The Traveling Steve's

Amtrak’s Empire Builder: Seattle to Chicago!

After 3 days in Seattle, Steve (DOS) and I took Amtrak’s Empire Builder cross-country for 2 days from Seattle to Chicago. This was our second cross-country trek on Amtrak, with the first one being from Chicago to Emeryville on the California Zephyr in February 2022.

I say cross-country, although technically most of the long distance trains such as this one, arrive or depart from Chicago’s Union Station. You can go further to New York, or even home to Orlando, but it requires a change of trains and as posted further down below, it’s hard to schedule connections with these long distance trains as they are often late, in cases like our’s, over 5 hours late. Also, the long distance trains are 2 levels, and many of the busy north eastern cities can not accommodate the additional height requirements for these sleeper trains, so it was easier to fly from Chicago back to Orlando after taking the Empire Builder.

Our train was scheduled to depart at 4:55pm, which gave us a full day in Seattle. As I am a Hyatt Globalist member, (60+ nights a year at Hyatt’s) we received a complimentary 4pm checkout from our Hyatt Olive 8 Hotel, which on this stay we actually used in its entirety, as our train was running several hours late.

On the plus side, I now had time to have a pizza prepared from the hotel lobby’s vending machine! Yes, this was a first for me, both seeing a pizza vending machine, as well as actually ordering one from it. We had noticed the novel, yet practical, vending machine at check-in, and I was curious about using it during our stay, but had not done so. This train delay gave me a perfect opportunity to try It out for a quick in-room lunch before checking out of the hotel!

Here’s a couple short videos of the pizza being prepared and ultimately being delivered thru the slot in the vending machine. I did a longer video I’m not including here that shows the actual ordering process and payment, but the pizza cost $9.99, payable via a credit card. It’s not actually a slice of pizza, rather a mini square personal size pizza, actually bigger than I thought.

As schedules go, we had noticed the inbound Empire Builder from Chicago was running over 4 hours late, however we didn’t know if they were using the same train for the return trip to Chicago. They were. DOS called Amtrak and initially they said the train would depart at 7pm, so we stayed in the hotel until 4pm, showering and relaxing before the long train ride. We then Uber’d the short distance to the Seattle Amtrak station, located on King Street in Downtown Seattle.

Check-In: Once at the Seattle Amtrak station, we took our bags into the station, after first passing a security guard inquiring as to where we were going. The bag check-in was quick and easy, and DOS and I each checked a suitcase, while leaving our carry-on bag and knapsack to take aboard the train. We inquired about the delay, but the Amtrak ticket agent genuinely did not know what time we would leave, but said tentatively 7pm. (I say genuinely did not know as it turns out it was a maintenance delay from the inbound train, and Amtrak didn’t know how long it was going to take to fix. It turns out we didn’t leave until after 10pm!)

Pre-Departure Waiting Area: The Train Station in Seattle is quite nice and clean, with classical architecture and beautiful tile floors, seating areas, and monitors showing train status. Unfortunately for such a major station, it is lacking in a Concierge Lounge like other gateway stations (i.e. Chicago, Portland OR), or even a small restaurant or bar, although there is an over-priced vending machine for sodas and snacks.

Fortunately, there is an Embassy Suites Hotel directly adjacent to the Seattle Amtrak station, and DOS and I walked the few steps next door and made ourselves comfortable in the Zephyr Lounge for what would turn out to be several hours.

I used to stay at Embassy Suites when I was traveling for work, and always enjoyed them with their evening manager’s reception and full breakfast in the morning, not to mention the extra space and living room area. We didn’t stay here overnight at the Embassy Suites (although we were starting to wonder if we would need to as the train was so late), as we had stayed at the Hyatt Olive 8 Downtown during our stay. This downtown Embassy Suites, however, is a very convenient place to stay if taking the train, or even for a stay-cation for locals as Seattle’s two stadiums are a short distance behind the hotel. We met a few locals in the Zephyr Lounge who were doing just that; going to a game and staying at the hotel, with a drink or two before the game.

The Embassy Suites has a full service restaurant down the hall from Zephyr’s Lounge that offers a full dinner menu, but was quite busy either from the passengers waiting for the train and/or locals going to the game that Friday night. They did not offer “take-out” service unfortunately, which we would have used to take that food back to Zephyr’s along with our drinks we would order there. Walking thru the lobby area of the hotel, I almost ran into the hotel’s robot, that was on some type of errand the hotel had dispatched it to do!

