Have you ever traveled by train for a vacation before? Have you ever thought about it?
I am willing to bet that most people forget that some travel destinations are reachable by Amtrak trains. We have taken Amtrak from St. Paul (MSP) to Chicago (CHI) twice. The first time we just bought Coach tickets and the second time we booked a Family Bedroom. Both times have been enjoyable experiences, so I thought I would share what I’ve learned about traveling by train.
Weighing Our Transportation Options
Before we took our trips, we had to consider the pros and cons of the different ways to get from Minneapolis to Chicago.
- Pros: Inexpensive & car is available if you need to go outside the city
- Cons: Long Drive and have to stop to stretch, required valet parking if you stay in the city can be expensive
- Pros: Can get up and walk around whenever you want, dining car aboard, plenty of leg room, allowed to bring quite a big of luggage with you that is included in your fare, sleeper car options, dining car options, use your AAA card to get a discounted fare
- Cons: Mid-level expenditure, will need to rent a car or cab it once you’re at your destination
- Pros: Very quick flight
- Cons: Most expensive transportation option, will have to pay for parking at the airport or take a cab, will need to rent a car or cab it, may have to pay extra for your luggage
- Pros: Can be as low as $10 each way (usually weekdays have the lowest rates)
- Cons: Limited amount of luggage allowed, will need to rent a car or cab it once you’re at your destination
I do want to note that if you are staying in the city when going to Chicago, many places could be walkable from your hotel and cab fares are reasonable. We typically paid between $10-$15 for our family of 4 to take a cab to many of the popular tourist destinations (including museums and zoo and more), whereas required valet parking at downtown hotels will cost you $25-$40 a day and you then have to deal with driving around an unfamiliar city.
First Timer’s Guide to Traveling By Train
There are 4 main areas on an Amtrak Train:
- Coach Seats
- Dining Car (pictured at the left)
- Lounge Car
- Sleeping Car
When you buy a ticket to Amtrak, the base Coach fare includes your choices of seats in the Coach Cars. You just pick your seat when you get on. (Don’t worry, there is typically a lot to choose from.)
You are free to roam about the Coach area and Lounge Car. The Lounge Car has a cafe where you can get snacks, food and beverages to go and it also has a seating area that people come and go from that has chairs that face looking out the windows and has table and chair areas that are perfect for playing a game of cards. You are allowed to bring a reasonable amount of snacks with you on the train and there is no quart-bag rule about liquids like there is at an airport. You will often see people eating sandwiches and snacks they brought along with them.
The Dining Car requires reservations for lunch and dinner, whereas breakfast is first come, first serve. Reservations are first given to those passengers with Sleeping Car tickets, because their tickets include free meals. We had both breakfast and lunch on our way to CHI from MSP and then we had dinner on our return trip. Serving sizes were pretty decent and we were allowed a salad, entree, and dessert and choice of beverage (alcohol was extra if you want it) for lunch and dinner and and entree, side item and choice of beverage for breakfast.
If you have a coach ticket and are able to get a dining reservation you will need to pay for all of your food and beverages. We really liked being able to go sit down and eat. You are seated 3-4 to a table, so if your group is not 4 people there is a chance that a stranger will be seated with you, but that is the part that some people really like about train travel is that you get a chance to mingle and meet new people. Food is served relatively quickly as well.
The Sleeping Car has several options with the largest being a Family Bedroom for 2 adults and 2 children, which is what we purchased. You pay one upcharge for the room whether it is just one person in it or you fill it with the maximum allowed. The sleeping car rooms are in their own sections of the train and have bathrooms in that same section, as well as a shower room.
When you enter the family sleeping room it will look like a couch and 2 chairs, but then there are 2 bunks that fold down at the top and the 2 chairs slide together to make a bed and the couch slides out to make a bigger bed.
The sleeping car rooms are not spacious but you certainly have enough space to stretch your legs, plus you are free to roam around and go hang out in the Lounge Car as well. They provide linens, blankets and pillows in each of the rooms and there is an attendant that can be called just for the Sleeping Car. They also provide bottled water and have a coffee station in the sleeping car for those with tickets. Also, if you are traveling to a station like Chicago that has a Metropolitan lounge you have free access to that lounge which gets you free snacks and beverages in the lounge, coupon booklets and guides for the city, as well as the ability to check your luggage to be held while you go out and explore the city some more (which is great in the instance that you have to be out of your hotel but your train doesn’t leave for several hours, which is what we did!). It certainly made sense for us to pay the upcharge to a family room for our family of four.
We took our trip in October, which is a beautiful time to look out the windows and enjoy the fall colors. We really enjoyed not driving. Because there are so many quick stops at stations along the way to pick up passengers it does add a couple more hours of travel time compared to driving, but then again who knows how many bathroom and food breaks we would have had to take with the kids if we were driving. Plus, we didn’t have to pay for the valet parking which would have cost more than all of our cab rides.
I highly encourage you to consider taking an Amtrak Train vacation from MSP to CHI like we did and if it makes sense in your budget, I would very highly recommend getting sleeping car accommodations. When you consider the time saved (You can travel while you sleep) and the fact that you don’t have to pay extra for a hotel, a sleeping car can be a great way to travel.
I would really like to take another Amtrak Train vacation, but this time I am thinking about taking our family to Glacier National Park in Montana. I am not sure when we’ll do that but it’s a trip I would like to take.
Your turn: Have you ever traveled by train? What did you think?