Family Travel, Major US Cities, Most Recent Travel, Museums, Western US

Seattle to Chicago: 48 Hours on the Amtrak Empire Builder


We were late in planning our Spring Break 2023 trip. With just two of us traveling, an Amtrak trip across the country was an easy choice. We had enjoyed our winter 2021 trip from Denver to San Francisco, and a few other journeys were on our list. Seattle and Chicago aren’t beach destinations, so flights were more affordable. Additionally, the Empire Builder route was also in the off season, with Glacier National Park being a summer destination. Although there are more spacious bedroom options, we knew that the roomette would work perfectly for just the two of us. The train was just 50% full when we booked our trip 2 months before travel, while summer can be fully booked much further in advance.



Tips for Amtrak roomette travel:

  • Pack ear plugs. The train horn sounded through most of the foggy overnight.
  • Bring cash; tipping servers at each meal and room attendants at the end of the trip is customary.
  • Pack one backpack or smaller bag with most of what you will need for the trip; there is space for luggage in the car, but the only roomette storage is under the seat, and if you are sleeping two you won’t have access at night.
  • Bring binoculars if you are a wildlife watcher; there were a lot of opportunities to see birds and other animals from the observation car.

Leaving Seattle

King Street Station & Puget Sound Views

One of the best benefits to train travel is that you generally depart and arrive in the heart of a major city. King Street Station, like many others, was also a historic and beautiful building, with an ornately decorated plaster ceiling.
We were on the East (and later South) facing side of the train, so we did not have a view of Puget sound for the hour-long ride between Seattle and Everett, Washington. I stepped out to the luggage area, where I was able to see the water and watch for seals surfacing along the coastline.

Boarding the Amtrak Empire Builder in Seattle, WA, 2023
Boarding the Amtrak Empire Builder, King Street Station, Seattle, WA

Washington State
Our dining time at 6:30pm allowed us to see both sides of the train along the Wenatchee River. I wish we had more daylight to see the forests of the Pacific Northwest, but was thrilled to see the lushness even in early spring. After dinner we requested turn down service from our attendant, Robin. She was with us for the entire 48 hours. Our first major stop was in Spokane, and we didn’t arrive until nearly midnight. I am a light sleeper, and was vaguely aware of the stop. Had it been daytime, I would have exited the train to watch additional cars added (including the observation car which sadly wasn’t available for the Washington State portion).

Roomette & Sleeper Car

Our roomette was in the corner of the car, next to the larger family bedroom. Three restrooms and one shower room were shared between the five roomettes on the bottom floor of our car. The shower room wasn’t as terrible as it could have been; the water was warm and Amtrak provided towels, washcloths and bars of soap. 



Dining Car Menu
Meals in the dining car were included with our First Class accommodations, but seating was also available (with additional fee) for coach passengers. Breakfast included many vegetarian options, but limited vegan items. With two lunches and two dinners, we had to repeat our plant-based dishes. 

Breakfast on the Amtrak Empire Builder, 2023
Dining Car, Amtrak Empire Builder, Seattle to Chicago, 2023


Shared Dining
Unlike when we traveled in late 2021, passengers were seated in shared dining if there are less than three people in the party. We also had the option to have meals delivered to our room.

Dining Car, Amtrak Empire Builder, Seattle to Chicago, 2023

Day 2- Montana

Morning in Montana
We lost an hour overnight as we entered into Mountain Standard time, but I still set my alarm for sunrise. We woke to our first long stop in Whitefish, MT, where we hopped off the train to check off Montana from the list of states we hadn’t yet visited.

Amtrak Empire Builder: view from train of Essex, MT
Amtrak Empire Builder station in Whitefish, MT


Glacier National Park
From there, we proceeded through Glacier National Park. In peak seasons, I’ve read that National Park guides are on the train to narrate the ride, but early April was still the off season. 

Stops Along the Way
The Empire Builder is notorious for delays, and we had a few slow-downs as we passed other trains. Despite that, we were ahead of time when we reached most major stops on our second day, giving us time to stretch our legs and get fresh air, sometimes for as long as an hour.

Cut Bank, MT, Amtrak Empire Builder, 2023
Shelby, MT, Amtrak Empire Builder, 2023


Montana Views
As we rolled east through Montana, The landscape became mostly treeless rolling hills, with the distant mountains fading. Wildlife was limited to birds and a few coyotes in Montana. Cattle farms, horse ranches, and one alpaca farm were visible from the train.

Night Two- North Dakota & the Observation Car

Car with a View
The observation car and dining cafe located near Coach class was less than half full, and the there was always plenty of seating available. A small café kiosk with dining tables on the first floor of the observation car was also open nearly the entire trip. Both of these areas were accessible to both Coach and Sleeper Car passengers.

Observation Car, Amtrak Empire Builder, Seattle to Chicago, 2023
Observation Car on the Amtrak Empire Builder, 2023


North Dakota Wildlife
Around dinner time, we entered South Dakota. The snow was beginning to melt near the upper Missouri River. The mostly uninhabited parts of North Dakota were excellent for wildlife viewing at dusk;  we saw spotted white-tailed deer, pronghorns, and a moose sow. We went to bed early on the second night, not long after watching a North Dakota sunset. While I didn’t hear a train horn through the night, we were moving quickly and the side to side motion was pretty intense. 

Day 3- Minnesota-Wisconsin-Illinois

We awoke the second morning just before arriving at the Minneapolis St. Paul Station. Between this stop and Chicago there was a lot of passenger traffic on and off the train, which was a sharp contrast to the previous 36 hours. The highlight of the third day was hugging the Mississippi River for a long stretch in Minnesota before crossing in Wisconsin. In late spring there were huge flocks of ducks and pelicans, as well as herons, bald eagles, and cranes.

Tomah, Wisconsin; view from the Amtrak Empire Builder, 2023
Amtrak Empire Builder, MN, 2023


After crossing the Mississippi River, the sights were less interesting, but with more leaves on the trees in other seasons it would have felt less bare. There were multiple times with lengthy stops, and the only outside entertainment was watching the growing car backups. The train also stopped for nearly an hour as a passenger needed medical attention; an ambulance met the train to ensure everyone was well enough to continue. This and other delays did cause the train to arrive nearly 2 hours late to Chicago. 

More Posts about Amtrak Train Travel…..