Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

My Photo
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Amtrak's EMPIRE BUILDER Is A Civilized Way To Travel

I know what you are thinking: The word "Amtrak" has become synonymous with laughably poor service and schedule unreliability as bad or worse than the Big Six conjures for us. Probably many readers are writing off this particular blog post merely on the basis on my headline.

But before you click your browser to another place in the ether, consider for a moment the possibility that not all Amtrak trains are operated as poorly as the NY-Florida service or the Sunset service between L.A. and New Orleans. In fact, my family of four enjoyed two days and two nights of superb, friendly service, good food, grand views, and on-time performance in a Family Room (sleeper) aboard the Empire Builder from Seattle to St. Paul over the Thanksgiving weekend. It was so relaxing and so unexpectedly positive that I want to share it. I heartily recommend it!

First, some background about Amtrak's transcon western trains. There are four possible routings:

  • The Sunset Limited from the Crescent City to Los Angeles via the old Southern Pacific Sunset route (now Union Pacific) along the bottom of the country;
  • The Southwest Chief from Chicago to L.A. via the old Santa Fe railroad route (now BNSF Railway) which used to be the way of the fabled all-Pullman Super Chief through the Southwest;
  • The California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco along the old Burlington Route (now BNSF), Rio Grande (now UP), and Western Pacific (also now UP) tracks through the heart of the Rockies west of Denver;
  • And finally, the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle and Portland along the old Burlington Route (now BNSF) to the Twin Cities and thence via the old Great Northern "Hi-Line" route (also now BNSF) straight across the top of the country through Glacier National Park in Montana to Idaho, Spokane, and across the Cascades to the Pacific Northwest.

So why is their any difference among these trains? Well, partly because Amtrak is forced to use tracks of the freight railroads that formerly operated the passenger trains (until 1971), and the BNSF Railway does a better job than the Union Pacific in moving Amtrak trains across its territory on time. Another reason for service differentials is that regional Amtrak management styles determine how each of these long distance trains are operated.

The point is, there IS a difference in both service and on-time performance, often a BIG difference. Whereas the Sunset Limited is sometimes 10-12 hours late (for many reasons which I won't recount here), the Empire Builder is mostly on time. In fact, it has the best on-time performance of any western long distance Amtrak train.

AND the Empire Builder has the best service. Thanks to years of cutbacks and underfunding, Amtrak has gone to prepared boxed meals on most of its long distance trains--but not on the Empire Builder. It still has a full service, cook-to-order diner that prepares three hot meals a day. On our train the staff was friendly, efficient, helpful, and downright nice. The service was fast and excellent, and the meals were good to very good.

And did I mention that all meals are complimentary for passengers who have paid for sleeper accommodations? You pay only for alcohol; all else is free. Even the tasty 8 oz. flat iron steak (corn-fed beef, hand cut, aged 21 days) that would otherwise set you back $21.

The Empire Builder consists of Amtrak's "Superliner" cars, which are all high-level, which translates into good viewing of the gorgeous western scenery. There is even a full-length high level dome lounge car, with seats facing the floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides. We sat for hours with our kids watching the snow and the Rocky Mountains through Glacier National Park in Montana. What a thrill! And the lounge bar served us beverages of all sorts all day long and into the evening. Very relaxing and civilized.

Sleepers, too, are high level Superliner cars, and most accommodations are in the upper level. The big double bedrooms even have their own toilets AND showers.

Our "Family Room" (Amtrak's name for our type of accommodation) slept four in comfort (two adults, two kids) and was on the lower level, with toilets and a shower down the aisle. It was extremely private and quiet, since the lower level does not have the end-to-end walking corridor of the upper level.

Family Rooms--just two per sleeper car--are at each end of the lower level and are full width rooms, that is, we had a window on each side of the train. This was possible because there is no corridor beyond the Family Room; we were essentially on a cul-de-sac. This made the room very spacious and comfortable.

Each sleeper has a dedicated attendant, and ours was always available, very nice, and helpful. She even offered to babysit our kids while we accepted Amtrak's invitation to an "adults only" wine-and-cheese tasting (a mid-afternoon affair held in the diner between lunch and dinner). We graciously accepted, and had great fun sampling 3 reds and 3 whites and 6 cheeses.

