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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Travel Diary 2016: Chicago to Acadia National Park.

*I wrote this blog back in January and never uploaded it*

As it snows outside my window, I am immediately filled with travel memories.. to times of warmer weather and adventuring; to one time in particular that happened about six months ago.

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Suburbs of Chicago are freezing in January.

This time last year, I was sitting with my boyfriend Tom planning where in the world we should go for a summer trip. We danced around with the idea of visiting Seattle. We got so far as to planning an entire trip on roadtrippers.com called “West Coast Roadtrip” (original, I know): it was the real deal. But, that trip came to a close when we realized just how far Washington was via driving (28 hours, 2,060 miles to be exact).

So, we did what any people who had absolutely no idea where to go would do.. we pulled up Google maps. We really had this attraction to the New England region, especially the seaside. After a bunch of searching, searching again and searching one more time, we decided on visiting Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Once we had the destination, it was all about where to go. We had to worry about what car to take (we ended up taking my very small, very cute Hyundai Accent), how much gas would cost, what cities we would stop at for the night and make sure we got to Acadia in just a few days. It took a while, but we had everything completely planned and by the time June hit, we were ready to go.

From the suburbs of Chicago, we embarked to our first destination: the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. There are a few things I learned while driving to Niagara: 1. The highway in Canada was essentially one very long, boring road. 2. Nobody is as excited as you are to go to Tim Horton’s. 3. Crossing into Canada from the U.S. will take a little while.

We did eventually get to Niagara after an all-day drive. It was absolutely beautiful and I now understand the hype. We stayed for the night we got there, plus the whole next day and left the following morning. We did basically every touristy thing you can do and had a great time.

We did something called Cave of the Winds where you get to take an elevator down to the base of the falls and walk around. There is a part of it where you are standing right next to the waterfall and the water slams you. It was great.

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After standing under Niagara on Cave of the Winds

Of course, we also did the Maid of the Mist. I would definitely recommend doing Cave of the Winds OVER Maid of the Mist, since the majority of the time on the “Maid” was spent trying not to freeze to death and attempting to see through the very thick mist (it doesn’t have it’s name for NOTHIN’). Both were amazing though.

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On the Maid of the Mist

After our day and a quarter of exploring Niagara (and 10 m we were onto our next destination. This one was really just a “we need to sleep somewhere” stop: Keene, New Hampshire. It turned out to be a pleasant stay. On the way to Keene, we made a lunch stop in Syracuse, NY, which I was a big fan of! We ate at a place called Funk N’ Waffles (it was on Diners, Drive-in’s and Dives) where they had a turkey dinner waffle. It sounds gross, but I promise it was amazing.

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Jive TURKEY (Not Tuerkey) from Funk N’ Waffles

Later that day, driving into New Hampshire was when our roadtrip views started to get beautiful. Upstate New York was started the hills, and from there we were driving through essentially small mountain ranges in Vermont. Vermont is the prettiest, most natural looking place I have ever been in the U.S. If you ever have to drive through it for any reason.. do it.  I am still wishing that I could drive through that area again.

In Vermont, we came across a small shop on the side of the road that sold honey and maple syrup, so naturally we got both.. and I have never had anything as good as either of those in my whole life. 10/10 recommend driving to Vermont just for some maple syrup.

We did eventually get to Keene, NH, where we stayed the night. My favorite moment from Keene was when we went to get some Panera for dinner and they had a lobster roll on the menu. As midwesterners, we were shocked, and told the Panera employee who couldn’t believe we didn’t have it on the menu in Chicago. Basically, this was when our trip started to feel very New Englandy.

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Side of the road in Vermont

The next morning we packed back into the car and headed towards our real destination, our cozy AirBNB in Lamoine, ME (right outside of Bar Harbor). We drove a lot on this trip, so much that it started to just seem natural to sit in a car for 9 hours a day. When we entered Maine, I really wanted to see the ocean, we pulled off at a random, small beach community and walked down to touch the water. It was a crappy, rainy, cloudy day.. but it was incredible to me.

We were planning to stop in Portland, ME for lunch and spending a few  hours looking around, but we got hungry before that and ended up in the town of Kennebunkport. It was pouring rain, we were a little bit hangry and sick of driving, but we had lunch at a small little restaurant. Tom got his first lobster roll there, which he thought was the best one ever, but he hadn’t tried any others yet in Maine.

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Our lovely Airbnb.

Later that afternoon, we finally got to our AirBNB. It was a long, long road to get there, but we did and it felt incredible. That night we drove into the town of Bar Harbor and had dinner at an Irish pub at sunset overlooking the bay. It was there that we found Bar Harbor Tom:

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The next week was filled with a ton of adventure, from exploring downtown Bar Harbor, to taking a trolly all the way to the top of Cadillac Mountain, we truly got the (probably touristy) Maine experience. I’ll let this picture slide show take you through what we experienced:

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Here is a video from Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park. This place was so amazing:

This was our first big adventure together. It was honestly fantastic and much better than we even hoped. If you ever get the chance to get out to Bar Harbor, I highly suggest it.

Our trip took place from the middle to end of June. The weather was in the 60’s-70’s, so it’s nice, but don’t expect this to be a beach vacation.

