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I recently tried out a roomette on the Empire Builder from Portland, Oregon to Chicago, Illinois. Pros: private sleeping and sitting space, beautiful scenery near Glacier National Park and access to a shower on the train. Cons: the scenery can become monotonous at parts of the journey, the upper bunk is very tight and some service fails.
When Amtrak launched a buy one, get one sale for roomette sleeper-car accommodation last fall, my husband, JT, and I jumped on the opportunity to ride the Empire Builder Train 28 on its journey from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago, Illinois.
Sure, we could have taken a four-hour direct flight, but riding cross-country in an Amtrak sleeper car sounded like an experience I didn’t want to miss. We’ve taken many overnight trains in Europe, and our longest train before this trip had been a 24-plus-hour train from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to Hohhot, China, but this Amtrak journey was a vastly different experience — here’s what the 45-hour journey was like.
We booked our trip in December during Amtrak’s roomette sale and paid $448 total for both of us. Specifically, the breakdown of the price was $185 for the tickets and an additional $263 for the roomette. I put the trip on my Ink Business Preferred credit card to earn 3x Ultimate Rewards points and so we’d be protected by the card’s trip protections. Roomette tickets include all meals, water, coffee, juice and showers.
Normally, without the buy one, get one sale, roomettes on this route start at $448 for one person or $633 for two people. For comparison, coach seats start at $148 per person on this route, but don’t include any food, drinks or shower access and don’t provide a flat sleeping surface. Amtrak points can be used, but the number of points required vary based on the current ticket price.
You need to tie specific names to your reservation when you book. However, neither of us needed to show ID at any point during the trip.
We arrived at Union Station in Portland, Oregon, about an hour and a half before the scheduled 4:45pm departure.
We dropped off one of our large Osprey backpacks to be checked into the luggage car, as each passenger could check up to two pieces of luggage free of charge.
There were old-school arrival and departure boards in the main waiting room, as well as modern TV screens with current arrival and departure information.
As sleeper-car passengers, we had access to the Metropolitan Lounge. We simply needed to provide our last name to gain lounge access, as well as a handwritten boarding card.
But almost every seat was occupied in the lounge, since many business-class passengers were waiting for a delayed train to Vancouver, Canada. The lounge was basic, with worn chairs and couches. Power was limited to a few empty outlets near lamps and TVs along the walls of the lounge. In one corner, there were assorted drink options, including small bottles of water, cold filtered water with cups, hot water with peppermint, chamomile, English breakfast, green and Earl Grey tea bags, and a coffee machine with six choices.
There were two unisex bathrooms and Wi-Fi in the lounge. The Wi-Fi didn’t require a password but was too slow to use even for emails and social media at 0.19 Mbps download, 3.07 Mbps upload and 166 ms ping.
Boarding began at 4:25pm, just 20 minutes before the scheduled departure — we were able to board directly from the lounge. The train pulled away from the station exactly on time at 4:45pm.
Almost two days later, our train arrived in Chicago about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. We followed signs to baggage claim, and our checked bag came out within a few minutes.
The Superliner sleeping car contained 14 roomettes (rooms 1 to 10 upstairs, 11 to 14 downstairs), five larger bedrooms (A to E, all upstairs), one family bedroom downstairs and one handicapped-accessible bedroom downstairs.
For our 45-hour journey, we were assigned Roomette 2, which was on the upper deck of the sleeper car right across from the attendant’s cabin. One or two people could be accommodated in each roomette, which were only about 45 inches wide by 80 inches long. There were two seats (about 27 inches wide each) in each roomette that faced each other.
Both seats could recline, but this decreased the legroom of both passengers. When both seats were upright, there were about 20 inches between the two of them.
There was a reading light next to each headrest. Next to one headrest was an attendant call button, light switch and music controls, which seemingly did nothing. Next to the other headset was a 120V power outlet and temperature control. The power outlet was labeled “razor only,” but we plugged in our power converter and were able to change everything we needed throughout the trip.
Next to one seat was a coat rack with two hangers. Next to the other seat were ledges that also served as stairs for the upper bunk when lowered. There was a pullout trash can beneath the bottom step.
Next to the window was a table that could be pulled out. The table was 16 inches wide by 25.5 inches long once the table’s leaves were opened. On either side of the table were shallow cup holders.
