It wasn’t until we moved to the Greater Seattle Area that we spent any effort investigating the benefits of train travel as a viable means for exploring this new area of the world we call home.
While purchasing rail passes and mapping out stations and time tables has been a no-brainer when we travel abroad—and one of my favorite ways to explore Europe—my experiences with train travel in the United States have been limited to short rides from commute hubs into Cleveland’s Tower City for Indians games and one longer trip from Buffalo to New York City during a family vacation when I was growing up.
When we moved to Washington, transportation suddenly became a topic I found myself thinking about more often than I ever thought possible. Traffic in and around Seattle is a nightmare, and it quickly became clear that the single occupant car was no longer going to be the predominant solution for getting me where I needed to go.
My work commute includes lengthy bus rides, getting from place to place downtown or to the airport creates reliance on the Link Light Rail, our journeys to the peninsula and islands require regular ferry trips, and navigating the highways during peak traffic to get basically anywhere necessitates carpooling and HOV lanes. All of these possibilities and more have positive and negative attributes, and I think we’ve done a fair job embracing all of our options and choosing those that most efficiently and painlessly get us where we need to be on a case-by-case basis.
As we plan weekend getaways and trips to see family, friends, and new parts of the country, I’ve also noticed that I am more cognizant of our transportation options and have tried to think beyond the traditional flight + rental car phenomenon. In many cases, that is exactly the right option for meeting our needs, but train travel has also made its way onto my list for more regular consideration. I’ve had good luck as well as unexpected adventures taking the train down to Portland, Oregon, up to Vancouver, British Columbia, and over to Leavenworth, Washington on several occasions during the last three years.
I’ve talked about some of the benefits of train travel before and those attributes were top of mind as we were planning our most recent adventure to Whitefish, Montana to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. We decided to head over for a long weekend and wanted to maximize our time. It turned out that taking the train offered some economical perks as well as an opportunity to experience something brand new for both of us—overnight train travel in the U.S.
Booking Amtrak tickets in advance is key to getting discounted prices so many months ago I booked us a ‘roomette’ to and from Whitefish in one of the train’s sleeper cars. The small, private room features two opposing chairs next to a large window with small storage spaces alongside each seat and a table top that can fold down in between the seats. When it’s time to sleep, the two chairs convert into a lower bunk and an upper bunk folds down from the ceiling.
The timing for this particular trip was ideal—we would leave Everett at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, have dinner on the train (included with sleeper car purchase), go to sleep, wake up and have breakfast on the train (also included) and arrive in Whitefish at 7:30 a.m. Saturday ready to begin our adventure. Likewise, we would catch the 9:15 p.m. train on Monday, go straight to sleep, wake up and have breakfast on the train (again, included) and arrive in Everett at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday well rested and ready to head into our work and homework responsibilities.
While most of this ideal came to fruition, there were of course some surprises and hiccups in our actual experience.
- Surprise: The food and beverages were good, dare I say great! This may well be because we had extremely low expectations and were anticipating the microwave hot dog fare you usually get for lunch on regular Amtrak routes. As it turned out, we had steak and crab cakes for dinner, and made-to-order pancakes, omelets, grits and bacon/sausage for breakfast, all of which was delicious. There was also water, coffee and juice available in our car round the clock and additional snack items available for purchase outside of dining hours.
- Hiccup: The roomette is TINY. I have experienced overnight trains in Europe and Egypt, and quickly realized the bedrooms, rather than the roomettes, were the Amtrak equivalent. Our roomette was about half their size—the person on the top bunk couldn’t sit upright due to ceiling proximity, and the person on the bottom bunk could barely stand alongside the bunks without pushing random body parts into the door or person on the top bunk. These situations made changing clothes and other bedtime preparations difficult to impossible. The roomette also offers the quandary of trying to escape down the hall to the bathroom in the night without waking up your roommate.
- Surprise: Dining experiences are communal and you are seated with whoever else shows up to eat at the same time as you. We met a grandmother and granddaughter also on their way to Whitefish over dinner (Grandma’s first time on a train!) and a younger woman and older man during breakfast who were headed to Glacier and Atlanta, respectively. Once the initial awkward conversation starters were out of the way, I actually enjoyed the more relaxed experience of getting to know fellow passengers, their stories, why they were traveling by train and where they were headed.
- Hiccup: The train easily gets off schedule and we were more than an hour late arriving in Whitefish and experienced and even greater delay on our way home. While it didn’t create a major inconvenience on our way there, Brian had to reschedule some work meetings from his phone when we had service on our way back to accommodate our late arrival.
- Surprise: Each sleeping car has an attendant who ‘lives’ in your car to help you get situated, turn down your bedroom at night, and keep beverages stocked/people happy. Both of the women working in our cars were busy taking care of all kinds of requests, and I was fascinated to know this was a full-time job!
- Hiccup: I could not sleep on our way to Whitefish and was exhausted by Saturday evening, somewhat negating the proposed benefit of ‘waking up refreshed at your destination.’ However, on the way back to Everett I promptly fell asleep and didn’t wake up once all night. Brian had a decent sleep both trips so I’m attributing this phenomenon to my nerves and excitement more so than an uncomfortable sleeping experience.
In the end, I’m not sure we could really economically justify taking the train, even noting that the cost included transportation, two hotel nights, and several meals. Also, the timing/delays on the way home interfered with Brian’s work schedule, which was not ideal. If we were to do it again, I think we would agree that taking the train to Whitefish, even with a small delay, made a lot of sense—we got the full experience.
However, it would have been cheaper and faster to fly home—getting on the train, going immediately to sleep, and arriving late didn’t make for quite the same experience traveling in that direction. I admit that using two different forms of transportation out and back did not cross my mind during my planning but it’s one more travel transportation tip I’ll be taking away from this trip!
All in all, I loved the experience and was happy to be part of Brian’s very first overnight train travel. Would I do it again? With a few minor adjustments based on our surprises and hiccups this trip—absolutely!