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Our CHI-Grand Canyon South Rim Amtrak Trip
Old 08-13-2019, 05:24 PM   #1
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Our CHI-Grand Canyon South Rim Amtrak Trip

I mentioned in the “Blow That Dough!” thread that we planned an Amtrak Chicago to Grand Canyon vacation pack, and a few people asked for an update, so I thought I'd detail a bit about the trip here. To cut to the chase (or the “tl/dr” version as they say these days), it was very enjoyable, some minor glitches, we liked it enough that we will be looking into doing something similar again soon.


For some background, I've mentioned that DW hates flying, just won't do it at this point, I get antsy and tired behind the wheel for more than about 3 hours, so I thought we should try a train trip. The negatives I've read about here and other places were not too concerning to us. Mostly crabbing about the schedule delays, but since everything was booked through Amtrak, we figured they'd adapt, and that turned out to be OK.

We travel infrequently, so I was willing to upgrade what we could, though some upgrades would need to be planned further ahead (El Tovar hotel might need to be booked a year ahead). We got the 'Bedroom' on the train, which is a lower/upper bunk at night that fold out to a couch for day, with a chair and your own toilet/shower (like an RV).

The Southwest Chief leaves CHI daily @ 2:50 PM, you sleep on the train that night and get into Flagstaff, AZ ~ 8:30 PM the next evening (so ~ 30 hours travel total) . A shuttle bus takes you ~ 40 minutes to the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams, AZ which was very nice and roomy - much better than I expected for a tourist area and an Amtrak affiliate. Next morning, the Grand Canyon Railroad picks you up at the hotel for a 2 hour ride to the South Rim Village. We upgraded to the old restored domed parlor car, and it was elegant just like in the movies. We walked back to outside of the last car for a pretty exciting view as the train zipped through the scenery and turns. There's some entertainment, a narrator/bartender, snacks and a cash bar. Your bags are bused up to your hotel in the Village, so that's taken care of for you.

You don't really see the Canyon from the train (they make this clear). You get off the train ~ 11AM and onto a bus tour. That first view of the Grand Canyon is mind boggling. For all you read, all the pictures and documentaries you have seen, you still end up saying something profound like “Oh, Wow!”. I'm still not sure what is so awe-inspiring about a hole in the ground, but it is!

The bus takes you to a few lookout points, then back to the Village for an included buffet lunch that was, ummmm 'adequate', so you roam around a bit, take in more views, then dinner is on your own. We had a very nice dinner in the Arizona Room, pricey, but for a tourist area not insane. The Maswik Lodge was booked for us (the only choice at that point), a bit down-scale, but the room was large, clean, and comfy so it was OK.

We were scheduled to take the train back to Williams @ 3:15 the next afternoon (so basically ~30 hours in the Canyon). So timing is a little tight (I think there is a 6 day plan also), but I really wanted to take the helicopter tour ( ~ $300 for 50 minutes, and ~ $55 for taxis back/forth about 15 minutes each way), so I booked that before we left for ~ 10 AM. Glad I did, that was awesome, especially as they fly from just above the trees as they approach the steep drop-off of the canyon, and you go from being a few hundred feet above the ground, to having the ground drop to 5000 feet below you! Exhilarating! I was with a family from Holland who were RV'ing across the United States, the Dad, his son and daughter (college aged?), his wife and two other sons were in another helicopter. They were all very nice and fun. I was able to get videos during some of the ride just holding the phone out so as not to get distracted and miss the 'experience'. You've got noise canceling headphones and voice activated mics, so the pilot could talk with us, and we could all talk with each other.

When we got out, I asked the Dad if I could get a little video of him with his family, and asked him to say something in Dutch - like invite us to visit Holland or something. Well, he was hamming it up, and his daughter was laughing pretty hard as he went on, so I'm curious to get a translation of this! At the end, I did pick up “windmills and wooden shoes!” in English, so I'm assuming that was a joke about the Holland cliche's. DW was happy to tour the various museums/shops in the village while I was out.

I mainly took short videos rather than photos. I figure the pro photographers had better shots than I would ever get, and with the video I could add some narration to personalize it, and I think that worked out well.

When you book an Amtrak 'bedroom' or 'roomette', meals are included. The food was actually pretty good, given the limitations of serving on a train, better than I expected. It's pricey if you have to pay out of pocket from coach, like nice restaurant prices for something not quite at that level. All in all, very satisfied with that, nice desserts included at both lunch and dinner, good coffee, a few craft beers were available. The tracks can be pretty rough though, a fair amount of swaying back/forth.