OK, it wasn't the best vino we've ever had by a long shot (we are very fond of grape nectar), but it WAS a LOT of fun! Zipping along at 79 MPH or faster through the vast stretches of the Great Plains in eastern Montana past Havre while sipping and nibbling was exciting--and quite unexpected, frankly.

I had thought the train experience would be a good one for our kids, but I had steeled myself for poor service on Amtrak. I was wrong: It was great service, and the wine tasting was another innovative example of good customer service. The folks running it made it light and fun for everyone, and at the end asked some seriously dumb and funny questions as an excuse to give away the remaining bottles of wine. We enjoyed our free bottle of Washington State Chard with dinner, and it was delicious!

And here's the final kicker (if all that fun wasn't enough): We left Seattle dead on time; we lost over an hour due to some snow delays en route; and we arrived St. Paul dead on schedule on the second morning of our trip. How many times has an airline provided good on-board service lately and been on time to boot?

In the interest of making this quick to read, I have left out a lot of detail. If you're interested, email me with your questions. Bottom line is I recommend the Empire Builder if you have the time and the inclination. It's a great way to see America and have fun doing it!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this....I'm leaving in a few days from Cumberland MD to Everett WA on the Capitol Limited, then the Empire Builder! We booked a Roomette for the Empire Builder route(just me and my husband). I'm nervous and excited all at the same time.

How does tipping work on the train?

6/18/2007 3:29 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

To Loz:

You're going to have a great time on the Empire Builder! However, the Capitol Limited is often late, and I didn't check Amtrak's schedule to see if you have plenty of connection time in Chicago. Assuming you have 2 or more hours, you should be OK.

Regarding tipping on Amtrak, we tip about $5-10 per day to the sleeping car attendant in charge of our car and room for good service and more for exceptional service. On our trip in November, the service provided by our attendant was superb and genuinely friendly. She even insisted on babysitting our 2 kids while we went to the wine-tasting, and I happily gave her $40 for our 2+ day trip. Use your own discretion. If you get the polar opposite of our attendant (i.e., a grumpy unhelpful sourpuss), well, be stingy or don't tip at all.

For the dining car wait staff we tipped 15-20% of the value of the meal even though meals are free for sleeping car customers. Again that's for good service.

6/18/2007 9:01 PM  
Blogger cooperclose said...

Thanks so much for your posting which had the benefits of being up to date as well as positive. I am coming to the USA (from London UK) in a month to visit friends in Maryland and Seattle and traveling between the two on Amtrak - much to the horror of both sets of friends who think I should have flown. But I've done that many times and I really wanted to get the feel of the heartlands of your country.
I have a couple of queries. I am in a bedroom with a bathroom and toilet included and so get my meals. Like you I enjoy the vino and wondered what sort of prices are the alcoholic beverages. And how are you sat for dinner if a single traveler? Secondly, where is the best place to sit an look out at the passing scenery - and do you have to book it?

6/22/2007 4:36 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

To Cooperclose:

Re Amtrak's wine selections, I'm afraid you won't find many blue ribbon winers. I recommend the whites, most of which are inoffensive and drinkable. Prices are reasonable.

Single passengers are often seated with other singles or couples unless the car isn't full. In my experience it's almost always full.

Re which side to sit on, it depends on which direction you are traveling and what route and train you have booked.

And then there is the sun. Recall the old White Star maxim of nineteenth century Victorian travelers bound of India from Britain of "Port Out, Starboard Home" (derivation os the word "posh"), which was to avoid the sunny side of the ship. The same applies to Amtrak travel:
To avoid morning and afternoon sun in your eyes, sit on the north side of the aisle.

6/24/2007 9:46 AM  
Blogger NJDON said...

I made a west bound trip from Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder, June 16-18 this year. I must say I echoe Allen's comments about the good service, good food, and the beauty of the area we traveled through. Forget the horror story's. It provides 44 hrs of relaxation, except for constantly turning your head to see the next vista. (By the way we arrived in Seattle a half-hour early.) We had bedroom with toilet and shower which I'd highly recommnend to anyone making the entire trip. If you have the time make the ride part of the vacation and simply enjoy.

6/28/2007 11:52 AM  
Blogger ATLRick said...

Hi; thanks for publishing your comments on the Empire Builder. I am looking at taking the same from Seattle to Chicago in early December. Traveling alone, I will request one of the "Superliner Roomettes." However, I was wondering if I can request which side of the train I will be assigned, and if one side of the train is more favorable than the other. I hope to take plenty of photos during my journey, and would like to secure the more favorable seating. Do you have any insight on this or suggestions? Thanks.

