Come along for a breathtaking ride on the lavish Empire Builder.

Prince Charming and the gleaming Empire Builder

So many of you responded to the Facebook posts about riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder out west I thought I’d write about the first leg of our journey.

Go pour yourself a cup of coffee and settle in, this is a long post.

Prince Charming grew up riding the rails during the heyday of rail travel in the 1950’s.  He remembers the romance of the observation car, sitting with his father and the other men in business suits smoking cigars and drinking whiskey in the smoking car, falling asleep to the gentle rocking of the train.

As we discussed our plans to travel west for a late summer/early fall trip, we opted for travel by train.  From our home in Iowa, we’d need to catch the train in either Chicago or Minnesota.

Downtown Seattle skyline

Ferry dock downtown Seattle.

It was a two-night train ride to Seattle, our final destination.  The Empire Builder stops makes two stops in Glacier National Park which has long been on our wish list of travel destinations.

Coach or Sleeper?

The wonderful thing about living with Prince Charming is that he’s such a romantic.  However, sometimes his romanticism gets in the way of reality.  He was all for riding the train just as he had as a child: in coach!

Woman boarding train

My romantic notions of train travel

I had a much more romantic (expensive) notion in mind.  I imagined being ensconced in my private car. Cary Grant in the next sleeper, eyeing me as I passed through the swaying, narrow passage.

After our flight to and from Europe in June, it wasn’t hard to convince P.C. that the wisest and most romantic choice for us was the sleeper.  We opted for the “Superliner Roomette”.


The Roomette is 3.6 x 6.6. It has two comfortable seats on either side of a large picture window.  The seats fold out to a bed and a bunk lowers from the ceiling.

It looks like this:

Superliner Roomette

Photo courtesy Amtrak

If you wonder if you’d like riding like this. Push two comfortable kitchen chairs together, facing each other. Take a TV tray and put it between you and that’s about how much room you’ll have.

While the description says you have room for two adults and two bags, it’s not true.  There is NO room for luggage. We learned this only after boarding.

On our return trip we will pack a small overnight bag, checking the rest of our luggage. The small bag will sit on the step I’ll use to climb up and down to the bunk.  That’s right.  I’m sleeping in the upper bunk.

I often wonder about the power dynamics in a relationship and what determines who sleeps in the upper or lower bunk.  It was decided that I should sleep in the upper. P.C. claims I’m more agile, need to get up during the night less and am a better sport about inconveniences than he is. I take my compliments where I can get them.

Checking in

Arriving night train

Empire Builder pulling into station at Red Wing, MN

We got on the train around 9 p.m. in Red Wing, MN.  We chose Red Wing because we wouldn’t have to negotiate the St. Paul/Minneapolis traffic and parking cost less. The sign telling us to “register” ourselves and our car with the local police surprised.

The sheriff sent two polite, young officers out to “interview” us.  Where were we going? How long would we be there? Who were we seeing? Relieved when we passed muster, they gave us our free parking pass to a parking area about a block from the station.

“Park under the overhang in case we have a hail storm while you’re gone,” one officer directed us.

We arrived in Red Wing early, planning to have a lovely dinner near the Mississippi River from one of the fine dining establishments downtown.  But waiting for the police to arrive and going through the interview process ate up all of our dinner time.  So we grabbed a quick bite and ate in the train station.

About 30 to 40 minutes prior to the train’s arrival the station fills with passengers. Eight of us waited with the giddy anticipation of adventure.

Waiting to board

P.C. guards the bags on the platform

An older gentleman from Red Wing, I didn’t think to get his name, visits the station daily for the 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. arrivals. He comes to bless those arriving and departing.  He enjoys finding out whether you are going or coming and offers a specific blessing either praising your safe return home or wishing you well on your journey.

The ride

The train moves in with a whoosh, just as you’d imagine.  Two figures stepped off the train and called out our names.  We were introduced to Dorothy, our porter for the next two days.

Dorothy’s been working on Amtrak for 15 years.  She’s efficient, cheerful, and competent.  She had us tucked into our quarters, relieved of our bags and the beds made up within the first half hour. Once nestled in my bunk, Dorothy poked her head in to “strap me in.”


Passengers exit train to stretch their legs

That’s right! A bonus of sleeping in the upper bunk is that you are strapped in each night.  The upper bunk sways more, and the train bounces enough to bounce the person sleeping in the upper bunk right out of bed.  The strapped saved me twice once each night on our two-night journey. Comparing notes with my fellow upper bunk travelers, I learned I wasn’t the only one “saved” by Dorothy’s straps.

Amtrak conductor

Amtrak Conductor mingles with passengers at a stop

Amtrak provides the bedding, a small travel pillow, sheets, and a thin wool blanket. If you get cold at night or want more head support bring an extra pillow and blanket or shawl.

Exploring the train

Before we bedded down for the night, we explored the train.  The sleeping cars were sold out.  In fact they put us in the crew car towards the engine. We peeped into the “Superline Bedrooms” as we tried to get our “train legs” exploring the rest of the train.

All sleeper cars have a long privacy curtain and a metal door with a glass window. We found we got better air circulation and adequate privacy during the day by leaving the curtain closed and the door opened.

The bedrooms are much larger, 6.6′ x 7.6′ and include a sink, toilet and shower in the room.  Everyone in the same car shares a toilet, sink and shower in the Roomette.

No matter how luxurious my accommodations I always want just a little more….a little more room, a private bathroom. How I coveted that private bathroom!

Next we walked through the darkened coach cars with people trying to sleep or talking quietly. The privacy and quite of my roomette seemed grand enough.

The dining staff were doing their final clean-up for the night as we walked through.

Amtrak bar car

Celebratory drink in bar car. I know, it looks like a Scandinavian murder mystery. Is P.C. the hero or villain? Definitely the hero of this story.

We found the bar car below the observation car, had a quick celebratory bourbon. And then made our way back to Roomette #19. Our home for the next two nights.

In the middle of the night I got up and crawled in with Prince Charming to warm my feet up and watch the North Dakota fields and the stars pass by the window.

Sunrise in North Dakota

Sunrise in North Dakota


Morning came and breakfast. Meals are included in the price of the sleeper cars. They fill every table, which guarantees you’ll meet new people. We sat with three different couples (one couple twice) for our two breakfasts, one lunch and dinner on the train.

It’s fun meeting your fellow travelers and exchanging stories. The young couple we met our last breakfast had left families and jobs behind in Indiana for a two-month bike ride from Seattle to Los Angeles!

Eastern Montana

Eastern Montana

You can relax and enjoy the vastness of our country, the changing topography. We dozed, we read, we listened to NPR on the phone.

We spent about an hour in the observation car, but found we liked the privacy and quiet of our little nest back at Roomette #19.

King Station Clock

King Station Clock

Before we knew it, two nights passed and we arrived at the beautiful King Station in downtown Seattle.

Have you ridden a train?  How was YOUR trip?  Tell me about your trip in the comment section below.

Stay-tuned for Part 2: Riding the Rails to Glacier and Home.

  • Sunrise in North Dakota
    Sunrise in North Dakota