They seat you at tables of 4, and yes, part of the 'fun' is being seated with other travelers. Everyone we sat with was interesting, two times it was a Mother and College-aged son traveling together, a retired truck driver and his young teen son, a Mother-Daughter who were Mennonites from NY, a couple traveling across AZ for a weekend getaway, a man going from his home in AZ back to his 'hometown' in Kansas to visit with family. The locals were able to fill us in on some details of the landscape and such.

The train in Flagstaff (from L.A.) back to Chicago was delayed by 2 hours, and unfortunately it is scheduled to depart at 4 AM, so we were up very early to get there from Williams. So OK, hanging around an Amtrak station at 4 AM means being with some people you just would prefer not to, but others were very nice and interesting - a classical violinist waiting on the train played for us a bit to pass the time.

The 'bedroom' was surprisingly comfortable during the day. We checked one bag on the way there, but did not on the way back. There is room under the couch/bed for two carry-ons, and our other small bags could be on a shelf above or under the seat. It was actually nice having the bags in the room, we end up using them as footrests.

Sleeping on the upper bunk was not so great, I did get a bit claustrophobic, you are close to the ceiling, and you can't really see out a window, so when I woke up in the middle of the night once, I was afraid I'd get 'sea sick' looking at things in the room before I could get back to sleep. But I managed.

It wasn't cheap, just under $5,000 for the two of us, but that included most everything, just a few meals were on us (and we chose to pay for a more upscale breakfast at the El Tovar). And as I said, we just would not have done it otherwise, so we are glad we did. If you wanted to take the time to pick and choose dates and hotels, you could probably do much better, and maybe now with some experience we will do that. Fares are done Uber-style demand pricing. At 'amsnag.net' I found that bedroom-for-two tickets went from a $1,223 low up to $1,916 over the next 20 days, so if you can be flexible with dates, there's some savings. Most of the Amtrak staff were pleasant and reasonably efficient and helpful, I was a bit worried about the DMV government-worker stereotype, but it was fine.

The Canyon Village wasn't near as crowded as I was led to believe. Plenty of people, but it wasn't packed. Some kids start school around this time, so that might have been a factor.

OK, that was a short book, but if there are other questions “FIRE” away!

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Old 08-13-2019, 05:47 PM   #2
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Thank you for a well written and detailed description of your trip.
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Old 08-13-2019, 08:47 PM   #3
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Excellent report! Sounds like a fun trip!
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Old 08-14-2019, 06:00 AM   #4
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Sounds like a fun trip. I assume you can set the return trip for later and rent a car to see some of the other sites in the area? I have taken the auto train from DC to Florida a few times and tried the roomette which I didn't like, business class seats which I didn't like, and the room which hits the Goldilocks spot.
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Old 08-14-2019, 08:10 AM   #5
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I've always wanted to take an Amtrak trip but I've seen many YT videos that make it look like an ordeal. And it's not the lowest cost option either.

I've taken the train from Williams to the GC. On a day where the "entertainment" (the fake train bandits and the guitar players) had the day off. It's a boring ride across the high desert until you get within about 5 miles of the GC. (Just as it is in a car.)

Most people only visit the GC for a day or less. You really need to get below the rim to understand what it's all about. Hike down an hour or two from the South Rim and take your time coming out. It gets you away from all the crowds and tourists. It's a completely different experience.

When I pull the plug, a 2 or 3 day visit to the GC is on my list. We locals tend to forget that we have it in our backyard - in over 30 years here, I've only been to the GC a small handful of times.
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Old 08-14-2019, 08:53 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by donheff View Post
Sounds like a fun trip. I assume you can set the return trip for later and rent a car to see some of the other sites in the area? I have taken the auto train from DC to Florida a few times and tried the roomette which I didn't like, business class seats which I didn't like, and the room which hits the Goldilocks spot.
Sure, you can customize it to fit your needs. But the on-line process at Amtrak is weird. It looks like you could do anything you want, but it isn't offering all the options. The oddest to me was I saw no way to upgrade to a roomette or bedroom! I assumed they were sold out, but the amsnag.net shows them to be available. Apparently, their system requires some human intervention to assign the sleeping cars, so I guess you need to call for this, or maybe I'm missing something?

I got frustrated and called, and the human planner was very helpful, but I'd much rather see the options laid out so I can pick and choose, rather than having someone try to describe it to me. They will email you a quote, you could review that for reference, and then call back to check out your options.

At this point, I think I'd mostly plan using that amsnag.net site, check out the hotels direct (I suspect that the hotels may still have vacancies, when maybe Amtrak's commitments are filled?).

