Spoiler alert: our family loves trains. I come by it honestly from my dad and brothers, and I’ve passed on the love to our boys. We’ll always look for trains. We’re eager to get stuck at train crossings. We’ve been known to ride scenic routes like the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway or have breakfast on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
So it makes PERFECT SENSE that for our dad’s 70th birthday, my three brothers and I gifted him with a ride on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.
The Southwest Chief is Amtrak’s route traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles. The full trip takes around 40 hours, but we rode an abbreviated version. We started in the Windy City and rode the #3 (the west-bound train) to Flagstaff, where we departed and spent a few days exploring the city and branching out to visit Sedona, Walnut Canyon National Monument, the Meteor Crater, and the Grand Canyon.
So now I present to you our walk-through offering Tips for Riding Amtrak’s Southwest Chief!
When you travel the Southwest Chief from Chicago, you’ll get to experience the beautiful Union Station. You can grab a seat in the hall or wander around.
Amtrak passengers are also invited to relax in the lounge beforehand. They’ll give you a pass that lets you come and go. You can check your bags (so you don’t have to drag them around Chicago), grab a snack or a beverage (adult and otherwise), use the restroom, charge your phone.
If you have enough time to kill, you can head out of the station. I suggest grabbing breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s, a classic Chicago diner, or coffee at Sawada.
But stay in the lounge when it’s close to departure time. They’ll announce the platform and lead passengers to it. Have your tickets ready so you can be directed to the appropriate car.
For coach seats and the standard sleeper car roomsettes, you’re not afforded a lot of room for baggage, so pack the equivalent of an airline carry-on bag.
The roomettes are meant for two, and it is snug. The compartment consists of two seats facing each other, a couple armrests, a small fold-out table. When it comes to sleeping, the seats lay flat to form the lower bed, and the upper berth folds down from above.
The passageways are narrow in the sleeper cars, and the restrooms are reminiscent of airplane bathrooms. So be prepared for some tight squeezes!
Coach seats (pictured above on the right) are laid out more like business class airline seats, with carryon bags above you and checked baggage stored below.
Open to any passenger, the observation car is one of the best features of the train. The windows curve up into the ceiling, giving you expansive views of the scenery rolling by.
The observation car features a mix of four-person booths and collections of seats facing outward. It can get busy, but we were always able to find seats there.
Here are a couple videos from the observation car!
This is one of the selling points of traveling by train: you get to see the country at ground level, but someone else is doing the driving. You can kick back, read a book, work on your laptop, chat with your traveling buddies.
On the lower level of the observation car sits a snack bar that’s open to everyone. They’re good at announcing the hours, but it generally opens early (like 6 am) and remains open late (around 11 pm). You can pick up candy bars, chips, baked goods, sandwiches, coffee, pop, even beer and wine.
(Be ready to make reservations for lunch and dinner!)
Your ticket in the sleeper cars includes complimentary breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Despite some service snafus, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meals! We’re talking full-on, white-tablecloth, real-flowers-on-the-table meals.
Here’s the dinner menu from our first night: three courses that include an appetizer, entree, and dessert. You also get a drink like a beer, glass of wine, or mixed cocktail (think bourbon and coke, gin and tonic).
I’ll just say it: I wasn’t expecting to be eating a properly cooked medium rare steak on a train!
It’s worth noting that lunch and dinner seating times are set in advance. You need to stay vigilant about the dining car attendant who comes around to the roomettes to schedule times. Because we were a group of five (and the tables seat four), she seemed to have trouble figuring out where to put us. Times can also fill up quickly, and they’ll only come around to the roomettes (ie they won’t come find you in the observation car), so you have to be present to get your preferred time.
Breakfast is a little more casual, but no less impressive.
Seating is first come, first serve, and you have options like omelets, a continental breakfast, or Amtrak’s Signature Railroad French toast.
For lunch we enjoyed burgers and sandwiches, and dinner again included fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
But don’t wander too far!
The Southwest Chief makes a number of stops along the route, but most of them last only long enough to let new passengers board and existing ones depart. If you’re leaving then, they’ll ask you to come downstairs and be ready to pick up any checked baggage.
Select stops linger a little longer, but not much. Maybe 20-25 minutes. They’ll announce these stops, and say you can walk down the platform, stretch your legs, take a break. For the Southwest Chief this includes Fort Madison, IA; Kansas City, MO; Albuquerque, NM; Flagstaff, AZ.
We got out at each of these stops, and appreciated the opportunity to get outside, walk around a bit, get some fresh air.
My brother greg and I wandered the platform at Kansas City; it’s a longer evening stop that included a crew change, and it was nice to see the full train lit up a night.
It’s also a good chance to take group selfies.
One of the reasons we took the Southwest Chief is because our dad (and all of us, let’s be honest), had enjoyed watching the route on YouTube through Virtual Railfan over the years. VRF is an online community of train enthusiasts with dozens of live feeds, many of which are free on YouTube. You can watch freight trains pass through fun locations, see Amtrak load and unload, and much more.
In honor of the occasion, Dad made a little poster to show the VRF cameras while our families watched from home. The first stop, Galesburg, IL, was a quick one. But Fort Madison, Iowa, which sits on the Mississippi River, was the first long stop. As we approached it, I jumped in the comments of the VRF feed for that station, and the camera operator zoomed in on us at the end of the platform.
Our moment of fame!
At Fort Madison we walked the platform a little bit. With permission from one of the conductors, we also waved at the cameras at La Plata, Missouri, a shorter stop but still a favorite of ours.
The benefit of riding by train is getting to see the country roll by. The Southwest Chief follows a lot of farmland before passing into the desert, but it’s a sheer delight to just sit and look out the window. Be sure to build in time to enjoy the views.
While the Southwest Chief travels all the way to Los Angeles, we got off in Flagstaff after 32+ hours, where we spent the week hiking, hitting up local restaurants, and enjoying the area. Stay tuned for more on that!
We were tired after the trip (some of us slept better than others on the train), but I’d do this trip again in a heartbeat. Especially in such good company!
Check out Amtrak’s site for more information about the Southwest Chief!
Learn more about our train journeys on the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway or the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad!