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Pacific Northwest Amtrak Train Seattle Washington to Chicago Empire Builder Review In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

Empire Builder Amtrak Train from Chicago to Seattle


The Amtrak Empire Builder train travels all the way from Chicago to Seattle and it is the longest time we’ve ever spent on a single train. In this article, we’ll tell you what we saw (and perhaps more importantly, what we DIDN’T see) on the train ride, what the train is like, and all the details you need to know in order to prepare for your own trip.


CONTENTS



Empire Builder Amtrak Train Route

Amtrak has 4 train routes to travel from the Midwest/South to the west coast: the Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle, California Zephyr, and Empire Builder. We rode the California Zephyr on our way from the west coast to the east coast at the beginning of our month-long train trip across the U.S. and back, so we decided to go the northern route on the Empire Builder for the return trip.


Starting this leg of our journey in Chicago, the Empire Builder travels through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and the Idaho panhandle before finally ending in Seattle, Washington. It takes just over 46 hours to complete the whole route… that’s almost 2 days on the train! If you do the whole route in one go like we did, that means you’ll be spending 2 consecutive nights on this train.


Amtrak Empire Builder Train Review Route From Chicago To Seattle In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

Of course, there are a ton of stops along the way that you could stop at to help break up the trek, but since we only had 1 leg available on our USA Rail Passes to use for this route, we had no choice but to do it in one go. (We have another article coming with tons of details about how to use the Amtrak USA Rail Passes, so stay tuned!) The major stops along the way are Milwaukee, Wisconsin Dells, Minneapolis, Fargo, Whitefish, and Spokane, but there are a TON of other small towns too for a total of 41 stations, including Chicago and Seattle. It runs daily as well, so you could easily stop somewhere for one day to reset your system and then keep going.


Alternatively, you have the option of starting/ending in Portland, OR, instead of Seattle, as the train splits into 2 in Spokane.



Amtrak claims on their website that the Empire Builder travels “along major portions of the Lewis and Clark trail,” but it’s really only a small portion of it in northern Montana. Granted, traveling through Montana takes up most of the time on this train route, but the Lewis and Clark trail is through completely different areas otherwise.


Wisconsin Sunset On Empire Builder Train With Observation Car Chicago To Seattle Amtrak Route Review In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

Sights on the Amtrak Empire Builder Train from Chicago to Seattle

We have to be honest with you and say that there are not a ton of great sights on this train, and that is for 2 reasons:


  1. You will spend the majority of the trip traveling across the Great Plains.

  2. All of the most interesting views of the trip are lost to the darkness of night because of the schedule that Amtrak runs this route.


As we mentioned in our review of the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited train, we know that Amtrak shares these train tracks with heavy freight trains, which get priority over passenger trains, so Amtrak may not have the option to change their scheduling on this route. However, the current schedule of this route means that you’re going past the most beautiful sights at night time, and you cannot see ANYTHING outside the train at night.


We departed Chicago at 2:15pm, and although Amtrak has since adjusted the schedule slightly so it now departs at 3:05pm, it will essentially be the same experience (or maybe even worse now). We traveled through the countryside of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Dells, which is especially lovely in autumn, and watched the sunset from the observation car. We got a couple hours of sunlight and pretty autumn trees before darkness ascended, but with the new schedule in the wintertime, you’ll likely only have about 90 minutes, and the sun will go down around Milwaukee. Obviously if you’re traveling during the summertime, there will be more daylight hours!


Pro Tip: When you want to take pictures or videos out the windows while on the train, press your phone or camera lens up against the window to get rid of glare!


The next morning, the sun will rise around Devil’s Lake in North Dakota, and you will spend the entire day crossing the Great Plains of North Dakota and Montana. After a few hours, you will be bored of it, so make sure you have plenty of stuff to do that doesn’t require cell service or wi-fi. Bring a book, a card game, or maybe try to turn how many cows you can spot into a drinking game. Shortly after the Minot, ND station, you travel across the Gassman Coulee Trestle, which is a famous bridge in North Dakota, but not much of a sight to see while you’re on the train itself.


