Riding the Rails: Plusses & Minuses of Amtrak Empire Builder from Seattle to Wisconsin Dells
Updated: Mar 11
After several domestic flights characterized by delays, frenetic passengers, and cramped seats, I decided to take the train back to Wisconsin after my short return to Seattle. This route is called the Empire Builder, and it travels between Seattle and Chicago, which is a three-day trip. I rode two days to disembark at Wisconsin Dells. Here's my take on the plusses and minuses of that trip.
What I loved about the trip:
The scenery was beautiful -- the train travels all the way through the state of Washington, through the Cascade mountains, then into the Rockies, into Glacier National Park, through eastern Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. I've placed photos at the end of this blog post.
Because it's a train, you can get up and move around --This one doesn't require much explanation. It's nice to travel and be able to move around. There was sufficient leg room to make it easy to get up and walk. After the first night, there was a scenery train car for viewing, and even though the train was full most of the time, there were always seats in that car. There were plenty of restrooms and it was easy to get from one car to another. Some of the restrooms had extra room to change clothes or wash up.
Nice, friendly people ride on trains -- People on trains are friendly. Maybe it's because they're going to travel with you a while, or maybe it's because optimistic people ride on trains, but there was a feeling that folks looked out for one another. This was the first time I rode on a long-distance train by myself, and I felt comfortable getting up and leaving my things in my seat and the overhead compartment. Because the train was at capacity most of the trip, I had seat-mates most of the time. The first one was a very interesting, engaging young man from Poland. He was working in one of the national parks, and was studying in a university back home. He showed me terrific photos he had taken of mountain goats in Glacier National Park. I learned a bit about Polish culture & I'd like to think he learned a bit more about U.S. culture. Hopefully, he's reading this post and I can thank him for being such a great conversationalist. And, he sent me this photo that he took just before disembarking at the start of the second day. So, thank you, Adam! I hope you have a good impression of the U.S. from your stay! Here is the photo he took.
I met a friendly woman from Havre, Montana, who runs a wine shop. We bonded
over wine and travel. If I'm ever in Havre, I'll find that shop. My last seat-mate was
a young woman who got on in Minneapolis, headed for D.C. by way of Chicago.
She had spent time in northern Wisconsin with an uncle and was a new teacher. We discussed education and the midwest and travel. I don't have these types of conversations on a plane.
4. The train employees and volunteers are really good at their jobs -- The porters and the woman who staffed the food car were really nice and helpful. They went out of their way to be kind. There was a volunteer from the national park service who described interesting spots on the route, the first day. Porters helped me with my luggage and assisted people in a low key way. They stopped occasionally to chat and laugh before heading to their next task.
5. The price, if you don't pay for a sleeping accommodation -- I paid $239 for the one-way ticket. The cheapest airline ticket was $600, and I would have had $70 in additional fees for baggage, since I was taking my checked bag as well as Paul's. That ticket would have required that I get up at 3 a.m. to arrive at the airport at 4 a.m. for a 6 a.m. flight. Instead, I left at 2:30 p.m. to arrive at the train station at 3:00 p.m. for a 4:55 p.m. departure, a much more civilized time-frame.
What I didn't like about the trip:
The regular coach seat was uncomfortable for overnight accommodation, and the price of a sleeping accommodation was really high -- I couldn't bring myself to pay an extra $1,400 for sleeping accommodations. I tried to bid for a roomette - the $550 I bid was listed as having a "good" chance of being accepted, but I didn't get one. When I asked again about how much it would cost to buy one when I checked in, I was told they were sold out. While the coach seat was reasonably comfortable for sitting, it was not for sleeping, even with extra leg platforms and reclining seats. I barely got 4 hours of sleep the first night. During the day, I appreciated the window seat, but at night I was pretty miserable.
The food options were minimal if you were traveling coach -- The last time I rode on a long-distance Amtrak, coach passengers could use the dining car. The food wasn't fantastic, but it was fine, a regular meal. During COVID, Amtrak stopped sit-down meals, but restored them for sleeping car passengers. However, coach passengers can only buy pre-packaged food items, and the selection was limited, pricey, and not especially good. In retrospect, I wish I had packed food for the trip.
Because of a shortage of resources, I could not check my bags -- All passengers are allowed two large suitcases and two carry-ons with the fare. But, I wasn't allowed to check my big bags because there was no staff working at the Wisconsin Dells station. Instead, I had to load them on the train (the porter lifted them for me). Later, I had to change cars so that the Wisconsin Dells passengers were together, and had to move the bags. Again, the porter carried them for me. I was told most of the smaller stations had no staff for handling bags. On the second day, as we left Minneapolis, the train was more than full - there weren't enough seats nor spaces for bags. I was told this was because there were insufficient workers to repair trains and therefore insufficient trains to accommodate all the passengers. Supply issues were also limiting food choices. This is evidence of similar shortages we've experienced in other places all summer.
On balance, I'm really glad I took the train. It was a beautiful route, and it allowed me some time to de-stress. I met interesting people and enjoyed the scenery.
Here are my photos:
Day 1-Seattle to Spokane
Day 2-Spokane to Minot, N.D.
We entered the Rockies during the night. The first photos are sunrise just West of Glacier National Park.
Day 3-Minot to Wisconsin Dells (via Minneapolis)
When I woke up, it was raining pretty hard. You can't take decent photos out a train window in the rain. But when it stopped not too far from Minneapolis, there was a rainbow! We crossed the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, then again at LaCrosse to enter Wisconsin. Soon after, we were at Wisconsin Dells.