St. Paul to Seattle on the Empire Builder
It has always been one of our bucket list trips to take the Empire Builder from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington. For the trip we rented a “roomette” which is the smallest and cheapest sleeper car. On this trip we learned many hacks to make the stay in an Amtrak roomette more pleasant.
We took the Empire Builder, which starts in Chicago, stops in St. Paul where we boarded then goes to either Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington. The train splits (and joins up) in Spokane, Washington.
A feature of the Empire Builder is the VistaView car. In this train car you can see out both sides of the train through large windows.
The part of the trip that is most enjoyable is riding through the Cascade and Glacier mountain ranges. This is the iconic part of the Empire Builder’s route with several bridges over canyons and track precariously on the side of mountains. You will see white topped mountains. Be sure to spend as much time as possible in the VistaView car.
The first part of this article provides some overall train hacks, and the second part of the article has some hacks specific to staying in a roomette.
These are some ideas to make your train trip more enjoyable.
Wear Slip-on Shoes
Wear shoes you can slip on and off easily. You want to kick off your shoes when sleeping, but you need to put them back on when you go to the bathroom. One time I got up during the night and forgot to put on my shoes. The upper restroom was occupied so I went downstairs to use the lower restrooms. I stepped in something cold and wet on the floor. I like to think it was just water.
Bring Pillows and Blankets
With Amtrak, you never really know what is going to happen. On the first night of our trip, we were planning to depart at 11:15pm. Well, the train ended up being 9 hours late, so we slept at the train station. Because we had a pillow and two blankets, we were much more comfortable than the unprepared travelers.
Next time I travel on Amtrak I am also going to bring two inflatable camping mattresses, just in case I need to sleep on the floor of a train station.
Eat in the Dining Room
One of the best part of train travel is dining in the dining car. All meals are included if you purchase a sleeper car. If you are in coach, you can also have your meals in the dining car, but you have to pay for them. They aren’t terribly expensive, and it is a very fun experience.
The food was delicious. Every meal was wonderful.
One policy of Amtrak is that you are seated with strangers to fill out your table. For introverts, that can be quite a challenge. Even so you will find that you have something in common…you are both on the train!
You will meet interesting people from all over the country. People are on vacation, or headed somewhere to another vacation (like a cruise) or they are just headed back home. Go with the flow and just chat over your meal with new friends and enjoy the time and, if you are in the mountains, the marvelous scenery. Scenic views across the plains for sure, but going over a trestle-type bridge in the Rockies with sheer drops off on both sides and rushing mountain streams and rivers is incredible.
Hurry Up and Wait
Get ready for delays on the Amtrak. Our initial train was 9 hours late, and as we commiserated with other passengers, everyone had a story of a significant delay. Many years ago on the Amtrak we had a 8-hour delay because our train hit a car at an intersection, and the two people in the car died.
If you do have a significant delay, then you will probably receive a voucher from Amtrak. Amtrak sent us a voucher before we requested it.
In addition to these major delays, there are many minor delays. What seemed to cause most minor delays was waiting for freight trains.
Bring a Train Scanner
While we were traveling, we met a man who had brought a train scanner along with him on the train. Since there can be so many reasons for delays, it would be nice to have the inside information from the scanner. We may bring one on our next Amtrak trip.
There is no Wifi on the Empire Builder. However, I was able to access the Internet with a personal hotspot on the phone for much of the trip, except for in Glacier and the Cascade mountain ranges.
We found the Amtrak staff to be highly professional throughout the trip. The announcements were very useful. Amtrak trains have a lower priority than the freight trains, so a few times throughout the day there is an announcement that we need to wait for the freight train to come through. Most of our contact was with the staff in the Dining Car and the Porter for our sleeper car. They really do everything they can to make your trip as comfortable as possible.
The staff seemed to really appreciate tips. I’m not sure if everyone tips on the Amtrak, but it is a great way to show your appreciation. We tipped after each meal and we also tipped the porter.
Do you need to worry about theft on Amtrak?
How can you be sure that someone won’t steal your bags on Amtrak? If you have suitcases, then you can either check them with Amtrak when you board or store them in the luggage compartments. If you have valuables you don’t need during the trip, it would be best to check your baggage. I did a bit of quick research on theft on Amtrak trains, and it seems like the greatest risk is that someone would dig through your bags while you are sleeping and take something valuable. It doesn’t sound like theft usually involves stealing an entire suitcase. With that in mind, locks on your suitcases may offer some security if you don’t want to check your bags all the way through.
The sleeper units can only be locked from the inside. That can give you piece of mind when you are sleeping and changing clothes, but you aren’t able to lock up valuables in your roomette.
Amtrack Roomette Hacks
We stayed in a roomette on the Empire Builder and slept a total of four nights in the sleeper. In addition, we slept one night in a train station. Since we weren’t sure what to expect, and we didn’t prepare very well. We naively showed up to our roomette with two suitcases and a two backpacks, completely unaware of just how small the space is. As our trip continued, we learned these hacks for how to travel best in a roomette.
