After stepping onto the Amtrak Empire Builder, we soon found out the crew really does belt that out as the train is departing. For us, that holler from deep in the lungs proved to be a most appropriate welcome as we boarded those shiny silver train cars that had just rolled into Chicago’s ornate Union Station. The final call for passengers was one of the many morsels of Americana to enjoy when crossing the country by train on this Empire Builder route that’s been in use for nearly a century.
Yet fast-forward to the present, to a time when the Amtrak Empire Builder is a wildly inefficient way to travel from Chicago to Seattle. That 2,206-mile trip can easily be accomplished by flight in one-tenth of the time and for about the same price.
(Map source: sharemap.org, an interactive map that you can use to zoom in and out.)
But there remains a sect of society with a preference to instead pursue this classic rail journey, traveling across America’s most Northern states over the course of three days, rather than the 5-hour flight zipping above the US. We decided to join these slow travelers on what has become Amtrak’s most popular long-distance train route. (Source: Amtrak FY 16 Ridership report.) Some say the Empire Builder line is also the most scenic Amtrak train route. We’d soon find out.
In our mission to circumnavigate the globe without the use of flights, taking the Amtrak Empire Builder across the US fit perfectly into our travel agenda like a missing puzzle piece. Traveling across the US by rail had always been a dream journey for us. We love train travel and are certainly no strangers to lengthy train trips. Over the past few years of roaming around the world, we’ve taken rail journeys across exotic locations like Ukraine, Bolivia, Thailand, Cuba, Serbia, Zimbabwe, even a tequila train across Mexico and the DMZ Train to the North Korea border. Yet we had never crossed our home country by train. It was time for that to change.
We regularly see viral videos about this rail journey across the US shared on social media, which have piqued our curiosity over the years. Such videos not only play up the romanticism of rail travel, but also show what appears to be a great value. Those buying Empire Builder tickets in advance can take advantage of the Saver rate, which gets passengers from Chicago to Seattle by rail for a mere $147! That’s exactly what we opted to do. That ticket covers two nights of accommodation, a scenic rail journey, and transportation from one side of the US to the other. For budget travelers like us, it all sounds like fantastic value!
But videos showcasing the low price point of this cross-US train trip fail to point out that it’s for a coach seat rather than a more comfortable (and much more expensive) sleeper. Mentioning the fact that the cheap tickets simply gets you a chair to sleep in for two nights in a row, without showering nonetheless, will kill much of that notion of rail romanticism.
But despite these realizations, we still found crossing the US on the Amtrak Empire Builder to be a good experience overall. While it wasn’t entirely comfortable sleeping on a coach seat for two nights in a row, it was fun to take it slow, rolling across the Northern US. We now understand the appeal.
This post recounts our trip to give a balanced look at what it’s really like, while further providing an Amtrak Empire Builder review and travel tips for anyone considering this classic rail journey across the US.
Riding the Amtrak Across the United States on the Empire Builder
Day 1: Departing Chicago for A Refreshing Break from Airports
Our rail journey across the US began in Union Station, right in the heart of thriving downtown Chicago. As the city’s busy corporate workers finished up their lunch break to race back to the office, we similarly raced to catch our train that was soon departing.
It was a pleasant novelty not having to arrive early to do the hurry-up-and-wait routine that airport check-ins have become. There weren’t any long lines for airport security because such screenings don’t exist when riding Amtrak. We were already beginning to notice some of the small perks of train travel, as we simply checked our larger packs before swiftly boarding the Amtrak Empire Builder.
Although Amtrak trains are known to often run late, it seemed that the Empire Builder was keen to keep on schedule. The conductor was making a concerted effort to hurry passengers along. Before we could catch our breath and get settled, the train was already rolling out of Union Station exactly on time at 2:15 PM. We watched Chicago’s grand skyline disappearing while the Amtrak Empire Builder chugged northbound through Chicago’s northern suburbs.
Getting Settled for the Long Haul Across America by Rail
It was while departing the Windy City that we began to investigate the Empire Builder train layout. The train would be our temporary “home” for the next 48 hours after all. So we decided to take some time early on to explore what would be our living space over the course of three calendar days.
It was a rocky walk scoping out the train cars. We learned very quickly to grab onto the seat tops while proceeding through the aisle to avoid bouncing into someone’s lap. We didn’t wander too far though since we instantly fell in love with the domed lounge car.
