Tell me about Amtrak and Union Station in Chicago

Going on my first Amtrak trip next week . . . I’ve surfed a few opinion sites and skimmed this thread, but would like a bit more specific info, if anyone would care to share.

(1) Suggestions on what to take along for an overnight trip (munchies, comfort items, etc.)? We don’t have a sleeper, only coach seats. I’ve read that hot water is available for soup/coffee/etc, and we plan to pack nonperishable snacks. Also will have a laptop, iPod, books, etc.

(2) I’m a little concerned about bag security on the train. It appears that unless you have a room, there’s no way to lock up your bags. One site said that bags are “reasonably” safe left unattended on the train, but I’m thinking nuh-uh, no way, I’d like to keep my stuff, thanks. Do we have to be the dorks who drag our bags with us wherever we go on the train? Or go separately so one can stay behind and watch the bags?

(3) We will have a layover each way at Union Station in Chicago. Probably enough time for a decent meal on the outbound leg. Suggestions?

(4) I haven’t called Amtrak yet to confirm (and I plan to), but I’ll welcome any input on this: Thus far it appears that if you miss a connecting train because of a delay on your previous train, sucks to be you. I’m a little worried about our incoming layover, which is only about 4-1/2 hours. shows only one day in the last four weeks where the connection was missed, so the odds look good, but I’m concerned about contingencies, just in case.

We would be able to drive home from Chicago comfortably (4 hours) if we could rent a car at Union Station, but so far that doesn’t seem possible online, because either the rental places are closed when we’d need a car, or because they won’t allow a one-way rental that far.

Would we be able to just get a hotel and then hop the next day’s train, or would we need to buy a new ticket? It’s looking like the latter, and again I’ll probably call to confirm, but would like to hear if anyone has experience with this.

(5) Hotels near Union Station in case we get stuck? This would be worst-case scenario, because Mr. S is likely to be scheduled to work the next day, and missing work would be A Bad Thing. Plus our dogs would be stuck in the kennel an extra day.

So I’m really really really crossing my fingers that everything is on time for our return trip.

Any other comments or suggestions would be very welcome. Thanks!

I don’t know Amtrak well, but I used to manage the office building right over Union Station so I know the neighborhood a little.

  • Meals nearby on a layover? You’re just across the river from the Loop, which has something decent to eat on virtually every corner. From semi-fancy sitdown, to reliable diners (Marquette Inn on the NW corner of Franklin & Adams, two blocks away) to a whole schmear of quicky bar & grills. Monks on Lake, just east of Franklin comes to mind. Parry’s … oh hell I forget where it is right now, but it’s the home of the largest gotdamn sub sandwich you’ll ever have. Buy one, take about 2/3 back with you on the train. Union Station even has a smallish concourse with some fast food places and tables to sit. Warning: Remember I said I used to run that building? This means I’ve seen the back of their food prep area. In the 5 years I worked there, I never ever ever ate there - except for at Gold Coast Dogs.

And do not rule out that you’re only a few blocks from Greektown. Exit the Canal St. side, turn left to Jackson, hang a right and go 4 blocks. Yum.

If you’re layover is breakfast, follow those same directions, and on the way west you’ll pass Lou Mitchell’s. Except if you pass it you’re silly. If there’s a line, don’t fret, it moves pretty quickly, and the food is worth it.

  • Hotels - Like I said, you’re downtown. There are some cheap places on the same side of the river as the station, but anything decent is downtown and you want to go there.

That’s all the help I can be. Now I must work.

I can’t answer most of your questions since I haven’t taken Amtrak, but I do go through Union Station on my way to and from work every day. The closest hotel that I can think of is a few blocks south of the station, this Holiday Inn. There are plenty others but I think that’s the absolute closest.

Restaurants near to the station… well I’m a beer fan and like German food, so the Berghoff is always yummy. Lou Mitchell’s is a classic Chicago breakfast spot, and it’s about a block from the station off the Clinton St. exit. Greektown is less than a half mile west (I’d take a cab), and Greek Islands is a good choice there. There is fine dining very nearby too but I think that might be tough due to timing and reservations. Still, if you had something in mind there’s always Blackbird and Avec (by the same chef), one sixtyblue, and others.

