[Amtrak trip] 24h in Chicago (1)

Day 2. Chicago
Amtrak 440 Lake Shore Limited, Reserved Coach
Arrival  11:15 AM (1.5 hour delay)

3:00 AM Passing Cleveland
The Amtrak train from Boston ran, ran, ran… and arrived at Cleveland around 3:00 AM. The train was still whistling like an owl. Another 30 minutes break was given but at this time not many people got out. I went back to sleep as well.

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Dawn at Lake Erie, right after Cleveland station

 

6:00 AM Amtrak Coffee
The Sun has started to come up. Only then I realized the train had been running right beside Lake Erie for a while. It looked like an ocean to me, endless water stretching far toward the horizon. The dawn came with gray fog delivering dreamy and unrealistic scenery. I could not go back to sleep. Ate left over fried rice from the night before as a simple breakfast and drank $2.75 coffee from the dining car to kick off the day.

10:50 AM–>9:50 AM (!)
I was so very curious about when the time would change… you know, from eastern time to central time. I did some research and learned that it should be around La Porte, Indiana. Coming from South Korea with only one time zone, I have never experienced a time change on the ground so I got excited. I wanted to capture the moment of the time change. And then, I was drawing something on my sketchbook, Bam! the time was not 10:50 AM but 9:50 AM instead.
I felt like it was a good deal because I have earned an extra hour of my life. But then I realized that it is now two more hours of train ride instead of one. 😛

11:30 AM Arrival at Chicago
The train arrived at Chicago one and half hour late. Looking at the map, I was waiting Lake Michigan to be seen through the window but after passing White Sox baseball field, the train just glided into Chicago Union Station. I have heard that the station is beautiful but too bad it was under construction.

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Here comes Chicago!

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On a train going into Chicago, White Sox Stadium

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Chicago Union Station

I bought 3 days public transportation pass ($20.00+$5.00 card deposit) that can be used both for buses and subways. After 30 minutes bus ride I checked in at Holiday Inn Express near Magnificent Mile. The hotel was compact, clean, and well equipped. I liked it because it had a refrigerator! (Is it only me who feel like hotels are getting rid of refrigerators recently?)

1:00 PM Navy Pier+Chicago Deep Dish Pizza
Chicago is known to be THE ‘foody’ city. I had made a reservation for a  4:00 PM architecture tour so decided to go for a simple lunch. The first lunch should be symbolic, right? So I went for Chicago pizza, the deep dish pizza at Giordano’s Pizza at Navy Pier! This way I could enjoy both pizza and Navy Pier at once.

Navy Pier (built in 1916) used to be (until last year) the most visited spot in Chicago (now it is Millennium Park.) 9.3 million people visited Navy Pier in the year 2016. Built as ‘Municipal Pier’ for recreational purposes, it was used as a training site for the World War I soldiers and was named  ‘Navy Pier’ to honor the men and women who fought for the country. Over the time “the facility has evolved into a premiere entertainment and exposition center”, according to their website. The view looking out to the horizontal line of Lake Michigan was magnificent.

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View from Navy Pier

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View from Navy Pier

We didn’t wait long to be seated outside at the restaurant (Giordano’s Pizza at Navy Pier.) However I was told that I must wait 45~60 minutes for deep dish pizza. Of course, I chose to wait! After drinking about 1.5 glasses of Diet Pepsi, I was blessed with deeeeeeep, stuffed, delicious CHICAGO deep dish pizza.

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Deeeep dish pizza at Giordano’s

4:00 PM CAF Architecture Boat Tour

Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) offers architecture boat tour ($47.00, 1.5 hour) from spring to late summer. The ticket sells out fast, so I made an online reservation  for 4:00 PM tour  on the day before.

The boat went up and down the Chicago river and the docent told us interesting stories about the famous Chicago buildings. According to the excellent docent Ross, Chicago “goes nuts about architecture” and Chicago is like “Grand Canyon of architecture.” It surely seemed so! I could learn a lot about the past, present, and future of Chicago architecture.

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View from CAF architecture boat tour, El train and ‘Upside Down’ building (150 North Riverside)

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(from the left) Corn buildings (Marina Towers), a building by Mies van der Rohe, Trump Tower

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Very very big sign in front of Trump Tower Chicago

7:05 PM Baseball game at Wrigley Field

After finishing the architecture tour, we went to the famous Wrigley Field to watch Chicago Cubs vs Arizona D-back baseball game. The subway was very convenient and the ballpark was surprisingly close to the subway station (Red line: Addison), only about one minute walk.

