In the lounge car of the Empire Builder, Amtrak's popular train that runs between Chicago and Seattle, a Mennonite family of five gazed out expansive picture windows at fields speckled with frost. Seniors ate sandwiches brought from home. A foursome on their way to Chicago for a "Sex and the City"-styled girl's weekend played a boisterous game of cards.
Across the aisle, a young man traveling home to Boston from college added high-volume commentary, fueled in part by the whiskey he was drinking. Seven empty mini-bottles were lined up on his table. It wasn't yet noon.
My family and I were in the early stretch of our Amtrak adventure -- from St. Paul to Chicago and from there to New Orleans -- and no loud sot could snuff out the glow of rail travel. But just in case, we scurried back to our passenger car.
Our trip on Amtrak to visit relatives during Thanksgiving week started as a lark. We booked it because we were weary of flying, we wanted to see the country without the hassle of driving and we figured, rightly, that it could be fun. Turns out, it also saved us money.
The cost of the round trip, booked last January, totalled $1,067 for my husband, my 6-year-old daughter and me, and included a sleeper car with our own bathroom and all meals on the two legs between Chicago and New Orleans. With the bedroom, which accounted for $341 of the total, the price came close to matching that of three airline tickets. But Northwest's fee for the first checked bag could have added $90 round-trip (at $15 a pop each way for three suitcases). Plus, we didn't have to take a taxi to the airport; Amtrak's Midway station in St. Paul has a free parking lot.
The relative ease and affordability of the train helps explains why Amtrak's ticket sales have increased 11 percent since last year.
Spacious seats ease travel
We arrived at Midway station at 7 a.m., waited in a line exactly one deep to check our suitcases to New Orleans, and boarded the train at 7:20, weighed down with a grocery bag full of lunch and snacks, two overnight bags, and two backpacks filled with activities. We settled in our first-class-sized seats, and 40 minutes later the train rolled out of the station exactly on time.
We dug into the backpacks: I opened the laptop, my husband read the newspaper, my daughter knitted, read a book, arranged her doll on the seat and announced herself bored by 10, which is when we hit the lounge car. We played games, marveled at the Mississippi (which somehow looks prettier from the seat of a train) and ate an early lunch until my daughter said, "It's too loud in here," (the work of whiskey man).
By 4 p.m., we were in Chicago, being directed to a special lounge for sleeper-car passengers. Akin to those fancy airport lounges for the lucky few, it offered free snacks, cushy seating and a couple of big-screen televisions airing CNN. It was a welcome refuge from bustling Union Station. We checked our bags with the clerk and grabbed a taxi to Millennium Park to pass time during the four-hour layover. (On our return, with a longer daytime layover, we saw the Macy's Christmas windows and ate lunch inside the architectural stunner.) We returned by 7 p.m., the designated hour for boarding, and were among the first to hop on the City of New Orleans, departing at 8 p.m.
Bedrooms are tight, organized
Our room consisted of one long couch, a lounge chair facing it, a pull-down table between them, a sink area and our own tiny bathroom, which doubled as a shower. (Signs suggested sitting on the toilet while showering, a good idea on a lurching train.) Towels are stored in compartments beneath the sink. Bottles of water were distributed in cupholders around the room. The idea of residing in the efficient, neat room for the next 19 hours delighted us.
We had eaten dinner in Chicago, though we could have waited and dined for free on the train. Instead we drank hot tea and hot chocolate in the dining car's bar while the train attendant transformed our cozy room into a cozier bedroom. The couch pulled down into a snug double, and a second bed popped down from the wall.
My husband took the top bunk, which comes complete with a torture-worthy web of belts running from the base of the bed to the ceiling to prevent middle-of-the-night spills. My daughter, who shared the relatively luxurious bottom bed with me, immediately conked out. The grown-ups were left reading by our respective built-in lights and tried, amid station stop calls and occasional jolts of the rocking train, to fall asleep.
A civilized way to travel
"Isn't it nice to wake up to the sounds of the train," my daughter asked blissfully when she popped up from her pillow somewhere in Mississippi.
Well, yes, I suppose it is if you've actually slept.
The adults were bleary, but breakfast helped.
As members of the sleeper-car elite, we ate for free and had first dibs on reservations in the dining car. On busy routes, such as the Empire Builder, those reservations can fill up quickly. My omelet with spinach was almost as wonderful as the glory of being served a meal, complete with silver (OK, metal) utensils, on a moving train. That afternoon, we ate burgers and gumbo. On the return trip, dinner included a juicy steak, grilled mahi mahi and wine.
The whole thing is very civilized -- even with a lack of sleep.
The cars on every leg of our trip were sold to near capacity, yet the experience lacked the squeezed, impersonal qualities that can come with flying on a full plane.
People were friendly to one another; the staff was spirited and helpful. Strangers carried on conversations -- often about their appreciation for trains. A woman traveling from New York City to Minot, N.D., invited my daughter and me to sit at her table in the busy lounge car so my daughter could eat a hot dog, and then told us about her trip. The train attendant for the sleeper car on the way to Chicago from New Orleans delivered breakfast to our room when it became clear we arose too late to eat in the dining car. (The kitchen was closing to prepare for our 9 a.m. arrival in Chicago.)
We are traveling to New Orleans again for spring break. I found a flight for $343 yesterday. When I told my family, the sentiment was universal. We don't care if it costs more, we're taking the train.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282