The seats in each roomette could be turned into a single bed, and then a second bunk could be lowered from above. Each bed came with a fitted sheet, flat sheet, blanket and pillow — all of which were set up by the cabin attendant at an arranged time. The lower bunk came with a mattress pad and was certainly the better option. It was softer and measured 78 inches long by 27 inches wide. Even when the upper bunk was lowered, I was able to sit upright on the bottom.
The upper bunk was smaller, harder and not at all easy to climb into. It was tighter, too — you couldn’t sit upright without hitting your head on the ceiling. Adding to the cramped feeling was the fact that there was no window visible from up there, either. It measured 74 inches long and 22.5 inches wide, and there were 22.5 inches of space at the tallest point between it and the ceiling, but space was more limited than this on one side of the bunk due to the curvature of the roof. Plus, it was easy to feel that you might fall out of the upper bunk as the train swayed. There was a protective net, but it didn’t cover enough of the bunk’s length to inspire confidence.
The roomettes could be locked from the inside but not from the outside. So you could lock yourself in at night but you couldn’t lock in your valuables when you visited other parts of the train. Blackout curtains for both interior and exterior windows came with Velcro to keep them closed to provide privacy and darkness.
There was a luggage rack on the lower level of the sleeper car, but I’d recommend checking as much luggage as you can and keeping the rest of your luggage in your roomette or with you.
As sleeping-car passengers, we had an attendant who took care of our room throughout the trip. He came by to welcome us shortly after boarding and take our dinner orders. He set up our beds both nights and put the beds away while we were at breakfast both mornings.
Sleeping-car passengers had access to four unisex toilets in the sleeping car. One toilet was on the upper level, while three additional toilets were on the lower level. There were also toilets on the lower level of most cars, but many of these didn’t work at some point during our journey.
There was also a shower on the lower level of the sleeping car for sleeping-car passengers. It was small, but it was clean, and the water pressure was surprisingly good.
The snap-shut curtain did a good job of keeping water in the shower. The shower suite included a small space for changing, meaning that you didn’t have to change in the shower itself. Soap, shampoo and towels were provided.
When Train 28 left Portland, we had just a sleeper car, two coach sitting cars and a lounge/sightseeing car attached. Our train combined with Train 8 from Seattle in Spokane, Washington, so we gained a dining car, more coach sitting cars and another sleeper car. The coach cars had 2-2 seating.
The coach seats reclined 13 inches and had 52-inch pitch, and many passengers were able to snag a two-seat row for themselves, so they seemed relatively comfortable and spacious.
The observation and lounge car had a cafe downstairs and panoramic open seating upstairs.
This upper-deck seating was the place to sit and chat, as well as enjoy the views.
We didn’t eat any food from the cafe, since all of our meals were included in the dining car. But here’s the menu for the cafe.
The dining car had four-seat booths on both sides of the car. Pairs of passengers were asked to sit side by side so that another pair could sit on the other side of the booth if the dining car became crowded. We were seated with another couple for most, but not all, meals.
Food and Beverage
As sleeper-car passengers, all of our meals and nonalcoholic drinks were included. Breakfast and lunch operated on a first-come, first-served basis, but reservations were needed for dinner.
Train 28 didn’t have a dining car attached between Portland and Spokane, so we were offered a modified cold dinner the first night. This dinner featured a choice of a beef salad, shrimp salad, vegan tofu salad or a chicken panini, and was delivered to our roomette at 6:40pm. I ordered the shrimp salad, and JT ordered the chicken panini.
The shrimp salad came with creamy hummus and fresh pita bread. The chicken panini contained chicken deli meat and was served with a bag of chips. JT said the sandwich was on the dry side, but still good. Although I was pleased with my shrimp salad, it was disappointing to not get the dining-car experience for our first meal.
Breakfast the next morning had first call at 6:30am and last call at 8:45am. We walked forward a few cars at 8:15am and were greeted by an attendant who told us we almost missed breakfast. She wasn’t very pleasant, but we quickly ordered the Amtrak signature buttermilk pancake trio (normally $10.50) and the cheese quesadillas, eggs and tomatillo sauce ($13.50), both with a side of bacon ($3.75). The pancakes were warm and fluffy, but the quesadillas were oily. The bacon was crisp but had clearly been reheated.
