Is there any reason this Amtrak trip won't work?
May 20, 2008 10:03 AM   Subscribe

This summer I'd like to take the Amtrak from Cincinnati, OH to Holland, MI, by way of Chicago, and I'd like to take my bike. Help me figure this out.

Probably some time in July, I'd like to visit from friends in Holland, MI. Partially because of the price of gas, partially because I'm familiar with Holland and I know it's bikeable, and partly because, uh, I think it'd be kind of fun to take a train, I'd like to take the Amtrak, and bring my bike.

A search for train schedules on the Amtrak website shows that the train would probably leave Cincinnati about 1:10am, get into Chicago at 10:35am, leave Chicago again at 5:45pm (bonus! 7 hours of free time in Chicago!), and get into Holland at 5:45pm. Essentially reverse and repeat on the way back, with the train leaving Holland at 8:20am and getting into Cincinnati at 3:17am.

I guess I'm sort of trying to figure out if this is feasible/if there's any reason this would be a really bad idea, assuming: a) while I've been on a train before, I'm not an experienced train traveler, and b) I'm a 5'2" 21 year old female.

But I mean, I can take care of myself. I guess my concerns more specifically are:

1) How difficult will it be for me to get the bike on and off the train (yes, I've seen this on the Amtrak site.)

2) Surely there's somewhere at Union Station in Chicago I can check a bike for 7 hours, right? Will that be complicated/expensive?

3) Ought I be concerned at all about boarding/leaving the Amtrak at 1:00am or 3:00am? I guess I'm asking about the general sketchiness of Amtrak stations, especially really late at night.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Thanks Askmefites!
posted by Quidam to Travel & Transportation (5 answers total)
Well, if you're leaving from Cincinnati at 1AM or 3AM, I wouldn't really be that worried. I took an Amtrak from Cincinnati to DC a few months ago and I left around 1AM so I could get to DC for a morning meeting and then got back on the track later that day, and I noticed that early in the morning it was pretty empty and the bathrooms seemed to be a lot cleaner than when I returned at approximately 10PM.

As for sketchiness, I can't attest to Union Station's general bike-keeping-safety but I know that I brought a HUGE fold-up table sized portfolio with me to DC and had no trouble getting it stowed away for the trip, and ran into no problems when I was in the Cincinnati Terminal.

Bring stuff to read. And lots of bottles of water. And handywipes. Riding the train is fun, but it'll leave you with that dirty-been-in-a-plane feeling about an hour in, and the following hours just sort of compact that feeling.
posted by banannafish at 10:17 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I brought my bike on the Amtrak several years ago. From your link, it looks like there might be other options depending on what's available on your particular train, but for my trip I had to have my bike in a box. My bike had straight handlebars, so I just loosened the front stem enough to rotate them into a parallel line with the rest of the bike frame, and then the whole thing fit into the box. However, once the bike is in the box it's very ungainly. Obviously you can't roll it anymore, and it's pretty tough to deal with if you're only one person. I'd definitely recommend trying to avoid packing your bike up, if possible.

Also, if there's any chance that you might fly home rather than taking the train, skip the bike. I got different answers from several different post offices (trying to ship it home) and different airline reps (trying to check it on my flight), and almost had to abandon my bike in another state.
posted by vytae at 11:36 AM on May 20, 2008

I've never brought a bike onto Amtrak, but I've traveled by train many times. Regardless of how they have you store it, you should not have any trouble having it stored at the station while you're in Chicago - when I was there many years ago, it was about 10$ - I'm not sure if that's changed. I've never felt unsafe at a train station or on a train. My only real advice is to not get too attached to your schedule - Amtrak is chronically late - sometimes by hours. If you can leave your schedule flexible, you should have an enjoyable trip.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:42 AM on May 20, 2008

I took my bike on Amtrak from Boston to New York last year and also took it from Boston to Springfield, MA on the Lake Shore Limited in 2006 (the train line that goes from Chicago to Cincinnati) so this is probably most applicable to the poster's question.

As vytae says, standard Amtrak policy is to box the bike and put it on the baggage car. This is for all conventional bikes and it doesn't matter if you have flat bars or drops. You also have to take your pedals off. Bring a pedal wrench and a hex wrench for your stem. Practice taking off your pedals the night before ... if you've never taken them off they might be a little tough to remove the first time.

I don't know how it is in Chicago or Cincinnati, but at both South Station in Boston and Penn Station in New York, Amtrak was cool with me checking the bike in, boxing it and leaving the box in the luggage office. When I arrived in Springfield, the station master was also cool with holidng on to the box for the weekend and letting me reuse it for my return trip. When I returned to Boston, I left the box in the station as garbage. When I traveled from Boston to New York, I had to buy a box at both Boston and New York. I think it cost about $15 each time.

In all cases, I rode my bike to the station, bought my ticket, rolled my bike to the luggage office, boxed it at the office, left it in the office for baggage handlers to load on to the train, picked it up at the destination luggage office, unboxed it, reinstalled pedals and realigned stem, and rolled out of the station.

imho, it is a stellar form of travelling, and if only Amtrak actually ran on sane, dependable schedules with slightly more affordable fares, I would use it all the time. The seats are more comfortable than a plane's, there's no crazy security gauntlet, and you can travel around your destination on a bike.
posted by bl1nk at 12:28 PM on May 20, 2008

If you don't have issues with the train being late (I don't know squat about your route, but some Amtrak routes are infamous for 3 hour lateness), sure, go for it. I think the 7-hour layover in Chicago sounds like it wouldn't be an issue for you if your train arrived really late because there'd be hours of cushion.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:00 PM on May 21, 2008

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