Also note that there are differences in the rooms between some trains, mostly East coast area versus the rest of the US. They are "Viewliners" in the East, we were on the "Superliner". You can see floor plans and dimensions here:

https://www.amtrakvacations.com/trip...ard-the-train/


Quote:
Originally Posted by LarryMelman View Post
I've always wanted to take an Amtrak trip but I've seen many YT videos that make it look like an ordeal. And it's not the lowest cost option either.

I've taken the train from Williams to the GC. On a day where the "entertainment" (the fake train bandits and the guitar players) had the day off. It's a boring ride across the high desert until you get within about 5 miles of the GC. (Just as it is in a car.)

Most people only visit the GC for a day or less. You really need to get below the rim to understand what it's all about. Hike down an hour or two from the South Rim and take your time coming out. It gets you away from all the crowds and tourists. It's a completely different experience.

When I pull the plug, a 2 or 3 day visit to the GC is on my list. We locals tend to forget that we have it in our backyard - in over 30 years here, I've only been to the GC a small handful of times.
No, not low cost, but as I said, the only viable option for us - though I guess we could look into a bus tour? But then with hotels at night, and stopping for meals, it would probably take an extra day from CHI? The train average over 50 mph, moving around the clock, a bus might be faster on those highways, but driving time per day would be less.

My GPS did show us hitting 90 mph, which was also listed somewhere as the top speed on this route.

Yes, the train from Williams to the rim isn't all that scenic, and the 'entertainment' is mostly pretty lame. But the parlor car was elegant and comfortable, so we did enjoy it. In hindsight, it would make sense to look into other transportation, at least one way. I assume there are shuttle buses or something as an alternative, or rent a car, and I think that driving is a faster, more direct route (Google maps says 1:05 by car, the train is 2:15).

I would have liked to do a hike, but DW is having knee problems, I question my fitness for it but I think I'd be OK, so we just didn't plan for it. I'd definitely need to allow another day for that. I did walk a short way down one of the trails, maybe 10 minutes in, while DW waited on top.

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Old 08-14-2019, 10:51 AM   #7
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Thank you for the update! It sounds like a wonderful trip. DH and I have wondered about the Amtrak "bedroom suites" and if they were worth the cost, it seems like it made the trip much more enjoyable and well worth it.
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Old 08-14-2019, 12:11 PM   #8
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My parents took an Airstream coordinated camping trip around the SW national parks last year, and loved it. One of the days was to visit the South rim of the GC. As soon as they pulled into the large parking lot, they were assaulted by multiple tour busses unloading over-eager foreign tourist who were all dressed in color coordinated shirts to keep track of who was in which bus group. Each guide then got on their megaphone, and started screeching instructions in Japenese.
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Old 08-14-2019, 12:21 PM   #9
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Thanks ERD! Lots of helpful tips. We're going to GC in early Sep (Flying CLT to Vegas/rental car/ Airbnb @ Williams). We looked at El Tovar, but getting 4 rooms concurrently was almost impossible, and the combined cost was astronomical. We booked the Airbnb in February and it was difficult finding a 4 BR place in Williams even 8 months out.

Meeting 3 sibs and spouses for a week. We plan to take the train to "the ditch" one of the days just to do it. I'll take the air tour as well. Not sure about the cowards among me.

My $.02 tip: for any couple going more than one day - get yer National Park Senior Pass before ya go. $80 for lifetime access (or $20/year) to all national parks. It's good for up to 4 people in a single vehicle.
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Old 08-14-2019, 12:33 PM   #10
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Sounds like a great trip!

Did your train have wifi available? If so, how reliable was the service?
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Old 08-14-2019, 12:59 PM   #11
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Originally Posted by ckelly78z View Post
all dressed in color coordinated shirts to keep track of who was in which bus group. Each guide then got on their megaphone, and started screeching instructions in Japenese.
Isn't this all national parks though?

Haleakala, Volcano Natl Park, Mt Rushmore, GC, etc etc...

I'll never forget the night I rode a gondala up in Queenstown New Zealand...there were about 100 guys up there with lenses longer than their torso's aimed at the sunset. I sort of made a joke as I pulled out my smartphone that "clearly I'd misjudged the horizon and should have brought a more powerful lens"

I got a few chuckles...but only from the dutch folks LOL!
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Old 08-14-2019, 07:43 PM   #12
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Thank you for the update! It sounds like a wonderful trip. DH and I have wondered about the Amtrak "bedroom suites" and if they were worth the cost, it seems like it made the trip much more enjoyable and well worth it.
Yes, being able to stretch out and put your feet up, and take different positions while looking out the window was really nice. And the hallway runs along one side, so if you open the curtain to your door, you can see out the window on the opposite side, which reduces any claustrophobic feeling, sometimes I'd pop over to the hallway window for a picture or video, or just see different scenery on that side. The roomettes have the aisle down the middle, so you really only have a window on one side.

