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takin the train

I'm thinking of taking a train trip out to portland in july to spend a month out there. it's only 200 bucks with a student advantage card. on the plus side, i can take three checked bags and my bike which means i can bring camping stuff and clothes. on the down side, it's a 36 hour trip.

i know amtrak seats are pretty comfy but i've only taken a 5 hr trip on one. not sure how sleeping in those seats for two nights is going to feel (board at 11pm and arrive at 10am).

has anyone taken the amtrak from the twin/cites (or chicago) out to portland/seattle? what did you think? did you take a bike with? is it worth it to spend an extra $100 (or more) to take a plane and ship my bike?


In my giddy, penniless youth, I took the train, along with my bike and a WWII steamer trunk, from Chicago to Portland, and a fantastic time was had by all. The trip was much more restful than flying, the scenery was stunning, AND I saw my first moose. I'd say if your time > money, you'll have a terrific trip.

I took the Amtrak on the Pasco, WA-St. Paul leg a few times in 2002. (Pasco to St. Paul; St. Paul to Pasco; Pasco to St. Paul.) It takes a while (36 hours or so) but a big chunk of that time can/will be at night so it's not too bad. That being said, a book or two will be needed, as North Dakota's plains get pretty boring. You'll stop for a while in Minot, ND, and you can get to a grocery store/cafe there, which is nice.

The seats are nice -- lots of legroom. Unless you're like seven feet tall, you'll probably be able to extend your legs without hitting the back of the seat in front of you. I ended up bringing a duffle bag up to use as an ottoman, which made sleeping easier.

When I took it back to Minnesota, I had two huge duffles and an even larger ski bag (like a eight-foot tall burrito with a two-foot diameter) and they weren't phased -- they just opened some random storage compartment on the outside of the train and told me not to forget it when I got off. Nice.

One final thing: They serve Budweiser and Bud Light, and didn't seem to mind if you brought your beer to your seat. Not suggesting that you bring your own, but ...

Caveat: This was in 2002, so you might need more updated info.

I just (this past week) took a train to Washington DC and back. I love taking the train, so I am biased, but I'd offer the following advice...

Bring a water bottle and/or travel coffee mug.
Bring a pillow or travel neck pillow (the U shaped ones) and a small blanket.
Sit by the window. It's easier to sleep when you can lean against the wall of the train.
Bring some food. Trail mix, fruit, dried fruit is good.
Avoid buying train food if you can avoid it. It's expensive and of so-so quality.
Bring a deck of cards.
Bring a book or two.
Check through most of your bags, but make sure you have your toiletries in your carry on. Trust me, you'll want to brush your teeth sometime in those 36 hours.
Charge your cell phone ahead of time. You may or may not have an outlet near your seat.
Spend time in the Observation Card.
If you bring portable music/movie devices make sure you have good earbuds and you may want to bring an extra pair.

I've managed quite a few train rides in my day and all of them have been great in one way or another. But the best one?

A while back I took the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing to Moscow. It covers about three times the distance in about five days. I got to meet some lifelong friends, playing lots of scrabble, telling stories and listening to music in the dining car, etc. The countryside and views of creation were simnply amazing and (since that was back in my boozing days) if I ever did manage to get bored I could drink about as much vodka and tang as I could hold down with not fear of getting drunk since I didn't have to drive anywhere and on top of that, hangovers are a non-issue since ... when you travel west you are always gaining time ... and energy and sunlight ... But even if that isn't the case for you, a trip like this isn't so much about comfort as it is something to do because you can ...

One more (potential) bonus: Wherever you go, airports are boring but train stations are some of the most exciting places on the planet for people watching and just enjoying being part of the human race.

My only wish is that you could take this trip from DULUTH to Portland, and I hope that day is not far off. Rail is the way to go, baby!

Planes are ghetto. You would be treated better if you were cattle.

Trains=Luxury. Sometimes Luxury=Time.

If you have the time... Take the train. Along with typical things to bring while traveling... if you don't already do it... consider:

1) Ear plugs
2) Eye pillow
3) Neck pillow
4) Your own ale. (see cork above... lagers? ick.)

Can you sleep? Yep. Is it super comfortable? Nope. However, it is hundreds less than buying a sleeper cabin.

Bring a book. Bring some cards. Get up and walk around. Enjoy the sights of the great planes as you cross North Dakota. Traveling through Glacier is grand... and dropping down to the Pacific is cool too...

Take the train. Bring your bike. Relax and enjoy...

I've taken the train to Portland three times. If I've done it more than once it must be good.

I've done all trips solo and for a shy person like me it can be overwhelming, but the people I met were nice. Except for some weird dudes in overalls we picked up somewhere past Whitefish MT. They were trying to pick me up while I was watching some crappy Drew Berrymore flick. UM no thanks!

Anyhow, the advice ironic gave you is priceless .. all bullet points need to be followed. 'specially the food.