For us, the sun went down as we finally approached western Montana’s mountains, which was a huge disappointment. If Amtrak every changes the schedule of this route, it would be INCREDIBLE because you skirt the southern border of Glacier National Park, but as it currently stands, all of those amazing views are lost in the dark of night.


The following morning, you will awake to sunrise around Wenatchee, WA, and it will feel like a completely different world. Of course the Pacific Northwest is renowned for its forests and natural beauty, but the mountains are especially sweet after a full day of looking at the Great Plains. Travel this section during autumn for a special treat!


As far as which side of the train you should sit on, the only section where it matters for the views is between Everett, WA, and Seattle, because you are following the Puget Sound, in which case, you want to be sitting on what will be the north side of the train. We also recommend sitting on the north side of the train simply because the south side is in direct sunlight all day, which can become hot and uncomfortable and even cause sunburns if you’re not careful.


North Dakota Amtrak Train Empire Builder Review Views Of Great Plains In The Great Wide Train Travel Tips Blog

What is the Amtrak Empire Builder Train Like?


Types of Seats

The Empire Builder Amtrak train is broken up into four types of cars: the sleeper cars (where the private rooms are), the dining car (which is only accessible to those with private rooms), the coach class cars, and the observation car (which also includes the café on the lower deck).


With the USA Rail Pass, you’re assigned to coach class and you cannot pay to upgrade to a private room (believe me, I asked!), but you still get access to the observation car and café car, just not the “dining” car. The Empire Builder also offers roomettes (a small private room for up to 2 people on one side of the train), bedrooms (similar to a roomette but a little bigger), bedroom suites (it claims it will fit 4 adults, but we don’t see how), and family bedrooms (up to 2 adults and 2 kids). All private rooms have access to a shower, which is one of the biggest downsides that riding in coach does not offer.


Amtrak Empire Builder Train Sleeper Car Features

In addition to the showers (although I’ve heard it’s only cold water), private rooms also have all meals included, you can bring your own alcohol (to consume in your private room only), and of course you’ll have a private space to store your belongings while you move about the train. While this all sounds great, the least expensive private room also comes with a price tag that is 4-5x higher than a coach seat for 1 person, which means that with 2 people in a roomette, you’re still going to be paying 3x as much as you would be paying for coach seats. That price hike is way too much, if you ask us.


Amtrak Empire Builder Coach Seats

The seats in the coach car are all facing forward, so you don’t need to worry about traveling “backwards,” which I know can throw some people off with motion sickness. There are two seats on each side of the aisle, just like business class on an airplane. If you’re under 6’ tall, you’ll have plenty of legroom; if you’re over 6’ tall, it won’t be as much, but it will still be way more comfortable than an airplane. The seats recline fairly far back and include a leg rest that comes up from under your chair, plus a footrest that comes down from the chair in front of you. The leg rest comes up enough that you can slide a backpack or a small carry-on bag (not a roller) under your legs, keeping your belongings much safer while you sleep than they would be just leaving them out in the open.


We have more articles and videos in the works about what to pack for overnight train trips, so make sure you’re subscribed to our newsletter (see the bottom of this article to sign up) so you’ll be notified when those come out!


You’ll also have a tray table that folds down from the seat in front of you, which has a small divot for a drink, but it’s not the most secure spot. I would be nervous to use it for a drink without a lid while the train is moving, as the train can rock back and forth quite a bit in some areas. The tray table itself is much larger than what you see on an airplane too; it’s about the same size as a 15” laptop, but it can’t be used for anything else while the laptop is on it. There aren’t any other cupholders in the seats either, so we had to hold our drinks in our laps while using a laptop on the tray, which was pretty annoying. The tray can actually extend out towards you too, which is a nice feature, but it’d be nicer if it could extend out just a bit more and still stay sturdy. Even at full extension, I had to reach forward for my laptop, which can be painful for my back and shoulders after a while. And if you’re sitting at the very front of your coach car, be aware that you won’t have a tray table or footrest to use (but you’ll still have a leg rest).


Pro Tip: If you have problems with motion sickness, take some dramamine on the train with you. I didn’t have any problems on the trains (although I sometimes do in cars and on boats), but I know other people that have.


