Train travel is one of the most romanticized forms of transportation. Riding a superliner is the stuff of movies and dreams, especially when it’s the Amtrak Empire Builder.
But is this cross-country trip from the Pacific Northwest to the heart of the Midwest all it’s cracked up to be?
I decided to find out for myself.
I’d ridden Amtrak once. In 2009, I accompanied a singer-songwriter friend from Chicago to Memphis. Along the way, we stopped in college towns and he played in coffee shops to raise money for St. Jude’s.
It was during that trip I learned that Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks and trains can be delayed for any number of reasons, including freight trains and, in Illinois, cows.
Because of that earlier experience, I knew that coach seats were comfortable and spacious. More importantly, I knew I needed to pack my patience along with my pillow and blanket.
This time, I went all-in. I flew into San Diego, took eight days to drive up to Seattle on an incredible Pacific coast road trip, and rode the Amtrak Empire Builder train home.
After a restful night at Hyatt Place and a 6 ½ mile walk around downtown Seattle, I arrived at King Street Station with an hour and a half to spare.
What it’s really like to ride Amtrak Empire Builder
I’d arrived earlier than was necessary. During my morning trek around downtown, I’d stopped at the station and asked a ticket agent how I could be sure to get a window seat. He told me to arrive about thirty minutes in advance and which gate I should sit near to get onto the train early.
Because you can reserve upper level or lower level seats, but not the seats themselves, I wanted to make sure I’d have that window. The view was the reason I was taking this mode of transportation.
Besides, 45+ hours in an aisle seat didn’t sound like a great time.
We boarded a few minutes past our scheduled departure time, but not by much. When I reached my train car, the conductor, Jeff, asked where I was headed. Chicago! I said, and gave him my biggest smile.
This was not an attempt to flirt; I was seriously excited to be boarding. Plus, we’d be spending the next two days together. It wouldn’t hurt to be nice.
(It never hurts to be nice.)
I got a window seat. Then a young woman sat next to me. At first I was disappointed, but I quickly learned she’d be getting off that night. After that, I had the row to myself.
Behind me sat a woman who seemed about my age and a young man. I’d heard them talking in the train station and it seemed like they were traveling together. She was kind, responding pleasantly, with a motherly voice. He was chatty.
Oh, so very chatty. Would not stop talking chatty. For hours, he talked. And talked, and talked. The woman would try to talk, and he’d talk over her.
He wasn’t mean or rude; he wasn’t mansplaining or picking a fight. He was sweet and pleasant. But he simply would not. shut. up.
Thank goodness I had noise-canceling headphones and had downloaded eight hours of ocean and rain white noise. I needed it.
It took me some time to get settled in. A bag with my change of clothes and some toiletries rested in the overhead bin. My backpack, purse, pillow, and travel blanket stayed with me.
I tucked my tablet into the back seat pocket and looked out my window. The young woman next to me sat upright, with her bag on the floor in front of her. Unlike the man behind her, she didn’t say a single word.
My kind of seat mate. At least for that trip. I was still in my cocoon after eight days solo.
Departing Seattle, the train followed Puget Sound and then Possession Sound before turning east. We plunged into the Cascade Tunnel, consumed by darkness. At nearly eight miles, it’s the longest train tunnel in the United States.
We emerged and I took a few pictures, but it’s hard to capture the passing scenery when you’re on a moving train. Because it was early June, I could see some of the Cascade Mountains before nightfall.
An announcement informed us the sightseeing car with its lower-level café would join our train once we reached Spokane, which wouldn’t be until late that night.
In the meantime, we could purchase dinner in the dining car that we could then eat at our seats. Only passengers who booked sleeper cars are allowed to dine in the dining car.
I had considered booking a room, but at $2800 vs $150 for coach fare, I chose the latter.
The food selection was limited. By the time I crossed into the dining car, which was attached to mine, I could get a hamburger or a hot dog. I chose a hot dog. Despite being microwaved, it was decent. I learned later it was a Nathan’s.
