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October 3, 2012 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Long bus / train trip with a couple of long stopovers. How to amuse myself? Things to do in Buffalo & Chicago?

I'm taking a bus > train > bus trip with stopovers in Buffalo for 5 hours (the Amtrak station near the airport) and in Chicago (Union Station). Mainly looking for ways to stave off boredom & essentials to pack. And while the answer may be "nothing" - what can I get up to while I'm stopped in Buffalo and Chicago?

1. What are the best ways to keep occupied on a long trip

2. I just got an Android phone - best offline apps / especially diverting things I can put on my phone?

3. What are must-pack items for a series of bus and train trips?

4. What should I do in Buffalo for ~5 hours on the way out and Chicago for 6 & 7 hours respectively on either end of the trip?
posted by SassHat to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (18 answers total)
What time of day/day of week will you be in each city?
posted by enn at 10:51 AM on October 3, 2012

Must-pack item that I always forget: mints! Your mouth will taste horrible after a long bus/train ride. Also, make sure your toothbrush/deodorant/etc are easily-accessible for freshening up at stations.

Also, earplugs, especially for the bus trips.
posted by sleepingcbw at 10:56 AM on October 3, 2012

On an Amtrak trip I had a great time just walking around (beautiful) downtown Chicago during the layover. Your threshold of entertainment may be higher, though.
posted by skbw at 10:57 AM on October 3, 2012

Response by poster: Enn: Buffalo tomorrow evening, Chicago friday morn / afternoon and then chicago again afternoon/evening on the way home.
posted by SassHat at 11:06 AM on October 3, 2012

I really like puzzles, especially ones that don't have time limits. Android puzzle games I have and really like include Trainyard (free and non-free version), quell and quell:reflect, Hue Brix, Flow, and Flood-It! I can play these sorts of things for hours...

Just as absorbing, but less puzzle-like, I have Androminion, which is the Android version of the tabletop card game Dominion. It is super fun.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:26 AM on October 3, 2012

In Buffalo you can see the Niagara Falls, but it's probably a 15-20 minute car ride from the Amtrak station. The evening hours you'll be there precludes other things I'd normally recommend, like the Buffalo Zoo (one of the oldest in the US) and the Zoological Gardens, or any of the Frank Lloyd Wright structures.

I took an extremely lengthy Amtrak trip a number of years ago, and there are two things to avoid if at all possible.

1. Don't sit in the seats near the doors between cars. Even in this fairly mild weather, you run the risk of freezing your ass off. Make sure you have warm socks and layers you can add if you get cold. I took a December trip and literally had snow piling up on my coat because I was so close to the door.

2. Get as far away from the dining car as you can get. If you're in the last car before the dining car, every single person on the train will be opening that damn door and parading through your car. If you're on the aisle, they'll be knocking you in the head with the backpacks that they're afraid to leave in their seats while they find something to eat.

Things may have changed since my trip, but the train was never, ever on time, so be prepared for that. On three occasions we were stopped on the tracks for more than an hour while they did something to the track.
posted by xyzzy at 11:35 AM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Buffalo has some really neat things to see and do, but not that time of day or in that part of town. But if you can spare $40 bucks or so to rent a car, think about running up to Niagara Falls, which are amazing day or night. It takes about 30 minutes to make the drive. If they don't rent cars at the Amtrak station, the airport is less than a mile away.
posted by ubiquity at 11:38 AM on October 3, 2012

Chicago Union Station is very well-situated for casual sightseers. You want to walk east towards the lake. When you come out of Union Station, look for a river, cross that, and you'll be headed towards the lakefront. You'll be headed directly towards the Art Institute, Millennium Park, and Buckingham Fountain. If it's a nice day, wander around the park. If it's a crappy day, go into the Art Institute and check out their collections of your favorite style of art. You won't be able to see nearly all of the Art Institute, of course, but it's probably still worth your while.

The Willis Tower (née Sears Tower) is also just a few blocks from Union Station, so if you like going up to the top of tall buildings, and don't mind paying $17.50 for the privilege, it might be worth checking out.

Finally, the Chicago Architecture Foundation runs boat tours that tell you all about the architecture of the city. They're pretty fantastic, though I wouldn't want to buy a ticket for one until you're sure that you'll be in Chicago in time to actually use it.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:51 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've only taken Auto Train (as an adult-My parents have hilarous horror stories of traveling to Pittsburgh from Berkeley on the train with my sister and I when we were toddlers.) I had the good luck to have taken a sleeper.

Bring reading material and puzzles for entertainment. You should get a phone signal so if you have unlimited data, or if you stored movies on your device, you can watch them.

Bring a pillow and a blankie, in case you get cold.

Amtrak has showers on the train (ew!) and at the stations. Ditto the bus (ew!) The only thing yukkier than showering in one of these is not showering (ew!) If you're as squicked out as I am, try these. They seem to be ubiquitous.

Bring slippers or shoes to walk around, prepare to burn them when you return home.

Wear your comfiest clothes. Yoga pants, flannel pj bottoms, whatever is easiest to relax in.

