[amtrak trip] 24h in Chicago (2)

 Day 3. 24h in Chicago (2)
Holiday Inn Express Magnificent Mile

10:00 AM Willis Tower

The great way to kick off the second day in Chicago is of course, to go straight up to the iconic 110 stories high Willis Tower (the former Sears Tower.) Willis Tower used to be the tallest tower in the US until the One World Trade Center in NY was raised in 2014. The Skydeck ($24,) has four glass boxes (the ledge, it is called) sticking out from 1,353 feet (412 meters) above the ground. And it surely looked very scary from the street. Will I be able to step into a glass box that high above? I was to find out.

It was pretty early so the line was not too long. After waiting in the line for about ten minutes I hopped into an elevator. It took only one minute to go up. The view from the top was fabulous thanks to the clear weather.

After looking around the city through large glasses, I stood in one of the four lines to get into the ledge. After waiting in line for about 15 minutes, I could step into the glass box. I felt sharp vertigo for a second, but after that it was all fun taking Insta-perfect pictures for about a minute. (Nobody was controlling the time, but ‘one minute’ seemed like a norm except for some people who were going for something like whole photo catalog shooting :-P)

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minions at Skydeck, Willis Tower

11:30 AM Millennium Park

After coming down from the Willis Tower, I walked to the Millennium Park (about 20 mins,) the most visited place in Chicago last year. Rectangular twin fountains (Crown Fountain), huge + shiny bean-shaped sculpture (Cloud Gate), post-modern geometric outdoor stage (Jay Pritzker Pavillion) all made the park feel so… Chicago!

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Crown Fountain, Millennium Park

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Cloud Gate, Millennium Park

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Inside Cloud Gate, Millennium Park

12:30 PM Lunch at Cindy’s

Cindy’s restaurant is located right across the Millennium Park on the rooftop, and it has a balcony looking over the park. I had crunchy lettuces salad and Chicken sandwich which were fresh and delicious. After the lunch, I drank a cup of iced Matcha latte from the Fairground Coffee & Tea on the ground floor, looking at well-dressed dandy Chicago people passing by.

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Cindy’s

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Crunchy Lettuces at Cindy’s

2:00 PM Frank Lloyd Wright (1) Home and Studio

The afternoon was dedicated to one of the greatest architects of the US, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959.) Wright was born in Richland Center, Wisconsin but moved to Chicago when he was twenty to find a job.

Our first stop was Home and Studio in Oak Park. From Millennium Park, it took about 30 minutes by convenient green line subway and another 15 minutes’ walk from the Oak Park station. The house offered one hour guided tour ($18.00.) The guide took us to detailed places inside and outside the house (and attached studio.)
A bonus: on the way to the house on Chicago Ave, there were several houses that were designed by Wright for his private clients which also looked very cool. How lucky are those who live in that house!

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Inside Wright’s Studio (attached to the house)

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Inside Wright’s Home

 4:00 PM Frank Lloyd Wright (2) Unity Temple

Frank Lloyd Wright’s first public building, Unity Temple, is about four blocks away from his House and Studio. Frank Lloyd Wright Trust who manages the place recommends visitors to stop by both buildings. The temple is still actively used by Unitarian congregation, it is open to general public only on certain dates + times ($18.00, $10.00 self-guided tour.)

The young lady guide told us the temple was built on a tight budget, and Wright eventually spent about twice as much money that the church had hoped for. Nevertheless, it looked amazingly beautiful to every detail. Wright was a believer of practicality, so the temple felt very ‘user friendly,’ not like some of those fancy but inconvenient architectures. It looked very private and exclusive from outside, but once you step inside the temple, the sunlights from the stained glasses filled the temple like a blessing connecting the space with nature outside.

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Unity Temple, outside

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Unity Temple, outside

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Unity Temple, inside

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Unity Temple, inside

6:30 PM Outside Concert at Millennium Park

We came back to the city by green line subway again. There was free orchestra concert at Millennium Park as a part of Millennium Park Summer Music Series. The seats were abundant because you were allowed to sit on chairs, grass, stairs… anywhere you could sit (and of course you can keep standing as well.) People brought ice boxes, folding chairs, tents etc. I sat on one of the stairs and enjoyed Liszt and Sibelius while practicing drawing on my tiny sketchbook. Never had I realized that a Sibelius symphony resonates so smoothly with summer breeze.

