Mastering the Trains: Amtrak and Metra Edition

Mastering the Trains: Amtrak and Metra Edition

As college students in the city, public transportation has become our best friend. Obviously the easy access to trains and buses is a huge benefit for all of us living here, but before you get the hang of it all you’ve got some learning to do.

The CTA will get you anywhere you need to go within the city, but when it comes to traveling farther distances you’ll need to master the ways of Amtrak and Metra.

Amtrak trains will take you anywhere in the country. Union Station is Chicago’s Amtrak station (and home to a few Metra lines), which is a little intimidating on your first trip. When you get to the station your first step is to go downstairs. Then look for the train arrival and departure schedules to find what gate your train is departing from. If you get a little turned around don’t be afraid to ask, it happens to the best of us.

A little Amtrak disclaimer, while it may seem like a good idea to get there at least an hour before your train leaves–Amtrak is almost always late. It’s safe to bet you won’t leave until a half an hour after your scheduled time so be sure to bring something to do while you wait.

Metra, on the other hand, is ALWAYS on time. I have missed one… or maybe five Metra trains because I showed up a minute or so after their departure times. Missing a train is just as heartbreaking the fifth time as it is the first, do your best to save yourself the heartache and leave extra early for Metra.

The Metra train lines are much shorter than Amtrak and will only take you to the outskirts of the Chicagoland area. I’ve taken advantage of them to visit friends who go to school in the suburbs because it is a cheap and easy way to travel. The trickiest part of Metra is that depending on what “line” you take–which direction you are headed–there is a different Chicago station. Metra seems to enjoy hiding their downtown stations underground off Michigan Avenue (Millenium Station), in what looks like a shopping mall (Oglivie Station), or tucked away in Union Station. Because you know your train will be pulling out of the station exactly on time be sure to know exactly where the station you are departing from is located.

One other tip–when buying tickets for Amtrak make sure to buy them online pretty far in advance, then either have you ticket printed out or opened on your smart phone when you depart. Metra tickets are bought at the station before you leave. If you are traveling over the weekend buy a Weekend Pass which is $7 for as many trips as you need. If you arrive too late to buy a ticket before boarding you can buy your ticket after you get on, but it’ll cost you a little extra.

Once you master Chicago’s train systems you will feel like a true local. It will just take some practice. I hope that you make it through your freshman year without missing as many trains as I did.

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