Whitefish Stories and Tips

Accommodations on the Amtrak

Pam & Me in My Roomette Photo, Whitefish, Montana

A vast majority of people travel on the Amtrak rail system in coach. Tickets are very reasonably priced, especially if you buy them in advance of your travel dates. A coach ticket one-way from Milwaukee to Whitefish, MT started at $158. To travel "first class" is to buy space in a sleeper car, either a roomette or bedroom. The roomettes for my trip started at $207 (one-way). I'm not sure how much the bedrooms start at as they were already into second (or third) tier pricing by the time I started looking into my trip.

During my Amtrak adventure I spent some time in coach so that I could write first hand about it. First thing that struck me was how large and comfy the seats were. They were similar in size, space and comfort to first class on most domestic US aircraft (think DC9, Boeing 757 or Airbus 300). The leg room was also spacious, although I should point out that some seats had wider space between seats than others. Also if you have short legs, the narrower space may be better if you want to use both the leg and foot rest. (Those of us with short legs cannot reach the foot rest!)

On the 07/08 and 27/28 lines of the Empire Builder, there were four coach cars . . . two to/from Portland and two to/from Seattle. At Spokane they are connected to make one very lengthy train!

Because my part of the journey was close to 30 hours each way, I got to see how folks made the most of their sleeping arrangements in coach. It was indeed very interesting. Most seemed to make do with sleeping in some variation of sitting up or slightly reclined. I did see some families traveling with small children who came prepared with blankets, sheets and pillows in order to make a small square bed for the little ones. The two side-by-side chairs folded down flat which made a nice little bed area.

I also witnessed grown (large) adults sleeping on the floor between the seats. The space behind the last row of seats in each coach car seemed to be a primo sleeping area as most had someone tucked in there asleep. One man even had a large cardboard box flattened over him. It was reminiscent of the homeless sleeping on the grates in Washington, DC.

All in all, most folks seemed to be pretty comfortable sleeping and/or riding in coach. Regarding restrooms, you would find them on the lower level of each coach car as well as in the lower level of the lounge (sightseeing/viewing) car.

Speaking of the lounge car, the upper level was for viewing and the lower level was the lounge where you could purchase food, snacks and beverages. It was staffed throughout the day, with the exception of a mid-morning and mid-afternoon break and overnight (roughly 11:00pm-6:00am).

On the viewing level, seating was often at a premium. There were a number of tables that had space for four, and folks were encouraged to share space. Additionally, there were a number of outward facing swivel chairs to provide for a wonderful view of the passing countryside. Because this viewing car has such large and expansive windows, it was VERY bright inside and often it got warm when the sun was shining in.

As for the sleeper cars (our train had two), the layout seems to be standard for all Amtrak routes using the Superliner two level cars. The upper level is said to be the preferred due to viewing the passing by scenery. I was happy mine was on the higher level for sure. On the upper level were 10 roomettes and five bedrooms, plus one public bathroom. The lower level had four roomettes, one bedroom family suite and a handicap accessible bedroom, plus three public bathrooms and a public shower. The carry-on luggage storage for sleeper car passengers was also on the lower level.

I found my roomette to be plenty spacious for me and in fact, would have also been comfy had my husband joined me on the trip. The two seats face one another with ample space between. There was also a fold out table that could be used for playing cards or setting up the laptop. At night the sleeping car attendant would fold down the chairs and make the bed utilizing the bedroll and linens that are stored out of the way up on the upper berth.

Traveling alone, the upper berth made for a good storage area for my personal belongings. On this six day trip I had a duffle bag, camera bag and a knapsack. Had I had someone traveling with me and sharing the roomette, my bags would have been stored under the lower berth while we were sleeping.

I found the lighting and controls in the roomette to be sufficient to provide comfort during the trip. I also slept very well the two nights I was over-nighting on the train. I also enjoyed having electrical outlets in my roomette to plug in my laptop and recharge camera batteries. After dark, watching movies on the laptop was a great way to pass the time away before bedtime.

My sister and her son had a bedroom on their Portland to Chicago segment, so that allowed me the opportunity to check out that space too. It was about twice the area that I had in my roomette. They had a couch (that folded down into the lower berth) and a side chair. The upper berth was above the couch/lower berth and about the same size of the beds in my roomette. The lower berth in the bedroom was wider however, probably big enough for an adult and child or two smaller adults (or teens).

The biggest difference in my opinion between the roomettes and the bedrooms was the private bathroom/shower. The W/C was small, about the size I'm told of a cruise ship bathroom. The toilet and shower are really all in one single area. The hand/wash sink was outside of the bathroom, in the bedroom area near the door.

If you are traveling in the sleeper car, you're considered to be traveling in first class. As such, you are entitled to free meals in the dining car and are given first preference on dinner reservation times. This makes the sleeping car arrangements a great value given that you not only are getting the comfort and privacy for sleep, but also meals for all who are in your roomette or bedroom.

For my two trips in the roomette, my meals came to just about $80 each way (excluding gratuities). When you consider the roomette was priced at $207, that makes the sleeping accommodations roughly the same as the cost of a hotel night. In Pam & Michael's case, with two of them sharing the bedroom, the value was even greater. I think she said she paid around $500 for the bedroom, but given their travel involved two sleeping nights and more meals . . . for two of them . . . it was a great deal!

First class passengers on the Empire Builder are also treated to an afternoon Wine & Cheese Tasting that is hosted in the afternoon while traveling through Montana. I was able to participate in this during both of my trips (east and west bound). Guests are invited to the dining car around 3:00pm for the sampling of wines from the Pacific NW and cheeses from Wisconsin. More a social event than anything, it was a fun way to spend time getting to meet others sharing the adventure.

All in all, riding on Amtrak was very comfortable. I would encourage anyone who is traveling a long distance (more than one night on the rails) to consider getting a sleeper car accommodation. As I said, even for me with just one night in each direction, I felt there was good value to having a roomette.

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