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Wrigley Field

Everybody was wearing Cubs bluish something except us. The ball park (opened in 1914), second oldest in the US to Fenway Park in Boston, was truly unique with ivy trees climbing up the red brick fences. After over-eating Chicago deep dish pizza, it was impossible for me to go for a hot dog. Instead, I drank a can of beer and ate a small cup of ice cream to get one of those cute little blue souvenir cup with red ‘C.’

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Souvenir cup ice cream at Wrigley Field

We sat near a big group of Javier Baez fans wildly shouting out his name. I also rooted for Cubs (despite being a Red Sox fan), but unfortunately Cubs lost to D-backs five to one.

*** Things I learned today ***

  1. The automatic doors between the cars on the Amtrak trains have ‘open’ buttons at the bottom too so you can kick open the door while carrying two cups of coffee from a dining car.
  2. Amtrak trains are often delayed, so no tight planning on the day of arrival.
  3. On a boat tour, a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are must (on a sunny day.)
  4. At Wrigley Field, they don’t check your ID for beers unless you are under 35 (not like Fenway Park or Yankees Stadium where you get ID checked even if you are over 70!)
  5. The train whistles pretty much throughout the night, so it is better to sit as far from the front as possible (if you have a choice.)

[Amtrak trip] Boston to Chicago

07/23/2018
Day 1. Boston –> Chicago

Amtrak 440 Lake Shore Limited, Reserved Coach
Departure 1:20 PM
Arrival  9:45 AM (next day)

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from Boston to Chicago by Lake Shore Limited

After shipping the furniture and stuffs to South Korea in the morning, I grabbed a Lyft ride and headed to Boston South Station. The journey begins today: a trip from Boston all the way to Seattle with Amtrak USA rail pass!

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Boston South Station

1:20 PM Boston, MA

The first train I am taking is Amtrak 449, Lake Shore Limited, running from Boston to Chicago. The train was supposed to be full, but since Boston was the starting station, it was not hard to get a seat I preferred. I looked at the map and it seemed like the right hand side seats will have better view when I pass the big lakes of Midwest (will find out tomorrow morning!), so I chose to sit at one of the right hand side seat. I was planning to sit on a quite car, but when I asked the staff he said “no quite car on this train.”

There were signs saying ‘seats for groups’ that made me think the seats were for well… big ‘groups.’ But the staff assisted us (party of two) to sit on one of  those seats. I asked “are those not for groups?” and the staff kindly answered “yes, groups like two people groups.”

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Two or more persons = group

The train departed on time. I had to show to the staff both the USA rail pass and the reservation ticket. (Didn’t check the passport in my case.)

Lake Shore Limitied is an overnight train. I did not get a sleeping car because the price seemed too expensive. (USA rail pass holders can ride on reserved coach seats for free. You can pay extra dollars and upgrade the seats to business seats or sleeping cars.) Forgot the exact amount but the extra money was around 500 dollars, which was like five star hotels. If you reserve a sleeping car, you get free meals for the entire trip so it sounded attractive, but it was waaaaay over the budget so I decided to stick with a reserved coach seat for this train.

The reserved coach seats had more leg rooms than I expected, something like business class seats of DOMESTIC flights. Being 5’6″ (169cm), I could stretch my legs all the way. There are feet and legs rest too and the chairs recline to about 45 degrees. I had very little sleep the night before, so took some nice rest.

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Reserved Coach in Lake Line Limited

5:09 PM Pittsfield, MA

The speed of the train was perfect for enjoying the charming scenery of Massachusetts, not too fast nor not too slow. After having some fun… hmm, just looking outside the window, it came to my mind that it would be wonderful if I could track and record my routes throughout the journey. I did some research with free wifi on board and purchased an iPhone app called GPS Tracks ($3.99)

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GPS Tracks screen shot: from Pittsfield to Rochester

6:30 PM Albany- Renssenlaer, NY

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thirty minutes break at Albany, NY

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scenery of Mohawk river near Albany

Now the train was running alongside a river (Mohawk River according to my GPS Tracks.) After fiver hours from the departure, the train made 30 minutes stop at Albany- Renssenlaer, NY. In here the train was joined by travelers from New York City. People who were dying to smoke cigarettes hopped off the train and smoked on the platform. I stepped outside to stretch my stiff arms, legs, back… etc. Now the train was almost full and the staffs did their best to arrange the best seats for everybody.
The train turned off electricity here and I learned that you should not use toilets while electricity is off. One woman was saying she was sorry, could not flush because it was ‘off.’ Good to learn!
Train departed at 7:05 PM. I ate fried rice I bought from South Station (there’s also a reasonably priced dining car on board) as a dinner and went back to sleep.