It featured panoramic windows that wrapped clear around the train car. Chairs faced out towards the windows, allowing passengers to gaze at the passing scenery. And that’s exactly what we did. We had grabbed an Amtrak Empire Builder schedule as we boarded the train and were now checking it to find out what we may be rolling by next.
An Early Reminder to Appreciate the Scenery of the Empire Builder Route
Shortly after exiting Chicago’s urban sprawl, we had entered Wisconsin, the second state of this 7-state ride across the US. The conductor periodically came on the intercom to let us know such facts.
This is probably a route he works regularly, so it would be assumed that such announcements would become mundane to deliver. Instead, the conductor’s passion for his profession clearly shined through every time his voice came across the intercom.
“Hey folks, do you know what time it is? It must be Miller Time because if you look out towards the right side of the train, you’ll see we’re approaching Miller Brewery!”
That’s what he excitedly announced shortly after pulling out of the Milwaukee Station. So we made a point to look at the industrial brewery that we likely would have paid no attention to if it weren’t for the conductor’s enthusiasm. It was contagious.
We weren’t on the Empire Builder to sightsee though. We were using the Amtrak as an alternative way to get across the country. But the conductor provided us with a gentle reminder to appreciate these random sights alongside the tracks. After all, that is part of the appeal of taking this slower approach to travel across the US.
What’s There to Drink across the US on the Amtrak Empire Builder?
It was nearing the five o’clock hour as we passed by the brewing plant. So this was also a prompt to consider a beer. People sitting around us were already kicking back a few. The quiet dome lounge was becoming more social, as the Empire Builder changed from its northbound trajectory to heading west.
A café & bar was actually right underneath us as we sat in the domed viewing lounge. Each of the Empire Builder’s train cars is actually a double-decker train car. So we descended the stairs to scope out drinking options, which seemed like a natural activity to pursue while on a 48-hour train ride.
But with a drinking preference towards craft beer in combination with a penchant towards budget travel, $7 Coronas were not a strong selling point for us. Thankfully, unlike regulations during air travel, Amtrak allows passengers to carry-on and consume their own alcohol aboard the trains. So we most certainly planned ahead and stockpiled a small cooler with some of Chicago’s great microbrews to enjoy while on this scenic train ride across America.
Closing Out a Very American Day on the Rails
Approaching the Wisconsin Dells before dark was arguably the most picturesque portion of the day, as the passionate conductor commented on the ducks inhabiting the lakes here.
Yet his voice fell eerily silent as we later slowed down and seemingly rolled into a combat zone! Suddenly and without warning, I noticed a swarm of army tanks passing just outside our window! My remarks about being surrounded by military vehicles almost got me cut off from those beers I was enjoying.
But then a sanity check came over the PA. The conductor notified us that we were simply passing through Fort McCoy, a US Army training center.
A bit further past the military base, we crossed the mighty Mississippi during the fleeting minutes of twilight. Even way up here at what I envisioned to be the headwaters of America’s longest river, the Mississippi actually runs very wide. It took a few minutes to cross. We passed over three separate train trestles across the Mississippi since the river branches into a few different sections.
So within the first five hours riding the Amtrak Empire Builder, we had departed the nation’s third largest city, passed an iconic US brewery, sliced through a US Army base, and here we were at the Mississippi River. This is America.
With that thought, it was time for dinner. And as one of our last days in the country for what would be a very long time, we ate in perhaps the most American way possible: a microwaved hot dog. It was probably the least inspiring option on the Empire Builder café’s menu. Yet somehow it felt appropriate, as we chugged across the Mississippi.
Attempting To Sleep in the Coach Seats on the Empire Builder
During the night hours, there isn’t much to see outside of those big windows, which turn black with the night sky. Movie time on the laptop proved to be a better plan. But that empty void outside the window changed drastically as we approached the bright city lights of Minneapolis around 10:00 pm.
Many people got on and off the Amtrak Empire Builder while briefly stopped in the Twin Cities. But those brights lights were soon behind us as the Empire Builder chugged across the Great Plains under the cloak of darkness. That was our cue to attempt sleep, in our coach class seats on the Empire Builder. This is where the allure of rail travel across the US takes a turn for the not-so-glamorous.
Forgoing a Superliner Roomette for Cheap Coach Seats
There are comfortable Superliner Roomettes available on the Empire Builder, with cozy bunk beds, warm bedding, and access to shared showering facilities. But we didn’t book far enough in advance to secure affordable pricing of Amtrak’s premium sleeper options. Amtrak Empire Builder roomette prices can be affordable for those who book very early.