9/23/2007 11:45 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

To ATLRick in answer to your questions of 9-23-07:

I don't know whther you can request which side of the train your room is on (facing north or south); you should contact Amtrak about it. They assign specific accommodation at the time of booking, so I know they can tell you. Our experience was that both sides were interesting, and I can't recommend one over the other.

Having said that, if your room faces the south side and if the weather is clear, there will be extremely bright, piercing sunlight in your eyes as you look out the window when the sun's low on the horizon each morning and evening. And it WILL be low on the horizon in December! Of course if it's cloudy and snowy, the sun won't be a concern.

We spent a great deal of time in the upstairs full-length dome lounge car, and there you have spectacular vistas of both sides to witness. I recommend snagging a seat toward to rear of the dome lounge car so that you can look forward on both sides through the glass of the dome and see what's coming. Sitting at the forward end of the car limits your view of the unfolding panorama.

The diner also affords great views while eating. Try to get a window seat (lone travelers are asked to share tables in the diner).

Taking good quality pictures is a challenge. The glass and plexiglas windows have sun shading built in, and some windows are dim, cracked, and worn by constant infrared radiation. They also get pretty grimy and dirty from whisking through the elements at 80 MPH (on a good stretch of track; slower on others). We took a lot of photos. Most were poor due to the imperfect shield between the camera and the natural world.

Our best quality shots were taken at stops like Kalispell, Cut Bank, and Havre when we could get off the train onto the station platform and walk around for 10-20 minutes.

Hope this helps. I know you will have a great trip! If you feel like it, please send an email report afterwards and tell me what you liked and didn't like about your trip.

9/24/2007 9:30 AM  
Blogger DD said...

I was interested in reading this, as we're planning a trip next summer, taking the Empire Builder from St. Paul to Portland, then coming back from Seattle, with a stop at Glacier National Park.

I was particularly interested in your description of the family bedroom, as we are planning to that. Other travellers have described it as "gloomy" from the small windows and loud from track noise, but you didn't seem to have those experiences.

Strangely enough, Amtrak has the family bedroom priced more than $100 less than a claustrophobic roomette. This makes me suspicious.

10/15/2007 12:32 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

In reply to DD:

Family bedrooms are on the lower level of the two-level Amtrak cars, and it's true that they therefore sit close to the rails. Since they are positioned at each end of the lower level, family bedrooms also sit adjacent to one pair of trucks the cars ride on. These factors probably increase road noise.

However, none of our family of four noticed it, and we all slept very well. I suppose it depends upon the individual's sensitivity to such noise. I remember riding on the luxury passenger trains of the 1950s and 60s and hearing Pullman passengers in the most expensive sleeper accommodations (Drawing Rooms and Master Rooms) complain of the constant train noises: click-clack of rails, the whoosh of passing trains, the diesel horns blowing, the ding-ding-ding of passing grade crossing signs, and the amplified boarding announcements when stopped at stations. I thought then, and do now: the railroad music to my ears is misery to some others.

All those same noises exist when riding the rails. But ah, the adventure and excitement and privilege and luxury of traveling that way!

Don't be suspicious unless you are a very light and fragile sleeper (in which case even the upper bedrooms won't work, either). Grab it while it's cheap! I'll be curious to hear how your trip goes for you next summer.

10/15/2007 1:03 PM  
Blogger Tanya said...

Hi Will,

I'm planning to see the wonders of America on Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle and I'm super excited cos i love trains!

Could you please suggest if Thanksgiving time would be good time to travel on EB, or would there be too much snow & I would not be able to see anything?!


7/06/2008 10:24 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...


Thanksgiving is a great time to travel on the Empire Builder, whether eastbound or westbound--if you can get space on the train. I suggest booking with Amtrak ASAP.

As for snow, you never know. We were delighted to see the snow in the rockies because it made everything white and beautiful. In our opinion it enhanced the view.

Whether snowing or not, you'll enjoy the trip!

7/06/2008 11:15 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

William, do you know if its possible to overnight somewhere along the route? A friend and I are planning this route for next April and were thinking of getting off in Whitefish, MT or Glacier, and spending a night, picking the train back up the next day.

Thanks! I really appreciated your blog about the Empire Builder.

Elizabeth Everson

10/14/2008 11:01 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...


