When you’re committed to not flying on a trip across part of this country, things can get interesting. That’s “interesting” in the Minnesota sense of the word.
I wanted to meet my two sisters, who were coming from the East Coast, in Chicago so we could catch Amtrak’s California Zephyr to visit Denver. We planned to spend a night in Chicago to make the transfer easier and not have to worry about timing the layover from their Lake Shore Limited and whatever I was taking from the Twin Cities. Plus we wanted to see a few things in downtown Chicago.
FlixBus for Ticketing
My reasoning was that FlixBus allowed me to reserve a specific seat at the front of the bus, even after it became clear the bus I would be taking was a Greyhound reserved through FlixBus, with the bus leaving in the middle of the night. The Greyhound bus would arrive in Chicago in the morning, close to when my sisters would get there, and it also allowed me to reserve the additional seat next to me for half the full price (which is pretty inexpensive, in my view). So I figured I could sleep pretty well with that second seat, and also be sure I didn’t end up with some questionable person sitting next to me in the middle of the night. The scheduled departure was 1:10 a.m.
To make a long and tortured story short, I don’t recommend dealing with FlixBus. For my eastbound trip, they canceled my additional and regular seat reservations a few days before; for the westbound return trip, they canceled them both just a few hours before. So my seats were now “unassigned.”
In both cases, I was issued only a FlixBus credit for my seat reservation fees (good for a year) — not a refund — which I will never use. They also sent their e-tickets just 12 hours before boarding, so on the return trip I was freaking out about not receiving my ticket because I assumed it would arrive 24 hours ahead of time.
Taking Greyhound to Chicago
Boarding the bus in St. Paul in the middle of the night was its own problem. I knew it would be at Union Depot, but I didn’t know where exactly, since it’s a rather large building. The ticket said just “240 Kellogg,” so that’s where I went just after 12:30 a.m., only to find the glass box surrounding the address locked. There was one young man standing there with a rolly bag who didn’t speak English; in response to my “Greyhound?” query he used his phone to answer, in English, “Later.” I gave him a thumbs up.
There was a screen visible through the windows, showing bus arrivals and departures for the Jefferson Lines and other systems, but there were no Greyhound buses listed. Disturbing.
In a few minutes, three women with rolly bags and suitcases arrived, the youngest of whom spoke English. They were also looking for the Greyhound. I started to feel better that we were at least in the right place.
At about 12:50 a.m., a security guard from Union Depot rode up in a golf cart and asked if we were waiting for the Greyhound. After our “yeses,” he let us into the glass box waiting area (where we should have been able to wait all along, of course, but “security” prevented us) and told us the bus would be up at the top of the nearby escalator in a few minutes. And so it was.
We went up to find the bus pulling in, and realized its journey had originated in Minneapolis, rather than Union Depot, so there were very few seats left. My original reserved seat had someone in it, with his stuff on the second seat. I was lucky to get a window seat near the front of the bus, next to a young man with headphones on.
The driver was good at wrangling the somewhat fractious people and keeping on schedule. (The oddest person I saw on this bus was a guy carrying an Infowars sign and wearing a T-shirt that said “Alex Jones Was Right.”)
The bus was completely full, which is why my extra seat had been canceled, of course. Though why they canceled my reserved seat, I don’t know. Not surprisingly, there is very little legroom — probably a bit less than on an airplane — with the aisle also more cramped than an airplane. The bus stops for a 10-minute break a couple of times (Tomah! Lake Delton!) and a half hour in Milwaukee, so that’s helpful for stretching your legs and using a real bathroom during the longer stop.
Other than the lack of legroom and not being able to sleep in the tight space, the ride was fine. I listened to four podcasts. There’s power in the seats to charge your phone.
The Chicago Greyhound station is three blocks south of Chicago Union Station, which is home to Amtrak. This will become relevant on the return trip.
I walked up to Union Station, met my sisters’ train after a couple of hours, and we had a nice 24-plus hours in the city.
