Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review – Travel Differently!

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Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Montana.
Picture taken in Montana on the Empire Builder.

Full Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review

A few weeks ago I recounted our journey on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle.  On that same trip we also took the Empire Builder train from Seattle to Chicago.  While my post a few weeks ago was more about the story of our trip, today’s post is a practical review of Amtrak’s service.

Prior To Boarding

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Seattle
The waiting area at Seattle’s King Street Station. Not very comfortable, but seating is plentiful.

We boarded the Coast Starlight train in Oxnard and thus not at a major station. The train was running late and the station attendants didn’t make any announcements until a few minutes after the scheduled arrival. Once it arrived, our tickets were checked by our cabin attendant upon boarding the train. The process was quite simple and easy.

In Seattle, we boarded at King Street Station. About 15 minutes before departure, a conductor came over and told everyone to line up.  Sleeper car passengers were shuttled towards the left and coach passengers to the right. Unfortunately the area they used for this exercise was quite cramped. After waiting in the line and getting the ticket scanned, we just stood around to the side until they opened the doors for everyone to board.

Our Roomette

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Roomette
A roomette in day time mode.

We had a “roomette” on both of the trains that we took. The single best way I can describe a roomette is cramped. Each roomette takes up half the width of the train and consists of two seats that face each other during the day. At night the seats slide down into a bed and a bunk folds down from the ceiling. We found it was not very comfortable for us during the day if both of us were sitting across from each other as our feet had to occupy the same space.

The roomettes also lack any storage space. Big bags will have to be left in luggage storage, because there simply isn’t any room. We each had a carry-on sized backpack and found it difficult to fit them in the roomette. Ultimately we placed one in the small storage area and the other squeezed under a seat.

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Night mode.
Roomette in “night mode”.

At night, I found the bed to be fairly comfortable. I tend to sleep well on trains and don’t have any complaints about my experience on the two Amtrak trains.  With that said, people who are claustrophobic may have issues with a roomette. Once the beds are down and the door is closed, there isn’t any room to move around. The bottom bunk has little head clearance and the top bunk has even less.

I will make quick note that the bedrooms on board these trains are about double the size and look to be much more comfortable. Everyone we spoke to who had a bedroom, was satisfied with their space and how comfortable it was.  If we take the train again, it will likely be in one of the bedrooms.

Public Areas

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Parlour Car.
The Parlour car is a great place to catch the scenery.

The Coast Starlight is the only train that Amtrak runs with a Parlour Car. Think of the Parlour Car as a separate first class car for sleeper passengers. It has its own dining area along with a lounge and observation area.

The Parlour Car was a life saver for us on the Coast Starlight as it gave us a spacious place to spend time and thus get out of the cramped confines of our roomette. In other words it kept Shawn Reece and I out of each other’s hair which was a good thing!

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Parlour Car.
The lounge area of the Coast Starlight Parlour Car.

Both the Empire Builder & Coast Starlight also have a normal observation car which could be used by all passengers. The top level of the observation car has several seating areas including a mixture of chairs and booths for people to sit. Downstairs is a snack bar with light food offerings and a full bar. On both of our trains, we found this area to be unappealing and crowded. There simply were too many people crammed into a tight space.

Amtrak does have a service called Trails On Rails in which park rangers come on board to describe the scenery. During the Coast Starlight trip, we had several different sections where rangers were on hand in the observation car. I thought this was a nice touch and it is a wonderful things for families as it helps to keep the kids occupied.

Food

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Dining Car.
The galley and back half of the dining car.

The one nice thing about being in a sleeper car is that food is included in your ticket price. We boarded the Coast Starlight at noon and were told that we had reservations right away in the dining car. Later we found out that reservations are almost always required. Usually a couple of hours before meal time the dining car attendant will come through the train to take reservations.

In the dining car, people are put together in groups of four. It is impossible to get your own table, even if they are not busy or there are several open tables.  Some days we were grouped with interesting and friendly people, while others we didn’t care for our tablemates.

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Pancakes.
Pancakes & Bacon for breakfast.

The food itself was fairly good. I would compare it to diner food and it certainly couldn’t be considered fancy. For breakfast they have the standard options of pancakes, bacon, sausage and an omelette. Lunch featured a burger, vegetarian sandwich, Kung Pao Chicken & a crab cake sandwich. For dinner there was a choice of chicken, fish, steak or pasta. Desserts were pudding, ice cream, chocolate cake & cheesecake topped with strawberries. (The cheesecake was FANTASTIC!)

Every meal supposedly featured a “special”. For example for breakfast, the special was the omelette filling of onions and asparagus. The lunch specials were a crab cake sandwich and Kung Pao Chicken. For dinner, the pasta dish was supposedly a rotating special. Across both trains and all meals, the specials were always the same.

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Chicken dinner.
Rotisserie Chicken dinner. A little greasy, but tasty.

One last thing to mention about the food, is that the Parlour Car has its own menu and separate dining area.  We found the selections in the Parlour Car to be a little fancier including things like smoked salmon on a bagel, wraps and braised beef or lamb shank for dinner.

In the end, I did enjoy the food, but found it to be rather greasy and not at all fancy. Everything is served on plastic plates and salad dressing resides in packets on the table.  The closest comparison I can make to the culinary experience that you receive in the dining car is Denny’s.

Service

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Braised short ribs.
The braised short rib served in the Coast Starlight’s Parlour Car. It was delicious.

