Is it expensive?

The first decision you make after selecting a route and a date is whether you want a sleeper car. I advise against it, mostly for reasons of cost and convenience.

Amtrak sets prices according to three "buckets". When a train is empty, seats are at the cheapest rate. As the train fills up, the prices increase twice, to a mid-level and then a highest rate.  When you plan a trip, it's a good idea to check a few dates if you can, because the Monday train may be at one rate while the Tuesday train is at a different rate, and the Wednesday train is at the third rate.

The cheapest rate is competitive with flying. For example, as I write this, a trip from Chicago to Seattle costs $159 to fly on a few different carriers nonstop, and $145 to take the train in the Saver fare. Flying takes 4.5 hours, vs 2 days for the train, so the extra $15 and the indignities of the airport are worth it if you are in a hurry. 

On the other hand... In late May of 1996 Lorna and I took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. We woke up on the second day just entering the Columbia River Valley (where all those WA state apples come from). We saw acres and acres of apple blossoms, out to the horizon on both side of the train, for mile after mile! I'll remember that scene until I die. You don't get that on an airplane.

On the same hand... We met Randy and Colleen on that first trip. They showed us the ropes, as it were, got us a great seat, etc. They got off in Sand Point, Idaho, to start a new life raising hunting dogs. They went to Sand Point, Idaho because the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was getting too crowded (!). Yeah. You don't get that on an airplane.  

That's awesome, but I'm squeamish about riding coach... 

There are two broad classes of sleeper cars, with some variation depending on whether you are on one of the big western and southern trains or one of the smaller northeast regional service trains.

As I write this, to go from Chicago to Seattle you have two sleeper options:

  • for a trip a few months away (lowest bucket), it's  $441 for a Superliner Roomette, or $712 for a Family Bedroom.
  • to leave sooner (top bucket) it's $947 for a Superliner Roomette and $1579 for a Family Bedroom.

Remember, you can fly for $159!

The Expensive Sleepers

The Superliner Roomette is like a well-appointed coffin. There's a shared bathroom at the end of the car (I don't remember if it has a shower). You get free meals in the dining car (for what that's worth) but the space is entirely unsuitable for the claustrophobic. The beds fold cleverly into two seats, but it can get mighty lonely in there, with the rest of the party humming along in the observation car and in the coaches. I don't know how many times we have gotten into conversations in the observation car with those desperate lonely exiles from the sleeper cars. 

The Really Expensive Sleepers

Those family bedrooms include their own toilet and shower (in the same space). You want to be sure the plumbing is in good order, because any off odors will stay with you for 2000 miles. Don't expect the kind of water pressure you get at home - all the water on the train is on the train, not 100 feet up in a water tank at the highest point in town. 

Drawbacks to Sleeper Car Travel

When you have a sleeper, you ride in the sleeper - you don't also have a coach seat. That means you see only one side of the view, which can be a bigger deal than you think. For example, if you are heading west through upstate NY on the Lake Shore Limited, the left side of the train sees the Erie Canal, with the more open views that come across water and with the locks and towns and other features that come with a significant waterway. The right side sees trees. If you are on the California Zephyr coming west from Denver into the Rocky Mountains, the right side of the train has glorious vistas across the Rockies, while the left side is often looking at a sheer rock wall where the mountain was blasted to make room for the tracks.

Riding in coach can get a relaxed, friendly, comfortable vibe with your neighbors.  You don't have to chat, of course, but it can really add to the experience if you're a sociable type. Riding in a sleeper can get lonely.

The coach seats are big and comfortable, much better than airplane seats. The seats in a sleeper are smaller, and in some cases if you have a traveling companion one of you will be sitting backwards to the direction of travel.

The Viewliner Roomettes on the smaller eastern trains are especially tiny; if you have any luggage in the roomette than you might have to step outside while your companion brushes her teeth, etc. The bed was very comfortable, but getting into it required somewhat more agility than I was ready for. 

The Math

Take into account the meals. The Dining Car is like a good diner, but not a great one (everything is on the train in a confined space). You haven't many options, so the dining car has some built-in appeal. If you are two, then it's also a guaranteed way to meet one or two more people with something in common - you're all on the train. The food's OK and the service is usually good, if a trifle entertaining while on a bumpy stretch of track. The company is where the thrill is... you get seated with one or two other people, maybe traveling together, and you get the most interesting conversations that you would never, ever get anywhere else. 

Supper might cost $20/person, plus $13 for a half-bottle of some supermarket-quality wine. Lunch and Breakfast are in the neighborhood of $9/person. This is without tip.

So for 2 people traveling from Chicago to Seattle from Monday to Wednesday, you're looking at Monday and Tuesday supper, Tuesday and Wednesday breakfasts, Tuesday and Wednesday lunch, for a total of $129 before tip. The before-tip part is included in your sleeper. I think the half-bottle of wine is not, thus the $129 for food.

If you paid $441 for the sleeper, less $129 in the dining car, then you paid $312 for two nights in a cramped private space. That's not a bad deal for New York City, but it's pricey for Minot, North Dakota or Browning, Montana. 

If you paid $947 for the sleeper, less $129 for the meals, then you paid $818 for two nights in a coffin away from the riffraff. Your call. 

And we won't think about the cost for those "palatial" family rooms.  

Remember, you can bring food and wine, so your meal cost is really for the (admittedly not inconsiderable) entertainment value alone.

Click here for some awesome and inexpensive meal options.

The bottom line for expense is simply this: if you can ride coach (100,000 miles for us says it's perfectly safe) then Amtrak is cheap and fun. If you are too squeamish to ride coach, then you will pay more for the entertainment value of the trip, which may still be worth it!