California Zephyr to Denver
The next day, we got to Chicago’s Union Station two hours before the California Zephyr’s departure at 2 p.m. That was probably a bit more than needed, but an hour wouldn’t be too much for Chicago, I think, especially if you’re traveling with other people and want to sit together.
Compared to an airport, there’s very little overt security. Coach passengers had to walk a long, snaking line from the Great Hall to the boarding area, which seemed in strong contrast to my few recollections of boarding trains in Europe without a lot of guidance and kind of a free-for-all finding your train.
The line was slow but organized, and soon it was clear we would be able to sit together in three seats (out of four across) in a car full of Denver passengers. I was on the aisle next to a guy who was going to Colorado to visit a friend.
My sisters and I spent the afternoon and evening playing card games in the observation car, unintentionally overhearing conversations of other passengers, and talking to a man who I think may have been the train’s chief engineer while he was on his break. He quizzed us on all the famous people from Omaha. I also learned that Burlington, Iowa, is the reason for the “Burlington” in the Burlington Northern Railroad, and that there’s a place along the tracks near Osceola, Iowa that all the train folks call “Bad Boy Crossing.”
As anyone who rides Amtrak will tell you, there are a lot of Amish or Old Order Mennonites riding the trains. They mostly keep to themselves, it seems to me. People riding Amtrak in coach are an interesting bunch overall.
Denver Union Station
As Bill Lindeke wrote recently, Denver Union Station is what St. Paul’s Union Depot wants to be. (He got the timing a bit off, I think: Our Union Depot renovation opened in 2012, while Denver’s opened in 2014, though Denver did start the whole process before St. Paul.)
The Zephyr pulls into Denver’s beautiful, semi-covered train shed, which is shared with the RTD‘s extensive system of light rail trains. From the platform, you then see the station building itself, with its neon “Travel by Train” sign.
Inside the nearby building is the restored station house, which houses a 112-room hotel, several restaurants, and smaller shops. It’s pretty posh-looking, with giant dangling ceiling lights and the words “TERMINAL BAR” lit up in a glamorous sign over the original ticket window area.
The entire middle of the big room, however, is roped off and available only to hotel guests and some mysterious set of people who are spending money somewhere else in the station house.
I also noticed a small sign on the wall near the seats available to those of us who are taking the train, reminding everyone that the station is privately owned so they can kick you out if they want to.
The public spaces on the street side of the station are good, and a second neon “Travel by Train” sign overlooks it all.
The Return Trip
Boarding to return on the Zephyr was simpler than in Chicago, since the Denver station is smaller. The train was about an hour late, which counts as just about on time in Amtrak world. We were supposed to board at 7 p.m., but it was closer to 8. We stood with the other coach passengers, waiting on the platform for a little while as the conductors sorted everyone into cars by their destinations, and the sleeper cars were cleaned and prepped for the next part of the trip.
On this leg of the journey, we played cards in the morning after sleeping (and this time I was able to sleep better). I learned of a few more Omaha celebrities from the chief engineer, and that he had been a broker until 15 years ago.
A heat wave had rolled into Chicago by the time we got into the city around 4 p.m. It was close to 100 degrees with high humidity. I think the heat index was 110 or more. There are no great options for coach passengers with luggage at Union Station during layovers: No lockers are available anymore. My sisters’ train was at 9 p.m. and my bus was at 9:10. The Metropolitan Lounge costs $35 per person for a day pass. Air conditioning seemed essential, as did not toting our bags everywhere we went. Hiss.
And then there’s the bus trip home. I finally received the email with my e-ticket that morning, and then after 7 p.m. a second one arrived, canceling my reserved seats, once again. We tried to figure out where the Greyhound bus left from at Union Station, and what time it would really depart. The location was difficult because Canal Street (which runs between two of the station buildings, and is the the usual stop location) was under construction. The people at the Greyhound desk, dressed in yellow safety vests instead of customer-service-type uniforms, were not reassuring about much of anything.
