Amtrak Train Travel Wishlist From Chicago

I had the interesting experience of traveling via Amtrak to Seattle from Chicago on the Empire Builder last June, and since then I can’t stop thinking about where else it could take me.

I have to be honest, when I finished my total roundtrip Amtrak journey I had a major love/hate relationship with train travel. After all, in two weeks I had spent 96 hours on the train. Do anything for 96 hours (in 48 hour straight intervals) and you may start to question your choices too.

But, now, several months later, I am looking back and appreciating that train trip for the views, interesting people we got to meet and talk to and the land we covered in just a few short days. We got to see parts of America that is rarely accessed and watch the sunsets and sunrises over some of the most beautiful places.

So, lately I’ve been thinking where else the train could take me. Besides the terrible discomfort of sleeping in the coach seats for two nights, I really enjoyed myself and think I could easily do it again (my boyfriend probably would not).

If you want to see some tips and tricks I have for riding the Empire Builder, check out this older post of mine. 

Here are some trips I would love to take via Amtrak:

  1. Chicago to Denver – California Zephyr

    Roundtrip Coach Price for Two in June 2018: $488 ($244 each).

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This trip takes 18 hours and 40 minutes from Chicago, IL to Denver, CO. Most of the trip takes you through Iowa and Nebraska, so I am not sure exactly how exciting it would be, but it’s definitely one I would love to try since the travel time is drastically shorter than that to Seattle.

It would be great to do this Amtrak trip as a multi-stop where you can get off and hop back on to head toward Utah, Nevada and finally California. But, if you’re looking for a shorter trip, Denver would probably be the ideal spot to stop.

If you want to find some great places to eat while visiting Denver, check out this list by Eater. Honestly, it’s all about the food and the views.

Cute Airbnb’s I would love in Denver:

The City Experience  

Modern Feel

Bungalow

2. Chicago to Boston – Lake Shore Limited

Roundtrip Coach Price for Two in June 2018: $364 ($182 each)

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This trip takes 21 hours and 48 minutes sweeping you past the Great Lakes, New York State and Massachusetts until the final destination in Boston. I followed a similar route when traveling to Maine and when you get into New York state the views are beautiful.

I would love to do this trip to check out Boston and all of its amazing history and culture. Plus, I mean, those accents.. who can resist them?

Yet another list by Eater to give you some of the best places to eat in Boston.

Cute Airbnb’s I would love in Boston:

Bright in Boston

Bohemian Bricks

Clean, Sleek, Modern

3. Chicago to Austin, TX – Texas Eagle

Roundtrip Coach Price for Two in June 2018: $448 ($224 each)

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This trip will take you 28 hours and 21 minutes. Not a short one, but it’s basically a straight trip down south, so you will get to experience the change in scenery as you go. This is a route that will take you all the way into Los Angeles, if you want to torture yourself through two days of travel, but otherwise is a great option to hit all the big Texas cities.

Austin is a city known for it’s food, so be sure to check out a lot of it if you decide to travel there. Here is, you guessed it, another article by Eater of Austin’s best spots to eat.

Cute Airbnb’s I would love in Austin:

Quirky Airstream Home

Tiny Home Dream

Modern Living Guesthouse


These are just a few trips I would love to take from Chicago using the Amtrak. I realize that this method of travel is not for everyone, but I think it’s something to try out at least once.

Where would you like the train to take you? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading,

Emily


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My trip to Seattle

Back in February, after little deliberation, my boyfriend and I planned a trip to Washington state for June. I had one thing on my mind, and it was graduating college and immediately leaving for the trip the next day. It acted as my motivation for months. Turns out it wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. The trip was great, the timing could have been better.

I am terrified of flying. I don’t have any reason to be, I’ve flown before with no issue, but in recent years the fear has escalated. So, I had to figure out a way to get to Washington (because I was not ready to face my fears) any way I could without flying in a plane. We chose to take the Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago Union Station allllllll the way to Seattle, a 47-hour trip. This was not my boyfriend’s idea, he’s great for agreeing to it.

While planning, I thought of it as an adventure. NO. BIG. DEAL. We bought coach seats for around $300 roundtrip, about what we would have payed with roundtrip airfare, and, well, you can read my review of the train ride here.

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We did survive the train ride. We had some awesome views to get us through it, but not until Montana. The food was overpriced and bad. Okay, I’m done.

The morning we finally arrived, Seattle graced us with its lovely grey glow and it was just what I imagined. We rushed to the rental car place to pick up what we thought was going to be a Hyundai Elantra, but ended up leaving with a CAMARO.. we weren’t complaining.

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Tom taking a picture with his medium format at Whatcom Falls Park.

The first stop on our trip was Bellingham, WA, where we stayed in the best little Airbnb. Shoutout to Donna & Vincent for being so kind and helpful, letting us check in a little early. It was the perfect place for us and the BED WAS A 10/10… especially after “sleeping” in a coach seat for the previous two nights.

