Advice on traveling long distance by Amtrak

I’ve always wanted to take a long distance trip by train, and I’m seriously considering taking the train when I go visit my parents in Wisconsin for Christmas.

If I go to Amtrak’s website and search for trains from Sacramento to La Crosse, WI, it wants to route me north on the Coast Starlight to Portland, and connect to the Empire Builder. However, the connection time in Portland is 1 hour 13 minutes. Given Amtrak’s reputation for being delayed, how likely do you think I’d actually make that connection? Especially considering that if I miss that train, there isn’t another one until the following day, that connection would make me a little nervous.

Option B would be to take the California Zephyr to Chicago, spend the night in Chicago, maybe see some sights, and then catch the westbound Empire Builder to La Crosse the next day. That option would take an extra day due to the overnight stop in Chicago, but on the plus side I’d hopefully have time to do a little sightseeing in Chicago, and I wouldn’t be worried about missing my second train.

On a different note, if I were to do a multi day train trip like that I’d definitely spring for the sleeper car. In the sleeper car I understand you’re expected to tip the car attendant. How much is a normal tip? And how does one go about tipping them? Just hand it to them? Leave it on the bed like tipping a hotel maid?

There is no way I would trust an Amtrak train to arrive within an hour of the scheduled time on a 15 hour journey.

There is no way I would travel on any train or plane right now. You’d be sharing the air with lots of unvaccinated people.

If Amtrak has a bunch of paying passengers connecting in Portland, they’ll wait. They can’t afford to be giving money back. Be prepared for a very slow journey. I hope you got a sleeper car, as the trip from Portland to MSP is about 40 hours.

I’ve never been on Amtrak, but I have done a few long-distance train journeys in Canada, aboard VIA. Yes, tipping is expected in the sleeper car. I’d suggest anywhere from $5 to $10 a night–toward the upper end if you have more than one person in a private room, in the middle if you’re a single person in a private room, and toward the lower end if you’re a single person in a Pullman section. My last trip was two nights on the train between Toronto and Edmonton, and though I was by myself in a private room, I tipped the attendant $20, because he went above and beyond in making sure I was comfortable and happy.

The attendant for your train car will be standing by the exit when you leave the train at your destination, saying goodbye, and thanking your for travelling with the railroad; that sort of thing. That’s when you would say, “Thanks very much, I enjoyed the trip,” and hand him or her a tip in cash.

Do they really hold trains for more than a very few minutes?

The only experience I had was when a train was late by something like four hours. I missed my connection by an hour or more. But that was almost 20 years ago. They put us up in a hotel for two nights (I think it was an Embassy Suites) and gave us some meal vouchers, but we had to wait until the third day for the train AND we got downgraded in class and accommodations because there were not available. Some people were apoplectic and had to fly out instead. I was in no hurry so I wasn’t too bothered.

I rode the AmTrack from Klamath Falls, OR to Los Angeles. It was about 18 hours (the same trip could be made in 10-11 hours by car). There was an observation car where I spent almost all my time, on account of it having more comfortable seats and big windows to look out of. The train was far too noisy for me to sleep. The wheels were squealing the whole way down. Probably will never ride it again if I can help it.

I love the Empire Builder, though I usually take it west (Wisconsin to Portland, then the Coast Starlight up to Seattle). I thought I’d be bored (being pretty ADD), but I took a bag of books and snacks to the observatory car (the one with the glass dome) and just stared at the wheat fields of North Dakota. For hours, very hypnotic and relaxing.

Going through Glacier national park was really special, and we got half an hour to walk around a bit. And my favorite part was having Natl.Park Rangers get aboard with boxes full of antlers and other props, and telling about animals and where to look to see them: “In thirty seconds, out the right side…”

So the question is, in case of a snafu, would you rather spend some extra time in Portland or Chicago?

The station in Portland is near Powell’s Books. The station in Chicago is walking distance from all sorts of good hotels, food and experiences, including the lakeshore, Millennial Park, the Magnificent Mile, a fun comic book shop, the Art Institute and Field Museum, awesome Italian/pierogies/seafood/Mexican/hot dogs/Old Fashioneds… and twenty pizza places.

(Oh, and I’ve slept poor-to-okay sitting up in a seat, but like a baby every time I get a sleeper.)

Mrs Lurki and I went from Richmond to LA last year on Amtrak. A room is highly advised! We tipped $20/night. Food was ok, pleasant people in the dining car (when we used it). Bring your own snacks and carefully concealed liquor or wine. And a book- wifi and cell service are erratic. Covid risk is the only drawback other than keeping on schedule. Planes can’t do that-trains are probably no better. Overall: We liked it!

Anecdotally, when I was travelling along this same route about 20 years ago, the Coast Starlight was running about 2 hours behind and they’d determined by morning that we weren’t going to make it to Portland in time, so they had everyone who was catching the Empire Builder disembark at Klamath Falls at about 10 in the morning, loaded us onto a bus that could cross the Cascades faster than the train could, and got us to Portland at around the same time the train would’ve got there if it’d been on time.