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Summer concert at Pritzker Pavillion, Millennial Park

8:00 PM Dinner at Gibson’s Steak and Bar

After 1.5 hour music break at the park, we took a red line subway heading to Gibson’s Steak and Bar. One of my gourmet friends told me that Chicago is the best place to eat steaks because it features the freshest beef in the US. And I must say that absolute is true! I almost cried while eating the steak (Chicago Cut) simply because it was soooooooo delicious. I usually cannot finish the American steak because it is too large for me, but this time I didn’t leave any small piece behind because I knew I will regret it for rest of my life if I did.

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Chicago Cut at Gibson’s

***What I learned today***

  1. The ledge (glass boxes) can get pulled in for maintenance.
  2. It is good idea to visit Willis Tower early in the morning. I waited only about 10 minutes to go up to the Skydeck, but when I came back down after about an hour, there was a long line formed for riding an elevator up.
  3. Chicago is very flat city.
  4. When I did some reading about Frank Lloyd Wright there were so many materials about his famous love affair(s), the murder of his mistress etc. but nobody  seemed to ‘officially’ talk about that kind of personal stuff inside his architecture.
  5. Wright hated attics and basements.
  6. Wright had six children and most of them followed the career path of their daddy.
  7. Wright was a good piano player.

[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 #3] Buying the USA rail pass

According to Amtrak website, there are at least two ways to buy USA Rail Pass. 1) buying it online at Amtrak website 2) buying it from travel agencies who have access to Amtrak.

As a heavy online shopper, I chose to buy it online. Buying the pass online is pretty much like other online shopping. However, NOT like other stuffs that are delivered to your mailbox, Amtrak does not send you the pass but you will have to pick the pass up at Amtrak station later.
So purchasing the pass is more like purchasing the right 1) to pick-up the pass at the Amtrak stations later 2) to make reservation for each train ride with the info that you will obtain after making the reservation. (I will come back to making reservation for each train ride in later posts.)

Purchasing the USA rail pass can be made here. This is the first page you’ll see when you visit the website.

I chose ’30 Days: 12 segments’ pass ($689) and clicked ‘Purchase Now’ and was led to here eventually. 

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Amtrak is not the most user friendly company (WHY!!!! 😱). As you can see, this page can be pretty intimidating especially if you have not decided details of the trip! I will share what I know+what I did.

1) Choosing the pass.
It is pretty easy. You can choose which pass is right for you. (post about choosing which pass it right for you)

2) When is your first day of travel?
If you have fixed the starting date of the travel, you can just state the date. However, I wasn’t 100% sure what date I was to begin traveling (I only had an approximate range.) In this case, you don’t have to be super specific about the date… unless it is way too off (like one year.) I don’t even understand why one needs to put this down, because when I got the actual ticket I did not find any info about this date.

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I chose July 23rd as starting date

There are still the rules to keep in mind. According to the e-mail I got later:

<all travel must be completed within 330 days of reserving the first travel segment or within the selected travel duration of the pass once the first travel segment is reserved, whichever comes first. Pass prices are subject to change and are not guaranteed until actual travel reservations are made.>

In short, you have to finish the trip within around one year after the purchasing of the pass or before your pass’ duration ends (which is obvious, you have to finish the trip within 30 days if your pass is 30 days pass…hmm….)

3) Where and when will you pick up your pass?

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So many stations to choose from!

This one really got me confused. How will I know for sure which date I will pick up the pass? Life is so busy, right? It can sound even more problematic when you are an international traveler, coming to US and you are not 100% sure which train station is the best for the ticket pick-up. What I can say is that you can be pretty flexible about the pick-up date. I KNOW it because I put in ‘May 25th’ as a pick up date but I went to the station (South Station in Boston in my case) on 29th… and it was just fine! There is a fine print on the page saying ‘NOTE: If you do not pick up your pass by the date you specify, your pass will be canceled’, but my pass was safe and alive. (The lady at the station didn’t seem to care at all about this date.)

I am not sure if you can change the pick up station though. (I will add the info to the post if somebody gives me a feedback on this?) I have a feeling I can be flexible too, because it wasn’t like they have a printed pass waiting for you or anything. They print the ticket only after you present them the ID and the reservation number.

After you are finished with selections on these three factors, rest is just like other online shopping. You sign-in/sign-up for Amtrak account or you can choose to pay with a guest account. Amtrak accepts most of major credit cards, including Union Pay, JCB, and UATP(?).

Well.. this was about purchasing the pass online. There is another way of buying the pass, by contacting travel agents who sell Amtrak tickets. Considering all the hassles, it sounded nice if I could ask an expert about details. However, I have not succeeded on finding the mean to search for Amtrak agent near me. Perhaps, if you call Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL = 1-800-872-7245), they might be able to tell you.