Fast Chicago TR, July 5/6 2019

Discussion in 'Travelogues / Trip Reports' started by Michigan Mom, Jul 8, 2019.

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  1. Jul 8, 2019 #1

    Michigan Mom

    Michigan Mom

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    Fairly last minute, so not very well planned, but nevertheless successful quick trip on the Wolverine from Ann Arbor to Chicago. Being a holiday weekend I rather expected everything to be sold out/astronomical, as it turned out, there were coach seats to be had going to Chicago on Friday morning, and BC on the return, for which I used AGR points. With unpredictable, potentially stormy weather in the Midwest, this wasn't the time to be using flight bennies, so with availability on the Wolverine, my daughter and I were off to our kind of vacation town.
    Hotel rates were on the high side, so we decided to pack as much adventure as we could into a morning arrival, thus paying for one hotel night, then departing late in the afternoon the next day. It was somewhat of a leap of faith on my part, having had many sketchy Saturday night travel experiences. This time, the planets aligned and the Wolverine was reasonably on time in both directions, and with no discernible drama. Train 351 left Ann Arbor a few minutes late, we weren't concerned as the station is not an unpleasant place to wait for a train, and the morning sun was comfortable so we waited outside.
    Boarding seems more expeditious than on previous trips, conductors no longer herd people into specific cars and let passengers find seats in any car, which is a welcome change. There is still some tension between single riders and people trying to find seats together, which I think can be alleviated with reserved seating although there are arguments pro and con and no foolproof solutions.
    The Wolverine is a nice ride through Michigan on its way to the Windy City, the scenery is always absorbing. I will note that a major change in the cafe car service is that hot water is no longer free. I don't know if this is train specific or a new Amtrak policy. When I went to the cafe car to ask for hot water, (which I have always tipped a dollar for), the attendant advised it would be $2.25, the same as a coffee or tea, and that this was a recent change that just went into effect. So, sorry to relay this to anyone who likes to bring their own tea, or instant oatmeal, etc. Amtrak decided that they would try and monetize hot water, so there you have it. They can do that, I will just plan accordingly as I think that charging for hot water is unreasonable. This time, not wanting to penalize the attendant, they got the $2.25 plus tip for hot water. Resolved, however, no more spending in the cafe car. This wasn't a good move by Amtrak leadership. Or maybe it was by their estimate. I think it will just result in lost tip revenue for the cafe car attendant.
    Upon arrival, the mission was to get lunch in the form of a true Chicago style hot dog. We left Union Station and were walking around the city taking in the river views, and found a cafe I've already forgotten the name of, food was excellent and the place seemed to be a local hangout. We had a very nice lunch of salads and sandwiches, with an open air view to the street. So the hot dog mission was temporarily set aside and we took our time at lunch before continuing on the way to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza. As it turned out it was only a few more blocks ahead. We waited in the lobby for a short while for the room to be ready, and once we were in the room it was time to try and beat the rain for a trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo.
    This Holiday Inn is adjacent to the Merchandise Mart which has a Brown Line CTA station. We hopped on the train and rode to the Armitage Street stop which you can follow to the park and zoo. You can also take the 151 bus either from CUS or other points, this gets you to the park entrance unlike the Brown LIne stop that requires 15-20 minutes of additional walking. The MM is one of my favorite Chicago hangouts from way back, just be advised it has changed over the years, businesses have come and gone in the food court, and access to the hotel is more strictly limited (the MM elevators are closed off and you are directed around to the HI elevator). Not all exterior entrances are open when you'd hope they would be, so you can't necessarily get to the hotel via the Wells St. doorways if it's after hours. It's still a very nice downtown Chicago option and often features decent room rates so I always check their site.
    Lincoln Park zoo, walkable from N. Michigan Ave if you're so inclined, has been a family favorite since my kids were little. Wonderful exhibits, nice areas to stroll around in and incredible that it is free. It can be a bit much in extreme weather, just be prepared. Exhibits are often being changed around, this time the lion house was under renovations. Still, if you're a zoo aficionado, you will find lots to enjoy.
    It was early evening when we walked out of the zoo and hopped on the bus heading back to Michigan avenue. Prior to leaving the Merchandise Mart I had purchased 24 hour passes for us, finding these to be a good value even if we broke even during the time span - the charge for a new transit card is waived if you get one of the unlimited ride options. Just be strategic about when to activate that 24 hour clock.
    We discussed briefly the possibility of finding a spot to have Chicago style hot dogs for dinner, however the combination of large lunch and hot weather served to postpone this thought until the next day.
    More than anything, we needed to get clean after all the walking around in heat and humidity, so we picked up a few snacks and returned to the hotel for the night.
    In the morning, we decided to find a breakfast spot, check out of the hotel, spend some time on Michigan avenue and then pick up the hot dogs for dinner before boarding the Wolverine for home. We did find a great place on Wells for omelettes and pancakes, just a few blocks from the hotel. Food was fabulous and the service so friendly. After checkout, we used our CTA passes to ride the Brown Line to the closest Amtrak spot, and walked around the Sears Tower neighborhood for a while. We were so full from breakfast all we could do was look longingly at a Gold Coast Dogs (recommended by Bob Dylan) as we walked by. Our shopping destination was Water Tower Place so we took the Red line subway up to the Chicago stop. Of course we spent more time there than intended and were scrambling to get back to CUS for the late Wolverine before the passes expired. What with the midafternoon break for bubble teas and muffins at Argo Cafe, we certainly weren't hungry for dinner and it was getting close to boarding time, so we went to the lounge to wait (comes with BC tickets as well as sleeper accommodations). There are complimentary snacks and drinks in the lounge, I like the pretzel mix and banana chips etc. however we wanted something a bit more substantial so we each picked up a sandwich from Pret a Manger for the trip home. Gold Coast Dogs was again, something we have resolved to sample next time.
    Train 354 left Chicago on time, and as the conductor gleefully announced, remained on time. BC was full but blissfully quiet as the setting sun illuminated the landscape as the night settled in. We passed through storms in western Michigan which had cleared by the time we got to Ann Arbor.
    This was such a pleasant trip on the Wolverine it really brought back the relaxed feeling of trips to Chicago in the 90s. Sometimes you just get lucky.
     
