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  • Writer's pictureRobin Gilmore

Train into the Danger Zone!

Amtrak Empire Builder Sleeper Car

On September 13 I flew United Airlines from Cleveland to Chicago, boarded Amtrak's Empire Builder train, and arrived in Portland, Oregon on September 15 (almost a 46-hour train trip). I stayed at Tiny Digs Hotel in Portland for 2 nights then flew home on Delta Air Lines.

At the time of my trip, I believe Portland had the worst air quality of any city in the world, but it made for an interesting trip and fun story.

Q. What are your key takeaways from traveling across the United States by train?

A. It's not comparable to flying, but it's a unique experience that I recommend everyone try at least once. Unlike flights which are just a means to get somewhere, I feel like the train journey in itself and the views are part of the vacation.

Q. What are the most important things you would tell travelers thinking about traveling across the United States by train?

A. I recommend booking a private room. Amtrak includes meals and beverages with private rooms plus you'll be able to lie flat to sleep.

The sway of the train was very noticeable. It was enjoyable and relaxing to me, but it's just something to note if you're prone to motion sickness.

Many of the Amtrak trains are older and don't have Wi-Fi. (Mine didn't.)

Q. What things were different in regards to COVID while traveling by train?

A. Amtrak used to make their food fresh on the train. Because of COVID the meals options have decreased and all the meals are microwaveable, but they still tasted fine.

Breakfast was served in the dining car, but for lunch and dinner we had the option of eating in the dining car at a specific time or having the food brought to our private room.

The conductor made sure to let us know that masks were required if you weren't in your private room with the door closed or actively eating or drinking.

Q. What was it like traveling into Portland while in the midst of a wildfire crisis AND COVID?

It was interesting / kind of weird. We were supposed to have amazing views of Glacier National Park in Montana from the train but everything was hazy because of the fires, and the sky only got worse as we got closer to Portland.

Tiny Digs Hotel in Portland

When I arrived in Portland there were major air quality issues. So much so that people were advised not to go outside if it wasn't absolutely necessary and many businesses were closed. My Uber driver said most of Portland's businesses had reopened after being closed because of COVID. However, due to the fires the city streets were almost empty and the air smelled like smoke. But everyone I did interact with was very friendly.

Portland's Airport

Q. Is there anything you wish you would have done differently on this trip?

A. I had a waterfall hike and a bike tour planned that I wish I would've been able to go on, but I was still able to see some of the city and Multnomah Falls, so overall the trip was still fine.

There was a thought to move the dates of the trip to when the fires died down, but I think it would've been too much of a hassle to try to move the train trip and tiny house hotel reservation.

Multnomah Falls

If you're thinking about a train trip, let us know. Amtrak Vacations has some amazing itineraries. If train travel isn't your thing, we're still happy to plan a unique vacation just for you.

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