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Monday, January 4, 2016

Pere Marquette Amtrak / Grand Rapids to Chicago Union Station with Business Class Return

December 2015 - January 2016

business class seating - details under Chicago to GRR heading

Weekday a.m. departure from Vern J. Ehlers station in Grand Rapids, Michigan (GRR) - December 2015

This was our second time departing from the new Grand Rapids train station on Century Ave. Our first experience was a year earlier, December 2014, after the new train station had just opened. This time, we were familiar with the location, and the fact that it is not easy to get to the station from Wealthy St. or US-131, despite the fact that it is located right next to both roads. Century Ave. goes underneath Wealthy St., and you cannot access Century Ave. directly from Wealthy St. We were arriving on US-131 from the north, and decided to take the first exit after Wealthy St., Franklin St., and then drive the ½ mile back to the train station. If you are arriving from the south, you would also take the Franklin St. exit, and then turn onto Sheridan Ave. to access Century Ave., as Franklin St. passes over Century Ave. with no direct access, just like Wealthy St.

We arrived at the station just before 5:30 a.m. for our 6:00 a.m. departure. The station was not crowded when we arrived, although it was a few minutes later. The boarding process started at 5:45 a.m., and we departed at exactly 6:00 a.m. even though many passengers were still standing and stowing luggage. You do not need to be seated before the Amtrak departs, like on an airplane. Boarding order was called as follows: business class, lower level and/or assistance needed (designated on boarding pass), and then groups with two or more (when we boarded). I assume solo travelers were called after this.

Pere Marquette train 371 travel experience from GRR to Chicago

There were a lot of passengers the day we traveled, and the only two seats together in the last car we were directed to were facing forward and located next to the stairs. When leaving Grand Rapids, you need to choose seats that are backward when you board, if you want to be facing forward for the trip. Additionally, there is more movement in the back of the train than there is farther forward. On the flip side, the noise from the train whistle throughout the trip is louder at the front of the train than it is in the back. We prefer to ride facing forward, and we prefer seats away from the stairs, as it tends to be a busy area. I suppose if you want a fast exit upon arrival, this would be a good seat. When the Amtrak ticket collector came around, I asked if we could move to another car, so we could be facing forward, and he said no.

This is the first time we have taken the Amtrak since free WiFi became available on the train. The connection speed was kind of slow, although it did work for most of the trip. Our travel time to Chicago was 4 hours, 22 minutes. We arrived 11 minutes late for our scheduled arrival time of 9:11 a.m. central time.

Weekend p.m. departure from Union Station in Chicago - January 2016

Boarding the Amtrak in Chicago has been chaotic just about every time we have taken the train. Our worst experience with Amtrak and Union Station was January 2014. That experience was so horrible, I thought I might never ride the Amtrak to/from Chicago again, yet, here I was! This time, we decided to upgrade our return trip to business class for priority boarding and access to Metropolitan Lounge. The cost for the upgrade was $30 total for both of us. Along with access to the lounge and priority boarding, we would have business class seats on the train, as well.

Union Station Metropolitan Lounge

There are a couple of ways to access Metropolitan Lounge on the day of travel: with sleeping class or business class seats, or, if you are a Select Plus or Select Executive member.

The lounge was about ¾ full the day of our visit. We did not need to wait in line to enter. We showed our boarding pass to an agent at the desk. She provided entry passes, in case we left the room, and she gave an excellent overview of the lounge amenities.

The lounge did not have much in the way of snacks, and I had not expected much from what I read online before our visit. Snacks included small bags of Frito-Lay chips, Doritos, and a couple of Sara Lee snack cakes (very few, and they went like hotcakes! I only saw two during our visit). The soda brand was Pepsi, and there were several juice flavors in the machine, including cranberry. Coffee was also available.

beverage station on left - snacks in bowls on next counter beyond beverage station 
The WiFi worked very well, and there were a few seats with community computers available, as well. Most of the seats in the lounge were dinghy looking with stains or tears in the fabric. There were several electrical outlets in the lounge. Most of them were in the center poles throughout the room. The bathroom facilities were adequate. They were much better than the bathrooms outside the lounge. The agent told us a new lounge is being built in Great Hall that will open in a few months.

The main reason we purchased business class was for a roomier waiting area and priority boarding. This was definitely worth the price we paid! When it was time to board, an agent called passengers over to the exit door, and then she escorted us to the train.

Another way to get priority boarding and a nice waiting area is to purchase a pass to Legacy Club in the southwest corner of Great Hall. The cost for this was $20 per person. Legacy Club looked nicer than Metropolitan Lounge from the pictures and reviews I read online; however, we figured it was a better deal to make the business class purchase for $30, rather than just the lounge access for $40.

Pere Marquette train 370 travel experience from Chicago to GRR

We were the only passengers in business class when we boarded the train, although there were passengers in other areas. Four more passengers boarded in our section before we departed. The comfort and room in business class was the same as when we traveled in coach class, except the seats were leather instead of cloth. Business class was in the very last car for our return from Chicago, in a similar location to where we had been seated from Grand Rapids. The seats were all facing forward, and there was a curtain between business class and the steps down to the cafe car. The WiFi did not work at all from the business class area on the return trip. I could see the Internet signal; however, none of my devices would connect or stay connected. I did not try to access the Internet from other areas of the train.

business class seating

Our return trip was 4 hours, 27 minutes. We arrived in Grand Rapids at 11:57 p.m., 18 minutes late for our scheduled arrival time of 11:39 p.m. eastern time. I do not know why Amtrak thinks the trip from Chicago to Grand Rapids would take two minutes less than the trip in the opposite direction. Seems like every time we have taken the Amtrak, it has arrived late in either direction.

I suggest not relying on the Amtrak app for train arrival times. Fifteen minutes after our scheduled arrival time, we were still pulling into the station, and the app showed that our train was arriving into Grand Rapids on time.
screen shot taken when we were still pulling into station

When we arrived in Grand Rapids, they backed the train in, so business class was the first car next to the building. We were among the first couple of passengers to disembark, and then had a shorter distance to walk to the parking lot than passengers seated at the front of the train. Before this trip, I did not recall the train turning around when arriving and departing Grand Rapids. I thought it only turned around when departing. It could be that this is done now because of the new business class seating.

Food & Beverages on Pere Marquette Amtrak

items brought from home
for our travel to Chicago
One thing nice about the Amtrak, compared to flying, is that you can bring your own food and beverages on board. On the other hand, airlines usually provide complimentary non-alcoholic beverages, such as water, coffee, tea, soda, and juice. Some airlines even offer a small snack for no charge. Amtrak does not offer any complimentary food or beverages in coach class. There is a drinking water spigot next to the stairs; however, there are usually no cups in the dispenser. Staff members grumble about giving out anything for no charge (water, cups, ice, etc.), so we always bring our own food and beverages. I even brought a small Ziplock bag of ice cubes!

wine purchased from Amtrak
during return trip

We received one non-alcoholic beverage during our business class return trip. We needed to go down to the cafe car to get this, and we had to fill out and sign our names on a sheet stating what item we took. We also purchased an individual serving size wine for $6.50 during the trip. It was Woodbridge brand in a plastic bottle. Kind of expensive, I thought, but I wanted something more than the complimentary water and milk we had gotten when we first departed.

Please feel free to share this post for future Amtrak travelers!