The roomette is the smallest sleeper room. It is the size of two narrow bunkbeds with about 2 square feet of standing room. The roomette is converted into two padded chairs for during the day, and into two bunks at night. The porter converts your room for you.
Purchasing a roomette places you in First Class. All meals in the dining car are included. In addition, in some train stations there is a first class waiting area that is significantly more comfortable than the standard waiting area. First Class passengers board first.
Only Bring What You Need
Plan your packing so that you only bring what you need for the night into the room. When we arrived to our Roomette we had our luggage with us. We somehow wrangled our luggage into the roomette. Keep in mind that the “ette” in roomette means that you don’t really have a room. What you have are bunk beds with about 8 inches in front of them for climbing in and out. The only place to put luggage is on the beds. Whatever you have on the bed takes away from your sleeping room.
You can either check your baggage all the way to your destination, or carry it into your car with you and place it on the luggage rack near the entrance.
The Upper Bunk
The upper bunk in the roomette has enough room for sleeping and that is all. The ceiling is very low, so that you cannot sit up in bed. In fact, the ceiling is so low that you can’t even crawl into the bed. To get positioned in the bed you need to wriggle around like a little worm.
The bed is narrower than a twin size bed. To roll over in bed you need to, again, wriggle like a little worm.
There isn’t a flat area for your cell phone or anything else you may want with you. Instead, there is a pet net where you can place clothing. However, the pet net also reduces your sleeping area. I wrapped up the pet net to get it out of the way.
There is also a little pouch where you can place your cell phone.
The lower bunk is much more roomy. It isn’t wider, but there is enough headroom to sit up in bed.
Wear Clothes to Sleep In
On the sleeping car, there is one changing room/shower. Each time I tried to get into it the room was in use. With that in mind, if you can wear clothes on to the train that you can sleep in, it would save you a bit of hassle changing clothes. You can also change clothes in the restroom or in your roomette, but its very crowded.
Don’t Plan on a Shower
The sleeping car has one shower in it. Bob took four showers in it over the course of our journey. The first three had reasonably good water pressure. You can adjust the temperature. You push a button, and you get about 3 minutes of water. There was something off with the water on his fourth attempt, and there was just a dribble of water.
Expect Nice blankets
Amtrak has really cozy blankets in the roomettes. They come wrapped in plastic, which gives you the impression that they haven’t been used before. The pillows are pretty good too, although I brought my own.
The blankets really are a special treat. You can read more about them at Onboard Hospitality.
Door Locks on Inside Only
The doors on the sleeper cars have locks, but you can only lock them on the inside. What this means is that you don’t want to leave any valuables in your room. Since I had my MacBook Pro with me on the trip, that meant I had to lug my backpack wherever I went on the train. If you can put your most valuable items into a smaller carrying bag, it will be easier to keep them with you.
Temperature Control in the Roomette
There are two ways to manage the temperature in your sleeper. The first is a control that allows you to set the preferred temperature. In addition, you can open up the vent in your room to increase the air flow. At first we thought that the temperature control wasn’t working, but after our second night we realized that the vent in our room was closed.
Only One Outlet
There is only one outlet in the roomette. We took turns charging our phones. On the Empire Builder you can access more outlets in the Vista View car.
No Need to Bring a Water Bottle
For sleeper customers, Amtrak provided bottled water.
America has a long standing love of train travel. We’re intrigued by the magic and mystique of watching the countryside fly by while we dine on fine meals, where a porter takes our bag and where we hear “all aboard!” as our locomotive heads off into the sunset. But what about reality?
We actually did hear our crew shout out “all aboard” at many quick stop locations, where you are able to get off the train for a few short minutes and stretch your legs. Follow the advice of the crew: don’t go far and stay right on the nearby walkways! Don’t be left behind!
Yes, you won’t have to do any driving and your delicious meals are wonderful. But be prepared for things that could happen, both big and small.
Big problems? Our train was delayed the first night by 9 hours and we slept in the train station. Fortunately we were in first class so we were allowed to stay in the lounge with couches. Other people had to sleep sitting up in chairs all night!
Small problems? Periodically you will have to stop and wait for a period of time for another train to pass, another Amtrak or a freight train. Sometimes a shower head might not work perfectly, or a toilet might be unclean. (Just go to another toilet). A door or window might rattle, as is the case at this very moment.
The bottom line. Just go with the flow. Another traveler told us the first night…”We’re on a train. Things can happen. Just go with it”. Good advice. The very first night Susan heard someone yelling at the top of their lungs just down the hallway. I don’t know what that was about but that person had reached their limit. You need to go into your first step onboard with the attitude, it’s all going to be fine. We’ll get there. We have food, water and comfort on board and a professional staff doing their best to accommodate many customers and people from wide and varied backgrounds.
Check out our other stories at HatsOffAmerica.com! Bob and Susan Metoxen look for “America’s Good Stories” and publish them on the website.