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dining car on Lake Shore Limited

12:08 (+1) Rochester, NY

Woke up at around 11:00PM and went to the restroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. The structure of the washing basin was somewhat not suitable for washing faces, so I decided just to brush my teeth. Wet tissues I brought came in handy to wipe off some sunscreens from my face.
The train is now heading west. It stopped for about 20~30 minutes somewhere (to make a way for a freight train?) and had some slow moving times here and there, so at this point we are about one hour behind the schedule.
The train was a bit shaky and rattling, but most of the travelers seemed very comfortable, sleeping like babies. The car is as quite as any peaceful quite car. Only sound I can hear now is the whistles of hard working good boy, Lake Shore Limited.

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midnight at Rochester, NY Amtrak station

***Something I learned today***

  1. Good to carry wet tissues around
  2. Reserved coach seats on long trains are pretty comfortable
  3. Should not use the restroom on board when electricity if off
  4. ‘Group’ means two or more persons
  5. Amtrak Timetable come in handy. Good to know when and where the next stop is
  6. Amtrak wifi works pretty well, though sometimes unstable
  7. Temperature on board is pretty low (strong A/C), so very good idea to bring some kind of blanket (I brought one of those compact down blankets made for camping)
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Stopping stations of Lake Shore Limited, from Amtrak Timetable

[Amtrak US #6] making train reservations

After purchasing a USA rail pass and making a travel plan, it was time to make reservations for each train ride. The pass is just a proof that I can do 12 segments of ride within one month. To get a seat for the specific train ride, I needed to make a reservation in advance.

There are two ways to do it.

  1. To make reservation for each train ride as a trip goes on… one or two ride(s) at a time on the road. –> Better if you left your trip schedule to be very flexible.
  2. To make all the reservations at once, before your first trip. –> Better if you made detailed plan for the whole trip in advance. It’s mostly okay to change the reservations afterward, so there’s not too much risk. And it is a MUST if you are going for sleeping cars because they tend to get sold out fast (especially in summer.)

I pretty much finished to make the travel plan of the entire trip and decided to go for #2, to make reservations for the whole trip at once.

I somehow imagined I could do this online, perhaps maybe on Amtrak website. But I was wrong! Amtrak’s instruction on the website was to make reservations by calling them (1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245)), yes, over the phone. (Or you should send an e-mail if you are outside the US.)

This got me a bit scared because as a non-native English speaker, I wasn’t sure if I could complete the task. I had to make reservations for eight train trips and two thruway bus rides (transfer bus that you can ride with USA rail pass) and that seemed a bit too complicated task to finish over a telephone call. I am now living in the US, so I did not qualify for an e-mail reservation thing. Visiting an Amtrak station seemed like the easiest way, since I would be able to hand over to a staff the printed out timetable I made for my trip. One problem was that visiting the station was NOT stated as an option on Amtrak website.

I googled in desperation and found conflicting results. Somebody said that I should stick with telephone reservations, but another one insisted that I didn’t need to and I should just visit the Amtrak station to make reservations.

So, I decided whatever!… to visit the Amtrak station and give it a try. If they say ‘no,’ I will just make a reservation at the station with my cell phone, right? Moreover, I need to visit the station once anyway to pick up my pass, so why not at least ask?

The nearest Amtrak station from my home is (the beautiful) Boston South Station. I could  easily find the Amtrak office on the first floor.

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Amtrak office at Boston South Station

Luckily for me, there was not many customers at the office on the Thursday afternoon.  And more luckily for me, the Amtrak staff I walked up to was a really nice lady who was so very willing to help. I asked her if I could pick up my USA rail pass and make reservations for the train rides too. “Sure,” she said without a hesitation. Very relieved, I gave her my reservation number, passport, and the train schedule table that I made before.

She seemed a bit surprised to see so many lines of rides, but quickly returned calm and made each reservation one by one for me. The process took quite a long time, about thirty minutes in total. The lady had to struggle with some kind of Amtrak system problem and somebody came to help etc… but at the end the task was successfully completed. I came out the station with my new USA Rail pass, and tickets for the every train rides from Boston all the way to the west.

