A friend asked me (via the Eff Bee) about my recent trip from Chicago to Portland, and back, on Amtrak’s Empire Builder. (I just got back yesterday.) I wrote a fairly long comment on Facebook, and I thought it would be good to reproduce it here (lightly edited):
It cost me $376.20 for a round-trip ticket from Portland to Chicago. I got a reserved coach seat instead of a sleeper car compartment. A sleeper car compartment is substantially more expensive.
The seat you get is sort of similar to an airplane seat except with considerably more legroom. You can recline the seat without even slightly inconveniencing the person behind you, and there is a leg rest you can pull out to help be more comfy. That said, it’s not as comfy as an actual bed.
There was electrical outlets on my train but no WiFi. I got 3G pretty consistently in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. In Montana, you don’t get 3G except when you are close to towns. The rest of the time was hit-or-miss. (My carrier is Verizon.)
The trip takes about two days. On my return trip, I left Portland at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday and got into Chicago at about 7:00 p.m. Thursday. My train was 3 hours late—which is common—and was scheduled to arrive at 3:55 p.m. Thursday. (On the other hand, on the trip out to Portland, my train arrived slightly early.)
On the train, there is a observation car with tables, seats, and large windows. You can hang out there when you are tired of sitting in your coach seat.
I would recommend bringing some of your own food. (I brought crackers, bagels, a jar of peanut butter, dried fruit, tuna in packets, etc.) You can buy food from the cafe in the observation car, but it’s a bit overpriced. (A 12-ounce cup of coffee or a 12-ounce can of soda costs $2.) There is also a dining car which is basically a medium-priced sit-down restaurant. (The entrees are between $15 to $25.) If you get the sleeper car compartment, the dining car meals are included.
One very nice thing about the train is you see the landscape you can’t really see while flying or driving. My father-in-law pointed out to me that the sleeping car accommodation, while expensive compared to a plane ticket, is not a bad deal compared to driving, staying in a hotel every night, and buying restaurant food for every meal.
Another thing I should mention is that half the train goes to (or comes from) Portland, and half of it goes to (or comes Seattle); they split apart (or join together) in Spokane. The practical significance of this is that the dining car goes to (or comes from) Seattle and the observation car goes to (or comes from) Portland. So, if you are coming from or to Portland, you won’t have the dining car west of Spokane (i.e. the first night on a eastbound trip, or the last morning on a westbound trip).
Overall, I think it’s worth taking the train if you aren’t in a hurry, want to see some beautiful landscape along the way, and don’t mind sleeping in a seat for two nights. I enjoyed my trip.