This will give you an idea:

https://www.amtrakvacations.com/cont...er-sleeper.jpg
https://www.amtrakvacations.com/cont...er-sleeper.jpg

One surprising thing to me - you cannot lock your room from the outside, so when we went to dinner, or to the observation car, we took all our devices with us. It just seems really weird to leave your stuff unlocked. But the sleepers are in the front of the train, with the observation, lounge, and dining cars in between you and the coach seats, and the Car Attendants did seem to keep an eye on people from Coach coming into the sleepers, it is all marked for only sleeper passengers past this point. But that still leaves everything open to the sleeper passengers. OK, so someone with the funds to book a sleeper is unlikely to be rifling through your stuff, but I was still uncomfortable with it.

I'll also add at this point - I loaded up my phone and tablet with books and music, but I barely touched them. DW had some needlepoint and books, didn't do much of those either. Between watching scenery, eating, planning our next stop, talking about what we just saw, or a little napping, our time was accounted for.

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Originally Posted by ckelly78z View Post
My parents took an Airstream coordinated camping trip around the SW national parks last year, and loved it. One of the days was to visit the South rim of the GC. As soon as they pulled into the large parking lot, they were assaulted by multiple tour busses unloading over-eager foreign tourist who were all dressed in color coordinated shirts to keep track of who was in which bus group. Each guide then got on their megaphone, and started screeching instructions in Japenese.
How awful! That was one of my fears, and I can only speak for our experience, but it was nothing like that at all. I hate crowds and noise, and this part of it was fine. I think I mentioned in the OP, some schools were getting in session about this time, so that may have made the crowds a bit smaller.

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Sounds like a great trip!

Did your train have wifi available? If so, how reliable was the service?
I had heard wifi would be spotty, and then that you won't get it unless you ask. Their wifi is dependent on picking up cell data, and a lot of the trip is desolate areas. I suspect that it goes in/out enough, that they'd rather not deal with complaints. The official Amtrak site does not list wifi as available. So we never even tried, and our cell phones did show no-service for some time.

Now if anyone at Amtrak would listen, I realize what they should do, is have a small server on the train. They could load it up with Amtrak web pages, menus and such, and have a page for current info for the train (delays, basic scenery or other local info along the route, that they could easily edit as needed). But even static info would be nice. When in a signal area, maybe they could buffer up a few news sites or something.

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Old 08-15-2019, 12:05 PM   #13
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How awful! That was one of my fears, and I can only speak for our experience, but it was nothing like that at all. I hate crowds and noise, and this part of it was fine. I think I mentioned in the OP, some schools were getting in session about this time, so that may have made the crowds a bit smaller.




-ERD50
I forgot to mention that the next day in their trip, they went to the North rim of the GC, and loved it. It was nearly empty with only a few scattered cars parked. They could hear eagles screaming, and could hear the wind blowing through the valley. Everyone had a revered silence, and enjoyed the North rim far more than the touristy South rim.
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Old 08-15-2019, 04:48 PM   #14
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Rode Amtrak from New England to South Carolina a few years ago. Was a good trip, a bit faster than driving. Would do it again if not bound to a schedule.
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Old 08-15-2019, 05:44 PM   #15
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Friends took a similar trip from Chicago to the west but through a different outfit. That outfit’s trip that is equivalent to yours (same trains duh and similar hotels and meals) has a couple thousand $$ added for two people. Going directly through Amtrak was a good choice.
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Old 08-16-2019, 11:04 AM   #16
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Originally Posted by ckelly78z View Post
My parents took an Airstream coordinated camping trip around the SW national parks last year, and loved it. One of the days was to visit the South rim of the GC. As soon as they pulled into the large parking lot, they were assaulted by multiple tour busses unloading over-eager foreign tourist who were all dressed in color coordinated shirts to keep track of who was in which bus group. Each guide then got on their megaphone, and started screeching instructions in Japenese.

You get none of that at the North Rim. Takes a few extra hours to get there but it's well worth it.
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Old 08-16-2019, 11:49 AM   #17
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You get none of that at the North Rim. Takes a few extra hours to get there but it's well worth it.
I replied in post 13. They loved the North rim.
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