As a wedding gift, my friend Tim bought us a train ride from Seattle to Chicago on the Amtrak Empire Builder line. We had been visiting Tim for a week after flying out from Chicago, and he said the train would be a great experience for me and Marisol.
The train was to leave King Street Station, passing through the Cascade Mountains and entering Glacier National Park the next morning. It would then cross over the Great Plains, down the Mississippi River, and through Wisconsin before arriving at Union Station in Chicago. The journey would take two full days, but luckily we would have a sleeper cabin.
We got a ride to King Street Station in Seattle, where we waited in line to check in. There was nobody around until about 15 minutes before the train was to depart, so we were a bit confused with the boarding process.
Once the conductors arrived, our tickets were scanned and we were escorted to the correct car. There, we met our friendly porter, John, who took our luggage and placed it on the rack on the lower level. He then took us to our cabin where we got settled. The train departed exactly on time.
The cabin was made up of two seats facing each other and a retractable tray between them. A narrow closet was next to the sliding door to store our small bags and jackets. Above was a bed that folded down at night.
The cabin was a bit tight but we made it work. During the day, we could sit and use our computers, read a book, watch a movie, or just look out the window.
At night, John would take a few minutes to prepare the room for us to sleep. The bottom bunk was a bit roomier than the top. On top, I felt claustrophobic. I wasn’t able to sit up at all and it kind of stressed me out. It was also much shakier up there.
Meals were served in the dining car. We would be seated next to each other at a shared table with other passengers. The staff encouraged the guests to socialize, and we met some very interesting people.
The food was hit or mess. Think airplane food. Breakfast wasn’t great, but we thought the lunches and dinners were much better. For the sleeper cars, meals were included, but for others, the prices seemed steep for the portion size and quality. Also, it’s good to have extra cash to tip the wait staff.
The variety of food was good, but as I mentioned, the portion size was a bit small. For our first dinner, I had a steak and Marisol had chicken.
On the second night, I had risotto and Marisol had salmon. We also ordered desserts, which were excellent.
Our lunches were burgers, chilaquiles, and a salad. For breakfast, the eggs and pancakes weren’t that great.
Before arriving in Chicago, we decided to have lunch in our cabin. We were a little tired of having conversations with strangers at that point. John took our order and brought it to us shortly after.
When we didn’t want to be in our cabin, we moved to the observation car. There were several seats and tables, and the windows extended to the top of the car. Many of the guests were chatting or playing games while others were fixated on the windows.
A lot of people raved about the scenery, but we didn’t really care for it. The best part was the two hours passing through Glacier National Park. We were able to see some snow-capped peaks but it still wasn’t as dramatic as we were expecting.
Once we got to the Great Plains, the scenery was flat for several hours. This is where we took a few daytime naps.
The views got better again after leaving Minneapolis. We traveled along the Mississippi River for a bit, which at times was beautiful. The train also made a few stops at beautiful little stations.
We were able to get off the train for a few minutes at the longer stops, otherwise, we were stuck. Our first time off the train was in Wenatchee, Washington, where John told us the majority of the world’s apples are grown. On the second night, we stepped off the train in Minot, North Dakota, to 24° F temperatures.
Bathrooms were just like in an airplane. We had one near our cabin, and there were a few on the lower level with showers. Towels and soap are provided. I think the crew did a great job keeping the bathrooms clean throughout the trip.
Our porter, John, frequently works on the Empire Builder. He’s a friendly guy with a loud voice and a great sense of humor. He was a real people person and was always available to help. He also knew a lot about every stop on the journey and was more than happy to answer questions and chat. We weren’t sure what to tip at the end, so we ended up giving him US$10 per person per night, so US$40.
As we began to pull in to Chicago, I started noticing some familiar streets and landmarks. Our journey on the Empire Builder was over when we arrived at Union Station. John thanked everyone as we disembarked from the train, gave the visitors some tips on what to see and where to eat, and we walked to my brother’s apartment a few blocks away.
Would we take another long-distance train ride again? I doubt it, but it was a wonderful experience and we’re grateful Tim gave us the chance to enjoy it.