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What I Learned From My First Cross-Country Trip on Amtrak

What I Learned On My First Cross-Country Trip on the Southwest Chief

October 14, 2015

Photos and Text by Rick Chase,

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Amtrak P42DC (Genesis) #115 at Alberqurque

On October 14, 2015, my wife and I celebrated our 42nd wedding anniversary by taking the Southwest Chief, train # 4 from Los Angeles to Chicago. The lead GE P42DC was #15 followed by #118.


The trip was a wonderful experience, but since we were rookies, we had much to learn. Both from advice from others and personal experience. Most, but not all, of these apply to anyone booking a sleeper (Roomette). For instance:

1. Travel during the summer months when the days are longer, which gives you almost 3 more hours of daylight than you’d have in the fall and winter. Why take a train cross-country if you can’t see the landscape?

2. Book as early as possible for a better fare and make your reservations by phone. We didn’t know this so we booked on line, waiting for a good fare. And be sure to inquire about the various discounts available, such as AAA members or Senior Citizen. This enables you to ask for a roomette on the lower level (where the shower is located) or the upper level where the ride may be a bit quieter and on the left side of the train. This allows for better photographs as you won’t be shooting in to the sun.

3. Shower early in the morning to ensure plenty of hot water. Towels and soap are provided but bring your own shampoo, etc. Cheap flip flops are a must.

4. Sleeping on a train doesn’t always come easy. (My wife was taking Benadryl for allergies, so she slept fine.)

5. Bring a small roll of tape as the doors sometimes tend to rattle. And maybe ear plugs, the trains’ horn blows through the night. (Thanks to Tim Helmuth of TrainWeb for this tip.)

6. Tip your car attendant and server. These folks work hard. Some people tip after each meal however we choose to tip at the end of the trip. The car attendant makes up your bunk each evening and puts it away while you’re having breakfast.

7. Photography-While the observation car allows for spectacular views, all the glass on the other side of the car gives annoying reflections on the window you’re shooting through. I prefer to shoot from the dining car or better yet, from my room window.

8. While WiFi isn’t normally provided, our train was trying it. It didn’t seem to work very well. (We took the train to “get away” for a few days, not to stay connected.)

9. If you have to cancel (or change) a reservation, depending on your ticket, Amtrak will give you a voucher for a future trip as long as you notify them BEFORE the train departs. And in some cases, 24 hours’ notice is required. Read all the fare rules on the Amtrak web site.

We started our trip by flying from Philadelphia to Los Angeles the day before. (You can actually connect on Amtrak from various cities on the east coast to Chicago if you want to travel west bound.)  As I work for a major airline, flying was our best option. If there is doubt that you can get to the station in time, it’s sometimes better to arrive at your departure city one day earlier.


We decided to spend one night in Santa Monica, a nice coastal area just north of LA. After a $45 cab ride from LAX, we settled in to our hotel. The Ocean View is just across from the beach but a bit pricey. No restaurant. The pier is a 2 block walk with lots of tourist stores. We had dinner at the The Lobster at the top of the pier. Good food and great views.

Since we had plenty of time, and didn’t relish another $45 (or more) cab ride to Union Station, we choose public transportation. We took a local bus and transferred to the light rail at Culver City to Union Station. The trip took about 1 hours and cost about 85 cents.


When we arrived at Union Station, we were informed we should check-in in the Metropolitan Room, which is reserved for Sleeper (First Class) passengers. Take the elevator (after the Hertz Desk, one floor up). We were then escorted to our train and welcomed aboard by our car attendant, who asked us to remain in our room until our ticket was scanned by the conductor who is the person in charge of the train. He (or she) is the final authority of all things on the train. We waited less than 10 minutes. We found the compartment rather small but there is a storage area down the hall for our bags. We kept our backpacks (with our valuables) in our room. Each room has power outlets, reading lights and temperature control. We were then asked which dinner seating we would like. Breakfast is open seating, lunch and dinner is by time reservation.

The food on Amtrak is quite good. I had the steak and my wife had the salmon, delicious. Each meal presents wonderful opportunities to meet different people as you never know who you’ll be dinning with.