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The kind Amtrak staff printed out the whole schedule for me after finishing the reservation

But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end here. I needed to add one more train ride and make time change for another. So I visited the same station again. I thought it would be no problem at all but this time the staff was not too kind to handle the matter. There were more customers in line (like three or four, then later none) and the staff (a young man this time) seemed very annoyed that he had to do something for the USA Rail pass, making sounds of dissatisfaction with whatever he could. He wasn’t shy to let me know that he was unhappy to meet USA Amtrak traveler and told me “this is why we tell you to do it by phone.” I didn’t understand what ‘this’ was, but guessed it might be very hard to carry out the task related to USA rail pass by Amtrak software because he was saying ‘this’ while looking at the monitor and hitting the keyboard hard. I felt like a kiddo in a principal’s office and almost said I was sorry. But anyway, after like ten minutes I successfully got the new tickets!

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Ready to go! All the tickets for the one month Amtrak train trip

So for the train ride reservation, I suggest from my experience that:

  1. make reservation by phone or e-mail in advance if you are comfortable with phone calls. However, it doesn’t mean you have to do it by phone. You technically can make reservations at the station. Amtrak staffs can do this, but sometimes they don’t want to… so art of negotiation might be needed.
  2. if you are to visit the Amtrak office, choose the time that are not too busy… weekday afternoon for example.

And one suggestion for Amtrak: why don’t you make an easy online reservation system for USA rail pass so you can safe both staff members’  and travelers’ time?

[Amtrak US #5] planning detailed schedule

After drawing the BIG PICTURE on how I wanted to travel the US (with 30 days of USA rail pass), now it is time to make more detailed plan. You have to make reservation for the each train ride, even if you have the pass (will get back to this is later posts) meaning you have to know specific date/time of the trains you want to ride.

I sort of decided the starting date to be July 23rd and ending date to be around one month after that. According to the big picture I want to visit about ten cities (including Grand Canyon), so that means I will spend 2~4 days in each. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well… I don’t know if there’s an easier way, but for me it was a bit complicated task to finish (took whole afternoon.) Maybe it was because I started from punching in the cities on Amtrak reservation site, to find out the best choice of train to hop in. For example, I punched in Boston–>Chicago on July 23rd like this.

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This route was no problem because there’s only one, daily train from Boston to Chicago. I HAVE TO take THE train. But this kind of searching became a problem later because for some of the route, the train was not there everyday! For example from New Orleans to Houston the train leaves only Mon, Wed, and Saturday.   So if you punch in, for instance,  Sunday as a starting day you get something like this. Notice of ‘no train available’ and only one alternative. I felt like ‘hmm…. what if there’s better alternatives?’

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You can play around with Amtrak reservation system punching in random dates, but for me, it did not seem efficient.

Then I found the old fashioned Amtrak time table booklet!

It is a bit ironic because yes, it is old fashioned booklet but Amtrak does not print the hard copy (one that you can pick up at the train station) anymore (at least it seems… making many people furious <related discussion>.) But the good new is that you can still acquire free pdf booklet of the national timetable on Amtrak website. ***Here is downloadable link of June 2018 version of the Amtrak System Timetable***

It is 139 pages pdf of booklet that you can search cities easily by ‘ctrl/cmd+f’. I am a ‘paper’ person so I also printed out the whole booklet.

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<Amtrak System Timetable> printed out

The book has every timetable of Amtrak trains and connecting buses run by Amtrak (you can use a USA rail pass for a ride on these buses.) The chapters are sorted by regions (Northeast, East, Midwest, West, Pacific Northwest, and California) and in the first few pages (‘Amtrak Service Location’) all the cities are listed alphabetically with the page(s) to look up the schedule.

Ok finally, here’s how I constructed the detailed schedule. I will display the steps by example of <New Orleans–> Houston> route. (*I used the free Adobe Acrobat reader for the example.)