  2. Jul 8, 2019 #2

    Michigan Mom

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    Forgot to add: We traveled with small backpacks only, which turned out to be a good thing as there wasn't a spare inch of space in the luggage storage area in the Lounge when we checked in prior to boarding on Saturday.
     
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  3. Jul 8, 2019 #3

    OBS

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    Great report, Thanks!
     
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  4. Jul 8, 2019 #4

    NEPATrainTraveler

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    Great report, very informative.
     
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  5. Jul 9, 2019 #5

    Michigan Mom

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    Thanks for reading!
     
  6. Jul 9, 2019 #6

    redbug119

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    Great reveiw! Chicago is a regular destination for me. If I fly in, I usually stay at the end of the Blue line and take the El in but always looking for a reasonable downtown hotel for when I take the train. I will keep that holiday inn in mind!
     
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  7. Jul 9, 2019 #7

    dogbert617

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    Are you referring to the Metropolitan Lounge? Yep, I can imagine that lounge can get crowded at times. I finally did check that space out when I returned from doing a roomette back from Glacier National Park to Chicago, and it really is a nice place to wait for a train. FYI, you can still use the Metropolitan Lounge even if you are only returning to Chicago in sleeper or business class, and aren't traveling any further than Chicago. As someone once mentioned the rule, as long as you did SAME day travel going out from Chicago on business class or sleeper, or used one going into Chicago, using that lounge is free. And of course if you're in coach, it costs extra to enter that lounge($20? can't remember what Amtrak charges coach passengers to use that nowadays).

    Back to the part where you talked about visiting Chicago, sounds like you had a good trip here. If you're ever in Chicago's downtown/Loop area ON A WEEKDAY(sadly it isn't open on Saturdays and Sundays) and in the northwest corner of the Loop(just south and across from Merchandise Mart) looking for a good hot dog, I really like UB Dogs myself. Also, and with the benefit of it being one of the few Loop places open on both Saturdays and Sundays(sigh, too many shut down on Sat/Sun), Max's(on Adams, just west of Art Institute) is another hot dog stand I'd recommend. And others are right, that Gold Coast Dogs is one of the few good places within Union Station's food court that doesn't suck(too many IMO are mediocre choices).

