Here are the nitty-gritty details that may help set your expectations - train travel has a way of its own.
That all being said, we couldn't wait to ride the train. The anticipation of boarding the train was way more exciting than just hopping in our mini-van. The allure of traveling a different method made the planning of the trip well worth it. Besides - we didn't have to be concerned about the weather or directions!
eating on the train?
Since we boarded after dinner, our first meal on the train was breakfast. We were so glad we packed some juice, fruit, and pastries so everyone could just easily eat when we woke up. We didn't have to make sure the Cafe Car was open (which was oddly closed during some meal time hours) or wait in line.
Next was lunch in the Dining Car. An attendant had come through each car that morning asking passengers to make lunch or dinner reservations if they were interested. They made an announcement about 5 minutes before the reservation time telling the passengers to come to the Dining Car. When we arrived (a short walk of 2 train cars), the dining car was a welcome sight because it was so different from the other cars - it had its own special ambiance. The tables were set with tablecloths and the servers were in uniform and had the hustle and bustle of a busy restaurant. Our hamburgers, chili and chips were pretty good and the servers were nice, but mainly it was just the fresh change in scenery. Breakfast prices range from $7.50 (scrambled eggs) to $11.25 (made to order omelet) Lunch selections range between $9 and $13 (hot dogs, hamburgers, sandwiches). Dinner meals options are $16.50 (chicken/vegetables) to $25.75 (steak). The children’s menu is the same for lunch and dinner. $7.00 for a pizza, hot dog , chicken tenders, or macaroni and cheese. Lunch is less expensive, but I think the ambiance would have even been better at night - there is something romantic about eating in the dining car. Alcoholic beverages are available.
We had dinner in the Cafe Car. The Café Car offers a large variety of snack bar type food such as chips, snacks, burgers, and hotdogs. There is no kitchen so any heated items are just warmed up in a microwave. My daughter ordered spaghetti so we watched the attendant grab the Bertoulli frozen dinner from the freezer, nuke it in the microwave, then hand it to her. So set your expectations ahead of time - calling it a "Cafe Car" may be a little misleading. Prices are $3-6. No ambiance here but you can curb your appetite.
Most people bring some food on the train - for meals or snacks. Amtrak regulations state that you can bring a cooler as long as it is smaller than 12 x 12, however, we saw several people carrying small coolers that were larger. Each seat has a pull down tray and a each car has a garbage receptacle. There is a water spigot and disposable cone cups in each car as well. The refillable water bottles we brought along were to hard to use with the spigot without spilling - so next time I would bring some 8 oz cups that we could fill and keep at our seats.
On our trip eastbound, the Chief stopped in Albuquerque at 4:00 p.m. for about 45 minutes for a crew change. This gave us enough time to get off and have an early dinner in the train station which is located right next to the platform. We enjoyed some great burgers straight off the grill with french fries. Some regulars had recommended this to us since the food is a little less expensive, tastes better, and again a change in scenery!
can you get off the train at the stations?
The Kansas City stop is not quite as convenient. It typically stops there around 10:00 p.m.westbound and 7:30 a.m. eastbound and the station is at least a 5 minute walk from the platform. You must take the stairs or the elevator up to the station and brave the elements -- OOH in January it was COLD! If the conductor allows you and you are up to it, it is well worth it to take a quick trip to the station to experience the beauty of the station's architecture and step back into history. We traveled at Christmas. The interior was impressive -almost magical with hanging lights, a Christmas tree, and music playing on a player piano. The bathrooms off the big hall are the high ceiling large bathrooms you see in the movies. Look for the bullet holes from the 1933 Union Station Massacre outside the front entrance of the train station. The shoot out between mobsters, FBI agents and police officers allegedly left the marks. All of the stations have an interesting history - but the preservation of the Kansas City station lends you to think about the past - imagine it full of of World War II soldiers on their way home. In 1945 more than 678,363 passengers went through the station. Train was the way to travel back then! Now unless there is an event going on, the station will seem empty.
could you get any sleep? how were the seats?
How were the bathrooms?
where do you put your luggage?
Did you get bored on the train?
Another place to spend some time besides our regular seats was the Cafe Car. You don’t have to eat at the Café to sit at one of the booth tables. The larger tables make a great place to spread out a little more or play a group game of cards. I loved teaching my daughter how to play solitaire with real cards. When in "real-life" do we have time to do that? My kids and I used the entire table playing an Axis and Allies game they had gotten for Christmas.
The rest of the trip was spent reading books, drawing, making bracelets with Rainbow Loom, playing Tangoes & Rush Hour, taking turns playing the game of LIFE on the iPad, and daydreaming looking out the window . Every seat had an outlet so electronics could be charging throughout the trip. The Southwest Chief did not have WiFi although I imagine this might change as Amtrak offers WiFi on some of their other trains. This was slightly frustrating as well as AT&T had only off and on coverage.
How was the customer service?
The Southwest Chief was late coming into Kansas City by 3 hours. Apparently there was a mechanical delay before the train left Chicago. Since we were transferring from another train we had to wait in the station for three hours from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.. Not ideal to kill time in the middle of the night. We used our neck pillows and blankets to make ourselves as comfortable as possible on the hard benches in the brightly lit passenger waiting room. It was quiet except for the playing of a movie at full volume by an inconsiderate passenger who was unaware that the entire room was trying to catch a few Zzzzzs. When we finally boarded around 2:30 a.m. I expected the Amtrak employees to show some sign of compassion. "Sorry, for the inconvenience. Sorry for the wait," but instead we were shuffled on to the train as if we were the ones that were causing the train to be behind. The impact of our delay was compounded because Amtrak does not own the tracks that it rides on, causing further delays as we wait for freight trains to pass by during other parts of our trip. Delays are bound to happen, but it would have eased the pain if Amtrak made any effort to make the situation better even with a simple "Sorry for the delay" announcement.
For as many people that were on the train, the train was kept relatively clean. The trash cans were emptied and tables were wiped down. I felt comfortable enough to wear my socks around in our coach car. The bathrooms were the only part that seemed difficult for the staff to keep up with - but I blame that on passengers who can't clean up after themselves. At the crew shift change in Albuquerque the windows were washed - so we always had a clear view out the window.
Will you ride the train again?
For more about train travel, read Travel Goal Getter - Visit All 50 States by Train.
Southwest Chief picture used under creative commons by Steve Wilson roberthuffstutter.
Southwest Chief poster used under creative commons by ironypoisoning
Seats on Amtrak used under creative commons by fredcamino
Observation car used under creative commons by sheilaellen
Dining car used under creative commons by rickpawl
All other photos by Travel Goal Getter