Why an Empire Builder Amtrak Train Trip Should Be on Your Travel Bucket List

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All aboard! It’s time to consider a trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder! Vacations by rail are gaining in popularity in the United States as more people decide to travel coast to coast on an Amtrak train.

 If you’re curious about rail travel in the US, here’s what it’s like to ride the Empire Builder Amtrak train– how to buy tickets, what to pack, how to sleep, and what to do on the train.

view of Glacier National Park in winter from Amtrak Empire Builder

19 Must Know Travel Tips for Taking the Amtrak Empire Builder

Even if you aren’t familiar with US train travel at all, you may have heard of California Zephyr or the Empire Builder Amtrak trains. Both are iconic long distance train routes that go from Chicago to California and Chicago to the Pacific Northwest (Seattle or Portland, Oregon) respectively.

Travelers certainly don’t normally choose long haul Amtrak routes because they’re an efficient way to travel, but there are reasons to choose an iconic train trip across the United States. The journey to a vacation destination can be as fun as the vacation itself!

That’s particularly true when you jump on an Amtrak train and chug through North America. Train travel is nostalgic and fun, and a great way to see our beautifully diverse country. 

Imagine traversing the country – going over the Mississippi River, through the plains states, and on into the Big Sky Country of Montana where you’ll roll right through Glacier National Park. If you continue on the westbound trains from Montana, you’ll roll through the majestic Cascade Mountains and the Columbia River Gorge as well!

Our entire family enjoys every train trip we take – we really think it beats driving and we’d love to encourage more families to take train trips as well. We took the California Zephyr from Mount Pleasant, Iowa to Denver, Colorado a couple of years ago on a family spring break trip. It was a 14-hour overnight train ride and was a very practical way for our family to get to Colorado.

We’ve also taken the California Zephyr Amtrak from Galesburg to Chicago.

Deciding on the Empire Builder Amtrak Train

For our most recent trip, we decided again on Amtrak to get to our family vacation in Whitefish, Montana instead of driving or flying. We boarded the westbound Empire Builder Amtrak train at Union Depot in Minneapolis- St. Paul, Minnesota and spent 24 hours on the train through North Dakota and Glacier National Park. 

Is the Empire Builder Amtrak Train On Time?

Historically, the on-time record for the Empire Builder is not good. I would recommend not making any firm travel commitments you would be sorry to miss.

We got on the train at 10:20 pm and arrived in Whitefish at 10:30 pm the next day. While we consistently arrived at stops ahead of schedule and had longer than anticipated stops all along the route, we did end up 1 1/2 hours late to our final destination.

On the way home our travel was really delayed due to a freight car wreck on a mountain pass. Our departure ended up being about eight hours late and we did not make up the time along the route.

inside the empire builder

Our entire trip to Whitefish was very smooth except for the delay at the end. There were very few people on the train and we had almost an entire car to ourselves! I know from past train trips that’s not normal, but we took full advantage of the extra space!

Even though we experience travel delays, we really enjoyed our 24 hours on the train and do encourage more people to travel by train. Here’s what you can expect if you decide to take a ride on the Amtrak Empire Builder.

What to Expect on the Empire Builder from Minneapolis-St Paul to Whitefish, Montana

When we originally decided to take Amtrak to Whitefish, we weren’t sure where to board the train. The California Zephyr is what crosses Iowa and options to go north on Amtrak from Iowa are non-existent. 

From Iowa, our choice was to find a stop along the northern route – either go to Chicago, Wisconsin, or Minnesota to get on the Empire Builder, or take the Zephyr to Chicago and change trains there. Changing trains in Chicago didn’t look like a very convenient option.

Why we chose to board in St. Paul

We decided to drive five hours to Minneapolis-St Paul to catch the Empire Builder there. Not only did it shave a few hours off the trip even with the longer drive, but it also saved us money on parking.

It’s a lot cheaper to park in St. Paul (only $2 per day!) than it would have been in at Union Station in downtown Chicago.