    One last time back to your train trip, that is totally crap that Amtrak would try to charge for hot water in the cafe car! Seems like a cheap move by Mr. Anderson and other Amtrak higher ups to charge for something, that shouldn't be charged for at all IMO. Sigh I guess I can't say I'm surprised, with all the other stupid changes I've heard Anderson and higher ups have implemented(i.e. reduced discounts, making it harder for a private car to be attached to the back of an Amtrak train, etc).
     
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  8. Jul 9, 2019 #8

    Michigan Mom

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    Done that Blue Line money-saving option many times as well. :) The CTA now charges extra ($2.50) so 5$ for leaving the airport which isn't exorbitant but still double the normal single ride ticket. I get around this by staying at a hotel near either the Rosemont or Cumberland stop and walking there (as opposed to shuttling back to O'Hare to board the train).

    My definition of "reasonable" downtown hotels can vary according to circumstance. If this were a 2 night stay I wouldn't have paid for the HI this trip; by making it a two day one night trip it worked. The Crowne Plaza which is walking distance from CUS frequently comes in at some reasonable rates and better than the HI so I wanted to let you know about that option :) I love that CP. Right across from a full service grocery store and also close to CTA.
     
  9. Jul 9, 2019 #9

    Michigan Mom

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    I have the same understanding as you do, that as long as you are arriving in Chicago in first or business accommodations you may use the lounge. I have not tried that on arrival though, only on departure so can't verify. But I think you're correct. As far as the charge, on board the train the announcement was that day passes could be purchased for $50 so the $20 price might have gone by the wayside.
    We will definitely be going to Gold Coast dogs next time. I didn't want to bring raw onions on board so, something for a future trip!
     
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  10. Jul 9, 2019 #10

    dogbert617

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    $50 now? Dang, that's an insane increase for using the Metropolitan Lounge, if you're just riding in coach. Probably won't ever again get a single passenger or 2 to pay to get access to that lounge, if the fee to go into the Metropolitan Lounge if you're only in coach has increased that much! I bet a few in coach might pay to access that lounge, if that fee was only $20. Ah well if one is on a regional Midwest train to/from Chicago, that'd be a reason to upgrade to business class.

    And yes correct, as long as you had a business class or sleeper ticket for same day train travel in business or sleeper(even includes if you only did that going into Chicago, but not outbound connecting to another train), you can use the Metropolitan Lounge for free without paying anything extra.
     
  11. Jul 9, 2019 #11

    Michigan Mom

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    Dogbert, it says $25 on the website, now I don't know what is going on, because I clearly heard $50 and had the same reaction as you, basically "DANG!"
     
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  12. Jul 10, 2019 #12

    SarahZ

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    If you have a smartphone, get the "Hotel Tonight" app. I've been able to get rooms downtown (in nice hotels) for as little as $70/night during the low season and $105/night during the high season.

    All of the hotels are reviewed by those who've stayed there, and users upload photos of the rooms and grounds so you can see what it really looks like vs. what the website shows you. The only snag is that you have to prepay.

    I love their "Geo Rate" feature. Depending on your location, you can save even more money. They do that to lure people from farther away. I thought it was just a gimmick, but I've seen the prices change between the time I leave Kalamazoo and the time I cross the Illinois border. The Geo Rate disappears somewhere around Gary, Indiana. :p

    I've used that app for nearly five years, and it's served me well in many major cities. I have zero complaints.
     
  13. Jul 10, 2019 #13

    dogbert617

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    Ah, okay. I suspect the price would have to actually be $25 per person today, and not $50. That'd be an insane increase to use the Chicago Metropolitan Lounge, to coach riders! Thanks for checking, on what the current Met. Lounge rate is for coach passengers.

    Hadn't heard of Hotel Tonight app, but I will give that one a look at some point. Thanks for the suggestion.
     
  14. Jul 10, 2019 #14

    AmtrakBlue

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    The new ML charge for non-sleeper pax was $50 when it first opened. When the other "coach" lounge closed, they reduced the price to $25.
     
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  15. Jul 10, 2019 #15

    dogbert617

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    I seem to recall for a brief time, it was $20 to get into the Met. Lounge if you were in coach. Crazy that Amtrak was charging $50 to access that lounge for coach passengers, when it first opened though! So am I right in thinking they reduced the price from $50 to $20, then went back slightly up to $25?
     

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