Prices for the Empire Builder’s sleeper cars start at $315.50 per person for Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle route. That’s well worth it, in our opinion!
Yet the cost of a Superliner Roomette can also go up to about $1,200 (and even higher). That was the price for a sleeper room at our time of booking. It was far too much for us to justify when compared to the $147 coach tickets. So we decided to attempt the two-night trip slumming it up in coach seats instead.
We weren’t alone in this strategy. Others in the seats around us began to tuck in for the night too. Families with children, seniors, and other adults had all come prepared to spend the night in these seats. And it is important to prepare. Bringing pillows and blankets are a must to get comfy.
Traveling around the world non-stop for the past five years, we’re no strangers to sleeping on planes, trains, and buses. So we reclined, got comfy in the blankets we brought with us, and made our best attempt to doze off as the bumpy train proceeded across the US during the middle of the night.
Sleeping in Coach Seats on the Amtrak Empire Builder
The coach class seats on the Empire Builder are much bigger than what we’re accustomed to when taking flights. The Empire Builder seats are way more comfortable than any red-eye flight we’ve taken anywhere in the world. Actually, the Amtrak coach seats recline a good ways and have more leg room than just about any other form of transportation we’ve been on around the world! The seats were fully able to accommodate my 6’2” frame, with space to spare.
Despite all the extra room, you are still sleeping on a train seat. The Amtrak Empire Builder’s seats make for an extremely comfy ride during daytime trip. Even for a single night, sure – they’ll do just fine. But we questioned our sanity when making the decision to sleep in coach seats for two nights in a row.
But we did sleep. It wasn’t great sleep. Yet we were, in fact, able to snooze. So that in itself is a victory. It was broken sleep though. Sudden jerks of the train would periodically wake us up. And while passengers got on and off throughout the night, so went our sleep pattern.
Day 2: Traveling Across the American Midwest on the Amtrak Empire Builder
Sometime in the wee morning hours, we had crossed into the fourth state of this rail trip, North Dakota. When we awoke, the landscape outside the window had changed yet again. The lush forests we rolled through as the sun set in Minnesota had transitioned to rolling plains, farmland, and the sporadic small midwestern town.
The Amtrak Empire Builder soon pulled into one of these towns. We arrived in Minot, North Dakota. And the Empire Builder rolled into the open-air Minot train station about a half hour earlier than scheduled. Here, we had a planned 37-minute fuel stop, so the early arrival now gave us a full hour to stretch out legs around this city, which was founded during the construction of the very railroad we had come in on.
Most stops along the Empire Builder route are only for a minute or two. It can give smokers a chance to quickly puff on a cigarette on the platform adjacent to the train. But there are a handful of lengthier stops where passengers can actually get off the train to wander around town. Minot, North Dakota, is the first daytime stop that allows passengers to do so. You don’t want to stray too far though, as these trains don’t wait for missing passengers.
So we took the calculated risk to stretch our legs through Minot’s antique district and the historic river walk. But then something even more important grabbed our attention. It was the faint glimmer of the golden arches that caught our eyes. We hadn’t eaten breakfast nor had our coffee yet. So with a need to be prompt and a lack of local options near the train station, we quickly raced to feast on Minot’s finest McMuffins.
Crossing the US by Train Brings People Together
Back aboard the Amtrak Empire Builder, we journeyed onward into Montana’s big sky country. In between farms, we passed quaint towns full of old-timey brick buildings. The Empire Builder cruises across Montana at speeds of up to 79 miles per hour, but we would seem to slow a bit whenever passing through these charming settlements.
We continued westbound across the Great Plains. It’s where “the deer and antelope play.” During the rail journey, that song rang true. When gazing out the windows long enough, we absolutely were rewarded with wildlife grazing in the distance alongside the tracks.
But no one was pointing out this wildlife. It was easy to spot, yet just as easy to miss if you weren’t looking. Earlier in the day as we pulled into rural Amtrak stations, we noticed the jovial narration we had enjoyed the day prior, was now missing. Our enthusiastic conductor had apparently departed overnight. With his excitement gone, the feeling of tedium had taken its place as we approached the 24-hour mark since departing Chicago.
Chugging along through America’s northern interior was becoming lackluster, albeit still a calming, relaxing, and pleasant ride. Mobile phones lost data signal for the vast majority of the day and the Amtrak Empire Builder is not equipped with any wifi. It was an annoyance, but the digital detox was also nice to regress back to simpler times. The lack of phone usage actually complimented this antiquated means of travel quite nicely.
