When you’re ready to set out on a train adventure in the US, you can’t go far wrong with heading to Chicago. Serving as a hub for a number of Amtrak routes east to west and north to south (as well as other services), Union Station is also one of the more impressive train stations you’ll come across.
Tickets should be booked online in advance, though you will often still find free seats if you like to leave things a bit last minute. You may be surprised to find out how competitive the pricing is for longer train rides, even when you upgrade for more space. Obviously, it takes much longer than flying, but if you factor in travel to the airport as well as check-in wait and then the length of flight, it might not always be too time intensive by comparison. Naturally if you’re going from east to west coast, you’ll need a few days so it really depends on your needs. For a vacation where you have a bit of extra time, the train can offer a good lower-cost – and more scenic – alternative to flights. If you want really low-cost, you can of course have a look at the bus services but even just from a comfort point of view, these would be bottom of my list!
If you’re planning to take the City of New Orleans service from Chicago, I recommend getting onto booking early and grabbing at least a roomette if not a bedroom. 19 hours in an upright train seat with minimal legroom will not leave you feeling good at the other end!
The roomettes are private rooms with 2 single seats facing each other, perfect if you’re travelling alone (why not take advantage of it?). There are a few types of bedroom but if you can get one with a toilet and shower, you’ll be laughing. Or at least smiling. Especially when it gets to bedtime and you have a double and a bunk bed to choose from!
Before heading for the train, you’ll need to make sure you spend at least a couple of days in the lovely city of Chicago. If you feel like splashing the cash, then there’s plenty of shopping and dining to be done in the Magnificent Mile area of Chicago. Asuming you don’t have a fear of heights, take a trip up to the 94th floor of the John Hancock building for panoramic views of the city. And If you’re in the mood to spice it up, have a go on “tilt” – you’ll stand against the reinforced window and gradually be lowered forwards over the edge of the building. Trust me, it’s a heart-in-mouth experience and well worth a go.
It’s a big station so do just ask someone if you’re not sure where to go when you get there!
As the 3rd busiest train terminal in the US, the imposing building of Union Station in Chicago is worth a visit even if you’re not getting the train! You may even recognise parts of it from the movies (The Untouchables anyone?). Amtrak services run from here and if you’ve booked a train with luggage, you’ll check your bags in and pick up tickets (if you didn’t get round to printing beforehand) downstairs in a similar way as you would in an airport. Remember to tag your hand luggage as well as your checked luggage – tags will be available at check-in. You’ll also board the train downstairs, straight onto the platform from the waiting room once the call is given. You’ll queue in an orderly fashion (!) before you exit the waiting room so staff can scan your ticket and point you towards the right carriage. There are a few places to get food and drink on the upper levels in the station but once you get near the boarding area, there are only a couple of little snack shops and vending machines (unless this has been upgraded since I was there!). Try to pick up food before you leave if you can. As with many cities in the USA, you may encounter some homeless people in and around the station. The majority will leave you alone and are completely harmless though you may at times feel intimidated if you’re a woman travelling solo. Security is good in the station so just don’t spend a lot of time hanging around outside if it’s later at night and you have concerns. Regardless of who is around, you should of course always stay vigilant of your surroundings especially if you’re by yourself.
Have you taken an Amtrak train from Union Station? Let me know how you got on in the comments!