Hah, I swore off the burrito place there after I had the worst episode of (probably) food poisoning I’ve ever dealt with just a month or so ago. That’s after trying their food about once a month for a few years. My husband still requests their burritos often, but then again, he didn’t get sick.

Gold Coast Dogs just renovated their space in the last few months. Looks like they got a new fridge unit, among other things.

I was the one who wrote the thread you mentioned. I loved traveling by train. Loved, loved, loved it. He and I agreed that it was probably the best part of the whole vacation (and the vacation was wonderful; it was just that neat!).

  1. I had a sleeper, but everything seemed very roomy. If you can sleep on a plane, you can sleep on the train. We brought some snacks and drinks, but we didn’t eat them much. There is food available in the dining car, and it isn’t great, but it isn’t bad either. The staff was wonderful, very helpful and friendly.

  2. All your big luggage will be checked, but if you are uncomfortable leaving your stuff in your seat while you go to the dining car or something, you will have to carry it with you. The dining car is relatively spacious though; I think this would be ok. Other people were carrying laptop bags and stuff that I saw.

3)other people covered this better. There are restaurants everywhere though, should be no problem

  1. Our trains were late. We didn’t care (we had no place to be) but both ways we were late. If it’s been making the connection, I dunno. I guess I would chance it. But it was late. Not several hours late though, maybe an hour or so? I can’t remember exactly; like I said we didn’t care, but you should know. I would call, though, certainly.

  2. hotels are everywhere, as was mentioned.

Overall, i would say if you think you want to go, do. We had a lovely time, and I will ride again as often as I can. The staff was wonderful, the cars were old, but clean, and the scenery was fantastic. Also it’s very low hassle, nothing like a plane. You get off right in the center of town. I highly recommend it, if you can.

The most important thing I know is that the train-crashing-through-the-station-thing like at the end of Silver Streak … that almost never happens.

Oh, it’s a done deal; I’m booked for a conference, and this time I thought I’d try the cheaper train option, rather than flying.

I’m not a fan of checking my bags . . . too much opportunity for it to get lost. I’ll probably have a roller bag and my laptop, and a roller bag and tote bag for Mr. S.

Most of the train time on the longer legs will be at night, so I suppose we won’t be doing too much wandering around; only the shorter legs between Chicago and home (about 3 hours) will be all-daylight.

I suppose I could have mentioned that the longer layover will be in the evening, so we’ll be looking for dinner. Not in Union Station, though, you say. OK. I’ve got drool all over my keyboard from that Greek menu!

Thanks, everybody; keep 'em coming! :slight_smile:

ETA: Thanks, KneadToKnow, I’ll keep that in mind. :stuck_out_tongue:

Unlike some others, my trips to Chicago were all overnights (starting from a stop in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania) but just in one of the normal reserved seats–I don’t even think sleepers were an option. So I guess I’m the best to answer that one. It’s not that hard to sleep–there’s lots of legroom and you can get pretty comfortable. You still might want a sleeping pill or Benadryl and bring a blanket and a neck pillow. You should have a standard 110 outlet available (two plugs) so bring those adapters.

I wouldn’t be too worried about the bags (they can be stored above you much like carry-on on a plane or bus.) It’s not like anyone will be able to take your bag and jump off the train without you noticing. I never had any problems, even while sleeping. Then again, at least one time I was traveling HGD to CHI, it was me, an older woman, and an extended Mennonite family. Best trip I’ve ever taken.

I’m no use on the rest–I was going straight from Union Station to the closest Blue Line stop a few blocks away on foot (or vice-versa and I always felt safe, even with all my luggage at night) to be able to get to either O’Hare or Midway, so I was lucky to be able to eat at the train station, much less find something downtown. And I’ve got some great horror stories about trying to make those connections, but this probably isn’t the thread for it.

Hijack: Regulars to Union Station know that especially there, that won’t ever happen.

On the NW corner of Jackson and Canal, you can see Union Station itself. That’s the Great Hall, into which the train went crashing as it went through the wall.