Instead of staring mindlessly into those screens we love so much, we were instead forced into conversation with fellow travelers to pass the time. In fact, when venturing into the dining car, any parties of less than four are purposely sat with strangers.
We dined on a burger across from Sue and Linda, who joined the train when it passed through Minneapolis. The retired friends decided to take the Empire Builder for a more scenic route to visit friends in California.
At other tables, we noticed some young Amish guys sitting across from a middle-aged Latin American couple. We loved how people from completely different walks of life were all finding common ground to bond over as we collectively crossed the country together. There’s a true sense of camaraderie that is fostered on the train. In a nation that’s often portrayed in the media as being harshly divided, you would never know it while traveling on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
Often times close quarters can bring out the worst in people. But strangely enough, the Empire Builder commanded a unified sense of community, bringing out the best. Unlikely friendships were formed and the chatter continued in the lounge car over card games and bottles of wine.
It was a happy bunch on this train. For some, taking the Amtrak Empire Builder was part of a vacation. For others, the train was simply a way to get from Point A to Point B. Yet everyone had a “we’re all in this together” attitude that was nice to feel as the midwestern countryside passed by out the windows.
The Highlight of the Amtrak Empire Builder Route: Glacier National Park 🏞️
Nearing Glacier National Park, the scenic seats facing the panoramic windows began to fill up. We strategically staked out a pair of seats a few hours before arriving to Glacier to ensure we’d be able to gaze out the wide windows for what is arguably the most scenic segment of the Amtrak Empire Builder route.
The track actually runs right along the southern border of this US National Park. Since we had been traveling across barren Great Plains all day long, it was eye candy to see the Glacier National Park’s looming mountains in the distance.
Daylight was fleeting as we approached the mountain peaks in the late afternoon. But you could still easily see the glimmering glaciers directly from the train car. During the previous night of broken sleep, we questioned ourselves on the decision to take the train across the US. But gazing out onto the illuminated beauty of Montana’s Rocky Mountains had squashed any remaining doubt.
Our poor attempt at photography from the dirty windows of the speeding train car doesn’t do this scene a bit of justice. Rolling through Glacier National Park by train was spectacular.
Three Amtrak stations along Glacier National Park’s border allow passengers to disembark if they’d like. Unfortunately, there is no time here for onward passengers to get off and walk around.
Stopping off in Glacier is only for those who had planned ahead to break up the rail journey by booking a multi-city ticket. They could get off and re-board another Empire Builder train at the same time the next day or any day after. If you were to stop anywhere along the Empire Builder route, Glacier National Park may be the best spot to do so, particularly so for outdoor enthusiasts.
There are places to stay directly adjacent to these stations, so having a car isn’t a necessity. Meanwhile, hiking routes can be pursued right from the hotels near the station. In fact, one of the Amtrak stops within Glacier National Park seems to be made specifically just for the historic Izaac Walton Inn. There’s not much else around there besides this lodge catering to outdoor adventure.
As we slowly rolled past a group of hikers completing a trek, we were overcome with feelings of envy and regret. If only we had more time, it would have been ideal to include a stopover here in Glacier National Park. Instead, we had another night of broken sleep in coach class to look forward to.
Stepping Off the Empire Builder for the Ultimate Beer Run!
Shortly after crossing the Continental Divide, darkness again put an end to the awe-inspiring views outside our window. But there was still another treat to enjoy before closing our eyes.
At around 9:00 pm, we had a 20-minute stopover in Whitefish, Montana. It’s one of the few stops along the Amtrak Empire Builder route where I had noticed there to be something worthwhile to seek out that was walkable from a station. It was the Great Northern Brewing Company, located within a 2-minute walk from the Whitefish station we were pulling into. I did my research!
But would there be enough time to actually locate the brewpub, order a pint, drink it, pay for it, cut back through the station and make it onto the train – all within 20 minutes?
Earlier this same day, one passenger was left behind in Havre, Montana. I didn’t want to add to this list. But it was a challenge I couldn’t resist.
So while the smokers wisely stood on the platform directly next to the train, I made a mad dash across a dimly lit park in an effort to quaff an IPA. Upon explaining to the bartender my need to drink-and-run, he quickly helped me to achieve my goal. Although nervously watching the clock, I was able to enjoy the beer and even have a friendly chat with some locals at the bar. It may have only been ten minutes, but I feel like I was able to get a small taste of Montana, literally.