Another good option might have been to get on the train in LaCrosse, but we’re happy with our decision to board in St. Paul.

Not only did we save a little bit of time on our total trip by driving five hours, but we also saved some money. And score – we’ll be able to spend a couple days on our return trip having fun at the Mall of America too!

From Whitefish, the Empire Builder continues on to Spokane where it splits into two west coast trains: 

  • The Empire Builder 7 Train heads to Seattle.
  • The Empire Builder 27 Train  heads to Portland, Oregon. 

The 7 and the 27 trains depart Chicago as the same train before the split. The entire train journey from Chicago to Seattle is 2,205 miles and takes 48 hours. 

Billed as one of the most scenic train rides in North America, we think more US families should take their kids on Amtrak trips through the United States. 

How much does the Amtrak Empire Builder Cost?

Ticket prices on the Empire Builder vary greatly depending on what type of ticket you buy. We have found train travel to be pretty cost effective. For our family of six, air travel is often out of our budget, so we generally drive. 

However, when you factor in hotels, meals, gas, wear and tear on your car, driving does add up. It also takes us longer to drive. The train keeps going all through the night, but we have to stop to sleep when we drive. 

Train travel isn’t as cheap as driving, but it’s not outrageous either. It cost $1380 for our family of six to travel from Minneapolis to Whitefish in coach class, or $230 each. 

One child rides for 50% off with each adult fare, so my price is averaged. We could have driven for less money, but it would have taken us longer. Flying our family to Whitefish was totally cost prohibitive. 

Coach vs Sleeper Car

Definitely, the most economical way to travel on Amtrak is via the coach cars. The difference is pretty big – around $200 per person in coach versus much much more in a sleeper car. 

There are three different options for sleeper cars: the Roomette (sleeps 2), the Family Bedroom (sleeps 4), or the Superliner Bedroom (sleeps 2-3 + private bath). For our family of six, we would need two sleeper rooms. 

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I have slept in a sleeper car on a train before (in Thailand) and we honestly didn’t sleep much better on a bed than we did in the coach seats. Sleeper cars do have some perks over coach seats though:

  • They include meals 
  • The ability to shower 
  • And much more privacy 

Sleeping might be more comfortable in a sleeper car, but I doubt it would be much more restorative.

sleeping on the Empire Builder

Sleeping in Coach Seats on Amtrak

You won’t get a great night’s sleep on an Amtrak coach chair, but we think it’s ok. The chairs on Amtrak trains are much nicer than coach on airplanes. There’s a lot more room to stretch out in, with footrests and leg rests as well. 

I’m 5’9” and I can stretch my legs from my coach seat and barely touch the seat in front of me. Imagine doing that on an airplane! There’s also plenty of overhead space to store your bags. 

Glacier National Park in winter

Where to sit on the Empire Builder Amtrak Train

You don’t get assigned seats, but when you book your tickets, you have to choose the upper or lower deck. The choice is yours to make. We prefer the upper deck because the views are nicer. It’s also the only part of the train you can walk through. If you want to go to the dining car or the observation car, you have to walk through the upper cars.

That means that lower cars don’t have as much traffic walking through, so it might be quieter. You also don’t have to walk up the narrow steps to get to the upper cars if you don’t want to. A final reason you might prefer to stay on the lower deck is that’s where the restrooms are located. There are no restrooms on the upper cars.

sightseeing car on the amtrak empire builder

The Observation Car on the Empire Builder

The Empire Builder has a lovely observation car your family visit on your journey. It’s a great place to eat snacks, play card games and take in the gorgeous scenery.

observation car in the empire builder amtrak train

It tends to get crowded so you may need to check it out a few times during your trip.

amtrak baggage claim in st Paul

How to Check Bags on Amtrak

It’s not possible to check your bags at smaller stations, but if you’re getting on the train at a larger station like Chicago, Seattle, or St. Paul, I highly recommend that you check your bags. Amtrak allows each traveler to check two bags for free and it’s really an easy process. 

amtrak baggage cart in whitefish montana

Simply arrive at the station an hour before boarding and hand over your luggage. Amtrak does not have security screenings like airports and the process is pretty quick.

