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Empire Builder Train ride from Chicago to Seattle

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Mar 1st, 2009, 05:20 PM
  #1
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Empire Builder Train ride from Chicago to Seattle

I saw a special on the History channel about the scenic train ride and it looked like fun.

I was wondering if any Fodorites have done this before and what are your thoughts?


I love that it is scheduled where you can see Glacier National Park during the afternoon!
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 07:11 AM
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Anybody?? It is pretty popular as some dates monts from now are booked solid.

We are seriously thinking about this one.....
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 08:25 AM
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Hope you get some replies on this as it's a trip we've often contemplated, too. Seems to me I heard on a tv report last year that it was Amtrak's last 'white tablecloth' (good dining car food/service)train.
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 08:34 AM
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This question pops up here from time to time, garnering wildly different responses--for some the trip is a delight in every way and for others it is an uncomfortable bore.

When we took this round-trip three years ago in a roomette, I learned that I would much prefer to have driving or taken an airplane.

I liked that we had a private place to retreat from the crowds, but it was also the place I spent two sleepless nights bouncing around on an ultra-thin mattress as the train rocked wildly from side to side throughout the night.

Another disappointment: The train passed through some of the most scenic areas when it was dark and through the prairie in daylight hours.

And, there were repeated delays as our train had to pull to the side to let freight trains pass.

Our stewards were slackers who provided no service unless I could track them down hiding out in an unoccupied sleeping room.

Meals were usually a good experience, but one waiter was so rude that when I reported him to Amtrak management they told me that they had been trying to get rid of him for years and asked me if I would be willing to appear at a disciplinary hearing for him. I said I would, but I was never called upon to do so.

We made the Seattle-Chicago trip because it was something we had long wanted to do. I was glad to have realized my dream, but not that it turned out to be a nightmare.
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 08:35 AM
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We may book sooner than later as the summer months fares are almost double. It does run all year round - the train was designed to withstand the snow and steep inclines in the mountainous regions.
The food is included in the fare of a bedroom - it looks like fun!
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 08:38 AM
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Happytrails - Wow - I am glad to have read this side of things - sorry that it was less than desirable for you!

So, the beds are uncomfortable? Good info to consider. I kep thinking that it is 2 days of catching up on reading, sipping tea in the day, wine at night and enjoying countryside but I will have t othink about this.....

Would love other opinions.....
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 08:51 AM
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I wish I could say it is just as TV show described..
When I went a year ago, the food was good not wonderful -but that is OK,,beakfast was best..meal costs were included in room fees and first access to dining room
Service was OK--bathrooms and showers on lower level were clean--often a line-up and then towels were limited..I had a "roomette" for me was OK..great for one adult and a child..During day 2 comfortable "lounge 'type cairs facing each other with table between and big window,,at night this made into comfortable bed (fixed by attendant) and
"top" sleeping area was "apull down" bed which was sdmall but comfortable. Must be able to climb into it and not mind having your head a few inch from ceiling. I could not afford an actual room--too expensive. loved the scenery it was well worth any inconveniency.
Of course..Amtrak is almost never on time- (into Seattle 3 hrs. late)-that did not matter to me but some people complained a lot.--we did not stop at Glacier
I would not make this trip again unless I had a "real" room with at least a toilet.
It was a wonderful trip for me as I love train travel
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 09:01 AM
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As mentioned, you're going to get opinions all over the place. There have been some trip reports, including the Empire Builder, and I'd suggest you do a search here - especially from Dan Williams who has filed several excellent reports.

Our experience on Amtrak has actually been pretty good with good food, nice service, comfortable bedrooms but with the inevitable delays found on most long distance routes.

Another suggestion is to consider The Canadian, operated by VIA Rail which runs from Montreal to Vancouver (and points in between). It's heads above Amtrak in terms of quality, food, service, etc and has some spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rockies.
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 09:04 AM
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We did the VIA Rail journey (W'peg to Vancouver) a couple of years ago. It was wonderful, with excellent food and service.
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 09:07 AM
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Hello Annesherrod---I have taken the Empire Builder numerous times, but only between Seattle and Sandpoint, Idaho, or as far as Whitefish, Montana, and not recently.

It has a reputation for running late going east to west, but we did not experience serious delays, only an hour at most on the times we took it.

My experience with the roomette and meals included (first class) has been on the Coast Starlight a few years ago---I did it twice. This goes from Seattle to Oakland, California. I loved the trip. It was just as you described your imaginations---relaxing, reading, sippiing tea, a glass of wine (tasting was included in the afternoon), and a nice dinner. However, on the second trip, things seemed to have slipped a bit. I used to be able to book this trip with frequent flyer miles (alaska Airlines plan) but I don't see it offered any more.

I didn't notice the beds being uncomfortable, but I am not particularly fussy about that. Nor do I have trouble sleeping on trains---I find the rocking motion actually soothing. But it isn't for everyone.

When we were at Glacier NP last summer, we met a number of people who had used Amtrak to get to the park, relying on the shuttles once they got there. Seems like a fun way to do it. We're going back to Glacier this summer, so we might give it a try.