Exiting the brewpub with a to-go bag and a belly full of beer, I sprinted back towards the train. I heard “all aboard,” stepping into the train with near-perfect timing and a sense of accomplishment. It was a risky pursuit and one I’m hesitant to recommend to other Empire Builder passengers.
Yet after 32 hours aboard the Amtrak Empire Builder, this brewpub caper provided a flash of excitement and a quick on-the-ground adventure. It provided a perfect excuse to actually have an experience outside the windows we’d been gazing out of during these past two days.
This beer run also provided for a delicious nightcap ahead of what was ultimately another night of broken sleep. During this second night on the Empire Builder, we briefly crossed into Idaho and into the final state of Washington.
Day 3 on the Empire Builder: It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination
At some point while sleeping, the Empire Builder actually stopped to be disassembled and split apart. Half of the train cars were sent on a more southerly route to Portland, Oregon, while our train car remained bound for Seattle.
As we awoke on the third day of this journey across the US, on what had now become a shorter string of train cars, I overheard a conversation from the seats surrounding us.
“So what do you farm?” the Native American guy behind me asked.
The young man next to me replied, “Well sir, I have about 100 heads of cattle and grow a variety of different crops, ” as the train chugged across through a lush pine forest.
The morning sunlight soon began to reveal the Cascades Mountains we had been rolling through. Once their conversation moved away from agricultural techniques, I joined the discussion as we all marveled at the mountain range’s beauty.
That’s when it struck me. I had been on this rail journey across the US, literally sitting between “Cowboys and Indians.” It was a poetic realization that was the very essence of this American rail experience.
While you could very easily and efficiently fly this route in a much quicker time span, it was way more fun to take it slow and bond with our seatmates. Watching the scenery change before our eyes felt so much more rewarding than seeing it zip by through clouds down below.
It’s certainly not possible to stop into a random brewpub in Whitefish, Montana, while flying across the country. But the Empire Builder allowed for such antics in between some stunning landscapes across the midwest that was quintessentially America.
We would soon arrive in Seattle. But the Amtrak Empire Builder is more about the journey than it is the destination.
And it was a good journey that we reflect back fondly about. Yet as we pulled into Seattle’s King Street Station, we were ready to get off. After two nights in those coach seats, it seemed as if there wasn’t enough java in this coffee capital to get us chugging along again! 🤣
Amtrak Empire Builder Review
Overall it was a pleasant and scenic trip across the US that we’re happy we embarked on. But the Amtrak Empire Builder was not without its shortcomings, as there were many little things that could be improved upon.
💺 Amtrak Empire Builder Seats
The coach seats were a bit on the hard side, but comfortable enough and extremely spacious. It was way more comfortable than any overnight flight we’ve been on. The seats had electrical outlets to keep our many gadgets charged. The ride itself was a bit rocky and bumpy at times, but that also provided some charisma to the trip. The domed viewing car was a great place to pass time in the day and somehow never got crowded despite the train seeming relatively full.
✨ Amtrak Empire Builder Condition & Cleanliness
The train cars were clean and in good condition. As expected, the conditions of the bathrooms deteriorated the further we got. But the restroom compartments seemed to hold up better than other facilities we’ve encountered on long-distance trains around the world.
When pulling out of Chicago’s Union Station, the bathrooms were sparkling clean. But we can’t say the same about the windows. We were annoyed by the fact that those beautiful panoramic windows on the dome car hadn’t been washed! The views are a big part of the appeal of a rail journey across the US. So we felt that the lack of window washing to be the Empire Builder’s biggest blunder and such an easy remedy!
👷 Amtrak Empire Builder Crew
Meanwhile, the crew aboard the Empire Builder was friendly from the café attendant to the conductor. We did miss the first jovial conductor throughout the remainder of the trip. Once he got off the train, no other Amtrak crew provided any sort of indication about the areas we were passing aside from calling out the station stops. He set a high standard that subsequent conductors did not continue.
Even when approaching the highlight of Glacier National Park, surprisingly not a word was uttered. It was as if this awesome sight didn’t even matter. That was disappointing. It would have been nice if other crew members contained even half the enthusiasm as the first conductor we encountered on the Amtrak Empire Builder.
🍽️ Dining on the Amtrak Empire Builder
Meals in the dining car were surprisingly good quality. Yet given the captive audience on the Empire Builder, it’s not surprising to encounter grossly inflated prices associated with the Amtrak Empire Builder’s menu.
