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Deuce Cities Henhouse

Riding the Rails

We did something awesome as a fam two weekends ago – we headed out on a journey to our second favorite city, Chicago, via the old Empire Builder Amtrak line.

None of us had ever gone on a domestic train trip at all, so it was all very new to us. Gus, our youngest, has had a heavy fascination with trains for the last year, so that was a major driver of the trip. And we like trains too, I mean, who doesn’t really? So we decided to use the rails as our mode of transportation for a spring break trip we had planned to Chi-town.

The first thing that surprised me was the price. The rumor on the streets of Minneapolis was that trains were expensive. Not. True. We got this family of four to Chicago and back for the price of $530. Flights for the 4 of us round trip to Chicago would have been almost double. Not only that, we were surrounded in comfort the entire trip. We sat in coach on our way to Chicago and the seats boasted tons of leg room and adjustable do-hickeys. Just imagine the space you get on an airplane and triple it. Plus there was outlets for plugging in ipads, phones and ‘putrons. On the return trip we paid up for a sleeper car so the kids could rest – so worth it for an evening train ride with over-traveled kids.

We packed tons of snacks for the kids and I’m glad we did. Our outgoing train was delayed by two hours and we missed lunch. Our kids survived on chips, Cheez-Its®, and pretzels. We are the worst parents ever, I know. The kids made friends with some tweens in the seats behind us and they chatted and played games with them for the entire trip. Us grown people purchased some beers from our endearing train server, Cammi.

There’s lots of stuff to see on these big passenger trains. A few cars forward there is an observation car with windows on the ceiling! The observation car is open to all passengers, but is usually pretty crowded. They even have tiny train-love seats for hanging and watching the view fly by. Below the observation is the snack car where they sell concession-style snacks and drinks. Another car ahead of that is the dining car. The dining car was equally as thrilling to us as it was to the kids. Our sleeper car included a free meal on the return trip so after boarding we made our reservation for dinner. Our kids dined on hot dogs AND you guessed it, CHIPS, while we enjoyed veggie lasagna and roasted chicken. It was all pretty satisfying.

The trip from Minneapolis to Chicago is loaded with quick stops and is a little less than eight hours long. The first leg of the route travels north > south and runs next to the Mississippi river. The scenery is quite beautiful and is eventually proceeded by vistas of tall hills, which to us prairie folk might as well be mountains. Wisconsin looks alright sometimes. We make lots of quick stops at tiny train stations all built around the 1880′s. A few people hop on, one or two hop off, and we are on our way. Before we know it the Chicago skyline is on the horizon and the kids press their noses up to the train window trying to spy the tallest building.

We will most definitely be riding the rails again. I have this romantic ideas of taking the train to Glacier National Park in Montana, and from there renting a car to explore the mountains, hopping back on the train a day or two later and and taking the Empire Builder all the way out to Oregon to hang out with Sleater-Kinney. It seems like a good idea, but in reality that’s a really long train ride.

Tips for Riding the Rails with Kidz
Bring Snacks
Unlike traveling by plane, there are no security screenings, and baggage maximums seem to be suggested only. Basically, you can bring lots of stuff on the train, including food and drink, so don’t skimp when it comes to snacks fer yer kids, and maybe a flasky fer yerself. If I were to do it again I’d have an arsenal of peanut butter sandwiches, apples, granola bars and backup apocalyptic treats and candy if shit hits the fan.
Check Times
We received a notice via e-mail from Amtrak that our train was delayed an hour and a half the morning of our trip. The message came through just as we were stirring around 5:45 am to get dressed. Man would I have loved to have an extra hour and a half to sleep, but the kids were already awake. I stalled the kiddos by offering waffles, and they barely noticed we were off schedule. We parked our car for $10 a day at the station and got to the depot the suggested hour early. In minutes we were to our gate and there was a lot of waiting. Our kids were impatient and wanted nothing more than to be on the train. Our train continued to be delayed in small 10 minute increments. It was torture for them, and us. Check the schedule and even call the station before arriving to avoid crazy-excited-anxiety-ridden-kids.
Arrive to the station about half an hour early
Like I mentioned above, Amtrak will tell you to get there an hour early, but really train travel is as easy as walking through the door, finding the terminal, walking out of a door and hopping on a train. Don’t be to hasty in getting there a full hour early, but don’t be late either.
Get a Sleeping Car at Night
On the way back we purchased a sleeping car for us and our kids. Originally we had two, two person cars so we were split up, but comfortable. Not too long into the trip our train-car-manager-dude came to us and said he had an open family sleeper if we’d like it. We jumped at the offer and switched to our new spacious quarters. Although we were comfortable in the 2 person sleepers, I’d pay up for the larger family sleeper when traveling with kids. We put our kids in PJ’s, got them tucked into their bed, and within minutes they were both asleep. Money well spent.
No WiFi on the Empire Builder
There’s not Wi-Fi on these trains so if you’re planning along trip consider making your mobile device into a wireless hotspot.
in My Life, Travel
16 comments… add one
  • meghanssj April 9, 2015

