question and I want to respond publicly. Thanks Catherine for your response – I completely agree, I think your belongings will be very safe on the train. As Catherine said, carry anything particularly valuable or nickable with you as you move around the train, but aside from that I can’t imagine anyone going for a rummage in your stuff. It would also be very obvious to the people around you if someone were do so. I found there to be a real community spirit on the train, and I’m sure your neighbours wouldn’t hesitate to ask questions if they felt something was amiss. Even more so if you befriend them and ask them to keep half an eye out. I know I’d have been happy to for a roomette neighour if they’d asked me to.

      Have a fabulous time!

  42. Catherine
    26th June 2019 / 02:50

    I would think that you would be fine. Don’t take anything of real value on your trip. Carry your cash and your credit cards on your person, but no one’s going to take your clothes or your books or your quilt or your pillow okay. Well they might take your pillow, but just use some common sense don’t bring anything valuable and don’t leave anything really valuable unattended. But there’s plenty of luggage people are generally minding your own business. You should be fine.

  43. Antoinette Thomas
    9th August 2019 / 13:24

    It’s going to be my first time on a train since it’s a quicker trip than taking the Greyhound with a 3 year old daughter who is very hyper. I decided to do upper level because it seems like my station Union Depot, does checked baggage services and storage (i’m not sure what the storage means, I’m guessing it’s the part on the train you can place your luggage from the outside I’m assuming). But I’m not sure what the difference is The good thing is that I visit the station to see where to go and how it looks like so I’m not confused about that, I’m more confused about how to get my luggage checked in so that way I’m not carrying a duffle bag, booster seat, with a 3 year old and a backpack. Thanks for the tip this made me feel much better, just worried about my luggage, once I get a more understanding about that then I will be fine.

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