On the SE corner, you see the lines of train tracks approaching and entering the tunnels into the terminal. They cross under Jackson. Passengers get off the trains and come up through escalators to either a Jackson St. exit, Adams St. exit - both right along the river, or to the Canal St. exit. (That square building along Adams is where I worked. Rode the train in from Naperville every day and took an escalator to work. Sweet )

In order for the train to crash into the Great Hall, coming from the south (it was coming from the south) it would have to crash through the barrier at the end of the track, make about a 120 degree hard left, cross Canal, make a right and angle into the east wall somewhere. At full speed.

But it’s still a cool scene.

I managed operations in 4 different buildings over about a 14 year span downtown. My wife won’t watch Die Hard with me anymore. Another great movie but I keep scoffing at all the things they do in a high rise that simply do not happen.

Hijack complete.

I did a cross-country Amtrak trip in coach…

I had no problem sleeping- the train was nearly empty and the seats had bountiful leg room, so there was plenty of space. You may want to bring a sleep mask or ear plugs, and some kind of covering if you are big on that. I remember I felt a little cold at times with the AC running.

There is indeed hot water. Snacks are great to have, though it’s also fun to hang out in the snack bar car. Some good times were spent playing cards in the lounge car late at night. Some very interesting people ride the train, and you can hear some great stories.

Things are somewhat secure, but obviously not perfect. I would pack a backpack with my valuables (laptop, ipod) to lug around with me on the train and leave my clothes and the whatnot at my seat. Some inexpensive luggage lucks and a cable lock might also make you feel more secure.

I am almost certain that you can use your travel on the next train out if your previous train is late. I’m pretty sure you can do that even if you just plain miss your train. Anyway, I wouldn’t spend to much time worrying about this.

That is one magic loogie.

I take Amtrak coach from DC to Chicago on occasion. My first time I took a novel along but didn’t spent much time reading and instead went up to the observation car to watch the world go by. Even when we parked in Cleveland for an hour. Last time was on a Superliner, and again I spent most of the time in the observation car. The double-decker Superliners have the observation car atop the snack car and there’s a TV screen at one end on which movies can be shown.

As sven said, you can pass the time just by talking to the other passengers. Some time shortly after sunrise one trip, a boy of about 7 joined me in the observation car and we had a nice chat. I wasn’t much interested in the movie on my Superliner trip, don’t even remember what was playing, because I found the older couple next to me much more interesting. And so was the guy who was forcibly removed from the train for being too disruptive about not being able to smoke anywhere he pleased.

Maybe this isn’t available on all Amtrak trains, but when I went from Chicago to Jefferson City MO, I upgraded from Coach to Business-class for $20. Let me tell you - it was worth every single penny!

If it’s available, I highly advise upgrading to Business Class.

The Business-Class seats are in the car just behind the engine. Everyone boards/exits from the car behind, so there’s no foot traffic except for the people in your area. The seats are in the Diner car, in the front, with the shop in the middle and the tables/restrooms in the back of the car.

Huge, first-class-airplane-style seats that recline all the way back and have foot rests that go all the way up so you can sleep pretty much laying down. Single seats on the right and doubles with a console between them on the left. Maybe a dozen seats total.

They give you a $5 voucher for food, too, with the $20 upgrade.

So much quieter and a little more private! It was a 9-hour trip for me, coming back was really crowded in the rest of the train and I was soooo happy to be where I was, I’m pretty sure we were all happy to be where we were! I could imagine a much longer journey seated there, where seated (when crowded) in the main part of the train would have made me suicidal.

On the restaurants in the area of Union Station, posts above pretty much covered it. It depends on what time of day/night you’re there, too.

Enjoy yourselves!

Just want to say thanks to everybody who chimed in. I’ve made some notes based on your suggestions. Now to see how it goes!

Scarlett, obsessive planner

I haven’t been on an Amtrak train since 1982, but I do have Amtrak stories. I will keep this to just one story. My dad was a bridge and building maintenance person for the Santa Fe Railroad and one of the benefits for employees (used to be) a passenger pass for everyone in the family. We lived in Southern California and I went to a university in Tennessee, about an hour and a half east of Nashville.