As I left the desk, I saw a bus departure listing that contradicted the times the desk people had just told me, and that did not list Minneapolis as any of the final destinations. I went back to the desk, where they assured me that the Milwaukee bus was the right bus, even though the time didn’t match what they had just said.
I went to the Great Hall to wait with my sisters at about 8:20 when they were going to wait for the call for their train. A woman sitting nearby heard us talking and said she was also going to St. Paul, and that she knew exactly where the Greyhound stop was, and that people would be lining up out there very soon to get good seats.
So I went with her out to the stop. Remember the heat wave? It still felt like 95 degrees outside. No breeze. We went to a corner across from the side of the station area to wait with the accumulating group of other passengers.
I guess it’s obvious that it was very uncomfortable, and it’s even more obvious that Chicago Union Station and Greyhound do not give a single damn about their bus passengers. As I said earlier, the climate-controlled Greyhound Station is three blocks away. They could bus people down there to wait, for instance. Or they could form a line inside Union Station, then lead people across the street when the bus is about to arrive, the way they do for the trains. But no.
The stop consisted of a temporary A-frame sign on a dark side street with no seating and barely any lighting. A different bus, bound for Rockford (but really Madison, I think?), pulled into the spot at the corner and sat there running its engine, spewing even more heat onto the 20 or so passengers who were waiting for the Minneapolis bus.
The Greyhound bus finally arrived at about 9:20 or 9:25.
We showed our tickets, loaded our stuff into the luggage hold, and got on the bus. The driver then went three blocks to the Greyhound station, where we waited until 10 p.m. before departing Chicago.
I sat in the window seat I had originally reserved, but I got bumped out of it in Milwaukee by a woman traveling with two children, who had both seats reserved. I heard someone say that only people who had transferred from Amtrak had been able to get reserved seats. Of course, I had also transferred from Amtrak, but I hadn’t bought my bus ticket as a transfer, since one of my sisters had purchased our Amtrak tickets and I had no idea there would be a problem with the reserved seats.
The only good thing that came out of getting bumped was that I ended up in an aisle seat instead of a window (still near the front) and found out that on a bus, it’s easier to sleep on the aisle, because you can stick your legs out and lean your head that way too, since people are not walking around the way the do on airplanes. So I got a little bit of sleep between the rest stops.
At 6 a.m., while waiting for a ride home inside Union Depot, back at 240 Kellogg Street, I talked to a woman who had gotten on at Eau Claire, coming to St. Paul to get her hair braided. Since the bus was full when she boarded, the only seat available was in the back, and she said it was disgusting back there. Someone was drinking, she said. I didn’t get any other details. I would say the westbound driver was not as good at dealing with his passengers as the eastbound driver had been.
What About Next Time?
Next time I want to go to Chicago, I’m going to look a lot harder into the Empire Builder to see how the connections work, especially with a second train per day promised in 2024.
The current service is scheduled to board at Union Depot at 8:30 a.m. and arrive in Chicago at 4:45 p.m. (though it’s often delayed as it comes all the way from the West Coast). The second train, which would only run between St. Paul and Chicago and — one therefore hopes — not face many delays, would leave Union Depot at 11:45 a.m. and arrive in Chicago at 7:15 p.m.
Westbound, the Chicago-to-St.-Paul train currently departs at 3 p.m. and arrives at 11 p.m. The second train’s westbound schedule appears to be planned for approximately 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
In the case of my Denver trip, neither of those would have connected well with my return on the California Zephyr, which was scheduled to arrive just before 3 p.m., but was an hour late — not an uncommon occurrence. On the way to Denver, it could have worked since we were staying over a night in Chicago, but arriving at 4:45 p.m. would have meant missing most of the day in Chicago with my sisters. So the bus aggravation and lack of sleep was worth it.
All of this argues for more trains on the schedule, of course.
All photos are by the author.