My seatmate left. I had the row to myself and reclined as far as I could. Amtrak seats are not like airline sardine cans. You can fully recline without adversely affecting the person behind you.
There’s also a leg rest. With that pulled out, my seat leaned back, my pillow, and my travel blanket, the rhythm of the rails lulled me to sleep.
Rail travel wasn’t entirely restful. I’m a bit of a Princess and the Pea, but it was more comfortable than my SUV accommodations from my road trip.
Occasionally, I’d need to go downstairs to use the bathroom. Unlike Amtrak’s seats, the bathrooms are like an airplane’s, although one had an additional seat and another had a separate “lounge,” as they called it.
The lounge door doesn’t lock, and throughout the train trip various people would sit inside. I assumed they wanted a bit of alone time. That’s understandable when you’re in an enclosed environment with a bunch of strangers for an extended period.
Around five the next morning I woke up and the train was at a standstill. It had been that way since four, and would stay that way for another three and a half hours.
Yes. We were stuck on the tracks, without moving, for four and a half hours.
As I mentioned earlier, Amtrak doesn’t own the rails; the freight lines do. That means the freight lines get priority. In this situation, it wouldn’t have mattered who owned them. A freight train had broken down.
We were just inside the border of northern Montana, in the mountains. It’s not easy or fast to retrieve a broken train anywhere, but when you’re in the heart of the Rockies, it’s a bit more complicated.
So we waited. Crew members issued announcements apologizing for the delay, but emphasized there was nothing they could do.
I entered the observation car, which joined our train in Spokane the night before. It had originated in Portland with other coach and sleeping cars, following the Columbia River gorge. Downstairs I got a coffee from the café, then brought it back up, sat at a table with panoramic windows, and wrote in my journal.
At least, I tried to write in my journal. A woman across the aisle began talking to me. That would have been fine, but she chose to talk about politics, and her views are diametrically opposed to mine.
I asked her to stop. She wouldn’t. I finally moved to another table.
Encountering people with views anathematic to your own is a potential downside of taking long-distance trains. The only thing you can do is move away. At least we weren’t seated in the same car.
The people you meet are also one of the positives, and are the most memorable part of my experience.
Like the two brothers, one pre-teen, one late-teen, who spent the entire journey following each other from seat to sightseeing, upstairs and downstairs, a picture of brotherly love until the very last hour, when I think you’ll agree they could be forgiven.
There was the woman behind me, who befriended a lonely young man and gave him Gatorade and motherly advice, even though she’d just met him in the train station.
This was the young man who wouldn’t stop talking. Late the first night he made another friend in another car and switched seats, but he came back later to tell the woman thank you.
In the observation car, a couple relaxed. He read a book; she played card games.
I met another young man who, while waiting in line at the café, showed me bruises his uncle had inflicted on him the night before we left.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Yet despite this, he was affable. His spirits were high. He, too, was traveling alone, but he made many friends by the time we neared Chicago. Before I left the sightseeing car that last time, he was surrounded by other travelers, all laughing, having fun, and arm-wrestling.
Friday was a full day on the train. After I extracted myself from the unpleasant woman, the rest of the day was uneventful except for another, shorter, freight train delay.
And there was one quite unnerving moment when the power suddenly went off and the train rolled to a stop. Fortunately, it came back on fairly quickly.
One highlight of the Empire Builder route is traveling through Glacier National Park. The Great Northern Railway was largely responsible for the formation of the park in 1910.
James J. Hill, president of the railroad, spearheaded the creation not only of the park, but also the towns, ranches, hotels, chalets, roads, and trails, all designed to attract wealthy tourists.
The canny entrepreneur was nicknamed the Empire Builder, and so was the train route he created.
As we traveled this historic route, clouds hid many of the mountain peaks, but nothing could hide the majesty of the dark green forests and the light green river.
Soon we left the Rocky Mountains for the Great Plains. This was Big Sky country. Rolling hills and not a tree in sight.