My experience is from 1977, but I’d worry about the weather. I took Amtrak from LA to Chicago, with a sleeper car (highly recommended.) We were hours late into Chicago, they ran out of food, and some parts of the train froze up which backed up toilets in many of the sleeping rooms, not mine fortunately.
Luckily trains running from Chicago to Champaign were frequent, so I didn’t get stuck there overnight.
Plus they transformed my hamster into a hamstersicle.
On the plus side this disaster led directly to my getting married.

I have been using the train between Seattle (which is the same as the train from Portland) and central Wisconsin almost every summer for the past decade.

Sleepers are pretty pricey, but if you have a partner, you only have to pay for it once for both of you, and it includes all your diner car meals and a communal (or private, for more bucks) shower. I cannot emphasize the shower nearly enough, and the privacy is very appealing on a train where (currently) you are required to wear a nose and mouth face covering all the time (but might be able to take it off most of the time in your private, curtained room).

When the train leaves Portland, it does not have a diner car, only the lounge car with the snack bar, but you will be brought a dinner the first night. After it joins the Seattle train, the dining car is attached – this means that if you are in the Portland sleeper, you will be in the last car and will have to traverse 4 or 5 cars in order to get to the diner (Seattle sleepers are in front of it). At my age (old enough to be able to remember toilets that revealed the ties going by when you flushed) three full meals a day is really more than I want. The trip from between Sacramento and Portland is only (supposed to be) about 16 hours, so it might make more sense to only buy the sleeper on the Empire Builder.

You should at least try the trip once. Amtrak does not offer a round trip discount like most airlines do, so buy the one-way trip and then decide how you want to get home.

Amtrak will wait a reasonable amount of time but departing Portland late because the Starlight was late in arriving and pax had connections will throw everything off, especially since the run from Portland joins up with the larger part of Empire Builder from Seattle to continue on to Chicago.

Two months ago, taking advantage of Amtrak’s tour package on sale, my brother and I traveled from Maricopa to Los Angeles to Chicago to Pittsburgh to Altoona to Philadelphia to Washington DC to New Orleans to Maricopa.

The only two connections we depended on were in Los Angeles (12-1/2 hours) and Philadelphia (2 hours but the North East Corridor trains run like busses). Every other connection we stayed overnight. This added to the expense and time, but (except Philly) saw a museum or took a tour at each layover. Trust me, railfan as I am, it was nice to get off of the train.

The layover – pause, really – in Altoona was part of the reason for the trip. It was to stay at a railfan B&B in nearby Cresson. The layover in DC was to visit my nephew for a couple days. The layover in New Orleans was forced because the Sunset leaves for LA at 9am while the Crescent from New York (stopping in DC) arrives at 6pm.

I would therefore recommend either planning for an overnight stay in Seattle or Chicago, depending on what scenery you’d like to see.

I took Amtrak Empire Builder from LaCrosse, WI to Everett, WA (and back)
It was ~2 hours late westbound (IIRC track needed to be cleared), but on time eastbound.
It was dark (September at 8?ish) and rainy at Glacier westbound, but nice eastbound.
This was a part of a loaded bike tour of (mostly) Whidbey Island.
I had a roomette which I liked and stayed most of the time (except the view car going through Glacier)
The roomette was approximately the same size as my tent (albeit much taller).
I viewed the train experience as part of my trip – I was in no hurry.


My only long-distance ride from El Paso to Philly via Chicago arrived twelve hours late in Chicago. I would never count on a transfer working well outside of the NE corridor.

Just an update on Amtrak’s on-line reservation system: I needed to make a short-notice trip from Portland, OR to Mt. Vernon, WA and decided on the train (1st time in 15+ years). The reservation/ticketing procedure had some glitches and set back to the start multiple times. When it came time to pay, the site rejected all my current credit/debit cards, resetting back to zero with each card. Finally gave up and opted to use ‘customer service’ to get an agent to purchase a ticket - after nearly 2 hours on hold I gave it up as a lost cause and got a bus ticket in about 15 minutes. Thanks, Amtrak. no wonder our rail system is a world-wide joke.

Any tips on Amtrak’s “dynamic pricing”? Do the fares vary drastically depending in season/day/sunspot activity? Planning a trip for (we hope!) 2022, Seattle to Chicago, and can take advantage of good pricing.

I usually love overnight Amtrak trips, and have taken several that were greatly enjoyable, even with just a coach seat. But my most recent, which was shortly before COVID, was very unpleasant, only because of our seat assignment - we were put at the very front of a car, right by the door, and in addition to the constant opening and shutting of the door, there was a permanent overhead light that shined bright all night.

Train schedules factor in time waiting at the station and don’t wait any longer than they know they will need.

Amtrak’s on time issues have nothing to do with them. They don’t own the tracks, so they have to pull aside and wait if a freight comes through.

Yeah, their live-person number sucketh mightily. The couple times I have had to use them, I take the option to leave a call back number. So far (knock wood) the time for the CB has been about forty-five minutes – not good but I can do something to occupy the time.

I call it airline pricing – it can vary wildly depending on the dates selected. I posted an experiment I did in June and the range was $101 to $248 for the same trip on the same day of the week.