Happily, we made the most of the multi-hour’s delay at Zephyr’s, with our new friend and bartender, also called Steve, who seemed sympathetic and was surprised at such a long train delay we were experiencing. We had a pub dinner there along with our brewski’s, and as we sat in a high-top by the window, we could see trains coming and going, as the night dragged on and got darker.

The three Steve’s at Zephyr Lounge in the Embassy Suites, adjacent to the Amtrak station.

While there wasn’t an Amtrak TV monitor in Zephyr’s, we kept tracking the departure time on the Amtrak App on our iPhones , and DOS and I took turns every 20 minutes or so going over to the station to inquire about the actual departure time. At one time we were told to be back by 8pm, but that of course was just an estimate, and we could see when the sleeper train would arrive from where we were seated at Zephyr’s. Finally by 9pm we headed over to the train station waiting area, and waited another 45 minutes until the train boarded. The Amtrak Station was so quiet you could hear a boarding pass drop, as everyone was so tired from waiting and it was to much energy to talk!?. Amtrak did provide our “dinner” (which we were supposed to have onboard in the Dining Car), in the way on a Subway sandwich which we had in the terminal. No drink included except for a small bottle of water.

BOARDING THE EMPIRE BUILDER: We boarded the Empire Builder around 9:45, and quickly met our train car’s cabin attendant, Brian, who was standing by the entrance door of our sleeper car.

There are 5 sleeper cabins on the top (second floor) of our section of the 0831 train car, (in the boarding photo above it shows car 0731, which is from the inbound train from Chicago; the train number had not been changed yet most likely due to the late arrival) while there are 10 smaller roommates (half the size of the one bedroom cabin and without a bath) and one Family cabin and one accessible cabin on the lower level of our section of the train car. There are actually two sections of each train car, which is separated by a service area for the attendant, bottled waters, etc, and another section of sleeper cabins on the other side of the service divider.

As it was a long overnight journey of two nights and some 2,000 miles, DOS and I each got our own one bedroom/bath sleeper cabin, which connected to the other room via a sliding door, which was initially closed when we boarded. We chose the same type configuration when we took the California Zephyr last year, and it was so much more comfortable than when we had taken the Auto Train overnight so many times, with a single bedroom/bath, and an upper and lower berth.

The bed in each of our rooms had already been turned down, which is typically done by the cabin attendant (Brian) while we are having dinner in the Dining Car. Tonight, however, as the train was so late, there was no dinner service served, but rather a simple Subway sandwich provided it us in the Seattle Terminal before boarding, so the beds were turned down as most people including us, just wanted to get to bed.

We did have a request for Brian before we headed to bed, and that was to open the connecting door between our sleeper cabins B and C, similar to a hotel’s adjoining/connecting rooms. Judging by this simple request, apparently not many travelers get two rooms and opt for the upper and lower births in a single room. Brian told us they don’t give us keys anymore to open the rooms (i.e. what a crock of BS we’re thinking), but he eventually “found” a key and opened up the sliding door, effectively turning our two bedrooms into a “suite”.

Here I’m in my room facing the mirror, which is actually attached to the sliding connecting door to Cabin C, “DOS’s room”. This was shortly before our cabin attendant unlocked the door to open up the space for 2 adjoining rooms.

DOS is waving to me through our now open connecting doorway. Just that little connector doorway being open makes the space feel much larger; effectively a 2 room train suite!

Unfortunately as the train approached its high speed later on in the night, combined with the sometimes rocky railroad tracks, the sliding door kept rolling back and forth, so we ended up closing it for the night so the cabin was much quieter. We re-opened the connecting door in the morning.

As on the California Zephyr we took last year, the train temperature was quite comfortable, and has individual temperature controls in each room. If anything it seemed warmer than cooler, and I usually wore shorts and a t-shirt in the room, but jeans and a polo shirt to meals.

With the bed turned down at night, (as opposed to the regular sofa by day), the room felt
quite cramped, and it was difficult to reach the sink, cabin door, and closet, (behind me). The in-room bathroom with tiny shower is to my right; slightly larger than an airplane bathroom.

Day Two: After a fairly decent night’s sleep as the train rolled across the sometimes bumpy sections along the rails, DOS and I woke up about the same time, around 7:45/8am. I pulled the window curtains open in the room, and was afforded beautiful views of the Lake Pend Oreille River in Northern Idaho. I took a few pics, and a short video of the river before we headed to the Dining Car for breakfast.

