Monthly Archives: May 2016

Seattle to Vancouver to Seattle – Which is better – Amtrak Bus or Amtrak Train

As part of our Empire Builder train trek, we were allowed to add on to our trip an extension to go up to Vancouver.  I had done research as to which mode of transportation through AMTRAK that I wanted to use.  Research aside, it came down to our schedules.  To go north, we used the AMTRAK bus that was scheduled (was being the operative word) to leave the King Street AMTRAK station at 1:45.  Now if you choose to use this method, go out the front door of the station and turn to the left, the far left and wait there for the bus.  There isn’t anyone outside to tell you this.

After standing in line and dropping our luggage off near the luggage compartments of the bus, we boarded and chose whatever seats we wanted. The seats are close together, my knees actually touched the seat in front – similar to that if an economy seat on an airplane.

The bus driver had a problem with the tickets and passengers not matching up, a broken water bottle that was full and a few other problems.  We left about 35 minutes late.  We were advised that because of this we would be in the middle of rush hour traffic.  Delightful!

Once we reached the Canadian border our driver instructed us that we needed to get off the bus, claim our luggage and go into the building where we would be interviewed by Immigration.  That took almost an hour with a full bus.  Border Control would then inspect the bus.  When this was completed we could recheck our luggage and get back onto the bus.

crossing the border by automobile
crossing the border by automobile

What was another surprise to us is that the bus didn’t go straight to Vancouver but instead made two stops at hotels.  The first in Surrey and the second in Richmond.  Since we were stopping in Richmond, we tok a different route into the city.  We finally made it to Vancouver at almost 7:00 PM – about a 5 hour and 15 minute trip.

With cabs being inexpensive in Vancouver and with the conversion factor in our favor, we took a quick trip to our hotel, the Weston Bayshore.

For our return we needed to leave on Sunday as the train on Monday morning would arrive too close to our scheduled departure on the Coast Starlight.  So that we would have some time in Seattle, we took the 6:30 AM train – being still on East Coast time, that was no problem for us.   You need to arrive at the train station about an hour before departure in order to fill out the forms needed for entry back into the United States.

departing Vancouver
departing Vancouver

We stood in the line, received our seat assignments and then proceeded to be cleared through US Customs and  Border Control right before we boarded.  We were also told that that Customs and Border Control would go through the train car by car and we needed to stay in our seat.  They would even check the restrooms if someone was in there.  Doing this at the station and on the train saved us some time but the route we took, along the coast, was longer than the road that the bus was on.  We also had much more room on the train and we were comfortable.

seats on the train from Vancouver
seats on the train from Vancouver

We left Vancouver at 6:30 and arrived at the King Street Seattle station at 10:55 a total of 4 1/2 hours.

It’s your choice which you choose but if I were to do it again, I’d take the train – more comfortable and a much more scenic route.

Seattle – Our Layover and What We Did

We chose to continue our trip after we got off the Empire Builder and took the AMTRAK bus to Vancouver. We had about 4 hours between our arrival in Seattle and our departure. Not one to miss an opportunity to explore, we were off.

In the terminal in Seattle, if you go to the ticketing counter, they will help you in holding your luggage. They do this because the room where the locker is store is not always manned. The cost is $4 per piece .

King Street Station, Seattle
King Street Station, Seattle

We left the train station and walked down to Pike’s Public Market. We were so hungry because that morning on the train, the breakfast was open from 5:30 AM till 7:00 AM. With all the time changes, it was not a problem getting up for breakfast at that time.

What I love about Pike’s Market are the flowers that they sell and have arranged in bouquets. They are so fragrant, so colorful and so inexpensive. One of my favorite flowers is the peony and you could get a beautiful arrangement with white peonies, dark purple irises, purple delphiniums and other beautiful filler flowers for $10!

Rows and rows of beautiful floral bouquets many featuring peonies and irises
Rows and rows of beautiful floral bouquets many featuring peonies and irises

Pike Market is known for a fish stall that throws the fish to the wrapper once you have selected your piece to bring home. It gets very crowded and when a fish is thrown, loud applause follows in appreciation. It is a sight to behold and if you haven’t seen it, look for a crowd around a fish stall.

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A new meaning to the term “flying fish”

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We found Pike Barbeque inside the market – only 7 stools but worth waiting for a stool – do not attempt to eat this sandwich on your lap. It is juicy with lots of sauce on it. In fact, they dip the top bun in sauce before putting it on the sandwich. Being from Virginia, I am somewhat of a barbeque snob but this was very, very good. We shared the brisket sandwich and I was licking my lips and fingers afterwards.  If barbeque is not your thing, go downstairs and you will find a restaurant that serves local fish as well as Dungeness crab. There are many other choices for lunch so walk around first and find what you want.IMG_0775

What I like about this area is the complete diversity of shops although many are associated with food in some ways. There was a Russian restaurant, Turkish, cheese making, a pear store, hot dogs and so much more. I wish I had a larger stomach and larger clothing so I could have a sample of all of these tempting tasty treats.

