I don't think this needs to be a lengthy explanation of our 8-our ride and since I'm guessing most of you are more interested to hear about what it's like to ride on the train. Not many people that I know have given this option a try. So here is the quick and dirty of:
What to know when traveling by train
This is nothing like traveling by plane. You don't have to go through a body scan. You don't have to have all your bags searched. You can bring snacks, water, pop and we even saw a guy with his own cooler of beer. (Not technically sure if that was allowed but no one said anything as far as I saw). So plan to bring along a pillow if you want to grab a nap and some food so that you don't have to spend money buying it on the train. Just like anywhere else...the prices are a bit higher due to convenience.
While the seats were all numbered, we could pick any seats we wanted in our particular car. From there we could move about the train as we wanted. We were comfortable leaving our bags in the seats while we spend time in the lounge or dining car.
And of course you can also purchase sleeper cars if you are taking a really long/overnight ride. If you use the Amtrak App, you can even purchase these kind of upgrades on the fly if they are available.
The View from the Lounge Car -
This train took us down along the Mississippi River and in many cases we were away from the roads and getting to see a bit more back country than you would if you were driving. Most of the seats face outward on both sides of the car but there were also a number of tables where you could sit at with your meal or laptop and face forward or backward.
A good part of the river was frozen already but in a large open section of water down around the Red Wing area, I think we must have seen 40-50 bald eagles flying about or perched in trees just alongside the tracks. It was amazing! Of course by time we realized it and went back to grab the camera, we missed the opportunity.
Much like being on a plane, they restrooms are pretty small. There are about 4 of them available on the first floor of each coach car. The cars we were on were older so the restrooms weren't fantastic but I'd say acceptable. The only thing that bothered me a bit was that the open rolls of toilet paper were just sitting on the counter next to the sink so they would get splashed on and that grossed me out a bit...so I opted to grab tissues from the protected box instead ;)
No WiFi (usually) -
I guess on the shorter "commuter" type sections they will have the WiFi turned on but on the longer cross country rides it's not available. We always have our hot spot if we really needed to get connected but WiFi would have been nice and allowed me to get a bit more work/blogging done during the ride. It is nice though that they have power outlets for every coach seat and next to each seat in the dining and lounge cards too. So you never need to worry about your phone or laptop dying along the way.
Options for snacks and dining -
For most of the ride, there were hot and cold snacks and water/pop available for purchase and even beer/wine on the evening routes. There is also a dining car where you can sit at a table and order meals. The food choices in the dining car were pretty limited but what we did order was good quality. We did the scrambled eggs and grits for breakfast and then a hamburger and kettle chips for lunch. Not cheap but not as expensive as I thought it might have been with the whole "convenience factor" again.
Both on the way to and from Chicago we ended up having delays. Nothing earth shattering but enough to be a tad annoying. On the way there, the conductor announced some sort of a communication problem with the rail signals so for about 20 minutes we continued forward but at a very reduced speed; basically just in case we met another train on the rails. On the way back, just 5 minutes from getting back home to the Union Depot, we were stuck sitting still, waiting for the track to clear from a maintenance issue that was being resolved on another train ahead of us. We had to pass through a freight track area and I guess Amtrak really doesn't have any priority whatsoever in this situation; so we got in 45 minutes late.
Chicago's Union Station during rush hour is crazy busy!
When we pulled into this gigantic station there were multiple commuter trains around us loading up hundreds of people heading home from work. With all the trains having their engines running it was quite loud. Nothing unsafe or hard to navigate; just a bit of a shock after being on a somewhat quiet, relaxing ride for the past few hours.
When I compared the cost of the 2 coach seats on the train, vs 2 tickets on a direct flight, the cost wasn't much less but the experience was much better. It was $264 for the both of us to travel round trip, Friday to Sunday. Yes it's an 8 hour train ride vs a 1.5 hour flight but it's more about the experience and we are looking forward to traveling by train again, probably westbound, through the mountains, out to Seattle or Portland.
Have you traveled by train before? What experiences good or bad did you have?