Our first night we met John (from Las Vegas, NM) and John (from Chicago) (pictured here at Albuquerque) both experienced Amtrak travelers (who gave us many of the tips listed above). They also are fans of the Amtrak MasterCard. There is a $79 fee but if you charge $1,000 in 3 months, you receive 20,000 points, enough for a cross country trip for you and your companion in a roomette. (I can do that food shopping in about 6 weeks.)

After a long and enjoyable dinner conversation, we settled in for the night. Our bunks were made up by Stephanie, our welcoming and capable car attendant. Climbing to my upper berth took some practice (not a lot of room there) and settled in for the night. Each bunk has a reading light but we were pretty tired.


Waking early, we showered with plenty of hot water.  Opening my curtain, I was treated to some of the most beautiful scenery of Arizona and New Mexico that I had ever seen. We had breakfast with Kerry and her daughter from the mid-west and LA. It was hard to concentrate on my meal with this amazing landscape outside.


Around noon, we stopped at Albuquerque for a 30 minute stopover so the engines could be refueled.  This gave us a chance to get off the train, stretch our legs and look at the tourist items being sold by the locals, who set up their tables twice a day when the trains come through.




For lunch, we just had the salad and met a nice couple headed for a conference of Neuro-scientists in Chicago.


The next station is Lamy NM, population 217. Like many of the stations out west, they are small, unassuming buildings. Lamy has much history with the BNSF railroad. I wish we had time to explore Lamy, and have lunch at the Legal Tender enjoying the history of this town.

Stopover in Raton, New Mexico


Later in the afternoon, we had a brief stop in Raton, NM, the highest point on our trip. Shortly after leaving Raton, we went in the tunnel under the Raton Pass.


Somewhere between Trinidad and LaJunta Co., we had dinner with an interesting couple from Williams, AZ. He is an actor as a train robber for a tourist train that runs daily to the Grand Canyon. He relayed an interesting conversation as a potential juror when the judge asked him what he did for a living.

Early morning somewhere between Winslow, Arizona and Gallup, New Mexico

Being a carnivore, I had the steak again and my wife repeated the salmon. After dinner, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset between LaJunta and Lamar, Co.


After leaving Kansas City, Mo the next morning, we had a nice breakfast of eggs, French toast and sausage with Jeff and Barbara from Pittsburgh. We discovered that one of Jeff’s friends works for the same airline as I do in PHL. Hoping to connect with his friend in Philly. We ended up having lunch with Jeff and Barbara again so we got to know each other fairly well.

BBSF train at Galesburg, Illinois

After a stop in Ft. Madison, Iowa, we had another stop-over in Galesburg, Illinois. which is a junction for BNSF railroad. One more opportunity to get off the train and stretch our legs. The remainder of the trip through Iowa and Illinois gave us a nice view of the farmlands, the heartland of America.

Metra with the Willis Tower, Chicago

At 3:15 we pulled into Chicago’s Union Station, surrounded by many Metra commuter trains.  We then walked several (ok, more than several) blocks to the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Chicago is a wonderful town and we had a good time walking around downtown. Stopped at Dylan’s Candy Bar which is nirvana for anyone with a sweet tooth. After enjoying a Chicago deep dish pizza at Giordano’s Pizza, we headed back to our hotel and made plans to meet with friends of our daughters on Saturday.

View from our room at the Hyatt Regency

The Bean (Cloud Gate) in Chicago.

Saturday morning a short walk led us to the Bean (Sky Cloud) and then met our friends for lunch at Lou Malnati’s Pizza, which is definitely the best. After lunch, we retrieved our bags and took the Blue Line to O’Hare airport for our flight home.


Ocean View Hotel, Santa Monica, California
The Lobster, Santa Monica, California
Hyatt Regency Hotel, Chicago, Illinois
Dylan’s Candy Bar
Giordano’s Pizza
LouMalnatis Pizza
Chicago Transit Authority, Blue Line

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What I Learned On My First Cross-Country Trip on the SouthWest Chief