Updated: Mar 11, 2019
September 13, 2018
In August, the Hubster and I took Amtrak from Austin to Chicago -- first time for this sort of journey. Sure, we'd been on trains, but never overnight and such a long distance.
We booked the Texas Eagle Superliner and added a full bedroom. There are "roomettes" you can sleep in, too, but these are quite narrow and better for one person. The lower level has family bedrooms that are more spacious, but we preferred the upper level, both for the views and not having to navigate stairs to the dining and observation cars.
Amtrak is not the Orient Express
Amtrak is utilitarian and not at all luxurious. That being said, it is also egalitarian. Both coach and bedroom passengers may access the top-level observation lounge and dining car, although meals are included with bedroom fares. Coach passengers must pay extra. There is also a cafe on the lower level that provides hot dogs, burgers, snacks, and drinks for a charge. Booze is available at either venue, but not included with bedroom pricing.
Our bedroom compartment was clean and well thought out, but there is absolutely NO ROOM for more than one small suitcase. We stupidly brought two medium suitcases into the compartment on our first leg and regretted it. Instead, be sure to pack a bare-necessities overnight bag and leave your suitcase on the lower level. Or check it.
Claustrophobic Bathroom Necessity
Our compartment’s bathroom was a wonderful convenience, but it was so tiny, I got claustrophobia whenever using the jet-propelled, air-flush potty. There is a shower as well. Both of us took showers during our trip, although you have to sit on the potty lid and close the door, panic-attack close. It's difficult to shower or even potty while the train is in motion, so save bathroom duty for the stops along your journey.
Dining with a View
Meals in the dining car were surprisingly good. Amtrak enlisted the support of chefs to provide fare that rivals a small diner in terms of quality and array of offerings. Okay, so our first train ran out of lettuce...after all, it was coming back from California where everybody eats a TON of lettuce. And some desserts or entrees were not available. But the items we ordered were quite good. Just be flexible.
Our first night, we went all out with Surf and Turf and were delighted when the crab cakes were crisp and moist, and the steaks were tender. Another night we went with salmon or chicken, tasty, although not as fabulous as Surf and Turf. There are options for Vegans and Gluten-Avoiders. Breakfasts were also quite good, with an amazing array available. We skipped lunch on our first leg because we'd just eaten breakfast. In fact, you might try that. Eat a late full breakfast, skip lunch, then enjoy a big dinner with sunset views.
The Haunting Call
Sleeping overnight was the real joy for me, drifting off in a rocking rail car, listening to the haunting call of the whistle at every intersection. At night, it becomes background noise that can lull you to sleep. At least it did to me, and I can still hum its tune.
My brave husband took the upper bunk while I enjoyed the more spacious lower berth. Two slim people could share the lower, but Hubster is a large man, and I'm not skinny, so I wasn't about to try it. Bedrooms have a dedicated attendant to help you prepare your beds.
Service, Cash, Electronics, Internet, Vertigo!
Service is excellent onboard, although our Austin to Chicago crew was a bit "cliquish" in the dining car. And our bedroom attendant from Chicago to Austin seemed to be absent a lot.
Bring cash! Although meals are included with bedroom fares, dining car attendants expect tips for each meal. We also tipped our bedroom attendant for helping with beds and also at the end of each journey. You might also need cash if the dining car has credit card malfunctions, which it did on our way north.
Electronic outlets are available in coach, bedroom, dining, observation and cafe areas. In fact, I finished the first draft of my new novel in the observation car. Only problem was NO INTERNET throughout much of the journey, so I relied on my iPhone hot spot when we stopped. For entertainment, bring DVDs.
The Texas Eagle makes frequent stops, so be sure to take a moment and get off, walk around on hard ground and avoid what happened to me: a bad case of vertigo on the leg back.
Our journey to Austin from Chicago was far more bumpy than our journey north. The engineer was trying to make up lost time and went 85 mph between stops. We were really rock-and-rolling. That’s why I say, get off the train and walk around a bit. Your equilibrium will thank you.
Forget About Being On Time
If you need to travel quickly or arrive ON TIME, do not take Amtrak. They lease track from commercial rail lines and must yield to all freight. On this route, there were many long waits and each leg arrived several hours past its schedule.
When we left Chicago for Austin, we were right on time. We even timed our dinner so we would enjoy a sunset view of the Arch in St. Louis. When we went to bed, our train was ahead of time, but when we awoke to the 7 a.m. announcements, we heard that we were four hours behind.
On Amtrak, you've just got to go with the flow. After all, arriving four hours late might mean that, instead of arriving in Austin hungry about 6 p.m., you get to enjoy another Surf and Turf for dinner with chocolate mousse for dessert. And we did, just before arriving in Austin at 9:50-something p.m.
Would we do it again? Yes. In fact, we hope to take the California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco.
Perhaps we will meet you in the dining car. With Amtrak's community seating policy, we chatted with a wide variety of people during our adventure and enjoyed conversations with them all. However, you can meet some real characters in the observation car and café, all races, all income levels, all mental states--yes, a few whose elevators don't go all the way up. After all, Amtrak is for everyone. But I’m glad it is still rolling, and we'll look forward to our next journey...all aboard!
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