On this trip, most of the sleeper cars were full, so the Dining Room was fairly busy, although we never had a wait to be seated. While the food was ok, (perhaps a roadside Diner quality) the service in the Dining Room was very good throughout the trip. The menu is the same for both days, and I had the French Toast with berries, and a side of bacon.

As the tables are set for four passengers, and space is obviously limited, Amtrak seats you with another passenger or couple for each meal, to maximize seating capacity. This shared dining experience is one of the things we like about taking the train, and that’s meeting different people from all walks of life, going to different places. As we had our breakfast, we were afforded beautiful and constantly changing views of the passing landscape.

After breakfast we headed back to our cabin, which surprisingly had still not been made up (by this time it was after 10am). We noticed our cabin attendant, Brian, was also having breakfast in the Dining Car, which seemed a bit strange since your cabin is typically serviced while you’re having breakfast. (You press a buzzer in your room indicating you want the room serviced, normally during breakfast). Brian must have had the longest breakfast of any employee as he was there talking to the Conductors at breakfast since before we arrived at 8:30am, and was still there when we left at 10am, as we lingered over the beautiful scenery, and waited for him to service the room, or at least turn up the bed so we had more space.

Our Cabin Attendant (first table left with his back to the camera) enjoys a lengthy breakfast chatting with the conductors.

We’re normally not that fussy with housekeeping service in a hotel, but on the train, the bed literally takes up most of the floor space in the room, and it’s not like we know how to flip the bed up to make more room to at least walk thru the cabin. A couple other passengers mentioned to Brian during breakfast their room need to be made up as well, but Brian carried on in his conversation until he was ready to leave! Maybe it’s just me, but if it were my job, I would have either had breakfast before making up the rooms, or after making them up, instead of sitting in the breakfast car for an hour and a half, with passengers from his rail car wondering why their room wasn’t made up yet. ?

Finally Brian came and turned up the bed, and DOS and I both asked him not to turn down the bed that night, as we would just sleep on the sofa instead. Sleeping the next night on the sofa was actually quite comfortable, and you at least had room to walk around the small room, which you couldn’t do with the bed turned down, and didn’t have to wait on Brian to turn the bed back up in the morning.

Cabin “B” with the bed now turned up, and I’m sitting on the sofa. There is also a chair and adjustable tray table for a laptop, meal, or whatever. There’s much more space in the room than when the bed is turned down at night.

Our connecting door is open, so we can go between our rooms or chat with the
extra room between us.

Passing thru picturesque Libby, Montana

Beautiful Fall colors on the trees as we pass thru Libby, Montana.

Passing thru The Kootenai National Forest. (link from the USDA Forest Service).

Whitefish, Montana Train Station

Whitefish, Montana

Whitefish, Montana

Before long it was time for lunch, and we again went back to the Dining Car for our lunch. Just as we were going to lunch (around 1pm), we passed the entrance to West Glacier, Montana.

We were hoping to see glaciers here or along the way, however we were told by crew that you needed to go further into the park to see them. (Ironically, DOS had taken a couple photos shown below of the glaciers when we were flying home from Vancouver, Canada, about a month ago after our Princess Alaska cruise.)

At lunch we were seated with a different couple who were farmers in the Indiana area. They were also going as far as Chicago, and then had a connecting train to their destination. (We saw them later on in the trip the next day, after it was determined the train was going to be five hours late into Chicago, and they would obviously miss their connecting train. Fortunately, Amtrak provided them with an overnight hotel in Chicago, and they would catch the connecting train the next day.). We enjoyed conversing with them, while we ate our lunch. For lunch, DOS and I both had the Amtrak cheeseburgers, with a Diet Coke. (Not Five Guys or even McDonald’s burgers, but fine for Amtrak train food. ?)

Back in the room, the train had progressed along to the entrance of East Glacier Park. DOS went down to the the Dome Car to have a look, while I enjoyed the scenery from the room.

We both took a nap later in the afternoon, seemingly oblivious to the multiple stops the train made on the way. Most of the stops were really quick; as in a couple minutes at the most, while occasionally we would get a longer “smoke break” (we don’t smoke) or “fresh air break” they called it of 10 – 15 minutes where you could get off the train for a quick breath of fresh air.