Our cabin attendants on both trains had different philosophies. Julio who was our attendant on the Coast Starlight was very efficient, but he never smiled or greeted us. He did his job and did it well. Our attendant on the Empire Builder was as friendly as you could imagine, but she seemed overwhelmed with the sheer amount of rooms that she had to deal with.

If you are coming on the train expecting to get cruise like service, then alter your expectations. I wasn’t sure what to expect and was generally happy with how each of our attendants did their job. We always had plenty of ice and other things that we needed and didn’t have to wait long if we asked for anything.

The other major service area on the train is dining. It is clear that there is no oversight of these employees. We often heard dining staff talking poorly about the customers and they often were rude and scolded customers for doing something wrong.

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Dining car.
The dining area at the front of the Parlour Car. The attendant was nice, but she didn’t smile.

Our dining crew on the Coast Starlight was the worst of the two, but both were poor. My only personal issue was with a waiter on the Empire Builder who chastized me for drinking two iced teas and asking for a third with dessert. (We saw the staff continually do things like this to all of the guests.)

The main dining attendant on the Coast Starlight also loved to be on the intercom. She would constantly call the conductor to the dining car when she had an issue with guests. As I would come to find out, the issues were more with her than anything else. Unfortunately her behavior along with the very loose service, really detracted from the whole experience.

On the Coast Starlight the Parlour Car attendant was very nice, but she too seemed unhappy with her job. Other than the actual conductors, I don’t think I saw anyone other than our cabin attendant on the Empire Builder smile.

Scenery

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Montana
Taken from the Empire Builder in Montana.

I highly suggest reading my post about the Coast Starlight for more insight on the scenery. Ultimately the reason I wanted to take these train journeys was to see the varied landscapes. In the end, I wasn’t disappointed at all.

On the Coast Starlight, the scenery varied from oceans to forests with a few mountain lakes thrown in. Our views of Puget Sound for the last few hours of the journey left me speechless. The Empire Builder starts with the same view of Puget Sound as it pulls northward out of Seattle.

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - Wisconsin.
Passing through Wisconsin on the Empire Builder.

After an hour on Puget Sound, the Empire Builder heads east. Heading through Montana we saw some amazing grasslands. As we plowed into Wisconsin and traveled through the Dells, the scenery continued to please. In other words, the scenery made the journey worth it.  It was fantastic.

Overall Experience

Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review - On board.
Shawn Reece having fun in our roomette.

It may seem like my experience was a negative one, but that surely wasn’t the case. Like I mentioned, the scenery outside was fantastic and we were comfortable at most times. Additionally, the sleeper cars have water and ice at all times which made me a happy camper.  The experience just wasn’t upscale in any way.

My only real issue with our rides was the unhappiness of the staff and how they treated their guests.  Other than that, I felt the experience was good for what it was.  A way to experience travel at a much slower pace. A way to meet others who have decided to do the same.

Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review – Wrap-up

In the end, I can honestly say that we enjoyed both of our journeys. While the roomette is definitely cramped, both Shawn Reece & I were able to get a decent amount of sleep. I do wish that the Parlour Car was a staple on all of Amtrak’s routes, because it definitely makes the trip more comfortable and allows for more socializing between guests.

The service was the biggest disappointment for us with Amtrak. While the cabin attendants mostly did a good job, the service at times was indifferent. My main gripe with the service though was the dining car teams. I am not sure who trains them, but they ranged from passable to downright rude.

These trips were paid for completely with Ultimate Rewards points and thus didn’t cost us anything out of pocket. (Other than tips.)  Had we paid the retail price of $1500 combined, my thoughts might be completely different. I wrote a complete guide to Amtrak Guest Rewards so you can learn how to book these train trips with points.

For anyone who is delighted at seeing various landscapes and who longs to see the country, then I think this is a fantastic way to travel.  If you are someone who is bored easily in confined spaces or who is looking for a luxurious travel experience, then it is best to look elsewhere in my opinion.

What do you think? Have you taken a similar trip? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

More Photos from the Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Trains:

 


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7 COMMENTS

  1. I took the Coast Starlight from San Jose to Santa Barbara and back. I really loved the Parlour car for the great scenic views and enjoyed the lunch one way and dinner on the way back. You mentioned that your train was delayed. I hope that’s not a usual situation. Our train was delayed leaving San Jose, too — a couple of hours, I think. But it’s a great ride and I’d love to try other Amtrak routes.

    • I don’t think the delay is normal, although I am told they have several hours of slack built into the schedule. We arrived in Seattle on time despite running a couple of hours behind most of the trip.

      Our delay was caused by a car that turned onto the tracks and broke down. It took time for them to tow it off of the tracks! The Parlour Car really is the best part of the Coast Starlight. It is fantastic and I wish they would add it on their other routes. Thanks Cathy!

  2. We’re looking at booking Empire Builder but we wanted to stop at different points along the route for several days, rather than doing it all in 2 days. How would you price out the ticket using UR points? Would you calculate it by looking at the points for each leg of the trip between stops?

  3. i found your review on the Coast Starlight helpful, but was wondering why you didn’t mention the movie theater that’s available and also the wine tasting. I notice that you make an issue about taking trips on the cheap which is what we’re all about, just wondering if maybe the service would be improved with a small tip to the dinning help and theParlor attendant.

    • The movie theater was closed the entire duration of our trip and I didn’t get to experience the wine tasting. As for tipping, did I say anywhere that I didn’t tip? In fact I actually mention that I did tip. The service was what it was. This certainly isn’t a luxury experience, but is fun and unique nonetheless.

      Thanks Terry.

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