I know it's possible to overnight, but I can't give you reliable particulars. The Glacier National Park area abounds in facilities for travelers. I suggest you Google accommodation options in the places you are thinking of stopping and then contact them for rates and availability. Some may not be open that early in the tourist season.

Let us know what you find out. It will help other readers here.

Thanks, and good luck!

10/15/2008 12:57 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

Regarding overnight accomodations along the Empire Builder route, check out the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex, MT. If I'm not mistaken, it's the only flagstop left on the Amtrak system. They have a website where you can book and they will take you to and from the train. It's very close to Glacier National Park.

1/24/2009 12:23 AM  
Blogger Marsha said...

I enjoyed reading about your experiences on the Empire Builder. Our family is planning a similar trip from Chicago to Seattle this August. I was surprised to see that many of the sleeping accomodations are already sold out (six months in advance). Would the family bedroom work for four adults? Our "children" are 23 and 15. The roomettes look awfully small, however, from your description it sounds like we will be out of our sleeper rooms more than in, enjoying the scenery.

2/05/2009 9:22 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...


No, the Family Bedroom is probably not be large enough for 4 adults (kids 15 are usually as large as adults, and certainly a 23 year old is an adult). If I recall correctly, the 2 children would end up sleeping in a shorter-than-normal bunk which is really designed for younger kids.

Please look on the Amtrak website, and call an agent to verify this. Get their opinion. You might be able to squeeze everybody in, but it would be like that hilarious scene in Groucho Marx's "A Night At The Opera" where everybody and his brother end up in the Marx Brothers' already miniscule ocean liner stateroom.

The Roomettes are small, but comfortable. Maybe you could keep the 15 year old with you in the Family Bedroom and book a Roomette for the older child. Just a thought. (An expensive thought: Amtrak is not cheap.)

However you do it, it should be a memorable trip!

2/05/2009 9:36 PM  
Blogger Rob Larson said...

Hello Mr. Allen,
I'm planning a trip on the EB from Chicago to Seattle to visit my folks for Xmas. Knowing you have some familiarity with the line, do you have any experience with it in the winter? While I'm very excited about the trip, I'm wondering how much of the Rockies I'll be able to see that time of year. Also, I'll be in a Roommette, and I wonder if you have any knowledge of that accommodation. Thanks!

6/25/2009 1:05 PM  
Blogger edward said...

We are a couple travelling on the Empire Builder in August 2010 from Chicago to Seattle. We will be sharing the toilet facilities as we shall have a roomette. Is the cleanliness an issue? We have had some less than pleasant experiences on trains in Europe so are just a little apprehensive....!

7/16/2009 2:12 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...


Amtrak has done a pretty good job with toilet cleanliness, but it's more dependent upon your travel mates than Amtrak's normal hygiene maintenance routines.

Even if the bathrooms appear clean, I suggest traveling with handi-wipes and wiping everything down anyway. If the toilets look bad, contact your car attendant immediately and ask them to take care of it.

Funny you'd say you had poor experiences in Europe. Mine on French TGVs and German ICEs have been good: clean facilities on board.

You ae going to have a GREAT TRIP! Enjoy it!

7/16/2009 4:21 PM  
Blogger Persephone said...

I travelled from Chicago through Portland to Seattle and back this past April with my elderly aunt. Loved loved loved it! So, for Christmas, I am travelling from Minneapolis to Seattle and back by myself in a roomette. This is the most magical vacation ride and the service was tremendous for two passengers who were new to train travel. Also, we had braised lamb shanks one night for dinner that were totally wow!

12/18/2009 4:55 PM  
Blogger Pat Mac said...

Would love to learn more about your Empire Builder trip. I could not find your email address. Any info you can forward would be greatly appreciate.

2/24/2010 1:36 PM  
Blogger Gibby said...

Thanks for putting your thoughts down. We are traveling in August 2010, East to West, on the EB. I noticed the Family room is sold out almost a year out! We'll be splitting up between two roomettes. I hope we are comfortable ...

3/07/2010 12:48 AM  
Anonymous Renee said...

We are thinking about traveling from Seattle, WA to Minot, ND with our four young children (11, 8, 6 and 8 months). The internet says that the family rooms are to small for us and we do not want to spend the money to pay for two rooms. Do you guys think it would be alright not to have a room for one night?

3/15/2010 1:31 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...