Amtrak waiting area union depot

Boarding the Train in Minneapolis St. Paul

Boarding Amtrak is not like boarding trains in Europe. Instead of walking out to the platform and getting on the train like you do in Germany, with Amtrak, you wait in a large hall and head down to the train in a group. Sometimes, you’re assigned a specific train car before heading out to the platform, sometimes that happens at the platform. 

The nice thing about traveling in a family or a group of four or more people is that you are generally able to head to the train ahead of the masses to help you find seats together.

One thing you may want to be aware of when waiting in large train terminals, especially in the winter: oftentimes they are warm, dry areas in urban locations. It’s not all that unusual to see homeless people in the waiting areas as well. 

Empire Builder Lounge MSP

If that makes you uncomfortable, you can wait in the private lounge if you book a sleeper car. It’s just worth mentioning because we’ve had to have conversations with our kids about the people at train stations.

stanley montana from an amtrak train

Best Time of Year to Travel on the Empire Builder Train

You can take the Empire Builder train at any time of year, but there are a few things to be aware of before you book your trip. One of the highlights of the Empire Builder is traveling through Glacier National Park.

The East Glacier stop is closed after early October, but the West Glacier stop stays open year round. If you’re heading west from Chicago, you won’t arrive at Glacier until after 8:00pm.

In the winter, it’s dark and you won’t be able to see anything from the westbound train. However, the views are phenomenal on the eastbound train heading back to Chicago!

We loved the winter views we saw from the eastbound train! We think heading out on the Empire Builder would also be amazing as a spring break trip or fabulous way to see fall laves too!

Summer is probably the more scenic time for train travel. The fields are green and it’s light longer. We’ve only taken the train in the winter and spring and while we haven’t had lush green scenery to behold, we did enjoy the beautiful frosty, foggy days anyway.

coach toilet on the empire builder

What are the Train Bathrooms Like?

The two downsides to the Empire Builder would have to be sleeping in the seats and the bathrooms. While the bathrooms aren’t terrible, they aren’t all that great either. Think airline toilets, but not as nice. 

They are small and cramped and sometimes overflowing with trash. The good news is there are five or six toilets per train car, so it’s usually pretty easy to find an open one. The bad news is, they aren’t always very clean.

There’s also a lounge bathroom on each car that includes a seating area, a larger sink with a stool and a separate toilet. This is where you probably want to go in the morning to clean up and get ready for the day. It’s a nice sized area, but the door to the sink area doesn’t lock which I think is strange.

Amtrak dinner reservation card

Does Empire Builder Amtrak have a Dining Car?

You can buy food on the Empire Builder at two places: the lounge and the dining car. The lounge sells drinks (soft drinks, coffee, mixed drinks, beer & wine) and snacky convenience food like chips, cookies, ramen, etc. 

dining car food on the Empire Builder

The dining car serves meals. Breakfast and lunch are first come first serve, but you’ll need to make a dinner reservation if you want to eat dinner. Attendants walk through the train to make the reservations and assign an eating time. Eating in the dining car is a lot of fun!

Only four people per table, and they do assign you to tables with other people – a great time to meet someone new. The food can be described as edible, but not overly delicious.

I’ve heard it used to be made from scratch and served on fine china, but it’s not like that these days. Nonetheless, it’s a fun experience to eat in the dining car and one I wouldn’t miss.  

Is there WIFI on the Empire Builder?

Gasp! There’s no WIFI on the Empire Builder, though some Amtrak trains do have WIFI. The Empire Builder travels through desolate areas in North Dakota and Montana, and oftentimes even cellular data doesn’t work. 

enjoying a mixed drink on amtrak

What Can I do on the Amtrak Empire Builder?