We stopped in Havre, Montana, and because this was a longer stop for refueling, we could get out and look around. At the station was steam locomotive #2584. Built in 1930 for Great Northern Railway, it ran both Empire Builder and Oriental Limited.
Also at the station was a statue of James J. Hill, but I skipped that in favor of not being left behind.
As one of the conductors told me, they will leave you behind, and it happens frequently.
Lunch was a microwaved cheeseburger. Dinner, microwaved chicken tacos.
That night I slept okay and woke up around 4:40am. The sun was just beginning to rise over North Dakota. A line of magenta turned to mauve. Mist hovered over the ground, giving the morning a mythical feel.
A few hours later I ate a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich (microwaved) in the sightseeing car.
At this point I was getting antsy. I’d been on the train for over forty hours and we hadn’t even hit Fargo yet. The delays from the day before had definitely done a number on our schedule.
We could get out and stretch our legs a few times throughout the trip and I took advantage of every one. They shortened some of the scheduled stops to make up time.
We had about twenty minutes in the Twin Cities at St. Paul, Minnesota, which was cool because it was Train Days, an event celebrating trains and transportation.
We rolled through rural America. Crossed the Mississippi River. Rode through the Wisconsin Dells. At some point, they announced they’d be serving their “World Famous Beef Stew” for dinner because we were so delayed.
In my last afternoon visit to the café, I bought a half bottle of red wine to go with my world famous.
Later I asked the conductor about this stew. “It’s Dinty Moore,” he laughed. When I took a bite, I thought, “Yep. It certainly is.”
As we neared the Illinois border, I realized there was a stop in Glenview. Since we live in McHenry County northwest of Chicago, I asked Mr. TLT to pick me up there.
At 9:32pm, 53 hours and 43 minutes after I boarded the Amtrak Empire Builder, he did.
I had done it. I had ridden the Amtrak Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago.
Technically, almost Chicago, but I figure skipping that last leg is allowed, especially since I’ve previously taken the Metra from Glenview to downtown Chicago’s Union Station.
Related: find things to do in Chicago before boarding your train
Riding the rails cross-country may not have been as romantic as it’s portrayed, but it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
If I were to do it again, I would ride in coach and plan for overnight stops along the way, or I’d get a roomette or a room.
(A superliner roomette has seats, bunks, and a toilet. Rooms have their own bathrooms and showers. With both, you can eat in the dining car.)
Whether it’s riding Empire Builder or other long-distance passenger trains in the future, it’s an experience I’d like to have with Mr. TLT. Traveling solo was fine, but sometimes you want to experience a journey with someone you love.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder is one of those journeys.
Tips for riding the Amtrak Empire Builder
When you’re riding in coach, a successful cross-country Amtrak trip requires some preparation. It also requires a lot of patience, understanding, and kindness.
Following are tips to make your experience as enjoyable as possible.
Booking your ticket
If you want the best views, reserve an Upstairs ticket. You can’t book the actual seat, but you’ll have access to the large picture windows.
Travel during the week is much cheaper than on the weekends, and the rates vary by day. If I’d left on Friday instead of Thursday, my ticket would have been double the price.
Packing your bags
If you’re used to airline travel, hold onto your hat, because Amtrak’s baggage policy will blow you away. You get two free carry-on bags and two free personal items.
That may not sound impressive until you learn the “carry-on” bags are full-sized suitcases. We’ve got a set of three nesting suitcases. Even our smallest one won’t be considered a carry-on by an airline, but I was able to bring the middle-sized suitcase without issue.
Personal bags are what an airline would consider a carry-on. I carried a larger backpack and a giant purse (because now that I’m 52 it’s the law). I also brought a soft-sided shoulder bag that could be considered either.
Whatever luggage you decide to bring, have one bag designated for a change of clothes and your necessary toiletries. You’ll store that above your seat for easy access.
It’s important to remember that in coach, you will not have access to a shower and the bathrooms are tiny. It’s easiest to change in the bathroom with the additional seat.