Costs for modest dinner meals ranged between $18-$25. Note: dining car service is included for those with superliner roomettes, which helps to justify the higher cost. But meals are at your own expense for those who purchase coach seats.
The Signature Steak is a favorite among Amtrak loyalist. Vegetarians are catered for with a few different offerings. A children’s menu for kids 12 and under provides hot dogs or mac & cheese for $7.50.
Snacks in the café car prove more reasonable but consist solely of microwaved items like pizza and hot dogs.
💸 Amtrak Empire Builder Value
The $147 Empire Builder ticket price felt like great value to us. Sure, it’s only for coach seats. But what can you expect for $146 covering three days and two nights of travel? It makes for a great value budget trip across the US.
If you can book early enough, you can catch Superliner roomettes for as low as $315 per person, including all meals (2 breakfasts, 1 lunch, 2 dinners) for the Chicago to Seattle route on the Empire Builder. We think this is also a good value. But unless booking very early or during off-peak travel dates, you’ll likely find roomettes listed for well over $1,000, which we find to be excessive and arguably not worth it.
⭐ Our Amtrak Empire Builder Recommendation
Despite some criticisms, we still recommend the Amtrak Empire Builder as a unique travel experience and a charming slice of America. However, if we would not recommend pursuing this three-day rail journey using coach seats as we did. It would be fine for one night, but two nights in a row gets rough. We only recommend coach class on the Amtrak Empire Builder either for (1) shorter segments or (2) for seasoned budget travelers who are accustomed to such conditions.
For those pursuing the Amtrak Empire Builder as a vacation trip, be sure to book early to secure a Superliner Roomette. Having a proper bed to lie down in will better allow sleep and provide for a much more enjoyable experience. Also, consider stopping somewhere along the way to break up the long train trip.
Amtrak Empire Builder Travel Tips, Costs & Info
Exactly How Much Does the Amtrak Empire Builder Ticket Cost?
Coach ticket prices on the Amtrak Empire Builder start at $147 for Saver fare. But this fare must be booked well in advance to secure that rate. Otherwise, you’ll find a Value fare of $183. Or if the train is very full, you may see only the Flexible rate of $397 available, in which case we’d suggest finding other travel dates if possible.
None of those prices include any meals, bedding, nor use of shower facilities onboard the Empire Builder. So be sure to plan accordingly and budget for additional expenses.
Superliner Roomette tickets on the Amtrak Empire Builder start at $631 for the room ($315.50 per person) and includes all meals. But such a low price for the roomette can be hard to come by.
These are the up-to-date Amtrak Empire Builder prices as of summer 2019. But Amtrak does change prices periodically, so do check their website, to confirm pricing listed above.
How to Get the Best Price on the Amtrak Empire Builder?
The best way to find a good deal with a low price on the Empire Builder is to:
- Book as early as possible, even a year in advance.
- Book off-season, avoiding summer months. Late Spring, before Memorial Day, can be ideal.
- Book during weekdays.
- Check if you qualify for any of these discount Amtrak fares:
- Finally, check Amtrak’s deal page to see if there are any current promotions available for the Empire Builder
Can You Get an Upgrade From Coach to a Roomette Sleeper on Amtrak?
You can upgrade while onboard an Amtrak train, but you’ll pay for it. We inquired with a conductor about an upgrade on the Amtrak Empire Builder. In doing so we discovered that the official Amtrak policy for upgrades is now for passengers to call the reservations line from your mobile phone while on the train.
We gave that a shot to see that the price of an Amtrak upgrade would be. The customer service representative was surprisingly super helpful, as she checked the prices for upgrading at different stations along the way in an attempt to find the best deal. But the cost to upgrade after the first day was still well into the hundreds of dollars, pending what station we chose to do the upgrade. So if you think you want a sleeper, it’s best to book one before your train departs. Otherwise opting to upgrade while on the train may actually end up costing even more.
Amtrak Empire Builder Layout: Book Upper Level vs Lower Level Seats?
The Amtrak Empire Builder layout is all double-decker train cars, so it’s important to consider which level may make most sense for you. Amtrak does not assign your actual seats on the Empire Builder until you board the train. But when booking, you’ll need to decide and commit between the upper level or the lower level. There are pros and cons to consider for each level.
Why book upper level on the Empire Builder: The upper level of the train is better for viewing out the window. Also, the upper level allows you to walk through all the train cars, making it easier to move from car to car.