At every pair of coach seats, there is an outlet just under the window. We realized early on in our trip that a short extension cord would be helpful for the person sitting in the aisle seat, especially if you’re traveling solo and could possibly end up sitting next to a stranger. Laptop cords were essentially draped over the person sitting next to the window, and if you have a shorter cable (such as a phone charger), that can get a little awkward, but it wasn’t a big deal for us since we were traveling together.


The coach seat windows are quite large too and provide a great view, even when sitting in the aisle seat, but they also have curtains with velcro attached to them, so when you open them, they’ll stay open, and when you close them, they’ll stay closed. There is also an overhead shelf to put your small carry-on bags, but rolling carry-on bags must be stored on the lower level of the train.


Empire Builder Amtrak Train Review and Travel Tips In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

Double Decker Train

The Empire Builder is a double-decker train, with most of the coach seating on the top floor. The stairs to get up to the top floor are narrow and steep, so be very careful when moving up and down them, especially while the train is in motion. There are some coach seats on the lower level for people who can’t use the stairs, but the top deck is where you’ll get the best views. All movement between train cars also happens on the upper levels, however all restrooms and the café car are located on the lower floors however, so you will have to traverse the stairs several times throughout this 46 hour train ride from Chicago to Seattle.


Observation Car

Everyone gets access to the observation car, regardless of what class ticket you’ve booked. There are large bay windows that stretch and curve above you onto the corner of the ceiling, giving you an enormous field of view. There are clusters of seats that face towards the windows and 8 four-top tables facing forward/backward for eating, playing games, or working (with more power outlets at each table). The observation car runs on a first-come, first-serve basis, but we never had a problem with it being full on this route.


Café Car, Dining Car, and Food on Amtrak Empire Builder

The café car is on the bottom deck of the observation car, via some narrow stairs in the middle of the car. They offer convenience store style snacks and refreshments, including a few hot selections, but make no mistake, this is frozen food being reheated for you and is not restaurant-quality food. They offer breakfast items like bagels, oatmeal, coffee, and tea, and for lunch and dinner there are things like hot dogs, hamburgers, ramen, and sodas. Food prices range from $3 - $8.


The café car also offers limited beer, wine, and mini-bottles of liquor, which cost around $8 each. They’ll also provide ice water at no charge, either from the café car attendant, or via some water fountains dispersed throughout the observation and coach cars. Despite some people giving sour looks while drinking it, we thought it tasted just fine (we drink filtered water at home).


Pro Tip: If you enjoy hot tea, bring your own tea bags and ask the attendant at the café for a cup of hot water. This small thing made my mornings on the train way better because I got to still have my specialty teas instead of the generic stuff they have and it didn’t cost anything extra on the train.


You are allowed to bring on your own food and non-alcoholic drinks onto the train as well. If you’ve booked a sleeper car, you are allowed to bring your own alcoholic drinks, but they can only be consumed in your private room (not in the observation or dining cars). Due to food safety laws, Amtrak employees cannot store or reheat any food you bring onboard, which means you need to take food that will stay good at room temperature for however long you’ll be onboard, or you can bring a small cooler as a carry-on, which we saw a few people do while we were on our month-long train trip. We’re writing a full, separate article on what to eat and drink while traveling in an Amtrak coach car, so you can sign up for our newsletter if you want that when it comes out. See the bottom of this article to sign up.


The Empire Builder dining car is only available to those who book the private sleeper rooms, but meals will be included there if you’re one of those passengers. We tried to upgrade while using the USA Rail Pass and just pay the difference between the coach and sleeper car tickets for specific legs of our trip, but Amtrak does not allow it. At some point in the future, we’ll try a sleeper car that includes the dining option and write about it too.


