I’m not the biggest fan of air travel, so when it came time to plan my trip from Chicago to Seattle my mind was instantly searching for any other way to get there. I had never taken an Amtrak train before, but after doing some research on the Empire Builder route, it seemed like such a beautiful way to see America.
We bought coach seats, which meant that we had to sit, sleep and do whatever else we could to keep us occupied in that seat. There was no bed for us to lay down in at the end of a long day of exploring the U.S. the old fashioned way, which definitely had its negatives.
The total duration of our trip to Seattle was 47 hours. It sounds much more lovely and quick than when you are actually on the train. Two straight days of doing anything can become extremely boring.
Before we dive into the tips, let me preface this by saying that I actually really enjoyed the trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder once we hit Montana all the way into Washington, but if you know anything about Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, you are aware of how boring these states can be to drive through/take a train through.
While trying to prepare myself for what to expect riding coach on the Amtrak, I really couldn’t find much other than a few slightly helpful Youtube videos and a couple of vague articles. So, I figured I’d share my tips after going in almost blind and riding the Empire Builder coach class.
The coach seats are sneakily uncomfortable. At first sit, you will probably say something like “oh wow, these aren’t that bad”, but trust me, it gets worse. They do recline, but not nearly enough for a good night of sleep. There is also a foot rest at the bottom of the seat in front of you, which can make relaxing a little bit easier.
Bring a neck pillow, not a real pillow. I can’t stress this enough. Unless you end up lucky enough to not be on a sold out train (like we were) and no one ends up sitting next to you, in which case you could probably lay across both seats and have a decent sleep with your regular-sized pillow, then having a neck pillow is a much more comfortable option. We had both with us on our trip, I tried sleeping with the regular-sized pillow and could not get comfortable for the life of me, but once I switched to the neck pillow I was out like a light.
Don’t forget a blanket. Even if it’s a small little throw, it will make your journey so much more cozy. It makes the coach seats seem a little bit less like coach seats. Hopefully, it will distract you a little bit more from how much you wish you had a sleeper car.
Not necessary, but I suggest bringing some comfy shoes/slippers/shoes you don’t really care about to wear around the train. The bathrooms get a little bit grimy after two days of constant use, especially with how small they are, so having something you don’t really care about makes stepping into there a little bit easier.
2. Snacks + bottled water
The Amtrak food is a little bit pricey, and let’s be honest, they can get away with it because there is nowhere else to eat, even at the long stops (we did see some people order a pizza to get dropped off at one of our stops prior to arriving.. we were so jealous). Dinner is about $18-30 per person and it’s just about what you would expect from railroad food in taste.
Unless you are really great at packing food in a small cooler, you may run into having to purchase food once or twice. They do have a snack car on the Empire Builder (not sure about other routes) at the bottom of the observation car which has some microwavable snacks and drinks, but they aren’t the best. I got a microwaved bagel, took a bite and immediately threw it away.
I would suggest just carrying on a bag or cooler filled with snacks that could potentially replace a few meals, unless you have the funds and are wanting to buy all the meals on the train. The coach passengers meals are not included.
Bottled water is a huge must-have. First of all, you want one bottle reserved just for brushing your teeth.. because the sinks get pretty gross and dirty, the water is from a holding tank, etc. Second, you just need water. Pack as many as you can in random bags.
3. Hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes
You are not the first passenger ever riding on the train, which means that there have been other people sitting in those exact same seats for hours on end. Bring some disinfectant wipes to totally sanitize your area (pull-down tables, arm rests, basically anything you can) and you will be surprised how much dirt you pick up.
I know by this point you probably think that this train must be disgusting, or that I am a total germaphobe. The second is true, the first is up to your interpretation. But, carry some hand sanitizer with you because, again, you are around a lot of people.
4. Take advantage of smoke-break stops
There are plenty of stops along your route, but there are some that are longer than others and trust me, you’ll want to take advantage. The majority of stops are about 3-5 minutes long as passengers load and unload. But, the smoke break stops are anywhere from 10-45 minutes.
If you’re anything like me you will be crawling out of you skin by the time you reach one of the stops, so get out stretch those legs and make some friends with people who are on the trip along with you.
I kind of covered this already with the pillow situation, but sleeping is pretty tough in the coach seats. First of all, the comfort is a big issue, but you will find what works for you, you have plenty of time if you’re going the whole route.
Then, you have to hope that your fellow passengers are respectful and quiet at night.
Just because you go to sleep doesn’t mean that the train stops. You will continue picking up more passengers all through the night, which brings the added noise of people throwing their luggage up top or being a little bit too talkative. We luckily only ran into this once, and we took this train roundtrip, so it wasn’t a huge issue.
If you’re traveling with someone you are comfortable sleeping next to (i.e. significant other), try out some weird contortions like laying your legs on them. It’s worth a shot.
They make the announcements for breakfast in the dining car starting at 8 am over the speakers, so don’t expect to sleep past then unless you have quality noise-cancelling headphones or can sleep through anything. The morning views are incredible and worth being awake, anyway.
6. The Observation Car should be your BFF
The train comes equipped with a train car filled with seats and tables looking out with floor-to-ceiling windows, which makes the journey a lot less painful.
In the summer months (we went in June), a few Trails & Rails guides from the National Park Service give a tour of all the beautiful scenery you pass through, starting in Montana into Washington. This was so much fun and so memorable for us. If you get a great crew, you will learn a lot.
The observation car is also a great place to make some friends. Remember, everyone else is stuck on the train too and it’s interesting to meet people from all over the country and world (we met a couple from Australia!).
Don’t let these tips/warnings detour you from taking the Amtrak. Honestly, we did enjoy ourselves, it was just a little bit too long for our taste. We also took the Empire Builder roundtrip, so it was a total of four straight days of our vacation stuck on a train. It was such an experience to see the country as people did back before car travel became popularized.
Here’s a few photos from the windows of the train:
Let me know in the comments if you have ever taken the train, or if you have a trip coming up tell me about it!
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