Why book lower level on the Empire Builder: Since the lower levels don’t connect, they tend to be quieter. The lower level seats are also where the bathrooms are. So if you have to “go” often, this is another reason to consider booking a lower level seat on the Amtrak Empire Builder.
When is the Best Time of Year to Ride the Amtrak Empire Builder?
Summer. It’s not just about the weather and greenery. Summer is a preferred time to ride on the Amtrak Empire Builder due to there being longer hours to enjoy some of the best scenery along this rail route.
By going on the Empire Builder in mid-summer, it will still be light out as you cross the mighty Mississippi. And passengers will actually be able to see the Rocky Mountains when rolling through Glacier National Park.
The summer solstice occurs June 21, resulting in the longest daylight hours of the year and the most daylight hours of viewing. As such, planning a trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder closest to that date will yield the most sightseeing hours.
Perhaps the most important consideration for timing is to attempt passing through Glacier National Park during daylight hours. To pass by the entire park, from the Glacier East Station to the Glacier West station, during daylight – you must go sometime between mid-April to late-August. (And also hope that your train is on time!)
The Empire Builder is scheduled to exit West Glacier at 8:23 pm each day. Assuming the Empire Builder is on schedule, you’ll pass entirely by the National Park before dark if you take the Empire Builder between April 13 and August 28, when sunset in West Glacier is after 8:23 pm.
You can use this link to check sunset times for any date at West Glacier, MT.
During our journey in late-September, we were fortunate to see the first half of Glacier National Park before nightfall. Yet dark skies soon obscured the latter half. During the middle of winter, Empire Builder passengers won’t reach Glacier National Park by nightfall, hence forgoing the sight of those spectacular glacier-capped mountains.
Although, seeing the snowfall across the Northern Plains can still make for a pretty view.
But to take advantage of the increased daylight and see more scenery, summer is the best time of year to take the Amtrak Empire Builder. You just should be aware that summer months also tend to be the most expensive. Low priced tickets during summer months on the Empire Builder book up far in advance.
So another strong consideration is to take the Amtrak Empire Builder is in late Spring. Between April 11 and Memorial Day weekend, you may find a double-whammy of good fortune: (1) long enough daylight hours and (2) cheaper tickets.
What’s On the Empire Builder Dining Car Menu?
The menu changes periodically but dinner ranges from vegetarian pasta ($16.50) to Amtrak Signature Steak ($25). Drinks are extra, ranging from $2.25 for bottled water to $16 for a half-bottle of mediocre wine. Check the up-to-date menu here for the latest options for drinks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They do accept both cash and credit card.
BYOB on Amtrak
It’s perfectly allowed and acceptable to bring your own food and drinks aboard Amtrak trains. And with drink prices as high as they are in the bar car, it’s a smart move to bring your own booze if you want to tip back a few during the ride.
The official rules for bringing alcohol aboard Amtrak is that you simply cannot consume in public spaces or in other people’s sleeper cars. Drinking in your own sleeper is fine, as Amtrak just doesn’t want a roomette to turn into a big party. Besides that, it’s fair game to drink your own alcohol on Amtrak. So, go ahead and stock a small cooler if you wish and kick back a few in your seat or sleeper. And although it’s forbidden to drink in public places on the Empire Builder, we saw people getting away with drinking their own beverages in the domed lounge car.
Get To Know the Empire Builder Schedule
It’s fun to have some idea about where you’re going and what cities you’re passing through. The Empire Builder schedule is the same every day. You can find the official timetable here. You can also use it to determine what stations may be worth stretching your legs or perhaps to plan a stopover in advance.
How To Book A Stopover on Amtrak
If you have the time to do so, we strongly recommend breaking up the rail journey by stopping along the way. Spending 48 hours on a train may seem like a fun idea. But it’s a long time to do all at once. If you want to include a stopover, be sure to book what’s called a “multi-city ticket” when making your reservation. This can allow for a lower rate compared to booking two separate one-way tickets.
Where to Stop Along the Empire Builder Route
There is loads to do in the cities of Milwaukee and Minneapolis to warrant a stop, although those cities come early in the trip. The natural treasure of Glacier National Park perhaps makes what we say is the most worthwhile stop, particularly so for those who enjoy the outdoors. Glacier National Park is slightly more than halfway across the Empire Builder route, so it makes a good place to take a break. Consider a stop at Essex, Montana, in the heart of Glacier, and book a stay at the historic Izaac Walton Inn.
Which Stops along the Empire Builder Can You Get Off To Stretch Your Legs?
