Amtrak the USA – The Greatest Cross Country Road Trip

Train travel is way more exciting than air travel.

Five years ago, I traveled from Minneapolis/Twin City to Portland, Oregon with Amtrak. Many people simply take a few hours flight between the two destinations. In this post, I will share my experience of crossing six states (Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon) over the course of a 37-hour train trip. It was a unique experience that I will never forget.

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Twin City, MN in Fall

I have to admit that, out of all the road trips I have embarked on in mainland USA, this route, from Twin City to Portland, Oregon, beats everything else to a pulp. Over the two-and-a-half days, I woke up to the countryside of North Dakota, traveled through big Sky Montana, passed the Glacier National Park, woke up to the coastal community of Washington State, and finally headed down along the Columbia River Gorge to Portland, Oregon. It truly is an inspiring journey and the vistas in all the states are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

I did not sleep in the sleeping car, but it was equally a fun trip and I had two nights of good sleep.

My experience told me that you do not have to pay for a sleeping car to get a good night’s sleep. In fact, when the train arrives in Minneapolis from Chicago, about 2/3 of the passengers disembarked. From then on, the train had many available seats left and you could literally pick an empty row (with two seats) and lay down to sleep.

When the train arrives in Minneapolis, it was already past 9pm. If I recall correctly, at that hour or two stations ahead, there will be no announcements made that night until the following morning. Of course, employees on the train will wake you up if the train reaches your destination at midnight, as the crew knows all the passengers need some sleep and they are happy to provide a silent environment for you to do so.

I was in the economy car. In the daytime, I enjoyed the view of the countryside. At night, I slept straight till the next morning (I slept nearly 12 hours every day). I promise you that when you wake up the next morning, you will be stunned you can sleep that long without a bed.

We turned one of the cars into party car

I have taken many trains in the United States but unlike any other train, the car next to the dining car on the train turns out to be a spacious space for a party. I guess that most passengers were tired of the silence after 20 hours on the train, and desperately sought fun activities to do with others. For this reason, all of us had fun at the party.

There are alcohol beverages sold on the train, and I purchased a small bottle of wine to drink during the party. We had this lady (I do not remember her name) from Portland blasting the music on her laptop whiles others simply talked to each other, danced, and shared their stories. I remember there was this guy sharing about his jail time in the US but refusing to tell us what kind of crime he had committed. Another female passenger from Spokane (Washington) asked nearly every guy to buy her a drink and everyone seemed fine with that; she had a huge hangover but managed to get off when the train arrived in Spokane around 2am. The Amtrak crew even allowed us to use the car and threw themselves briefly into the party. What a crazy experience.

 Endless beautiful sights

I have mentioned it before, but this time I will let the pictures do the talking. In short, you will be waking up to views like this:

In North Dakota:

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Woke up to the North Dakota Country Side

Montana 

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Big Sky Montana
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Sunset over Big Sky Montana, USA

Washington State: 

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Woke up to the ocean view and knowing we entered the Washington.
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View of the Washington State from the train. We were heading down to Portland

Reached our final destination: Portland, OR 

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My first impression of Portland, Oregon

How much is the ticket? 

This trip is part of my three week Amtrak journey from Richmond Virginia to San Diego, California. I have taken multiple trains and stopped in several cities. If you decide to travel from Twin City to Portland only, you can get information about the schedule and the ticket price here.

If you decide to Amtrak from the east to west like I did, then purchase a 15-day or 30/45-day USA Rail Pass. Otherwise, you will be busting your budget on each segment you travel. My pass back in 2011 was only $389 and is only available for coach. Considering I was on the train for 75 hours (from Richmond VA to Miami, Chicago to Twin City, Twin City to Portland, Portland to San Jose CA, and San Jose to LA) and had four nights’ sleep, it is a very affordable journey.

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My train tickets and the USA Rail Pass

How to travel on Amtrak with a USA Rail Pass

Important Note: a USA Pass is not your train ticket with unlimited rides. Travel with Amtrak requires a different reservation for each segment. If you decide to travel with the USA Rail Pass, purchase the pass online first and then call the reservation agent to book your travel. Make sure to tell the agent you have a rail pass, and ask them to book the trips for you. They will send you the reservation through email.

After that, pick up both your rail pass and your tickets at one of the office or stations. To board the train, you must have both rail pass and the train ticket. For more information about travel with a USA Rail Pass, please visit here.

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Amtrak Train Station/Photo credit: Adam Watts

What to eat

As for food, you do not have to eat in the dining car, but you will find a way to get decent meals. Sometimes, the train offers $10 chicken combos, or stops at a station for more than 30 minutes and that is when most passengers hop off to grab local food. The most cost-saving way is to bring your own food and drinks on the train.