    I’m the queen of commenting lately…. But I have to! I am obsessed with riding the rails! We got started because my husband is from Northwestern North Dakota. The Empire Builder departs Saint Paul in the evening, and rolls into Minot in the morning, so we take it often to avoid the beastly 9 hour drive to visit family. We used to do coach overnight which had its ups and downs. If you get 2 seats to yourself, its okay for sleeping, but it isn’t grand . In recent years, we’ve been doing sleeping cars, and it is worth it. Inspired by our love of taking the train up to Minot, we decided to take a longer trip last fall. We went all the way to Portland, and it was so awesome!! With good reading material, music, a drink stash and snacks, and a complimentary wine tasting, and the train’s veggie friendly meals we thought that the first 3 days of vacation were like a decompressing vacation all in and of itself. Then we got to Portland and a new vacation began. I know that it would be a little stir crazy for kids, but you can get off the train a couple of times a day on those longer trips to breathe some fresh air. I have a friend who did it with her 3, who were all under 5. I would definitely consider your dream trip some time! Especially if you can swing that hang out sesh with Sleater-Kinney, cause that would be cool. I’ve said enough, but I have to add 3 tidbits. #1 In the stretch from Wisconsin to North, MN, a lot of Amish people get on board. It is so interesting to roll into Detroit Lakes, MN in the middle of the night and see a family in hats, bonnets, beards and polished boots jump on board. #2 next time you ride the rails home from Chicago, make sure to listen to Crown and Empire Builder by Mason Jennings. They are apropos, even if you aren’t much into folk music. #3 “Wisconsin looks alright sometimes” was another laugh aloud line for me. Peace!.

    • Scoops April 10, 2015

      You can comment all the time if you wanna ;) That’s right, you guys got the Minot connection going on. Our friends also have the family back in Minot and they travel up there by train too, it seems like the only way to do it. So yeah, you went out to Portland, that is awesome, I bet it was a pretty ride! I’m glad I’m not the only one with the drink stash idea, it seems practical, right? In my dreams I would hang out with Sleater-Kinney, if only.

      Good music suggestions, I never realized Mason Jennings had a record called empire builder, that’s awesome. I’ll give it a listen for sure. I actually like Mason Jennings, especially the CD EP that came out in the late 90’s. It was one of my favorites, I know all the words.

  • Theresa April 9, 2015

    We took a couple train trips pre-kids and it was such a relaxing way to travel. Such a nice way to ease into vacation versus the chaos of a plane trip. We can’t wait to do it with kids someday.

    • Scoops April 10, 2015

      Oh man, I can’t even imagine how fun it would be to do as a couple sans kids. Someday, right?

  • AnnMarie April 9, 2015

    That would be so nice! This has been on my To Do list for a few years now, after a friend took a cross-country train trip and loved it.

  • Lizzie April 10, 2015

    We took the Amtrak from Chicago to New Orleans with our kids and it was probably our favorite vacation ever. I blogged about it here: http://www.livingprettyblog.com/2014/04/amtrak-review-family-bedroom-chicago-to-new-orleans-with-kids.html?m=1

    • Scoops April 10, 2015

      Hey Lizzie! We road in that family car too – just like you guys. New Orleans sounds like a pretty fun destination.

  • Staci April 10, 2015

    I had the pleasure of riding CO-CA when I was in 6th grade and it was awesome!! I then had the not-so-pleasure of riding KS-CA as a chaperone for a group of rowdy teenagers and the shine wore off really fast. For $75 more per person we could have flown and saved ourselves 20 hours! Good to note for large groups looking to pinch pennies— pinch elsewhere. That being said I think it’s pretty fun and perfect for families (or friends you don’t mind being in close quarters with). Love the scenery on the southwest route I’ve done twice. I wish Amtrak would make dog-friendly cars– I would be going EVERYWHERE all the time!!

    • Scoops April 15, 2015

      Oh man, I’d love to take the train to all these different places, I think it would be a great way to see the US. They should make dog-friendly cars, it seems logical to do so.

  • Jodi April 13, 2015

    I’m so glad you posted this! We’ve been tempted by the train (we live in Chicago and visit my family in Minneapolis quite often), but haven’t taken the plunge yet. I’ve heard that the trains are often delayed, and I’ve been nervous about bringing all our crap on the train. Good to hear that the baggage limits aren’t strictly enforced!

    • Scoops April 15, 2015

      Hey Jodi, I don’t think the Empire Builder would ever be delayed that much coming out of Chicago, since that is where it originates on the journey west, but it is likely to be delayed coming back. Amtrak doesn’t own the lines, so if a freight train slows thing down on the line, it slows everything down. It was fun though, and the delay wasn’t that extreme in the end.

  • Elise April 14, 2015

    Great post! I used to take the Empire builder from Chicago to Mpls and back, when I was in IL and my boyfriend was up here. (Now I am here and who knows where the hell that guy lives!) I loved boarding, getting settled, visiting the bar car, watching a movie in the movie car…SO much better than making that interstate drive by myself! Glad the kidlets had fun. Sleeper car sounds like it was perfect! Maybe I’ll talk my Chicago friends into coming up on the train. They have girls but girls like trains too, don’t they?

    • Scoops April 15, 2015

      Yes, you should totally tell your Chi friends they should do that and EVERYONE likes trains ;)

  • Dawn FP April 22, 2015

    My in-laws took the Mpls to Glacier National Park train trip. They said it was amazing. Alas, I was not invited.

  • Jillian June 3, 2015

    If you ever do the westward thing, I’ll meet you at the train station!! I live in Havre, MT and Amtrack hits town just after lunch. I’d love to meet you. I own a historic home here in town and take a lot of inspiration from your blog.

    PS, I am not a creep :)

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