For those that may be coming to Seattle for the first time and have a little more time, please allow me to make recommendation – go down along the waterfront and take the cruise to Tillicum Village on Blake Island for the Native American Dinner Show. The ferry ride out to the island is beautiful and the native story and the salmon dinner (you can request chicken at time of booking) is delicious. Walk around the island before or after the show.  This will be one of your highlights of your trip.

at the Wharf
at the Wharf

We walked back to King Street Station in time for our bus to Vancouver. Since we took the bus up to Vancouver and the train back to Seattle, I’ll write a blog post comparing both means of travel.

All Aboard – AMTRAK’s Empire Builder

This trip was booked last December transferring points from my Ultimate Rewards account to AMTRAK.  This is no longer available.  You can read about it here.

We left the Holiday Inn and Suites and walked directly to Union Station going in the entrance that I described in my previous post. Inside the lounge is a checked bag room where we ditched our bags so we could still walk around the city and get some breakfast. You do need to show your ticket once you enter the lounge.

Entrance to the lounge
Entrance to the lounge
early morning at the lounge in Union Station, Chicago. It will get much more crowded the closer to departure.
Early morning at the lounge in Union Station, Chicago. It will get much more crowded  closer to departure.

The lounge that we used will be closed in a few weeks and a new lounge will be opened, probably around the second week of June. The new lounge will have showers, more seating, and will be located in the Great Hall. In the lounge were hot and cold drinks and snacks like potato chips, pre-packaged breakfast rolls and nachos.  Here is a link to the new lounge.

After checking our bags, we left the station and headed to the French Market which we had discovered the day before. I had one of the best breakfasts that I’ve ever had – a freshly made crepe filled with fresh strawberries, crème fraiche, and almonds. Delicious !  Blogger Hubby had the crepe with lox, cream cheese, tomatoes and red onions. There were tables at the back of the market and outside for you to sit and enjoy your food.

The best breakfast ever!
The best breakfast ever!

With no bags and still a few hours before we needed to be back at the station, we walked around the city more. We walked over the to canal where tourists boats took passengers on a city tour.

IMG_0574We found the Chicago Cultural Center and went in – free admittance is always an incentive. They have two beautiful rotundas and one was by Louis Tiffany. This building was the former Chicago Public Library.

IMG_0577Close by was Millenium Park and the Chicago Art Museum – both worth walking to and through.  Throughout the park we saw a number of fountains, sculptures that we found very unique.IMG_0585

 

IMG_0591Did you know that the famed Rt. 66 begins in Chicago?IMG_0593

Throughout the city were beautiful tulips in bloom as well as other sidewalk arrangements in concrete planters – some with pussy willows which I hadn’t seen in a long time.   Another building that we saw was the Board of Trade building – very unique with huge eagles at the top corners of the building almost looking like gargoyles.

When we returned to the lounge, it was crowded and difficult to find seating. There are two screens on the walls – one for arrivals and one for departures. You will see the same name of trains so be sure you know what you are looking at. For example our train, The Empire Builder was arriving at 3:00 yet our train, the Empire Builder was leaving at 2:15.

Traveling in a sleeper, we had priority boarding. They will call you and open the door to the track. Everyone stops at the first car to see if it is theirs. If you are going to Washington State, keep moving. Our train splits in Spokane during the – the cars at the end are going toward Portland and the cars in front of the dining car are going to Seattle. That clue will tell you where your car will be.

Our Room – To get to our room, we entered the train and had to walk up a narrow stairway. If you have a large suitcase that you won’t need in your room, you can leave it on the first floor in the luggage area. We had the larger bedroom and they were denoted with a letter – we were in “D”. The smaller rooms had numbers. That tip might get you in the correct corridor since you can go left or right at the top of the stairs.

The lower level had rooms as well though I think they were smaller rooms, community showers and extra toilets (we were warned that there is no ventilation in the community bathrooms). Yes, train bedrooms are small. We knew that and expected it. The bathroom is a combination toilet/shower. To take a shower, put down the lid on the toilet and turn the water on. Since there is a lip to get into the bathroom, the water stays in the bathroom. You do have the option of using one of the community showers if you want something larger. Tip – put down the lid to the toilet to prevent it from crashing down in the middle of the night when you hit a rough patch of tracks.   We propped open the bathroom with a backpack so we could see the blue nightlight in the bathroom. Again, we didn’t want the door slamming in the middle of the night.  To get more air or less air, look to the ceiling to open or close the vents.