Food and Drink
It’s a good idea to bring food and drink. Sometimes not enough food is delivered to the train. Sometimes the café car doesn’t hook up to your train until later. It’s better to be prepared.
You can’t bring a giant cooler, but you can bring a soft-sided one with beverages and other chilled items. Keep in mind that you won’t be able to refill the ice in your cooler, although you can get a cup of ice from the café.
What kind of food should you bring?
The woman behind me had a bag full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I packed bagels, cream cheese (for the first morning), turkey sausage sticks, crackers, some Havarti (for the first evening), nuts, an apple, and a big ol’ bag of Twizzlers.
I saw other riders with various types of jerky, chips, movie theater-sized boxes of candy, and other sandwiches.
One man brought microwaveable ramen soup and asked the café attendant for a cup of hot water. He was happy to oblige.
Take a large refillable water bottle with you. They have an “ice water” spigot in the car, but the water tasted a little funky. Still, beggars and all, I drank it.
While the café attendant can’t hold, store, or prepare any of your food, they can give you that aforementioned cup of hot water. Bring tea bags or instant coffee and you won’t have to buy it.
(I was so tired I forgot I had some with me until the second night.)
The food available in coach was limited (menu above) and everything’s microwaved. Anticipate it and plan on getting a nice gourmet meal after you get back.
Make your trip as comfortable as possible by bringing the following:
- Eye mask
- Sanitizing hand wipes
- Facial wipes
- Noise-canceling headphones
- Several hours of white noise
- Books, movies, and podcasts
You’ll want to download those last two before you board the train. There’s no wifi on Empire Builder and there’s no cell service for much of the ride, especially in the western portion.
Amtrak Empire Builder FAQs
Is Amtrak still running the Empire Builder?
I sure hope so, or else I don’t know what I was riding!
How much does the Amtrak Empire Builder cost?
Prices vary, but begin at $150 for coach from Seattle to Chicago. Rooms are much, much higher.
When I booked my ticket, a room would have cost me $2800. The day of my departure, I could have gotten it for half that.
Do Amtrak Empire Builder trains have WiFi?
No, they don’t. Don’t let the “Amtrak Wifi” that pops up in your available networks fool you. It’s a tease.
Is Amtrak Empire Builder one-way or round-trip?
The Empire Builder is a one-way trip. You can choose to go east to west, from Chicago to Portland or Seattle, or west to east, from Seattle or Portland to Chicago.
Is it better to take Empire Builder east to west, or west to east?
For more mountain views, start in the west and head east.
Can I get out and explore at any of the Amtrak stations?
Not really. You can get off the train frequently, but the stops are generally ten minutes or less. I’d get off and take a quick walk to stretch my legs.
Do NOT go far, because when crew members say “All Aboard!” (and they really do say that), they mean it.
Is Amtrak Empire Builder safe?
I felt perfectly safe. There’s a conductor in the car, if not at all times, then most of the time. There’s also a call button in case you need help.
What is Amtrak Empire Builder’s schedule?
Amtrak Empire Builder has daily service from Seattle, Portland, and Chicago.
When’s the best time to ride the Empire Builder?
The summer season, especially June, is a great time to ride Amtrak’s Empire Builder because you’ll have more daylight.
Is food included in a coach class seat on Amtrak trains?
No. Food is extra. Food is only included if you get a room.
Can you drink alcohol on Amtrak’s Passenger Trains?
Yes. They sell beer, wine, and liquor.
How many bags can I bring on Empire Builder?
Four! Two carry-on bags weighing up to 50 pounds each, and two personal bags weighing up to 25 pounds each.
There’s a luggage rack on the lower level where you’ll leave your carry-on bags. Don’t try to take them upstairs; the steps are too narrow and you’ll make the conductor angry.
Don’t make the conductor angry.
How do I get Amtrak Empire Builder tickets?
How can I check Amtrak train status?
Can I bring my pet on Empire Builder?
No. Pets are only allowed on Amtrak train routes up to seven hours.