What I liked about traveling by train was that I was decently comfy and I was disconnected from the world. I could read, snooze and relax completely.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:22 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you can't get off your train at the Exchange St. station in Buffalo (right downtown), take the short cab ride to Elmwood and Allen Streets and start wandering around. Bookstores, bars, restaurants, shops, cafes. Allen Street is more gritty; Elmwood (head away from downtown, north, in the general direction of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Nothing of any interest near the Dick Rd. train station, I'm afraid.
posted by Riverine at 1:31 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Books! They keep me sane on long rides - whether dead tree or on a Nook/Kindle/phone app for same.

Snacks are good. They're healthier and cheaper than what's in the dining car. Ditto bottles of water/soda.

An inflatable pillow/eye mask if you want to sleep.

I traveled Australia by bus pre smart phones and it was books that kept me sanest.
posted by TravellingCari at 2:57 PM on October 3, 2012

If you like to read, Instapaper is awesome. It's an app that lets you save stories online (typically longform stories), syncs them to your phone as simplified text, and allows you to read them offline. Though if you're leaving soon you're gonna have to scramble to find and save some stories. I believe Longform.org might also let you read offline.

Even if you don't use it for this trip, it's still a super-awesome app for your new phone.
posted by Brittanie at 3:36 PM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

The house where Teddy Roosevelt took the oath of office after McKinley was assassinated is in Buffalo.
Buffalo wings were invented there, but the other local food is rare beef on weck (a roll with caraway and salt sprinkled on top).
posted by brujita at 5:34 PM on October 3, 2012

You can probably get off at Exchange but I don't know that you can get back on there. I think boarding happens at Dick Road.

Dick Road is in the middle of nowhere (Depew, actually). You can get a taxi; there might be one there or you can call for one. But it's at least 20 minutes to Buffalo and about 40 minutes to Niagara Falls. Frankly, there's not a lot in Depew that distinguishes it from the rest of middle America.

The intersection of Allen and Elmwood is a good place to start. Right at that intersection is the really terrific Cantina Loco. Just a block away is Lagniappes (cajun), another block west is Allen St Hardware (restaurant/bar, formerly a hardware store). In that section of Allen, you'll encounter a lot of the character of Allentown.

You'll have to go about 3-4 blocks north on Elmwood to start encountering the true Elmwood district. Again, lots of restaurants (Nonoo ramen bar, Louis' "Texas Hots", Toro tapas bar). Go a few blocks further north and you'll encounter Blue Moon (belgian beer place) and the local coffee joints. Even further north are a few more.

Elmwood and Allen would keep you busy enough for a few hours.

And I'm pretty sure that you can check your bag(s) with the staff at Dick Rd.
posted by jdfan at 6:29 PM on October 3, 2012

I just came back from a trip where I spent 9 hrs each way on Amtrak. It was surprisingly comfy since the wifi was quite decent and seats had plugs for charging electronics. We brought our own food and drinks and snacks, thank God. The food offered on board was awful and expensive (ugh, microwaved pizza), though the coffee was tasty. Bring a small fleece blanket and a pillow for napping. That would've made a huge difference for us. I loaded up my iPad with books, games and downloaded a bunch of movies/tv (don't count on streaming videos!). Finally, I took a small dose of anti-motion sickness pills.
posted by HeyAllie at 7:58 PM on October 3, 2012

Have you ever experienced audio books or audioplays?

Fast Video Download is a Firefox addon. It'll let you make local copies of youtubes. I'm sure there are conversion/player programs for your smartphone.
posted by porpoise at 8:48 PM on October 3, 2012

One of the great things about smart phones is that you can take giant books without any increase in weight. Your local public library might have a way for you borrow ebooks from them, but if not, you can either buy a big series or check out free sources of ebooks like epubbud or project Gutenberg. I read all of Game of Thrones this way. Personally, I like having a combo of serious and light reading available.

Conversely, I think a smallish paper journal is also good, in case you start thinking about things you want to remember or process.

Podcasts & audiobooks are a similar way to distract oneself from physical monotony.

I find unsalted nuts & cranberries can be a good compact snack option for travel. And fruit like apples.

I definitely agree you can get to/from Chicagos best downtown bits in the hours available. If its nice, visit the Cloud Gate aka Bean. You can probably check your bags at Union Station too... we did in a similar situation 2-3 yrs ago. we walked from Union and maybe caught a cab back to the station.

For clothing, think cozy and a cardigan for easy removal in your seat.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 8:57 PM on October 3, 2012

This will depend specifically which Amtrak trains you're taking, but keep in mind that they tend to run late. As in hours, not minutes. I once took the Lakeshore Limited to Chicago and was supposed to have an entire day in Chicago before my connecting train in the evening. Didn't actually arrive in Chicago until lunchtime. Definitely keep your layovers long on Amtrak, and don't count on having long leisurely hours to spend at your layover destination.

In terms of entertaining yourself on the train, please, please PLEASE wear headphones if you plan to use any electronics that make noise. My worst train experience ever was a 20 hour trip sitting in front of two kids watching the complete series of That's So Raven on a laptop at top volume.

Nthing something to write with/on. Train journeys always feel a little muse-ish.

Heading through rural America (upstate NY, Ohio, Indiana, etc), do not expect wifi. When I did my epic rail odyssey a few years ago even cell coverage was patchy. Nowadays you might get 3G along a lot of the route, but the idea that you're going to have constant free wifi is laughable. I think a few trains provide wifi, but in the part of the country where you're traveling, not so much (I think that's only on Northeast Corridor/Acela).

Definitely bring something warm.
posted by Sara C. at 5:48 AM on October 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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