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Tip: If you are charging electronics, you might want to bring an extension card as one outlet is on the wall by the sink mirror and the other is on the wall by your head. You don’t want your electronics dangling as you recharge them.

We didn’t sleep well the first night because the train was always blowing their horns due to all the train crossings that we were passing.  You’ll get to know the whistle – 2 long, 1 shorter and 1 long.  Sometimes it seemed as though when the first set of whistles ended, the next one began.

The top bunk, which I had, was doable.  In the fact that there isn’t much turn around in and the ceiling was about 2 feet (or a little less) from my bed.  Getting up wasn’t a problem but getting down was (for me) as trying to turn around to come down the ladder was difficult since there wasn’t much room to turn around in.  I ended up putting my foot on the corner of the vanity and then the other on Blogger Hubby’s bed.  Not pretty but I did it.

We both brought carry-on luggage and a backpack. I would not bring anymore than that as they only place to store the luggage is under the bench sofa and chair in the room and a very small shelf above he chair. The rooms are small and compact and for just two nights on the train (or longer for us since we are continuing on) you really don’t need much. My concern in packing is whether the train ran hot or cold – I found this particular car on this particular day ran right in the middle. I have on a sleeveless top with a lightweight sweater and long pants though in the evening it did get a little cooler but never, in my mind, cold.  We’ve been told the Super Chief runs very cold.

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OBSERVATION CAR – had both seats and booths with a table. Downstairs was a lounge car where you could buy snacks as well as sit at one of their few tables. On our train were two Park Service Trails and Rails volunteers that gave a small narrative when we were going by a few things. If you brought your National Park Service passport book, they will stamp it for you (I had mine). Tip: there are some seats with 110 volt plugs so you can charge your electronics there as well. TIP – I turned on my Google Maps app while in the observation deck to see where we were and what we were passing.   There is no train wifi so I was careful how much cellular data I was using.

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DINING CAR – When you first board, stay in your room because a dining steward will come by and you can make reservations for dinner. Dining is about on par with airline food. For dinner I had the signature steak which was okay, baked potato and very overcooked medley of veggies. The salad was very fresh and served with packets of Paul Newman salad dressing. Second night I had the herb chicken which was much better and Blogger Hubby had the seafood shrimp/crab cakes and he thought they were very good.  Dessert was a good portion, neither too large or too small. All of this is served on plastic plates rather than the china that AMTRAK used to serve food on. Your first class accommodations include your meals on board and a drink. Beer and wine are a separate charge and they are available in the dining car. One thing to remember, although your meals are included in your accommodation if you are a first class passenger, you need to remember to tip the wait staff in the dining room. It also appears that the menu is the same on all the trains with a dining room. TIP: your first night when you leave Chicago, sit on the right side of the dining car as you are going forward and sit so you are facing forward. We had the 7:15 dinner and you could see the sun setting over the Mississippi – a bright orange ball and it was beautiful. Unfortunately we were not sitting on the correct side or facing the correct direction to get a picture but it was beautiful

Two rules that are strictly enforced on AMTRAK – no smoking and you always must wear shoes when walking around the train.

NOTE:  If you do plan to experience the Empire Builder, I strongly encourage you to download this PDF of the train route.  It gives you information on the train as well as the stops that it makes.  It’s interesting to know a little information about the cities that you are stopping or passing through.

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We have met very interesting people on this journey so far either at meal time (4 to a table) or in the observation car.  We were the only ones doing a train trek.  Many were going to or from vacation, family celebrations or just as a means to travel.  I was very pleasantly surprised at how much room there was in the coach section with leg rests and room between the seat in front of you – so unlike air travel.

More to come tomorrow.  If you have any particular questions, drop me a line and I’ll try to answer as soon as  can.

All Aboard…..

 

AMTRAK Bound

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things.” That’s my idea behind this blog – sharing what I’ve learned and learning something from you, my faithful readers. I’ve got some sharing to do today and hopefully, if I have wifi, I’ll be doing it for a few days, week or more!

For those who have been with me for 6 months or longer, you may recall that Blogger Hubby and I booked a trip on AMTRAK for a transcontinental train trip – an epic trip by our standards. This was accomplished by transferring some Ultimate Rewards from my Chase credit cards to AMRAK (no longer a transfer partner) and it was before AMTRAK changed their miles program requiring more miles rather than the zone based award chart that I used.

Today we positioned ourselves to get ready to board our train tomorrow. Blogger Hubby was in Michigan, I was in Virginia. We both arrived in O’Hare about 30 minutes apart from each other. It was nice to see his smiling, welcoming face as I left the plane. That was our first hurdle – be able to meet each other though contingent plans were in place if either one of us was delayed.  By the way, neither one of us had problems with TSA though we were not at major city airports.