Our attendant said lunch was served from 12pm to 2pm, but when we arrived in the dining car for lunch at 1:30pm, we were told last call for lunch had occurred “a long time ago.” We hadn’t heard any announcements in the sleeper car, though — which would be an issue our entire trip — so they let us order quickly. I tried to order the salad, but was told that the lettuce had gone bad, so I settled for the Angus burger (normally $12.50) with cheese ($1) and bacon ($2.50). The burger was slightly dry but otherwise tasty. JT ordered the baked chilaquiles ($13.50), which were an excellent Tex-Mex mix of eggs, cheese, chicken and tortillas.
Around 2:30pm, a dining-car attendant came through taking dinner reservations for either 5:30pm or 7:15pm. We opted for 7:15pm. When we arrived for our reservation, we were seated with another roomette couple. Again, we quickly found out that multiple items on the menu weren’t available: There was no more steak, there was no salad (again, the lettuce was bad) and the dishwasher was broken, so we had to use plastic plates and utensils.
I ordered the Norwegian salmon with green beans and a baked potato (normally $23). The salmon was clearly frozen and then reheated, while the green beans and baked potato tasted freshly prepared.
JT ordered the thyme-roasted chicken breast with green beans and mashed potatoes (normally $18.50). The chicken was skin-on, grilled and dry, but the portion was large. The mashed potatoes were clearly reheated and didn’t taste fresh.
We ordered wine but wouldn’t recommend it, as the serving and quality wasn’t worth the cost: $7.50 per glass or $16.50 per half bottle. We paid for the wine with our Chase Sapphire Reserve, and the transaction earned 3x points for dining.
We both ordered dessert after dinner. I ordered the pumpkin spice cake (normally $7.25), and JT ordered the New York-style cheesecake ($6.50). Both desserts were large servings and weren’t overly sweet.
Breakfast was served on our second morning from 6am to about 9am. This meal was the most crowded so far, as it seemed many coach passengers who boarded in Minneapolis decided to have breakfast in the dining car. JT ordered the three-egg omelet (normally $13.75) with a side of bacon and grits, while I ordered the scrambled eggs ($8.50) with a side of bacon and roasted potatoes. The scrambled eggs tasted freshly scrambled, while the potatoes seemed reheated. The omelet was well-cooked but not as large as I expected. A room-temperature croissant was served with both meals.
Lunch was scheduled for 12pm to 2pm, but when we arrived in the dining car at 12:50pm, the dining car staff said they were closing at 12:53pm. The announcement didn’t seem to have reached many passengers, since many passengers subsequently arrived at the dining car and were turned away. The dining car was out of salads and desserts, so we ordered another Angus burger and a black-bean-and-corn veggie burger ($12.50). The veggie burger was well-flavored and spiced. Right after we finished eating, we were rudely told to leave because the dining car was closed.
We tried as many different dining options as possible during our train ride. Our favorite meal was breakfast, as the scrambled eggs, pancakes and bacon were all good options. For lunch, we enjoyed the baked chilaquiles and burgers. Unfortunately, half of the dinner options weren’t available for our only dinner in the dining car — and I wouldn’t recommend the entrees we ordered. The baked potato and green beans that came with the entrees were good, though.
Coffee, tea, orange juice, cranberry juice and candy were always available at a self-service area near the stairs on the upper level of the sleeping car. Our attendant kept this area clean and well-stocked throughout the journey.
We took Amtrak for the experience, as opposed to taking it because it was the cheapest or fastest way to get from Portland to Chicago. Having our own space in the roomette to retreat to and sleep in made the 45-hour journey comfortable and fun. The sleeper car’s shower is a luxury on such a long journey, and the observation car and dining car provided good diversions.
For the price, I’d travel in a roomette again — the seats are comfortable, the cabin is quiet and pleasant-smelling, the included meals are ample and edible, and it’s nice to lie flat while sleeping.
This being said, a roomette — or Amtrak train travel in the US — isn’t for everyone. The upper bunk in the roomettes is difficult to access, and even once you’re in the bunk, it isn’t very comfortable due to the low ceiling and narrow width. I wouldn’t recommend the upper bunk for anyone with limited mobility or claustrophobia.
The food quality was acceptable, but the overall dining experience was the most disappointing part of our Amtrak trip. It was frustrating to have the dining car close ahead of schedule multiple times with no announcement in the sleeper car, as well as have multiple dishes unavailable at most meals. If the dining-car servers had been friendly, these issues might have been relatively easy to overlook, but instead the rude dining-car attendants made the entire dining experience unpleasant.
All photos by the author.
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