Believe it or not, there is plenty to do on the train even without WIFI. Bring along a good book or magazine you’ve been wanting to read, work on your computer, walk to the observation car and check out the beautiful scenery. Try a Bloody Mary. Eat a meal in the dining car. 

Some trains also participate in Rails and Trails program where national park volunteers give informative talks about the area! If all else fails, watch a movie on your iPad or try to sleep. The train provides lots of opportunities to talk to new people if you like that. If you don’t enjoy it, step out of your comfort zone and give it a try.

train mural in montana from amtrak

Can we get off the train?

The train will stop repeatedly throughout your journey. Most stops are just quick in and out. Let people off, and let new people on. A few stops however, last a little bit longer, around 20 minutes. You might have time for a quick walk outside or maybe enough time to walk to a nearby bar or restaurant for a bite to eat. 

The longer stops are in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN; Minot, ND; Havre and Whitefish, MT. If you do a little research ahead of time you might be able to come up with a game plan for a quick activity at those stations. 

The train cannot leave a stop earlier than the published departure time, so if you happen to arrive at stops early like we did, you will have a longer break.

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What to Pack for you Trip on the Empire Builder

  • Snacks – you can buy snacks in the lounge car, but you can also bring your own favorites which I highly recommend. Technically, you’re not supposed to eat food you bring on board at your seat, but everyone does. Instead you’re supposed to eat your own food in the sightseeing car.
  • Drinks – According to Amtrak, you may BYO if you’re staying in a sleeper car but “private stock alcoholic beverages may not be consumed in public areas.” Alcoholic beverages are for sale on the train and can be consumed anywhere, but in our experience, discretion works pretty well too if you happen to bring your own.
  • Toiletries – if you’re sitting in a coach you won’t be able to shower, but that doesn’t mean you can’t clean up. Bring your toothbrush and toothpaste, cleansing wipes, deodorant, and any makeup that you may want to wear.
  • Change of clothes – I’m sure you won’t want to wear the same clothes the entire 48 hours if you’re on the train that long! Make sure you have easily accessible clothing to change into and / or sleep in! 
  • Light blocking eye mask – If you’re sensitive to light, you may want to pack an eye mask. There are curtains on the windows, but there’s still a little light. 
  • Same with noise – if you’re sensitive to noise, bring noise canceling headphones or ear plugs too. It’s pretty quiet on the train, but sometimes you can hear the train horn, and when other trains pass, it is very loud and startling. 
  • Slippers – it’s pretty gross to sit around in your bare feet in public areas, so I highly recommend that you bring a pair of socks and some slippers for walking if you won’t want to wear your shoes all the time.
  • Electronics, charging cords, camera. Amtrak is nicely equipped with 120 volt plugins at each seat so charging your devices is no problem if you have your cords!
  • Small games – some of our favorites include  a deck of cards, Sushi Go, Dutch Bliss, and uno.
  • Reading material: Books, magazines. Wifi is not always available so make sure you have other things to do as well.

How to Book a trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder

Are you convinced that a trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder is for you? Here’s how to make that happen!

It’s really easy to book your trip on Amtrak’s website, but be prepared to do some research to figure out what to book. Options are often more limited with fewer trains than airplanes so you will have to be flexible.  

Also, the further in advance you book, the cheaper your tickets will be. Plan far in advance when booking Amtrak to get the best price.

For more family fun travel posts, read these:

Family Fun at the Grove Resort Orlando

Top 11 Secrets to Planning a Trip to Walt Disney World on a Budget

Fun, Affordable Family Skiing at Sunlight Mountain Resort

About Michelle Marine

Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long-time green-living enthusiast, and rural Iowa mom of four. She empowers families to grow and eat seasonal, local foods; to reduce their ecological footprint; and to come together through impactful travel.

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1 Comment

  1. Your biggest friend on a train or bus trip I find is your own pillow.
    Wether it be from home or just buy one for trip bring in hefty bag.
    A standard bed pillow nice And fluffy will make miles go by in absolute comfort.

    Nice write up and tips