If you are AAA members there is a discount on tickets. Also, the earlier you buy them, the less expensive they are. I think they sell a certain number of discounted tickets, and then the price goes up.
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 03:34 PM
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enzian - Thanks for the information. It just seemed like something different to do - I have never taken a train in this country except once in college.
The Canadian Rocky Mt train sounds like fun too - but I realy want to do the Chicago-Seattle bit.
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 03:58 PM
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I took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland, OR a few years back. My trip was definitely "ECONOMY".

My 2 young children and one teenaged step-daughter actually did it coach. The kids slept well on sheets on the floor but my teenager and I tried to get comfortable stretched across two seats each and it just isn't that comfortable with a lump in the middle.

We brought all of our food in an ice chest so didn't eat in the dining car.

I thought the scenery was especially nice around Glacier/Whitefish. We even saw a bear.

How many people can say they've been to Havre, Montana, and Minot, North Dakota? I have!

Overall, the Empire Builder was our favorite of the 3 trains we took.
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Mar 20th, 2009, 07:04 AM
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Would like to offer my experience on the Cali Zephyr from Chicago to Seattle. We had a wonderful time. Our steward was terrific -- extremely helpful, pleasant, patient, etc. (a great juxtaposition with the dining car servers). Food was much better than we expected. Scenery was really amazing. We enjoyed just hanging out in our room reading, listening to music, and just watching the world go by.

Train was just 1.5 hours late, not bad considering how late they CAN be.

One caveat: the servers in the dining car were absolutely horrific. Unwelcoming, unpleasant, occasionally out-and-out hostile. On the final day, I think enough complained about them that they lightened up a bit -- the difference was noticeable. It was bad enough that I wrote a letter of complaint to Amtrak and received a $100 voucher. It really, really takes a lot for me to complain about service (I am experienced in customer service and know that it's not exactly fun). The dining-car service was inexcusable, but the food was satisfying.

That said, it wasn't big enough a knock to ruin it, because we had a WONDERFUL time on the trip. Highly recommended, just be sure to temper your expectations for comfort (slept poorly first night b/c of rocking; was accustomed to it the second night) and timeliness, and be patient when things go wrong.
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Mar 20th, 2009, 07:56 AM
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We (family of 4...two parents, two elementary/middle school kids) did this trip in the summer of 2003, but went only as far as Glacier NP. We loved it...did coach on the way out, but had a "family sleeper" on the way home...very cool experience. They time the departures/schedule to travel the less scenic areas at night. We were traveling along the Mississippi River in Minnesota just as the sun was setting and it was beautiful. We found the food to be good, the service was good enough, but not fab or anything and it was just nice to relax...no airport hassles, the kids could walk around, neither of us was responsible for driving so no navigating or traffic--we could both read, nap, etc. Amazingly, we had no major delays during our round trip. It was an experience I was very glad we had...I love trains and would take them more if there were more of them that went where I wanted to go, and it was an experience I wanted my kids to have. The only downside is that because there were 4 of us, and we always ate together, we never got seated with other travelers so we missed out on that camaraderie of train travel which is one of the coolest aspects of it.
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Mar 20th, 2009, 08:05 AM
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So glad to read more opinions on this!!

We are still serious about this. Everyone tells me to get off and stay at Glacier NP. But we want to fly home - not sure where one would do it from there.
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Mar 20th, 2009, 09:07 AM
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Annesherrod -- Another nice thing that happened to us is that at every meal (breakfast/lunch/dinner for two days) we sat with interesting people and had lengthy conversations with them. Several of them told us that they ride the trains long distance every year. It's a much more relaxed way to travel -- you don't feel harried or rushed or miserable like you do on a plane. At least, that's my experience.

I say that if you're even considering it, do it! You only live once. If you have a bad experience -- oh well, it was still an experience.
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Mar 20th, 2009, 09:12 AM
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TwoFatFeet - thanks for chiming in. Can you clarify - The Calif Zephyr goes from Chicago to San Francisco, while the Empire Builder goes from Chicago to Seattle. Which one were you on?
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Mar 20th, 2009, 09:47 AM
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Flying home from Glacier is relatively easy. Kalispell is approx. 32 miles from the west entrance. United, Delta, Northwest, Horizon and Allegiant all serve Kalispell. The difficult part will be getting to the airport from the park.
You can take the train to Whitefish from west Glacier and then take a taxi to the Kalispell airport or a taxi from the park to the airport.
Don't know which would be cheaper!
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Mar 21st, 2009, 06:18 AM
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dfr4848 -- I was on the Zephyr to SF. See my first post for more info.
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Mar 21st, 2009, 07:45 AM
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I enjoyed thoroughly the Empire Builder, even though my journey was fraught with trouble...horrific floods in Wisconsin at the time put all passengers on buses from Union Station in Chicago to meet the train in Minneapolis.

Once on the train (Minneapolis-Seattle), I slept well (I always seem to sleep well on Amtrak trains...) and appreciated the conversations with folks in the dining car. The scenery was most spectacular to my eyes starting a bit before EAST Glacier Park and moving westward Unexpected for me was the eastern part of Washington State: a surprisingly gorgeous landscape (to my eyes anyway) with the rich orange colour of the sage steppe beautifully contrasting the crisp blue of the Columbia River. Some of my best pictures were in this area.

If you've never taken an Amtrak train before and are really worried about sleeping, you may wish to try an overnight portion (I'd recommend Seattle-EAST Glacier for this one) as a test journey to see if Amtrak is for you or not.

Have fun whatever you decide! Daniel
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