Gas, airfares put Amtrak on vacation track

Special to the Chicago Tribune

Given the ever-climbing price of gas at the pump -- roughly $4 is the national average -- and the shrinking number of airline flights this summer, not to mention soaring airfares due to fuel costs, it’s time to look at Amtrak as an alternative.

While Amtrak is not without negatives -- awful on-time records, aging equipment, some inconvenient schedules -- trains remain a viable and comfortable means of travel. For those who have ridden the rails in Europe, but not in the U.S., forget about comparisons. Unlike the Europeans, Americans don’t have any trains that clip along at 186 mph. The closest equivalent is the Acela, engineered to go 150 mph in the Northeast Corridor of Washington-New York-Boston but mainly travels at 125 mph and below. For other Amtrak trains, the speed limit is a snaillike 79 mph.

Because Amtrak trains must yield to freight traffic and infrastructure breakdowns plague both, it’s no wonder that Amtrak has on-time problems. Last year long-haul trains had on-time records that vie with the airlines: the CaliforniaZephyr, 23.6 percent; the Empire Builder, 64.5 percent; and the Southwest Chief, 76.3 percent.

Nevertheless, if you can take a deep breath and relax, a train trip might be a great option.

To be sure, ridership is up. “Our advance booking volumes are high and [ridership] is up 10.8 percent year to date, with a lot of momentum going into the summer months,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman in Chicago. Last year Amtrak carried 25.8 million passengers, the most since it started operations in 1971.

While train travel in Europe is a key mode of transportation, in the U.S. long-haul trains should be considered part of the vacation experience. Especially the Superliners, say, the Southwest Chief to Los Angelesvia Kansas City and Albuquerque, the Empire Builder to Seattle via Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Glacier National Park, Mont., and the California Zephyr to Emeryville/San Francisco via Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno. To do the full run on those trains takes from 40, 46 and 54 hours, respectively.

From Chicago to the East, there’s the venerable Capitol Limited to Washington via Cleveland and Pittsburgh (18 hours) and the Lakeshore Limited to Boston or New York via Cleveland and Buffalo (22 hours to Boston, 19 1/2 to NYC).

If you choose to tough it out in coach, which means sitting and sleeping in your seat for the entire trip, fares are reasonable but can vary a lot depending on whether you qualify for discounts for seniors, children, AAA members and others.

Sleeping accommodations aren’t discounted and can push your costs into the first-class airfare range, but all meals are included.

A one-way reserved coach seat to San Francisco on the Zephyr, for example, ranges from $145 to $284, double that for a couple. Cost of a two-person sleeping-car roomette on that train ranges from $262 to $634. The price, which varies widely by demand, is the same for one person or two. Total price for a trip with sleeping accommodations is a combination of coach-class fare (usually the lowest available) for each person plus the accommodation charge. Coach seats on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle run from $143 to $318, and a roomette costs from $206 to $617.

Of course, you can do shorter trips as well -- from Chicago to Milwaukee in 1 hour 30 minutes (typically about $42 round trip), Detroit in 5 1/2 hours ($55) and St. Louis in 5 hours 40 minutes ($75). These fares also carry discounts for seniors, AAA members and others.

But it’s the long trips on the Superliners that fill you with memories -- Rocky Mountain grandeur west of Denver from the California Zephyr; the sweeping vistas of the Great Plains from the Southwest Chief, and the dramatic palisades along the upper Mississippi River on the Minnesotaside and Glacier National Park from the Empire Builder.

The train ride allows you to be a slug, with ample time to read, snooze, daydream, reflect on small-town and backyard America as you zip through dawn, day and dusk.

During the summer the Superliners generally consist of four sleepers, two coaches, a diner and a sightseer lounge/cafe car. Coaches have a total of 74 reclining seats. Sleepers are configured with 10 roomettes and five bedrooms on the upper level plus four more roomettes, a family bedroom and a handicapped bedroom on the lower level. Each sleeper has four toilets and one shower.

Tips for your Amtrak trip:

• For Chicagoans: Keep in mind there are suburban stops -- Glenview for the Empire Builder and Naperville for the California Zephyr, for example. You don’t have to board at Union Station.

• Bring a photo ID. Amtrak instituted new security procedures earlier this year that include Mobile Security Teams, random baggage inspections and identification checks.

• Other things you might want to bring: a good map that covers your route, a cell phone, a laptop, an iPod, reading material.

• You can check up to two pieces of luggage for free, but there’s a 50-pound weight limit for each one. If you’re using sleeping accommodations, pack an overnight bag to allow yourself more room in your roomette. And if you’re traveling overnight, keep your medications with you.

To book a train trip, go to, phone 800-872-7245 or call your favorite travel agent. Tickets also can be purchased at Quick-Trak automated ticket kiosks at most larger Amtrak stations.

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