Even on these longer “fresh air break” stops, however, you couldn’t leave the platform area, lest you miss the train when it headed out. At Harve, Montana, we had a 15 minute “fresh air break”, and DOS got off the train, while I stayed on as my feet were bothering me a bit and I didn’t want to go down the stairs if I didn’t have to. I did take a couple pics out the window, one of which DOS is in the photo.

Dinner is the highlight of the day when riding the long distance train, and as we once again went to the Dining Car, we were reminded to turn our watches ahead an hour, as we were headed east-bound, and leaving Pacific Time, and now heading into Mountain Time. For dinner DOS and I both had the coconut shrimp appetizer, skirt steak, potato, and salad. Amtrak also provides you one complimentary alcoholic drink with the meal, and I had a glass of red wine, as well as DOS’s glass of red wine, as he got a soda. For dinner there are actually three different times for dinner, starting at 5pm, 5:45pm, and 6:30pm, the latter of which we chose to have dinner. (Breakfast and lunch were open-seating times during the allocated meal hours.) Here are a couple photos taken at dinner, including one of of our table mates the first dinner aboard.

Out of focus dinner pic; sorry! Steak, potato, and green beens.
Blueberry cheese cake for dessert.

Back in the room after dinner, Brian had not turned down our beds per our request, but still provided us sheets and pillows for the sofa. I also asked for ice as I went to the service area, which previously (at least on the California Zephyr last year) was self service for ice, but it is no longer. (There are lots of bottles of complimentary water at the service area at the end of the car you can take to your room, but you now have to ask your cabin attendant for ice; probably a COVID or health issue or maybe people were taking too much ice!) Brian brought me 1/2 a bag of ice, and since there were no ice buckets in the room, I put the bag in the sink, along with a bottle of vino we had purchased at Goose Ridge vineyards in Seattle, for our onboard in-room pleasure. Alcohol you bring aboard is allowed on Amtrak provided it is consumed in your cabin.

Yes, I know it was a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, but it was a good bottle (unlike the “pipple” served in the Dining Room), and I like my red vino slightly chilled, instead of room temperature. DOS told me not to open the fancy wine glasses we had also bought at Goosehead, as they were wrapped up really well for travel, so I settled for a plastic cup for the fine vino! No swirling around the glass for this vintage; it would go all over the floor! LOL!

DOS and I had both downloaded movies from Amazon for the train journey, which is a good thing because the Empire Builder does not have wifi aboard. We could occasionally get a bit of signal on our phones and use the hotspot, although the first full day (Day 2), the wifi was virtually nonexistent as we went thru some very rural parts of the northern US states. (The wifi via our phones was much better on the next day, as we went thru some major midwestern cities.)

Good Night, DOS! Closing the connecting door so it doesn’t slide back and forth
while we are trying to sleep!

Day 3: DOS and I both slept fairly well the previous night, as we had both slept on our respective sofas, instead of the turned down bed. While the sofa was more narrow than the turned down bed, it was worth it as you could get up and walk around the room easier to brush your teeth, use the in-room bathroom, or sit on the chair looking out the window, with the folding table as well. When we awoke, we were passing thru Grand Forks, North Dakota, and the sun was just waiting to rise on the horizon.

By the time we got to breakfast, we saw a beautiful sunrise from our seats in the Dining Car.

A short while later we spotted a large truck carrying what looked like a huge and long pylon of sorts. Everyone in the Dining Car commented on it, and we found out it was actually one blade of one of the massive wind turbine windmills we had seen the day before. Talk about big – these things are huge! I don’t know how the truck can make turns with such a long turbine blade it is carrying as cargo. Here’s a photo of the truck carrying the blade, and some of the windmill turbines we saw yesterday.

Fargo, North Dakota

Fargo, North Dakota

Day 3 was basically a repeat of day 2, however this was our last day of the trip, when we would eventually reach Chicago. We did not make up any of the lost time overnight, and in fact the train was stopped at some point when I woke up at 3am or so, most likely yielding to a freight train, which have priority over Amtrak trains, as they own the tracks. We ended up not getting to Chicago until nearly 10pm, which was unfortunate, not that we were in a hurry as we were staying overnight at the Hilton O’hare Airport, but we didn’t get to see some of the major cities in the daytime, such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and even the Wisconsin Dells. We did have a “fresh air break” in St. Paul, MN, so we briefly got off the train for that, as it was beautiful weather, and still daytime.

We repeated our meal options, having breakfast, lunch, and later an unscheduled, but appreciated dinner. We changed our watches once again after breakfast, setting it ahead another hour (losing an hour), as we headed into Central Time.