  1. (Done before) Draw the big picture and sort out the cities to visit.
    For me it is: Boston–> Chicago–> New Orleans–> Houston–> Tucson–> (by rental car: Sedona–> Grand Canyon–> Las Vegas)–> LA–> San Francisco–> Portland–> Seattle
  2. Look up the name of the city for the train ride in the ‘Amtrak Service Location’ pages (pp. 3~12) . Either departure or arrival city is okay. I looked up ‘New Orleans’ and it has four pages to look up (58, 69, 70, 87.)Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 10.39.21 AM
  3. Punch in the pages () in the pdf reader. I found the route connecting New Orleans–> Houston in page 70. Oh, it is the same train that goes from Houston to Tucson (my next ride)! I can easily the train only runs on Mon/Wed/Saturday ()Screen Shot 2018-07-06 at 10.49.02 AM
  4. Write down in separate paper or document file the departure/arrival cities, departure date and time for the ride. In my case, it is July 30th (Monday.) You will have to use this paper/document to make reservations for the ride.For this ride I wrote down (in a piece of paper):
    July 30th (Mon) New Orleans 9:00 AM –> Houston 6:18 PM
  5. Repeat 1~4 until you have the complete schedule!

Later I made neatly arranged spreadsheet to take to the Amtrak station where I picked up the USA rail pass and made the reservations for each ride. Will get back to reservations on later post and for now, here’s the schedule I made using the above steps. The letters look kind of small below, but you can look up the spreadsheet here in case you are interested😁!

 

[Amtrak US #4] Drawing the BIG PICTURE

 

 

While preparing for a trip, the most exciting moment for me is the time looking at the map to choose which cities to visit and what roads to take.

For 2018 Amtrak trip, the starting point for my planning was the map that Amtrak provided on their website.  This interactive map is called ‘Amtrak Travel Planning Map.’ (***I don’t know why, but this link doesn’t seem to work in mobile devices. Will update if I can find the mobile version of the interactive map. Again, Amtrak is not the most user friendly company!)

The map is useful to kind of draw a BIG PICTURE in your head. For instance, my starting point is Boston so I could check where to the railroads extend from Boston. I could go South (to New York), North (to Maine), or to Northwest (to Chicago). I decided to go to Chicago because my final destination is Seattle and it seemed pretty reasonable to head Chicago if you look at the map (plus, I visited NY and Maine many times already.) Then from Chicago I could go further Northwest to North Dakota and Montana, but then my trip will end too soon! So I decided to go South to New Orleans…. and so on.

This is my BIG PICTURE of Amtrak trip 2018!

<BIG PICTURE for Amtrak trip 2018>
Boston–> Chicago–> New Orleans–> Houston–> Tucson–> (This part I decided to travel with a rental car: Sedona–> Grand Canyon–> Las Vegas)–> Los Angeles (Thruway Bus, which is Amtrak USA rail pass covered Greyhound Bus… meaning free with USA rail pass)–> San Francisco–> Portland (Oregon)–> Seattle (then back to South Korea)

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Really, it is just like a starting point and much more details had to be decided later. For example, I had to decided whether I would stop by Cleveland (the hometown of Indians and Cavaliers -good bye King James!-) before heading to Chicago. I decided to skip it for this trip because I had looooooooong way to go and it felt like too much time on Midwest.

My itinerary is a bit unique because I am not coming back to where I started. Well… I think every traveler is one of a kind so there might not be something like THE ‘answer sheet.’ But for a guidance, I borrowed the book <All Aboard> from the library and skimmed through it . It is a nice little guidebook that gives you a motivation and basic info about train trip (like you get free meals if you pay extra for roomette, which I will get back to later.) There seem to be a few more books about train trip like <Tourist Trains Guidebook> , but I haven’t read it yet.

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<All Aboard> by Jim Loomis

These are the suggested itineraries from <All Aboard> FYI. The routes are mostly loops that one can come back to the starting points. The lovely titles of the itineraries are from the author (Jim Loomis, he runs great website about train trip in US.)

»Big City Tour: Chicago-Washington, DC-NY-Boston-Chicago
»Glaciers to Glitz: San Francisco-Seattle-Chicago-San Francisco
»A Western Triangle: Los Angeles-San Francisco-Portland-Santa Fe-Los Angeles
»Big Mountains, Little Towns: Los Angeles-Santa Fe-Galesburg-Granby-Davis-Los Angeles
»Oh, Canada!: NY-Toronto-Vancouver-Seattle or San Francisco
»The Santa Fe Trail: Chicago-Dodge City-Santa Fe-Grand Canyon-Los Angeles-Chicago
»The Ultimate Round Trip: NY-Washington DC-New Orleans-San Francisco-Seattle-Chicago-Boston-NY
»Semigrand Tour: Seattle-Chicago-New Orleans-Los Angeles-San Francisco-Seattle
»Fall Colors I: Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Chicago-Washington DC-Philadelphia
»Fall Colors II: NY-Saratoga Springs-Ticonderoga-Montreal-NY