As ironic1 mentioned, the train food isn't all that good, but it's one of those experiences worth doing once. (They won't seat you alone; therefore, you may sit with some seniors and a jazz flutist.) Any time the train conductor lets you off, it's worth finding a grocery store or deli.

For the record, I wasn't suggesting that you bring Budweiser because it's an excellent train beer -- just that on the off-chance a conductor gets snippy about you having a beer with you, you could always say you got it in the beer car.

I've taken the train from San Francisco to Philadelphia, back in my youth, it was a lot of fun and I stopped off a few places to visit friends. I've also traveled by train from Amsterdam to Trapani, in southernmost Italy, where I caught a boat to Tunisia. I love train travel, I've had more adventures and met the coolest people during my train trips. I hate flying, though I just flew from DLH to LA today without any mishap -- but, isn't that sad, that I am thrilled that nothing went wrong? Other than my saying go for it, when you can, follow Ironic1's advice.
Have fun!

One other tip - check to see how much it would cost to upgrade to sleeper 1) when you buy your ticket, 2) when you pick up your ticket at the station, 3) when you board the train.

I once got an upgrade at the station for only $12 (St. Paul to Chicago) and it was definitely worth it.

I've taken the Empire Builder across the plains and through the mountains more than half a dozen times and I recommend it to anyone. It's better for the environment than flying or driving solo and your price will be very hard to beat.

1. Bring your own beer
2. Bring your own food
3. Once you get past Fargo you can usually find two seats to yourself
4. Make conversation with strangers - by the time you get to your destination you'll have had many good conversations with people of all walks.

I took the Amtrak to Seattle last summer. It was my first Amtrak. I don't think they've changed the schedule, so you miss most of boring ND because it happens over the first night - the 1 train per day leaves St. Paul at something like 11pm. I'd echo what everyone says on the food, not great, but you can bring your own food - a great alternative. We traveled with my wife's parents, and they had a sleeper - so we traded off. The seats were comfortable, but not extremely easy to sleep in.

The biggest thing? It's my only complaint, but the train didn't smell great by the end of the journey. It was pretty full the whole way, lots of comings and goings from the small towns in ND and MT, and there's really nowhere to clean up, the bathrooms are pretty spartan. I'd have to guess the coaches are a little old and don't have great circulation.

All things considered, it was a really amazing trip. I wish that the track was upgraded through much of it so they could go faster, and that there were more trains per day. Let's hope some well-reasoned public policy puts some money back into trains sometime soon, because I'd really prefer it to driving everywhere.

Having flown, driven, and trained out to Seattle, the train is hands-down the most relaxing and enjoyable way of getting there.

You can bring a bottle of wine and use amtrak's cups. Probably bring a gallon of water too cause the water from the train spiggot is gnarly. And this may be obvious but grab a bike box from a bike shop dumpster so you don't have to buy an Amtrak bike box.

I took the Empire Builder from St. Paul to Havre, MT ("Havre--It's the People") a few years back. I loved it. And if I had the time/vacation days to do it every time I go west, I would.

Ironic1's suggestions above are all great. I thought the seats were pretty comfortable for sleeping, but if you can get a sleeper upgrade for cheap, that's not a bad idea, either--you could still do plenty of socializing in the lounge car...

I've taken the train several times and the experience has been superior to flying. Just make sure to bring lots of food, drink, reading, etc. The ride out to Porltand is quite scenic and relaxing.

Ditto what samh said about conversations. I sat by a medical student from Chicago to St. Paul and we talked for hours. When I was tired of talking I just said I was heading to the lounge car for a bit. The thing that makes conversations with strangers more possible on a train is that you know you can escape if you need to. Can't really do that on a bus or a plane, so another one in the win column for trains.

I've gone from St. Paul to Whitefish, Montana as well as St. Paul to Washington DC. I've also taken the trains in Europe. The seats are quite spacious and you can sleep.

Do bring your own beer, and I agree with the above comment that ale rules and lager is not nearly as good (and Budweiser doesn't even qualify as beer in my book).

I also do a lot of int'l travel by plane, and sleeping on back to back flights of up to 40 hours, in coach, really sucks compared to the Amtrack. My trick, half a Unisome and some wine. Let's you sleep quite well!

The observation car is a great diversion, and the finer dining car is a nice way to kill an hour or so with a nice meal.

The view past the middle of North Dakota gets better and better. Glacier Park is a must see, but it's better on the way back as it will be daylight (at least during the schedule they had a few years ago).


My neighbor who is the retired head of the psych. department from UMD takes it every year to visit his son in Portland, and loves it. swears by it.

the bike thing works well on the train, just have to remove the pedals, turn the handle bar sideways, and slide it into a bike box. I didn't know you could get a bike box from a bike shop dumpster, that's a great idea if you can find one, I bought an amtrak one.

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