53 Hours on a Train: What it’s REALLY Like to Ride Amtrak Empire Builder {Plus Essential Tips}

The Local Tourist
13 min readSep 10, 2022

See what riding Amtrak Empire Builder is really like, including tips on how to have a great experience.

Train travel is one of the most romanticized forms of transportation. Riding a superliner is the stuff of movies and dreams, especially when it’s the Amtrak Empire Builder.

But is this cross-country trip from the Pacific Northwest to the heart of the Midwest all it’s cracked up to be?

I decided to find out for myself.

I’d ridden Amtrak once. In 2009, I accompanied a singer-songwriter friend from Chicago to Memphis. Along the way, we stopped in college towns and he played in coffee shops to raise money for St. Jude’s.

It was during that trip I learned that Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks and trains can be delayed for any number of reasons, including freight trains and, in Illinois, cows.

Because of that earlier experience, I knew that coach seats were comfortable and spacious. More importantly, I knew I needed to pack my patience along with my pillow and blanket.

This time, I went all-in. I flew into San Diego, took eight days to drive up to Seattle on an incredible Pacific coast road trip, and rode the Amtrak Empire Builder train home.

After a restful night at Hyatt Place and a 6 ½ mile walk around downtown Seattle, I arrived at King Street Station with an hour and a half to spare.

What it’s really like to ride Amtrak Empire Builder

I’d arrived earlier than was necessary. During my morning trek around downtown, I’d stopped at the station and asked a ticket agent how I could be sure to get a window seat. He told me to arrive about thirty minutes in advance and which gate I should sit near to get onto the train early.

Because you can reserve upper level or lower level seats, but not the seats themselves, I wanted to make sure I’d have that window. The view was the reason I was taking this mode of transportation.

Besides, 45+ hours in an aisle seat didn’t sound like a great time.

We boarded a few minutes past our scheduled departure time, but not by much. When I reached my train car, the conductor, Jeff, asked where I was headed. Chicago! I said, and gave him my biggest smile.

The Local Tourist

Born to write with a nearly obsessive love of travel, history, cooking, Chicago, and my husband. Author, speaker, exuberant lover of life.