Train cars near Clifton Forge, Virginia, seen from the Amtrak Cardinal train heading west. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Picture this: You’re fretting over your next set of travel plans, trying to figure out how to get from Philadelphia to some other U.S. city several hundred miles away. As you start to Google flight options, you think, “Hm, wow, airfare is expensive these days! There must be another way to get there besides just driving… right?”

Depending where you’re going, yes, there may be. Let’s call it the scenic route.

Back in April, I was planning a trip to Indianapolis with my boyfriend in early June. I found myself on Amtrak’s website at 1 a.m. after balking at the price of a direct flight, and discovered to my surprise that there’s a train running between Philly and Indy.

Called the Cardinal, it’s one of a dozen Amtrak routes that run through 30th Street Station, and it’s the only one that runs directly to the Midwest without a transfer — by way of a picturesque, 20-something-hour ride through over half a dozen states. 

The Cardinal’s annual ridership stood around 80,000 for Amtrak’s 2022 fiscal year. The over 1,100-mile route is an amalgamation of a few different defunct passenger rail lines, and today, it’s the only passenger train service that runs through cities like Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

It’s also noted for having some of the best scenery you’ll find on a train ride east of the Mississippi.

I texted my partner with the idea, and I think he thought I was kidding. But I wasn’t — and we both love trains but had never been on one for more than a few hours. We decided to do it.


The price the two of us ended up paying for our first class (!!) trip in a sleeper car was less than we would have paid to fly coach — albeit over 10 times as long a journey. The views, though, could not be beaten by any other mode of travel (just as various train bloggers had promised).

Here’s what to expect if you also take the leap, plus some tips and tricks for long-distance train travel.

The route

The Cardinal ends in Chicago, and it takes a super roundabout way to get from the East Coast.

The westbound line originates in New York City three times a week, but it doesn’t travel in anything close to a straight line. The train goes in a wide U-shape through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, DC, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana before getting to Illinois. 

The Cardinal route. (Amtrak)

Taking the full route from Moynihan Train Hall/Penn Station in New York to Union Station in Chicago is a 26.5-hr. journey. The trip my boyfriend and I took — from West Philly to downtown Indianapolis, three stops after the beginning and five stops before the end — lasted around 21 hours.

The cost

Basically, if you’re taking Amtrak and you want a place to sleep that’s not just sitting up in your seat, you will need to book some sort of sleeper room, all of which Amtrak categorizes as first class. Not every Amtrak route has first class options, but the Cardinal has a few.

If you’re like me and terrible at both 1) sleeping sitting up and 2) operating without sleep, booking something in the sleeper car might just be the way to go.

The cheapest (and most available) option for that is a “roomette” — a little compartment meant for one to two people that include seats that face each other and convert into a skinny bed, a top bunk, storage space for luggage, a trash can, and a sink. Not the most spacious setup, but good for a daylong journey with someone you’re comfortable being in close quarters with.

The price tag for the roomette ended up being around $470 for both me and my partner, booking a Wednesday departure seven weeks in advance. It was over twice the amount it would’ve cost for us to buy coach tickets, but it was also over $100 less per person than the cheapest direct flight from Philly to Indy (albeit 19 hours longer).

View through the window of the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge at 30th Street Station. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

The first-class ~experience~

I’m pretty experienced with traveling by Amtrak in coach for shorter distances, on lines like the Northeast Regional and Keystone Service. But the significantly longer distance and the little bells and whistles made this experience feel super different from that.

There were some perks from the beginning. If you arrive early at the train station, you get access to 30th Street Station’s Metropolitan Lounge, which you’ll find if you turn right immediately after entering the station through the east entrance and then go up the stairs.

The lounge is a bit quieter than elsewhere in the station, and it has some seating that, in terms of comfort, is definitely a level up from the wooden benches in the main hall. There’s also a coffee machine, a fridge full of bottled water and soft drinks, and some light snacks, like pretzels and muffins, on the counter. 

The snack and drink area in the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge at 30th Street Station. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

When it’s time, the Amtrak staffer working at the Metropolitan Lounge will alert you to your train’s arrival before taking you down an elevator that goes straight to the train platform.

Once we got on the train and into our roomette, we had an attendant who stopped by periodically to see if everything was going alright and served us meals (more on that later). At nighttime, he rearranged the room to have two bunks where each of us could sleep, and when we got close to Indy — a little before 5 a.m. — he knocked on our door to make sure we were awake.

The journey begins on the East Coast

As with a lot of other East Coast train trips, a decent bit of the scenery on the Cardinal was just a couple trees along the side of the tracks that were blocking the view of whatever was beyond them. (You might want to bring a book to read when you get bored.)