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We had made reservations to spend the night at the Holiday Inn and Suites on West Harrison Street in Chicago. We used the points that I had been accumulating for quite awhile through nights that I’ve stayed, promotions for stays as well as filling out 97 index cards to enter their winter promotion “The Endless Surprise”.

Getting to this hotel was much easier than I had expected and glad that I had done some homework. At O’Hare we were able to catch the CTA Blue line train in the direction of Forest Hills (tip – they all head for Forest Hills at O’Hare since O”Hare is at the end of the line). At the train station, you go to the kiosk and purchase a single ticket which costs $5, tap it at the turnstyle and then go down the escalator to the tracks. It took about 45 minutes to get to our stop – Clinton. We walked out to the right, up the stairs and in complete view of the Holiday Inn.

Walking in to the Holiday Inn and Suites we were warmly greeted – the warmest greeting I’ve ever had at any Holiday Inn. We were given tickets to a complimentary glass of wine in the attached restaurant, two bottles of water, 500 welcome points and a typed but had signed note from the Front Desk Manager welcoming us. We went over a few questions we had about where to eat lunch, dinner, where Union Station was, etc. A local map was given to us and they circled where we needed to go, including a grocery store and liquor store to purchase a bottle of wine to bring on board the train.

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We were upgraded to a suite with two double beds, and another room with couch, chair, television, refrigerator, microwave and more. The view was not much, a ramp going up to the highway.

I mentioned that I wanted Chicago pizza for lunch and they quickly directed us to Giordano’s, about a 7 minute walk from the hotel. One of the specials was a personal size pizza with soup or salad and a soft drink.  This was perfect for what we needed. Not sure if I liked this pizza – it almost seemed like an upside down pizza with pepperoni on the bottom, then the cheese and a layer of sauce on top. Like a pie, the crust came up the sides to the top. Unfortunately for me, it seemed almost too hard, not the softer crust that I was used it. It’s probably just a matter of preference .

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We continued our walking tour of Chicago, or at least of our neighborhood. Just up a block from the restaurant was the Hellenic Museum. Neither one of us is Greek but we did go to Greece a few years ago and I always enjoyed ancient history. The price was $10 each or $8 for seniors! They had a special art exhibit on the work of the actor Anthony Quinn. He had a special affinity for anything Greek since he was in Zorba the Greek.   We found his paintings, his sculptures and his story extremely interesting.   Upstairs were two more exhibits – one of the modern Olympics which began in Athens in 1896 and the other on the Creation of the Aegean Archipelago. The few personal stories that we read about American competitors were very inspiring. Since the Olympics were new, there was no American organization to sponsor them and many people had not heard of them. There were some competitors who were studying at Harvard who had to quit school in order to compete. If you go to this museum or are interested in this story, I’m sure you can google the information.

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As you might be able to guess, the Hellenic Museum was in Chicago’s Greek Town. The restaurant that had been recommended to us was Greek Islands. We went there to “scoped” it out. The menu looked authentic and the prices weren’t bad. We planned on eating dinner there till we hit a brick road in being very tired and ended up eating instead at the Holiday Inn restaurant. (It was so-so).

We continued our walking of Chicago finding the French Market, which have many different types food stalls in a converted warehouse. The sights, the smells, the French macaroons (my favorite cookie) and the cheeses all delighted our senses and we decided this was where we were going to eat breakfast the next day since the hotel did not have complimentary breakfast. I highly recommend coming here. When we came back the next morning, my breakfast was at the Crepe stand – freshly made crepe filled with strawberries, almonds and crème fraiche – what could be better. Blogger Hubby had the crepe that was filled with lox, cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes and spinach.

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Evening at the hotel – although I had indicated that I liked our hotel, how easy it was to get there on the train from the airport as well as to other places, what I didn’t like was the street noise. In part that may have been because we were on the second floor, not that far from the trucks and cars on the ramp going to the expressway. If you decide to stay at this Holiday Inn, ask for a room on a higher floor – you’ll thank me for your good night sleep. We did wonder as we got into bed if noise was going to be a problem when we saw ear plugs on our nightstand. We were so tired that nothing kept me awake.

Union Station – there are multiple entrances to Union Station. What we found for this journey was to not go into the iconic building with Union Station lettering on it. You will do a lot of walking inside if you are looking for the passenger assistance counter, the ticketing office or (for at least a few weeks) the lounge. Instead, go across the street where there is a black office building that houses the FTC (Fitness Training Center). Just after the FTC, you’ll see a sign for Union Station – go in that door, go down the escalator and you’ll find all that you need there. Since we had our confirmation number but no tickets we went to the ticketing counter the day before – we like to be ready and still remember last year’s misadventure when we were at the wrong train station in Budapest With ticket in hand we were ready to begin our traveling train adventure the next day.

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