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.
~ 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…
- There are three loos downstairs (per 6 roomettes) and only one upstairs (per 10 roomettes) so I never had to queue
- 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
- You can only move through the train via the upper deck (floor? level?) so downstairs felt more private
- The steward hung out downstairs, so we had more chance of collaring him if we needed him
- 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
- 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
~ 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.
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?
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