Do NOT stray far from the train. Conductors told us that people regularly are left behind. The Amtrak Empire Builder keeps a schedule and waits for no one. Your clock may be slightly different than onboard. Check with a conductor and ensure timing is synced. Also, the times listed here are accurate only if your train is running on time. Always check with Amtrak crew about timing and trust what they say above this blog, the official schedule, or anything else.
That said, if you’re feeling adventurous, here are some places where you’ll be stopped for more than a minute if the train is on time. So consider stretching your legs, use better restrooms at the stations, or grab something to eat or drink at these stops:
- Minot, North Dakota – 8:29 am – 37 minutes: There’s a very friendly lady in a coffee cart called the Daily Buzz just across from the Minot train station (Google Maps directions here). It’s great coffee, quick, and the closest thing to the Minot train station. Strolling through Minot’s antique district is a consideration, which is about a 5-minute walk away. Only if you can really hustle should you consider a run to McDonald’s for breakfast. It’s about a 15-minute walk once you factor in waiting to cross a busy street. A McMuffin probably isn’t worth the risk of missing the train.
- Havre, Montana – 2:39 pm – 25 minutes: There’s an old steam engine that’s now a monument right at the Havre station itself (pic below). You can see it directly from the platform so you don’t have to stray far from the train. Also, within just a few minutes’ walk is a Dominos Pizza, if you want to place an order in advance of arriving into Havre.
- Shelby, Montana – 5:17 pm – 5 minutes: There are some old saloons just across from the station. They were closed when we pulled in. But it’s worth stepping outside in Shelby to get some fresh air and have a look at those old brick saloons. There’s also a gas station with a convenience store, Main Street Convenience, a 3-4 minute walk from the Shelby station. You likely won’t have enough time to make it there and back during the scheduled 5-minute stop, but the Empire Builder sometimes gets in before schedule here, allowing extra time to do so.
- Whitefish, Montana – 8:56 pm – 20 minutes: This is where any adventurous beer lovers can attempt to grab a pint at Great Northern Brewing Company. I really caution you in doing so though, because I could easily foresee people getting left behind.
What to Pack for the Amtrak Empire Builder
If you’re checking large bags, don’t forget to pack a few changes of clothes for your carry-on. You won’t have access to checked bags during the 48-hour journey, so be sure to bring a change with you. Also, wear comfortable clothes. Some people complained it was cold. So if you chill easily, pack warm clothing even in the summer. Here are some other items to consider.
- A comfortable eye mask
- Toothbrush & toothpaste
- Hand sanitizer
- Tablet or phone loaded with books, movies, and/or games
- Mobile phone
- Charger for your gadgets
- If you have many gadgets to charge take a travel power adapter to give you more outlets
- Noise canceling headphones
(Beats are great, but we like these Sony headphones for good value)
- Deck of cards or other travel games
- A soft-sided travel cooler like this one from eBags
- Drinks and bottled water
- Money and/or credit cards
- Baby wipes / wet naps (comes handy for coach passengers who can’t shower)
- Deodorant (your seatmates will thank you)
- Pillow & blanket (needed for coach passengers only)
While those are some items specific to bring in your carry-on luggage on Amtrak, you can also check out our full post detailing: The Ultimate Travel Pack List and Packing Tips to ensure you don’t forget anything on your next trip.
Does the Amtrak Empire Builder Have Wifi?
No, there is no wifi on the Empire Builder. Data along the Empire Builder route can be sparse too. Our T-mobile plan lost service for much of the second day across North Dakota and Montana. Be prepared to disconnect and enjoy the ride. Download books, games, and movies in advance to keep entertained, particularly if traveling with children.
More Amtrak Empire Builder Travel Tips
- Have fun with this!
- Come in good spirits.
- Get to know other passengers.
- Don’t forget to appreciate the sights of America passing outside the window.
- Be respectful of fellow passengers. Don’t talk loudly. Try to wait until stops to talk on your phone, if you must.
- Step outside for fresh air when possible.
- Most importantly, enjoy the journey!
Wait, don’t leave just yet!
Also, if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below. We’ll try as best we can to answer. And if you’ve ridden the Amtrak Empire Builder, please come back and comment with your own Amtrak Empire Builder reviews.
Finally, if you enjoy traveling, come join us and thousands of other travel lovers on the Roaming Around the World Facebook Page where we dole out daily travel inspiration and tips from wherever in the world we’re roaming around.
Happy travels! 🚆