The end: everyone knows everyone on the train

I have taken flights to travel throughout the states, but how many times have I said I know everyone on the flight? None. This train makes everyone connected. There is no Internet access on the train, and everyone takes their time enjoying the view, and striking conversations with others. To this day, I still believe there is this one weird reason to connect everyone: we would rather spend more than 30 hours on the train than 2-3 hours on air travel. However, when the train arrives in Portland, we parted, and everyone moved on and continued the journey of their own.

Bridge in Portland, OR/Photo credit: Julie Cao

When the train reached its final destination, the lady who blasted music during the party insisted on offering me a ride to my hostel. We did not exchange contact information and I do not even remember her name or her appearance. I handed her a calendar I purchased from Hawaii to say thank you, for the ride and for the great times.

If you like train travel, check out my other train trips:

Around Central Alaska by Rail – Fairbanks to Anchorage (Winter Edition) 

VIA Rail Canada #14 Review – The Ocean 

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Amtrak the USA: my experience of crossing six US states by train

Julie Cao

Julie Cao is a travel blogger, travel writer, and global citizen currently living in Toronto Ontario.

19 thoughts on “Amtrak the USA – The Greatest Cross Country Road Trip

  • January 30, 2017 at 3:09 am
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    I’ve always wanted to do this! I thought it would be more expensive, but the prices don’t actually seem that bad for what you’re getting. I think I might try to do this when I get back to the U.S. later this year. Thanks for the post! 😀

    Reply
    • January 31, 2017 at 3:23 am
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      Thanks for coming Jessica! The price has jacked up last time I checked. Afterall it has been five years since I last time taken this route, but equally fun. I wish you could do the train trip this year, it is really a great road trip.

      Reply
  • January 30, 2017 at 8:13 pm
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    I do find travelling by train slightly more interesting than some other modes of transport. There is definitely more scenery and it can often be far more socially.

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    • January 31, 2017 at 3:24 am
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      There are more people prefer to travel overland over air travel due to the scenery and it is easy to social, Hard to get to know people on the plane and bus 🙂

      Reply
  • January 30, 2017 at 9:12 pm
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    I love the idea of taking Amtrak but whether I would cope with almost three days without internet is highly debatable. Saying that, the photos look absolutely incredible.

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    • January 31, 2017 at 3:27 am
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      haha I have the same thoughts when I board the train, but the scenery and the people will keep you occupied. I actually had a hard time taking pictures due to the glare from the window, but glad you like the shots!

      Reply
  • January 30, 2017 at 10:24 pm
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    I’ve heard mixed reviews about Amtrak. I have heard that you miss a lot of stops, but that it’s nice to not have to stop for gas and stuff, while still getting to see the sites as they pass. I also love the idea of meeting the other people on the train! Thanks for sharing your opinion.

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    • January 31, 2017 at 3:28 am
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      Actually I have missed stops due to the restriction of the USA Rail Pass, but it is better than driving as you mentioned, and I can enjoy the view. The sites are beautiful!

      Reply
  • January 31, 2017 at 3:27 pm
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    That’s definitely one way to see the wild west! My family did the opposite direction, St. Louis to Philadelphia. They LOVED their train ride! I’m impressed you slept well without a sleeper car. That’s good to know. Is it an option to get off the train and explore areas and then hop on the next one a day or two later? My longest train rides were in Russia! Quite interesting but I slept through most of them. That movement gets me so sleepy.

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  • January 31, 2017 at 6:06 pm
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    This is so cool. I always see deals for cross country trips with Amtrak. The scenery alone would be worth it to me. I might do this next year.

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  • February 1, 2017 at 2:15 am
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    What a neat experience! I’ve looked into train travel before, but it never worked out. Like you said the prices have gone up quite a bit.

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  • February 1, 2017 at 10:01 am
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    I agree, train travel is much exciting. I wish our railway system is as good just like the most countries. Oohh the train bullet of Japan!

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  • February 2, 2017 at 12:18 pm
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    Wow, nice place to visit. I love train travel as it could be much more exciting & fun-filled rather than air travel. Photos are stunning. Thanks for sharing.

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  • February 3, 2017 at 3:08 am
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    I’ve always wanted to take a trip via train. It’s kind of on my bucket list. I just have to figure out where we’re going and actually go!

    Reply
  • February 4, 2017 at 9:54 pm
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    I have been trying to schedule this exact trip with my husband and youngest son for ever! Reading this has made me take to my 2017 calendar to carve out the time with a vengeance.

    Reply
  • February 5, 2017 at 12:23 am
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    I like the idea of train travel but would not want to be on for that length of time except it was a once in a lifetime travel through countries by luxury train. I like that the lack of internet meant that people were interacting with one another.

    Reply
  • February 6, 2017 at 8:43 pm
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    train trips are so much fun makes so many new friends!! pictures are so gorgeous!

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  • February 9, 2017 at 1:38 pm
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    It looks really beautiful. And you’ve captured very well the light! Love it!

    Reply

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