Sleeper Train Bucket List: Empire Builder to Portland and Seattle

Marvel at the majesty of the northern United States as you travel over mountain passes, through alpine valleys and past 7,000-year-old glaciers. Glide by buttes and bluffs, along mountain streams and across the Mighty Mississippi.

Amtrak.com

Amtrak’s Empire Builder traverses the US from Chicago to Seattle and Portlane, OR. One of its biggest draws is that it runs through Glacier National Park. With two stops in in Glacier, it’s one of the most popular methods of accessing this remote destination. As with all Amtrak trains west of Chicago, the Empire Builder has a domed lounge car in addition to sleeper service.

It’s on our list because neither of us have been to the Pacific Northwest, nor have we taken a sleeper car. Plus the scenery looks great. At 45+ hours total travel time, it should let us know if we like the experience enough to attempt a week on the Trans-Siberian route.

Service / Route

The route taken by the Empire Builder begins in Chicago, IL and travels for over 2,000 miles, traversing Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington / Oregon. In Spokane, in Eastern Washington, the routes of the Seattle- and Portland-bound trains diverge and each arrives separately at its destination.

Schedule / Cost / How to Book

As of February 2021, the Empire Builder offers service 3 times per week, Westbound on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. It was a daily service prior to COVID-related service reductions and will hopefully be again in the near future.

A brief search has sleeping accommodations for the 46-hour trip starting at $527 / 18k AGR points for a single-occupancy roomette or $772 for double-occupancy. This rate includes all meals and access to the station lounge. Bedrooms, with in-suite restroom, sink, and shower, start at $2215.

Photo credit for cover image.

Our first and hopefully not final Frontier flight

The price was shocking: $285 for two round-trip tickets from Long Island to Orlando, Florida for Christmas. At this late date, every other airline was nearly $400 or more for one ticket! The last straw was when I realized that United, the cheapest “normal” option, was now charging for carry-on bags in Economy.

There’s always a catch – and there was a catch or two, including a new airport even further away than usual – but why not? Every other airline is charging a-la-carte these days. I figured for half the price it was worth a shot.

Costs

Here’s the cost breakdown for the full round-trip:

Airfare: $285 ($142.50 x 2)
Carry-on: $70 ($35 x 2)
LIRR to Ronkonkoma: $55 ($13.75 x 4 one-way off-peak fares)
Taxi to/from airport: $20 ($5 x 4)
Total: $430

Frontier Airlines?

Originally founded as a regional airline out of Denver, Frontier is an ultra-low cost airline that flies to over 50 destinations across the US and several other neighboring countries. The airline runs flights back-to-back without any spare airplanes, pilots, or time, which we found out the hard way.

It’s part of the new wave of charge-for-everything airlines and on top of its low base fee it charges for carry-ons (in addition to checked bags). Its seats, from our experience, resemble picnic chairs and are non-reclinable and without any seat-back entertainment.

It was cheap and safe, though read on for the details.

The trip

The biggest difference between the usual JFK departure is the time spent on LIRR and cost of tickets, though with hourly service to Ronkonkoma and additional service during rush-hour, it wasn’t an inconvenience.

Departing on the 3:55pm off-peak train from Penn Station, we arrived to Ronkonkoma, which is adjacent to MacArthur / Islip Airport by 5:30. Taxi-shuttles wait at the station exit to ferry passengers to the airport terminal for $5 a head. A seamless transfer really, even better than the JFK AirTrain.

By this point we were an hour past JFK, but given that we usually budget an hour to get there and $10-15 for a peak ticket on LIRR and AirTrain, this trip wasn’t much longer or more expensive.

We were at the significantly less congested security checkpoint by 5:45pm. By now you’ll notice that most of our travel “success” stories, this one included, involve skipping security or customs at JFK.

The bad

The first message arrived to us while on the train to the airport: our 7:15 flight was now delayed until 8:35. Not the best, but ok. By the time we got to the gate, they were expecting a 9:30 departure. Once we boarded the plane, we sat for another hour before takeoff as they fixed the lavatory and filled out paperwork.

Total flight time: 2 hours 20 minutes. Total delay: 3 hours 15 minutes.

Upon arrival in Orlando, possibly due to the unplanned 1am arrival, our plane was at some obscure and far-away gate that took a bus and a shuttle train to reach the main terminal.

The return

Returning from Orlando to Islip, we arrived to the airport, hustled through a daunting security line in 30 minutes, and arrived to our gate for an on-time departure.

That is, for Frontier, on-time is an hour late. We waited in the plane for an hour while a faulty overhead bin lock was secured with packing tape and the requisite paperwork was filled out.

Arriving to Islip, we caught a taxi and made the 9:11pm train back to Penn Station with time to spare. Ronkonkoma has hourly train service, even on nights and weekends, which beats pretty much everything except the A train, plus it’s nicer than the subway.

Conclusion

Frontier got us to our destination cheaply and safely, though not at the same level of comfort or predictability as really any other carrier we’ve flown, low-cost carriers included. It was fine for the short hop to Florida, and made sense for the savings alone.

In the end, Frontier even apologized to us for the 3-hour delay by sending us each a $50 travel voucher. The catch is, we have to use it on Frontier!

We’ll give it another chance, but we won’t use the airline for any cases in which we have to be comfortable for a long time, catch a connection, or be on time for anything, e.g. our “extreme getaway” flight to Barbados that we did on JetBlue.

Weekend Getaway to Storm King Art Center

Imagine you could book a semi-organized day trip outside New York without getting in a car or bus. Well, you can, with Metro-North Getaways, which offer round-trip on the train and discount museum and event tickets. We’ve been big fans of the Metro-North option for some time, having done the Farm Fresh tours twice, Dia:Beacon, and an impromptu trip to Peekskill.

We’ve been watching Master of None on Netflix and it reminded us that we really needed to get back Upstate to visit Storm King. This giant sculpture garden set in the Hudson Valley is even more impressive than what you’ve seen on film. It’s expansive, majestic, pastoral, and it made one of the most beautiful sunny day escapes from NYC we’ve had to-date.

Getting There

Metro-North to Beacon is 10 miles from Storm King across the Hudson. It takes around 1.5 hours. Normally it’s $33 round-trip off-peak and the Storm King ticket is $18. Through Getaways, it’s $40.50 for both (saving $10). If you leave on a Saturday or Sunday, you’ll be on a packed train with day hikers heading to Garrison, Breakneck Ridge, and the surrounding area, which are all in the vicinity of Beacon. It’s a cool vibe. Get there early to get a good seat or just head towards the front two cars of the train. If it’s your thing, you can drink coffee, beer, or eat on the train as well. Picnic!

Once you arrive at Beacon, check out the town (see my post for some ideas). You can check out the beautiful Dia:Beacon modern art museum which is in a former factory and also makes use of the light and shadow of the Hudson Valley to accentuate its artwork. Call a cab or use a ride-hailing app, which are newly legal in Upstate New York. Ours took 20 minutes to arrive and it was around a 25-minute, $25 ride. We had no problem finding a cab in both directions, as it’s a popular destination for day-trippers. It’s also not far from Stewart Airport, which just started offering cut-rate flights to Europe on Norwegian (see link).

Getting Around

Storm King is huge, so you can walk, rent a bike on-site, or take their tour tram. We took the tram, got off on the far end, and walked back. It took quite a while to see everything, when we return we’d leave at least 3 hours to see it all. Fridays and Saturdays in the summer they’re open until 8pm, while they close at 5:30 on Sunday.

It’s really worth seeing rather than explaining, so the rest of this post is photos.