Let me know where your favorite place to travel is in the comments.


 

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Week in Boulder Junction, WI

So it was time that I, Emily, the city-dweller (and surrounding suburbs) venture out and expand my horizons to THE WILDERNESS OF AMERICA. Okay.. fine.. I wasn’t completely off-the-grid, but I did find myself all the way at the top of Wisconsin in the North Woods region with my boyfriend for a week.

I have to admit I was a little apprehensive going in. I have a hard time with all living bugs and insects.. specifically bees, wasps, spiders, mosquitos, ticks and everything else. I knew that these things were going to be there in SWARMS but I toughened up, packed my suitcase and hit the road.

Six hours later we arrived at a small, adorable cabin in Boulder Junction, WI that we rented which luckily ended up looking better then the pictures. It was right on a beautiful lake. I am still dealing with the separation anxiety of my sweet second home. Here’s a picture of the living area inside:

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I had my first-time fishing adventure and ended up catching several fish on my pink sparkly pole. We spent our nights out on the water and would boat around until the sunset.

I was hit with a bit of a culture shock when we started going to the restaurants in town. I had been out of town several times before and nothing was like here. The walls were covered in taxidermy animals (and for my animal activist self this was very hard to see) and the decor was like a 1970s grandma basement. Basically, there was no glitz or glamour but each place did have some charm and the views made up for what they lacked in style. As for the food, I was not overly impressed when dinner time came. When it comes to meat I only eat chicken and these places were only into cooking fish and red meat. However I SURVIVED just not happily.

On our third day, we drove into a nearby town called Minoqua for some shopping but on our way I noticed a small cabin coffee shop and demanded that we stop on our way back. I have to admit this was the best decision we made the whole trip. Little Creek Coffee Company in Arbor Vitae, WI deserves all the awards. Not only do they offer tons of coffee drinks and teas BUT THEY HAVE A BREAKFAST AND LUNCH MENU. We came here three total times during our 6 day stay. WE WERE OBSESSED. Their iced chai tea latte was to die for and I can’t stop thinking about their turkey and avocado sandwich and homemade soups HELP ME. We enjoyed sitting on their outdoor tables overlooking the lake and we even spotted some baby deers running around. It was magical. Bambi had come to life. The pics below are us hanging out there:

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There is no way I can go through this post without mentioning the most amazing ice cream place ever.. Mad Dog Jakes in Boulder Junction is super great. We went twice during our trip (WE ARE REPEATERS IF WE LIKE YOU). The first time I got the best super chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had and the second time I got blueberry cheesecake and wow it was out of bounds. FLAVOR TOWN LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. If you are ever in these parts you better stop there and get a scoop.. maybe even two.

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Halfway through our trip on a kind of gloomy day (or so we thought) we took a day-trip to Hayward, Wisconsin to the Wilderness Walk. This essentially was a mix between the coolest petting zoo ever and an exotic animal zoo. The 2-Hour drive was worth it even though it was painful after already driving 6 hours just a few days before.  I normally hate zoos but these animals were all saved from injury and could have died without their help. The admission fee was a little steep but once we walked in we knew it was worth it. The first thing I saw was a GIANT LOP BUNNY free to pet and love. I was obsessed with him. This is when I knew this place was great.

We continued on through the day petting various animals and letting them eat corn-filled ice cream cones.. even a giant camel. My favorites were the baby goats that were roaming free throughout the Walk and the baby fawns that stole my heart. It was amazing and I 10/10 recommend. Here we are having fun below:

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A few days later we went to a lumberjack show and watched some ripped guys chop wood.. it was torture I could barely watch wink wink wink wink. Tom kept thinking i was into them and I totally wasn’t. It was actually super interesting though and we witnessed them climb up a 60-ft tree stump and try to not die. I have to give some credit to the 40 year old male in the denim jacket who was in the audience for his hilarious commentary during the entire show. Also, some credit is due to the ENTIRE JOHNSON FAMILY REUNION for creating several obstacles in parking and getting into the show.. but your matching shirts were cool.

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After the show we went out to Eagle River, Wisconsin to visit Tremblay’s Sweet Shop for some delicious fudge because I am an addict to anything chocolate. 45-Minutes later we arrived to the rude employees of the shop who barely spoke 2 words to us and didn’t even respond to our simple hello. Despite their awful service we got some delicious fudge, pretzels and cashew clusters. We also adventured around the town for a few minutes and checked out some shops.

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The next few days were our last and we were filling up our time as much as we could. We decided a fun thing to do for our last day would be to rent some mountain bikes and go for a nice long ride. We embarked on our 3 mile ride to a nearby lake where we stayed and layed on the beach for a few hours. It was beautiful and peaceful. Somehow Tom didn’t burn even though he’s paler than paper. I went in the water but was quickly freaked out by crawfish swimming on the bottom on the lake. I don’t do well with bugs or bug-like things (i know its a fish or something shh). It was a little bit difficult to get ourselves back on the bikes after hours of being lazy but we did and battled the uphill trail all the way back to town.

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I had a great trip and this is just the highlights of what we did. There was so much more to remember and it was an amazing time for Tom and I. I would love to go back again sometime and explore other places as well. My travel bug has been fulfilled for now.