All Aboard

For the most of my 16 years in this country I wanted to ride a train. There was always some excuse to prevent it from happening – it was too expensive, too long, I will have to rent a car, etc. With the gas prices where they are and with the air travel approaching the treatment and comforts of a cattle-car most of my excuses didn’t apply anymore. I took a plunge and purchased Amtrak tickets to Chicago. My overall impression – I should have done this years earlier. It was one of the most enjoyable, relaxing and fun trips I ever had.

The train leaves from the East Wing of the Union Station where there is a waiting room and a ticketing counter. There is no check-in, metal detectors, shoeless walk of shame, probing, pat-downs, luggage-opening and other activities otherwise associated with a correctional facility. A passenger walks in, luggage- in-hand and boards the train. That’s it.

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The train has coach and sleeping cars, dining car, club/lounge car with a snack bar on the lower level. The seats in the coach car are huge, they recline and have a leg rest. The foot rest folds out from the seat in front but I had to slide down on the seat in order to reach it. There is a folding table in the front seat as well. On the way back the couch car had a power outlet for every seat. There is plenty of room on the overhead shelf and heavier luggage can be stored on the lower level of the car.

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The main feature is a huge window with a view. Granted, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois are not the most picturesque states to travel through but it’s still fun looking out and trying to guess what are these people doing for living in remote locations surrounded by cornfields.

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When tired of the views, reading and movies one can walk up to the club car where windows are even bigger and extend all the way to the top of the car. The seats ar oriented toward the windows, some are set up next to the table so people can talk or play games. Drinks and snacks are sold on the lower level.

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The Southwest Chief train service connects LA with Chicago. From Kansas City it takes the shortest route to Illinois which is 430 miles long and is about 80 miles shorter than driving. On the way to Chicago the train was late by about 40 min. It was doing good for the rest of the trip until there was an announcement that we are waiting on some hazardous spill to be cleaned up. Then we waited for all the other trains to move on. We were late to Chicago by little less than 2 hours. I didn’t mind. Passengers who missed their connections were offered accommodations. On the way back the train was late by 12 minutes which I consider excellent.

The Union Station in Chicago is huge and alive, handling local and interstate traffic. Our station with only a few daily departures pales in comparison. Despite its size, the boarding in Chicago is just as painless. The Union Station is located in downtown Chicago, less than a mile from the Michigan Ave. The cab ride to the Grant Park area is $6-8.

One advantage of not driving was my ability to relax, read and take some pictures and videos. I was surprised by many people along the way photographing the train, it seems to be a huge hobby nowadays. We even passed a special train-watching platform with the sign “RailFan.Net“.

Here are a few videos that I made.

Leaving Ft. Madison, IA and crossing the Mississippi River.

This is somewhere in Illinois, I liked the wind farm all the way in the back.

Approaching Chicago.

Amtrak beat all my expectations and at this time I would recommend it to anyone who likes to relax when traveling and enjoy the view.

Major Update: I totally forgot to talk about pricing. Amtrak tickets to Chicago are about $50 one-way depending on how far in advance you are buying them. They also offer some discounts and specials. Additional coupon codes may be available elsewhere, I used 20% off code while paying for my tickets. Child fares are 50% off. The other important detail is that if you make reservations online you can just cancel them until you pick up your paper tickets at the station. Paper tickets are also refundable with a cancellation fee of 10%.

If you park your car at the Union Station covered parking the charge is $10/night.

It seems that Amtrak positioned themselves as anti-airline, with discounts, child fares, no hassle, no luggage charges and many other conveniences and comforts. The only disadvantage is travel time, but if there is no hurry, this is the way to go.

  • travel

    How long is the trip if it goes as scheduled? I’ve been flying to Chicago a lot lately but it gets worse and worse, especially coming back. Last time from check in at O’Hare to here took 5-1/2 hours due to overbooking, plane problems and weather. I’m considering trying the train.

  • It’s about 7 hrs. For some reason scheduled time coming back is 30 minutes shorter than going there. As I said the train route is shorter than highway so it doesn’t take as long. I figured that flying takes 5-6 hours anyway from the time you leave home to the time you arrive, but the comfort and enjoyment (and cost) don’t even compare.

  • I love train trips. I took one a few years ago and it was so low stress. I think everyone should at least once in their life travel by train just for the experience. Hope you had fun in Chicago!

  • Brian

    But the real question is: When you flush the toilet does it drop down on the tracks like in Ukraine?

  • One time when I used the toilet it didn’t flush (was fixed right away),so I don’t know. Most of the Soviet railroad cars were built in the East Germany, I don’t know if the flushing system was designed just for the USSR or not, but it’s true it was dropping it straight on the rails. Conductors were supposed to lock the bathrooms when the train was at the station so there wouldn’t be piles of crap accumulating at one spot. Still beats the airplane system when it randomly hit the ground.

  • This is invaluable. Thanks.

  • travel

    Well, that settles it. Next trip to Chicago (between X-mas and New Years) will be by train. Once the Chicago train station, I’ll take the fast train to Elgin which goes almost hourly and from there my destination is only about 20 minutes away.

  • travel

    And, even if I’m late enroute, I can use my cell phone and call those picking me up !

  • midtown miscreant

    Havent been on a train in decades, have been kicking it around though. How much was round trip fare?

  • Cara

    I love train travel. I’ve taken the train from KC to St. Louis and would highly recommend it, especially getting the business class seat that has plug-ins for laptops and super-roomy seating. The only drawback is that freight trains have right-of-way so there will be some delays, but my last round trip was cheaper than paying for gas and I got to watch DVDs the whole way!

  • Happy, you should be in business writing cover blurbs on books. Short and sweet.
    For everyone who asked about pricing I added a major update.
    Travel, the train stops at Naperville which is closer to Elgin but I am not sure if there is an easy connection.
    Cara, I love train travel, DVDs,laptops,plug-ins and long walks on the beach. Email me!