Amtrak Empire Builder Train Bathrooms In Coach Car Review By In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

Bathrooms on the Amtrak Empire Builder Train

As I said before, the bathrooms are all located on the lower levels in the coach cars, and the sleeper car passengers have their own as well. In the coach cars, there is a small hallway with 3-4 tiny bathrooms, 1 or 2 slightly larger bathrooms with enough space to change clothes, and 1 fairly large handicapped bathroom stall (big enough for a wheelchair to fit in). Adam actually got stuck in a handicapped bathroom on the Coast Starlight for a few minutes while we were at a scheduled stop because the door to let passengers on and off the train was blocking the bathroom door from opening, so just be aware that that can happen and don’t panic if it does. It wasn’t a big deal for Adam, but we got a good laugh out of it.


Amtrak Baggage Policy

When traveling on the Amtrak Empire Builder, you’re allowed 2 free checked bags per person, to/from most major stations along this route, such as Chicago to Seattle like we were doing. The checked bags are stored in a luggage car at the back of the train and are inaccessible during your trip, so you’re also allowed a generous 2 free carry-on bags & 2 free personal items per person, but you should try to avoid having too much stuff to keep track of while on the train, because not all of it will remain with you all the time.


There is an overhead shelf in the coach cars for your carry-ons, but rolling bags are not allowed on the second floor and must be stowed on the shelves on the lower decks next to the restrooms. These lower deck shelves are large enough that they could also be used for what is normally a large checked bag and you’ll have the added bonus of being able to get into those bags if you need something during your trip, but again, they will be out of your sight for the majority of your time onboard and they’ll be accessible for other passengers if someone was trying to be sneaky, so keep that in mind as you pack. After traveling exclusively by train for a month all over the United States with multiple overnight trips, we have a lot of advice about what to pack in your carry-on bags for train travel that we’re working on putting in another article and video. You can sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this article so you’ll be notified when the new blog posts come out, but in the meantime you can learn more about Amtrak’s specific policies on their website.


Wi-Fi

Unfortunately, there is NO WI-FI on the Empire Builder. We made the mistake of thinking it would be fine because we have unlimited data on our phones with hotspot capabilities, but there is minimal cell signal on this route too. For most of the time, you’re out in the middle of nowhere, making stops in very small towns, so do NOT rely on your cell data for entertainment. If there was any train route that Amtrak really needed to figure out a wi-fi service for, it’s this one.


Pets

Surprisingly, you CAN take your small dog or cat on the Empire Builder train! However, there is a limit to 5 non-service animals onboard each train, and it will cost an additional $39 ticket, so make sure you reserve that spot well in advance too. See this page on Amtrak’s website for the fine print.


Montana Amtrak Train Empire Builder Review Views Of Great Plains In The Great Wide Train Travel Tips Blog

Our Experience on the Empire Builder

The Empire Builder route is one that we were super excited about as we planned the 10 legs of our month-long train trip because neither of us had ever been to these areas of the country before. I have long dreamt of the mountain wilderness of Montana and the mysterious forests of the Pacific Northwest, but this would be my first time finally experiencing them! What I did not realize, however, is how far north the Great Plains stretch.


I grew up in Oklahoma, so I am well aware of what the Great Plains are like, but I NEVER expected to spend an entire day traveling through North Dakota and Montana, of all places, looking at them, with no control over when I could take a break and at least get some fresh air. It turns out that only the far western side of Montana has those gorgeous mountains you always see pictures of, which is where Glacier National Park is. The rest of Montana is literally called “Big Sky Country” because that is ALL YOU CAN SEE. The land is so flat that there is literally nothing else.


As far as North Dakota is concerned, I just assumed it would also be mountainous because I’ve heard so much about Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I thought that that must be the breaking point of the Great Plains, and north of there must be all those gorgeous mountains. But boy, was I wrong.


Let me just say that the Great Plains have their own kind of beauty; there is something to be said for being able to see so much of the sky at once. But I have to admit that after growing up in such a flat region of the country, it bores me. My family would go camping in the Rocky Mountains of southern Colorado every summer, and I wished and wished and wished for as long as I can remember to live in or at least within sight of the mountains. And I think that everyone will admit that after a few hours, looking at nothing but flat land gets boring.


