I recently took Amtrak from Cleveland, Ohio, to Portland, Oregon. Even though this is an incredibly long journey by train, taking Amtrak allowed me to make multiple stops for the same price as the direct journey. For $235, we were able to stop off in Chicago as well as visit Glacier National Park for a couple of days before ending our trip in Portland. After completing the journey in coach on Amtrak, I have to say that I would happily take it again in the future.
The seats in coach are quite wide, and have a ton of legroom. This allows them to recline quite a bit and the footrest that pops up allows you to reach something approaching horizontal, making for a reasonably good sleep. I found my neck pillow was invaluable not just for sleeping, but for keeping my head in a comfortable angle while binging Fargo. Bring a good book or two, and whatever other media you enjoy, and the hours pretty easily slip away as you read, sleep, watch a video, sleep, read, etc.
While your own seats become your own little kingdom, there is also a lounge car on the train. This has large windows down both sides and comfortable banks of seats. This is a great place to go and watch the scenery roll by, and you get to meet and chat with some of the other passengers while you’re there.
Of the three trains we took, two of them were freezing, while one was much too warm. Personally, I prefer the cold, as I can throw on a sweater or something. It would have been nice if they could regulate this a bit more effectively, but I suppose the sun rising and setting, and the number of bodies and resulting body heat affects this calculation and makes it tough to set the temperature on board.
When the train is on time, it regularly makes slightly longer stops, allowing passengers to get off and stretch their legs. Many of these stops will have a small shop of some kind nearby, allowing you to buy snacks or other supplies you might need for the next leg of the journey. Of course, if the train is behind schedule, they cut these stops short or eliminate them entirely. I suppose this mostly impacts the smokers, as there is no smoking on board the train.
The Empire Builder train had both a dining car, serving full meals with vegetarian options, and a cafe located on the lower level of the lounge car. While we didn’t eat in the dining car, the menu had a pretty decent range of options. The cafe served drinks and snacks, as well as some deli items like sandwiches, and some microwaveable dishes too. The drinks were not too expensive, considering the captive audience, and they had a couple of craft brews available in bottles. You can bring your own food and drinks on too.
All of the trains we took were pretty much right on time. From what I’ve read, this may be a bit of an anomaly for Amtrak, so your experience may be different. Almost all of the Amtrak staff were extremely friendly and helpful. On a few different occasions we asked for information or clarification, and we always received friendly and helpful responses. The Amtrak employees we interacted with all seemed to be enjoying their jobs and doing their best to help the passengers have a smooth journey. The people making the announcements about stops and dining car reservations did so with a sense of humor, letting their personalities shine through it what might otherwise have been a mundane task.
This one really depends on where you are getting on the train and where you are getting off. As Amtrak is not so popular these days, they run one train a day for the journey I wanted to take. Since this train starts somewhere out east in the morning before passing through Cleveland and terminating in Chicago, it passed through Cleveland at 2:45am. While the Cleveland station is in a quiet part of town, getting there at that time of night can be a chore. The same can be said for disembarking. We arrived in Portland, Oregon at a reasonable hour in the morning, but if you were to get off in Spokane, you’d be pulling in there sometime around 3am.
Getting on the train was easy as can be though, and you can check your bags under the train or keep them in a small luggage area near the entrance to each car.
Taking Amtrak is not without it’s issues. Get stuck in a car with someone really having a good snore, and you might have a hard time sleeping. While the sleeper cars would most certainly be a more comfortable journey, the price jump from economy to a sleeper car was massive, something along the lines of an increase from $235 to over $1000. At that price I really don’t think it’s worth it. It should be noted though that sleeper car fares include your meals in the dining car. For a cross country trip though, the ability to make multiple stops for days at a time for one low price makes Amtrak a great option for budget conscious travelers.