There used to be many more Amtrak trains than there are now. To go to school, I had to take the Southwest Limited (now the Southwest Chief) which got me into Chicago in the afternoon. Then, I had an overnight layover. My train to Nashville (actually, it was going to Miami–this train was discontinued in about 1979) left the next morning at 8:00.

In Chicago, I usually stayed at a certain hotel that was only about two blocks from Union Station. I had experimented around.The YMCA used to have a hotel that cost something like ten bucks a night. I went there once, along with all my baggage (it rode with me on the train–I didn’t check it in the baggage car). The front desk clerk looked at me strangely when I came in with all that stuff. When I got to the room, I realized the reason why… the room was only big enough for the bed. The bathrooms were shared on the floor so the whole room was nothing but wall-to-wall bed! So my suitcase, tuba, and steamer trunk had to all be piled upon the bed!

The worst trip I ever took was one that took me to Chicago on New Years Eve 1977. We left San Bernardino and everything was OK. I couldn’t sleep, so I went to the club car for some company. I stayed up until about 2:00 am.

I woke up about 7:00 am, just before we got to Flagstaff. I smelled smoke.I went to the dining car and they said all they had to serve for breakfast was cold cereal. It seems they had a fire in there.

At Albuquerque, they decided to have someone there buy some groceries and then the dining car crew assembled free box lunches. Even pass holders could eat them. But we also got box lunches for dinner that night. Can’t complain about the price. Normally, the food on the train cost me quite a bit of money. But so far I only had to pay a couple of bucks for a bowl of Wheaties.

The next morning, as we were stopped at Kansas City, the conductor woke me up with a complaint form. (This was about 6:00 am.) I went to bed (in the chair) wearing a lot of extra clothes because I felt a chill in the air. The electric doors were all frozen open and the temperature inside the coach was about 35 degrees Fahrenheit. I told the conductor I was on an employee pass. He said I had nothing to complain about. I agreed.

Well, the boxed lunches were getting to be a habit, especially since they were free. We started all eating in the club car and the last lunch was a lot of fun.

The train was supposed to arrive at Chicago’s Union Station at 2:35 pm. We were about four hours late. I missed riding in a cab with a group of young ladies my age. Amtrak was paying for their hotel room. I stayed in my usual place.

Business class might also get you access to the First Class lounge at Union Station. Not 100% sure, but worth looking into.

We get in there when we have sleeper accommodations. You can check your luggage with an attendant, and the lounge itself has a fireplace, free snack and drinks, and plenty of room to sit and stretch out. And nice bathrooms. You can come and go as you please without having to schlepp your luggage everywhere. Of course, if your connection is tight you might end up not seeing it at all.

I take Amtrak from Chicago to Kansas City all the time, and have traveled by train to several other cities.

I’ve never tried to get hot water from the snack car. I know they won’t heat food for you in their microwave, claiming liability (more like they want to sell you their food - avoid the pizza).

Depending on how recently the car has been renovated, there are either three outlets per car, or an outlet at every seat. If only three, you’ll need an extension cord like this one for the occasional plug that is hidden behind the seat. One plug is directly across from the stairs, and the other two are halfway between the stairs and the end of the car, front and back. You could get a small warmer and plug it in to heat up ramen.

I have never had a problem with anything being stolen on any trip. I do take my laptop with me when I leave my seat for meals.

Meals on the train are not cheap, but are reasonable. Breakfast is around $6. The cheeseburger at lunch is $8. The most expensive meal at dinner is around $20. But I always eat some meals on the train because you are seated 4 to a table. If you’re traveling with someone, they sit next to you. But I like it as I get to meet new folks, and we talk. I’ve met some great folks in this way.

Depends. Right down Jackson is possibly the best breakfast place in the world - fresh ground coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, etc. Not cheap, but great. It’s right in downtown Chicago, and the place is packed with restaurants. Give me an idea of what you’re looking for, and I can give you some recommendations.

Generally, they’ve been good about exchanging tickets, but I’ve not had any problems in the last year or so.

There is a Holiday Inn a block away.

There can be delays, but I’ve not had more train delays than flight delays. I tell people who complain, “if you’re in such a hurry, what you you doing on a train”. You can tell the people who bought a train ticket because it was cheaper than the plane. I fly, but I enjoy the view and the opportunity to see the country.