 

Bellingham is such a great town with adorable shops, amazing little food spots and of course, coffee shops. We are still raving about the crepes and coffee/tea from Magdalena’s Creperie. Fairhaven is right next to Bellingham and also has a great little downtown area, totally worth checking out. Mt. Baker is very close nearby to both these towns, so everywhere you look (when it isn’t cloudy) while driving around you are graced with gorgeous views.

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We had three days in Bellingham, which was enough time for me to find Kombucha Town, a bar that served some delicious kombucha on tap. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t fully cooperate, but there were a few moments of sunshine. We went up to Mt. Baker wilderness and took a drive up until I started freaking out when we saw the ice capped mountains through the mist. It was truly beautiful though, I highly suggest going there at some point in your life.

 

 

As our time in Bellingham came to a close, we packed up the Camero, stopped at Whole Foods to grab some Kombucha Town cans and hit the road back towards downtown Seattle.

After such an amazing stay at our first Airbnb, we were a little bit disappointed with what awaited us at the Seattle place. It was fine, we can’t really complain for the price we payed per night, but it definitely could have been better. Each night I had to wonder whether there was a ghost standing next to me or not. Whenever we walked back in from outside, we were hit with the mixed odor of super old house and cat pee. It was fine, wouldn’t stay there again.

 

 

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BUT WOW.. SEATTLE.. You’re great. It was such a great time getting to know the beautiful neighborhood of Wallingford, where the average home price seemed to be over a million dollars, and where we stayed. We took a nice stroll to Gas Works Park quite a few times during our trip, which is this awesome industrial park overlooking downtown Seattle.

We had to pack a lot into six days, so we didn’t get to do EVERYTHING in Seattle,  but we did a decent amount. We walked all over Capitol Hill, stumbling upon a delicious Mexican restaurant called Fogón (where we definitely ate twice). We found our way to the Space Needle, but didn’t go up.. i.e. crippling fear of heights.

The historic Pikes Place Market really tickled my fancy with it’s gorgeous flower bouquets that were such a bargain. We saw the first Starbucks, but didn’t bother going in since it had about a mile long line. More on Starbucks soon.

 

 

We went to the Chihuly Garden and Glass, located right near the Space Needle, which was a great experience. Who would have thought that colored glass could evoke so much emotion? There are people there would you will think are trying to take your picture so you buy it at the end, but really they are free professional photos and who doesn’t like free photos? Take advantage if you ever go. Also, be sure to stay for the little movie clips they play of Chihuly talking about his process.

 

 

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If you want a cool way to spend 30 seconds, take the Seattle Monorail. It will take you up to the equivalent of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile where you’ll find some shops and food. I think every city should get a monorail.

The Seattle Art Museum was a good time, filled with a lot of beautiful art, including a lot of indigenous and Native American artwork and clothing. There is a wonderfully huge deconstructed tree hanging from the ceiling to greet you. Admission cost is just a donation, we gave $5 each and it was most definitely worth it.

 

 

As a former Starbucks gold card member, I felt a deep obligation to check out the Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room, and oh am I glad I did! While we didn’t get into the original Starbucks, this was *in my opinion* much better.

It had the class you would expect in a higher end Starbucks, with copper and wood detailing, coffee extraordinaires carefully brewing up some expensive concoctions (like a nitro cold brew float) and the roasters themselves, making sure the tourists get quite the show as the roasted beans make their journey from toasting to the bag.

It’s tough to get a seat since the place is so busy (we went twice and couldn’t get a seat either time), but even if you sit on the staircase like we did, it’s worth the trip. According to one of the workers, Chicago is getting their own 4-story Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room pretty soon.

 

 

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I’m dating a huge baseball fanatic, so we did check out one of the Seattle Mariners games while in town and I thoroughly enjoyed myself (even though I don’t really care for baseball). The stadium was really clean and we even got to see it’s convertible ceiling in use as it started to rain. The game was complete with an extremely drunk 21-year-old kid slurring and getting into a fight with his girlfriend and getting disowned by his friends.

 

 

We did not see Mount Rainier until the end of our trip, since the cloud cover was pretty serious, but when we did it was so breathtaking. We took an Uber up to Kerry Park to sit with our fellow tourists and take in the views.

To get a little bit closer to nature, we ended our trip with a beautiful hike called Rattlesnake Ridge, which was over 2,000 feet ascending to the top (more than us flatlanders are used to). With the encouragement of several peppy pups who ran up the trail with their owners, we made it to the top and took in the beautiful views. Thank god for a good pair of hiking boots and socks.

 

 

We packed a lot into a week and a half in Washington, but I’m so glad we had such an incredible experience. This trip was truly one I will never forget. I have so much respect for the Pacific Northwest and hope to be back soon. If you have any more questions about our trip, just leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading,

Emily


A few more random photos from the trip:

 

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Tips for riding the Amtrak Empire Builder Coach Class

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.

  1. Comfort Essentials

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.

5. Sleeping

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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