Yes, you will survive sleeping in reclining seats, but it won't be very comfortable. If your baby is tolerant of noise and distractions, you'll be OK. The older kids will sleep fine in seats.

One option you might want to consider is to book one parent and three kids into a Family Room and the other parent and one kid in reclining seats. Then you could switch off during the night if the coach seats are not working out.

Have fun, and good luck!

3/15/2010 1:43 AM  
Anonymous Renee said...

That is another option we were looking into. The trip time say about 27 hrs we were just aren't sure because we never have used the train before. Thanks for the advice. Now we just have to see if hubby's work will allow the trip.

3/15/2010 8:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog and find it very knowledgeable and reassuring. I am planning on the Empire Builder in March 2011 with a friend and having experienced other Amtrak routes with sleepers, food, views, ontime performance, I am pretty confident of having a special experience going east to west. My question is quality of the showers, enough room and water pressure, I am 6'2" 200 lbs. I have been at the Izaak Walton Inn and it is right at the station it was built to serve the Great Northern train crews. I am planning a stopover.
A note on TGV cleanliness, depends on specific trains, I've experienced both extremes. Now Swiss trains on the other hand...peerless.

11/05/2010 6:47 PM  
Anonymous Michael Robertson said...


My wife and I are taking the EB from Spokane to Milwaukee and back (a week later) over the Thanksgiving holidays. I have to say that your posts have greatly reassured me that civilized travel in the U.S. is still possible. I will put up with (not really!) a roomette as we are seniors and that's whats affordable. Besides, it wouldn't be the first time that I slept in a closet.

Anything that is a reasonable alternative to traveling by air is a welcome relief.

I expect that the total experience: sleeper, lounge car, diner, etc. will more than keep this old codger kicking for the 36 hour trip. Thanks for the heads up on tipping, and the suggestion to stick to white wines. I hope we have a wine and cheese tasting on board our train.


9/26/2011 3:28 AM  
Anonymous Laura said...

I have booked 5 roomettes In July 2012 one way from MSP to SEA. All on the top floor. One room roomette is in the next car back 0731, the other four are in a block 7,8,9,10 car 0730. Any auggestions about getting us all together? or am I worried about nothing? Also, any suggestions about train travel neccestities? Our grandaughter is 5 a bunch of 20 something kids and us 50+'s. I am nervous because I have seen so many poor reviews, but really wanted to try train travel.

1/21/2012 10:03 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Laura, I wish I could be of more help, but I have not traveled on this Amtrak train since our 2006 trip. However, I am forwarding your comment to someone who can give you updated advice. I continue to read reports that the Empire Builder service remains highly regarded as Amtrak's best long-distance train. As goes the rooms you have booked, no, I would not worry about the separation. It should be great fun and a memorable experience!

1/21/2012 10:11 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Laura, please email the date of travel on the Amtrak Empire Builder to me ( I have spoken to someone at Amtrak who may be able to move you all together. Also please provide the name and resevation number. Thanks, Will

1/22/2012 9:12 AM  
Anonymous Karen said...

Along with the others, I am thrilled to find your blog. My parents will both be 80 in the fall and their "Birthday wish" is to return to Spokane where my brother & I were born. husband & I have booked the trip and will be traveling with them. We have roomettes across the hall from each other for each leg of our journey, on the Capital Limited, the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight and Empire Builder. We are all very excited and can't wait to set off. I do have a few concerns, but each positive blog helps allay my fears. I think we are going to have a trip of a lifetime and the memories will certainly be priceless.

1/30/2012 2:46 PM  
Blogger Linda E said...

Hello Will I love your information. We are traveling this August in the Empire Builder Family Bedroom (2 parents a 9 year old and a 13 year old). Can you tell me what size and amount of luggage can be brought into it without all of us feeling cramped? The closet doesn't look too big. Can a standard carry on fit under the seats? There is a luggage area in this car it that for the passengers use?

3/18/2012 8:00 PM  
Blogger Linda E said...

Hello Will I love your information. We are traveling this August in the Empire Builder Family Bedroom (2 parents a 9 year old and a 13 year old). Can you tell me what size and amount of luggage can be brought into it without all of us feeling cramped? The closet doesn't look too big. Can a standard carry on fit under the seats? There is a luggage area in this car it that for the passengers use?

3/18/2012 8:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am wondering the same thing. We leave this Saturday.

6/03/2012 3:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home