I've always wanted to experience the Amtrak and taking the train to Glacier National Park has been a bucket list item for me for a while now. Having gotten hooked on Alaska a few years ago, I wondered if Montana's Rocky Mountains were close to what I loved so much about Denali National Park and that area of Alaska.
This trip literally came together in about a week, with my sister posting on Facebook that she was "thinking about a train trip to New Orleans." Well, my initial reaction was "Amtrak - hell yeah . . . New Orleans? WHY???" As I wrote her, there are so many other more beautiful places to explore via Amtrak why be limited to the Southeast USA?
She and her son decided they were going to really go exploring so they bought one of the USA Rail Passes that allows for 15 days of Amtrak travel utilizing up to eight segments for $429/person. Their route would take them from Washington, DC to Chicago . . . on to San Francisco and north to Portland. In Portland, they did an overnight, before heading back east through Chicago and on home to DC.
For my part, I thought hooking up with them somewhere along their route would be fun. Initially I was thinking of going westbound with them to Portland but when their plans required a more southerly route into San Francisco that idea was out the window.
It did allow me, however, to Amtrak west on my own to Glacier National Park and the Whitefish, MT station. There I could spend a couple of days seeing what there was to see . . . and then catching the train back home with them, providing us with about a day and a half together just relaxing and catching up on things.
The cost of taking Amtrak is amazingly affordable. I had never really even looked at pricing until this trip came up. What I found was that the base coach ticket from Milwaukee to Whitefish was $158 each way. The roomette sleeper (for up to two people) started at $207. So for $730 I could train roundtrip, including sleeping accommodations plus all meals on the train. The meals aspect is not a small thing by the way. For my itinerary I dined on the Amtrak four meals westbound and five east. Had I been in coach and had to buy my meals, they would have been approximately $160 (plus gratuities) for the four days of travel.
I should point out that Amtrak ticket pricing is done very similarly to how the airlines price their fares. There are the initial, lowest prices with rates going up as tickets sell. "Bucket pricing" is the way many travel providers charge and once the lowest priced tickets are sold, the next higher priced bucket is what travelers are charged. Therefore the key is to buy your tickets early when the lowest "bucket price" is still available.
As for the other travel options available, flying from Milwaukee to Glacier International Airport in Kalispell would be the next option for many especially due to the relatively short trip (think hours rather than days) to get from one place to another. On a lark, I looked at prices online and was shocked to find the lowest price roundtrip ticket available was around $600 . . . and ranging as high at $1,000 for the more desirable schedules and connections.
I tried everything to get the price down under $500 . . . changed the days of travel, looked further out (in the summer and fall), even looked closer as in last minute (ouch . . . over $1,200 for those!). I was shocked to see just how high the airfare would be if I wanted to fly to Glacier National Park.
Now that I've been to the area, I know I will be back. Driving does seem to be a very attractive option as taking the Amtrak or flying would require renting a car to fully enjoy the area especially in any season other than ski season.
I computed the drive from Milwaukee to Whitefish as just over 1,500 miles or 3,000 miles roundtrip. Our van gets roughly 22mpg, so at the current gas rate of $4.00/gallon we'd be looking at roughly $554 in gas. Add to that one overnight in a hotel in each direction plus meals and easily this trip would be around $1,100 for the two of us.
For comparison, the Amtrak for two including a roomette would cost $1,046 (at the lowest priced bucket) and flying would be at a minimum $1,200; again with both of these options requiring a rental car upon arrival.
As someone who enjoys driving and riding great distances in the car, doing the self-drive trip in our vehicle is very attractive to me. For my hubby on the other hand, that might not be such a fun trip for him. I believe the Amtrak affords all of the sightseeing benefits of driving, but leaving the "driving" to someone else. Admittedly driving cross country is not for everyone and for the driver it can be a long and arduous journey especially if the weather does not cooperate.
There is one downside to the train which is often mentioned in travel forums for Alaska where the AK Railway is very popular. While it is very nice to sit back and relax, even enjoy a glass of wine (or two), for those who really enjoy and take their photography seriously the train has drawbacks. First and foremost, you're wheeling past things of interest often at 60+ mph making getting the shot very difficult. Secondly, if you are on the train you cannot ask them to stop and let you get the shot.
When driving you have that control and can pace the trip at your leisure. For many, this is not a big deal but it does bear mentioning in the interest of balance. I understood this going into the trip and accepted that I would not be happy with many of my photos taken from the train. That said, I was pleasantly pleased with how well many of my shots did turn out.
In the spirit of "the train ride is part of the adventure" and everything else relatively the same, taking the train seems like a no-brainer to me. At the very least, I think everyone owes it to themselves to take at least one Amtrak adventure in their lifetime.