It’s an impractical proposition: spending 24 hours to ride the rails, when a flight could get you from Chicago to D.C. in less than a tenth of the time.
However, taking the train can be an amazing experience. You’ve got to be flexible with schedules and expectations, but overall, it’s a great way to get from the proverbial Point A to Point B, enjoying a different pace and experience along the way.
Amtrak’s Cardinal route has a scheduled travel time of just over 24 hours from Chicago to D.C. Coach and business class seats are comfortable, but don’t lie flat and also have shared bathrooms. If you opt for dedicated sleeping accommodations, there are two options: “roomettes” or larger bedrooms. Both have private washroom access, a sleeper car attendant, and meals included.
We waited for the Cardinal in the recently renovated Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago’s Union Station. The comfortable, multi-level space had lots of seating, snacks, soft drinks, and a cash bar. The Wi-Fi worked well, and there were plenty of places to power up devices before departure.
The Cardinal was scheduled to leave Chicago at 5:45 p.m. At 5 p.m., an announcement was made that preferred status passengers should proceed to the boarding area. There was only one sleeper car, which made boarding relatively easy. We showed our ticket to the conductor on the platform and hopped on board.
We quickly found our roomette--there were a dozen in all--and settled in. It was a snug space (4 by 6 feet) with two seats facing each other and a fold-down table in between. A tiny sink was to the side of one seat; curtains and a sliding glass door provided privacy. The best feature: an enormous picture window.
Quick tip: If you’re traveling with a lot of luggage, pack a small overnight bag to bring into your roomette or bedroom. There is a private checked luggage area in the sleeper car for larger items.
As soon as we’d scoped out the space, our attendant came by to introduce himself. A few minutes later, the train’s whistle blew, and we were pulling out of the station.
As the train glided through Chicago’s outer suburbs, our attendant asked which dinner seating we’d like. We took the later option.
The dining car consisted of eight booths, set for four diners each. We had two dinners, breakfast, and lunch on the train. Each time, we sat with new people and enjoyed our meal-time conversations. Our takeaway: Don’t expect to eat solo.
The food, while decent, is reheated instead of freshly prepared. Overall, the offerings were on par with an Applebee’s or Friday’s, including Mediterranean chicken and beef bourguignon. Soft drinks and dessert were included; cocktails, wine, and beer cost extra.
A dining car attendant takes your order and serves your food. Even though the meals are included in a sleeper car ticket, don’t forget to tip appropriately--and in cash.
There is a snack bar available, but we brought our own munchies. Sleeper car customers can also BYOB, but personal alcohol can’t be consumed in open areas. That said, it was great to enjoy a cocktail or two in our roomette during the trip! The attendant will even bring disposable cups and ice. There was also water and coffee available at all times at the end of the sleeper car.
After dinner, we made our way back to the roomette, which our attendant had converted for sleeping. There were twin bunks: one made from folding down the lower seats, the other from the upper berth. There were crisp linens, pillows, and blankets, but zero room to maneuver! We took turns going down to the hall to the bathroom to change into pajamas and wash up, then got settled in.
The beds were surprisingly comfortable, and the swaying motion of the train put us to sleep quickly. I did wake up several times when the train blew its horn at crossings, but quickly drifted off again. The next morning, the train was pulling into Cincinnati.
The bathroom where we changed into our pajamas is also where we showered. Amtrak provides fresh towels and soap; you bring your favorite toiletries, hairdryer, and flip-flops. The shower was small, but clean. Word to the wise: There are grip bars. Use them! The train will make starts and stops. You don’t want to go flying while freshening up.
While there was one shower for all 12 roomettes, we didn’t once have to wait to access it.
We chose the Cardinal because of its route. It dips down through Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky, meanders eastward through West Virginia, then goes up through Virginia and into the nation’s capital.
We were astounded by what we saw from our roomette and the dining car. Especially pretty were the tiny towns that dotted the Ohio River outside Cincinnati and through Kentucky. When we reached Charleston, West Virginia, a national park ranger got on the loudspeaker and explained points of interest, including the tunnel where the legendary John Henry laid down his hammer. It was a terrific touch that brought the ride to life. The New River, with its gorge, bridge, and white-washed rafters, was spectacular. We were amazed: This is a hidden part of America we’d never seen.
By the time we rolled out of the Allegheny Mountains, we were wishing the trip wouldn’t end. Although the ride took four hours longer than scheduled, pulling into D.C. at around 9 p.m., we didn’t regret a single moment of the adventure.
A few things to keep in mind:
Tickets for sleeping accommodations are not cheap. We paid $400 for our roomette, which barely accommodated two people. This is not the Ritz. Accommodations are fine, but consider this a glamping-type situation instead of a luxe experience.
The train is often late. Amtrak shares the rails, and must wait on the tracks while freight trains pass. If you have to make a connection or are in a rush, do not take the train!
There’s no in-room entertainment, and Wi-Fi on the train is spotty. Plan to bring books, download podcasts in advance, and perhaps pack a deck of cards.
That said, the best show is right outside your window, as you relax, unwind, and see America in a way that few of us have the time to anymore. We loved the experience of riding the rails.
Photo Credit: Mike Petrucci / Unsplash