We were hellishly disappointed by the lack of views on this train route, and around 30 hours in, I felt like I was going to snap. The fresh air breaks were shortened to keep the train running on schedule, and there was nothing interesting to look at outside the train, and there was no wi-fi or cell service to entertain ourselves on our devices. It was one of the, if not THE, lowest points of our month-long trip.


Thank goodness for that last morning on the train, traveling through the forested mountains of Washington. It was breathtaking to finally see, especially after the day we had on the train before that. The last few hours coming into Seattle that morning were lovely, following the Puget Sound and seeing the Space Needle in the last few minutes. If you do want to take the Empire Builder, taking it just between Seattle and Whitefish would be best, as Whitefish is the stop closest to Glacier National Park.


Pacific Northwest Amtrak Train Seattle To Chicago Empire Builder Review In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

How to Make a Reservation for the Empire Builder

You can make a reservation on the Amtrak Empire Builder train through Amtrak’s website or their app. We’ve heard from multiple people that they had problems with the website (although we did not) and that their app is far superior. We used the app a lot during our trip, but we booked our USA Rail Passes and all of the individual legs of our trip on their website. Reminder: we have another blog article coming with all the details about the USA Rail Passes, so sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this article to be notified when it comes out!


The Empire Builder coach tickets from Chicago to Seattle start at $150 one-way, and roomettes starting at $651 for 1 person. A bedroom on this route (slightly larger than a roomette) starts at $1,651, and a family bedroom starts at $1,920, but all of these private room prices will go up if you add a second, third, or fourth person because it also includes all meals in the dining car.


Keep in mind that you will also encounter food and drink costs for your two days on the train, but since you’re allowed to bring your own food and non-alcoholic drinks, we recommend bringing some room-temperature foods and sodas, It would be beneficial to have a small cooler with you if you don’t mind carrying it, as you’ll need to plan for five or six meals over the two days. If you don’t want to bring your own, expect to pay around $7 for a small meal, $2.50 for a soda, and $8 for an alcoholic beverage. If you’re in a private room, you can bring your own alcohol, but you can also only consume it inside said private room (not in the dining or observation cars).


As far as what credit card to put this all on to make sure you’re getting the most points, our USA Rail Pass purchases were classified as a travel purchase (so I think it’s safe to assume an individual ticket for the Empire Builder would be the same) and the food and drinks we purchased onboard were classified as food & beverage purchases. I hope that information will help you know how to get the most reward points on your own credit cards!


Montana Sunset Clouds on Empire Builder Train With Observation Car Chicago To Seattle Amtrak Route Review In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

Our Verdict

There are only 3 scenarios that we would EVER ride this route again:


  1. We are doing another month-long trip using the USA Rail Passes and need to get directly between Seattle and Chicago (because we do really enjoy both of those cities) - but this is pretty unlikely

  2. We are traveling only a short distance on the route, such as Seattle to Whitefish or Chicago to Milwaukee

  3. Amtrak changes their schedule to offer better views of Glacier National Park, in which case we would probably still only ride from Seattle to Whitefish


We DO NOT recommend this route if you can avoid it, although it can be very useful to get from the Midwest to the west coast if you are doing a big trip with the USA Rail Passes like we did. It is NOT worth it to just do this route if you’re looking for vacation ideas; you would be better off flying and spending the extra day and a half in Chicago or Seattle.


Empire Builder Amtrak Train Review Puget Sound Seattle Washington To Chicago In The Great Wide Train Travel Blog

Quick Reference Guide

What

Where

Chicago to Seattle or Portland via train

Major Stops

Milkwaukee, Wisconsin Dells, Minneapolis, Fargo, Whitefish, and Spokane

Time Commitment

The train trip takes just over 46 hours, so be prepared to sleep 2 consecutive nights on the train

Cost

Starting at $150 one-way for coach, $651 and up for sleeper cars, if you absolutely need to lay totally flat while sleeping

Reservation Info

Amtrak.com or the Amtrak app

Our Verdict

NOT WORTH IT. You pass by all the incredible views at night time so you can’t see any of it, plus there’s no wi-fi or cell signal to keep you entertained while you cross the Great Plains. Only use this route if you have to while using the USA Rail Passes because individual tickets cost way more than they are worth.


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