As the Empire Builder was scheduled to get into Chicago at 4:55pm, dinner was not scheduled to be served. Since the train was running some 5 hours late however, the Amtrak staff did serve an abbreviated dinner service that evening which was fine, although a bit early for us at 5pm. Since the dinner wasn’t scheduled, they were out of some of the entrees such as steak, but DOS and I had the chicken, and were just glad to get something to eat, instead of waiting several more hours for food. As it was still daylight when we were having dinner, we took a few photos of the Minnesota countryside, and we even got our own table for 2 for this last meal.

The last three hours of the train ride seemed like an eternity as it was dark outside, and we were tired, just wanting to get to Chicago and go to our hotel. I think had it been daylight, it would have been much less tiring and more exciting seeing some of the big cities and countryside, but as it was dark, it tended to have a sedative effect on us, and felt like the last couple anxious hours on a long-haul international flight when you just want to “get there”.

Arrival Into Chicago Union Station: We arrived into Chicago’s huge Union Station hub around 10pm, in what seemed like a non-event after such a long train trip of 2 full days covering 2,205 miles. Basically we quickly got off the train, and it seemed like everyone rushed to the terminal all at once, like departing an airplane after a long flight. Before getting off the train, we tipped our Cabin Attendant Brian, and thanked him for his service (ok we exaggerated the service bit, but still gave him a good tip) over the last couple days. (For the wait staff in the Dining Car, we had tipped them each meal already, but gave them a bit more as well as a huge thanks, especially for the last, and unscheduled meal service.)

Where’s the Taxi Stand? We collected our two checked bags, which arrived almost at the same time we got to the baggage area, and then headed out to the street to get a taxi or Uber. Perhaps because it was late (after 10pm), we did not see a taxi stand anywhere, which was quite surprising, and we even walked up the side street from the main terminal entrance. We saw one cab going by and asked us if we needed a cab, but another couple beat us to it. We walked to the side street, and called Uber, and after a bit of wait, and confusion on where the pickup area was, we were on our way to the Hilton O’hare airport around 10:45pm. While the terminal area in Chicago Union Station is very nice, there needs to be better signage and staff indicating where the taxi and/or Uber pickup areas are located, which we had to find on our own by asking fellow passengers, some as confused as us.

Overnight at O’hare:

We took an XL Uber to the O’hare Hilton, which is located right across from the terminal areas at O’hare International Airport. We checked into the hotel around 11:30pm, and took our bags to the room. We then headed downstairs to the restaurant/pub that was fortunately open until midnight, so we could at least get a bite to eat, and a nightcap brewski for me. We had originally planned to get in at 5pm to Chicago, and by 6pm or so be at the hotel and have a nice and leisurely dinner at their upscale restaurant (which was closed when we got there, but to late anyway to have a full meal), but the pub was fortunately a perfect fit for our late night dining.

Flying home to Orlando:

The next day we skipped breakfast at the hotel, and walked over to the United Terminal at O’hare. We quickly checked in for our early afternoon flight, cleared security, and had time to relax and have a late breakfast/early lunch.

Our flight back to Orlando was on a United Airlines 737-900, and we were also served a meal in First Class on the 2 1/4 hour flight. We were both a bit nervous about flying after my inflight collapse on the flight from Chicago to Seattle flight outbound, but I was fine on the flight, although my oxygen levels did go down when we reached cruising altitudes (they were fine at take off and landing) as indicated by our oxygen finger-tip monitor we brought aboard.

My goal now is to figure our why my oxygen levels are in the 80s at cruising altitude, when they are normal at 95 to 97 on the ground. I’m going to follow-up with my Cardiologist and a Pulmonologist later this week to find out what the issue is, as I’ve flown over 2 1/2 million miles for work and pleasure over the years with no issues such as the fainting spell I had flying out to Seattle this trip. We landed in Orlando on time around 6pm, took the people mover train to the terminal, and then Uber’d home.

Anyway, this was a fun and spur-of-the moment trip, and in spite of the train delays, we would definitely do another cross-country train trip again. It’s such a cool way to see parts of the country you would never see from 35,000 feet flying over it, and really gives you an appreciation of the huge and diverse country we live. Thanks for vicariously riding along with us on The Empire Builder! I hope to edit some of the video footage into a short video of this journey when I can find time, in between trips.

All Aboard for next time! Welcome home Steve’s!

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