But there were also plenty of clearly visible and beautiful sights that made up for the periodic boringness.

Leaving Philly at 8:15 a.m. (or after — our train was running about 10 minutes late) and traveling south through Delaware and Maryland to DC, you’ll see some familiar East Coast urban and suburban landscapes, with some beautiful views of the mouth of the Susquehanna River mixed in.

Amtrak Union Station, Washington, D.C. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

There’s a break in Union Station where you can get out of the train to explore the station and admire its breathtaking architecture, or just stretch if you want. In our case, the break lasted about 40 minutes.

Pulling out of the DC train station, you can admire the buildings and views of landmarks like the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial in the distance as you cross the Potomac River.

The landscape then morphs from suburbs to fields and smaller towns and cities with small train stations, some open-air. (Shoutout to the people of Manassas, Virginia, for waving at us from the historic old town as the train pulled away — especially the kid who got really excited when we waved back.)

We were traveling on June 7, the day the air quality in Philly and elsewhere in the Northeast had degraded due to the smoke from the Canadian wildfires. Our roomette window was a little tinted, but as we got deeper into the Virginias and further away from the smoke, we could still see a visible change in how the air looked.

Heading west

Moving further into Virginia and then into West Virginia, I started to feel more and more like I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the window. The Cardinal travels through forests and mountains, and near rivers and creeks. The train goes through stretches with few to no roads, people, or houses in sight — just nature.

We went to the dining car three times throughout our trip, both to eat and to enjoy a change of scenery. (The chance to get up and walk around a bit was also very welcome.) From there, we could see out both sides of the train instead of just seeing the side of the tracks we could view from our compartment.

Passing fields in Virginia on the Amtrak Cardinal from Philly to Indianapolis. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

While we were eating dinner there — right around golden hour — we passed through the New River Gorge right alongside the New River. 

That stretch of track offers perhaps the most breathtaking views of the trip, including a short glimpse at the New River Gorge Bridge, a super tall steel arch bridge that runs from one side of the gorge to the other. 

The views along that stretch are anything but “blink and you’ll miss it” — we were looking out the window for basically an hour.

After we finished passing through the gorge, I felt like I had had my fill of pretty views and had seen everything I’d wanted to see (i.e. everything I’d read about on the internet and seen in other people’s train vlogs).

We watched ourselves pass through town after town as it got dark. I settled into the bottom bunk of our roomette right around the time we were moving into Kentucky. 

Sleeping was a little difficult for me since I’m a light sleeper and have a tendency to shift positions a lot. In retrospect, earplugs probably would have made a difference, but there was still no way around how tiny the bunks were. My partner, who’s not as easily awoken, slept just fine in the top bunk.

Amtrak roomette bunkbeds on the Cardinal. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

The train arrived in Indianapolis a little early, and our attendant brought over the bag my partner had checked back at 30th Street. It was 5 a.m. and we were still very tired, so we went back to sleep as soon as we arrived at our final destination.

But I woke up a few hours later feeling content that we’d made the journey, and also a little amazed that we’d managed to make it so far without taking a highway (save the Vine Street Expressway) or sailing above the clouds.

The food

When you’re traveling for almost as long as it takes the Earth to make a full turn around its axis, it’s pretty important to stay nourished. The good news is that with a roomette (or any other first class option), meals were included in the price of our tickets.

The Cardinal has what’s called “flexible dining” for passengers in first class, which basically means heated pre-prepared meals that can be served to you in your room or in the dining car.  There’s also a separate menu of food items you can buy if you’re in coach or if you want more food in first class, but I didn’t try any of that, so I can’t speak to what that’s like.

For people with allergies or other dietary restrictions, it’s not the best setup. There’s a QR code on a paper menu to scan to see “Food Facts,” but the webpage it led to was missing lots of items, and you might have to hunt the dishes down on other routes’ menus. (It also didn’t help that I had terrible or no cell reception for several stretches of the ride and had trouble connecting to the train wifi.)

Breakfast on the Amtrak Cardinal from Philly to Indianapolis. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Also, a word to the lactose intolerant: dairy-free options were hard to come by, so if you’re planning to make this trip, pack either your own food or lots of Lactaid. (I used three over the course of the journey.)

Like I mentioned before, we opted to eat all our meals in the dining car. Our attendant asked us what time we wanted to eat when we gave our orders, and then had a table set up for us with our food, a drink, and some napkins and plasticware.

The meals aren’t exactly gourmet, but the portions are decent, and quality-wise they seem to be a step up from your typical microwave meal.

Over the course of the train ride, I ate: 

  • Buttermilk pancakes (5.5/10) and pork sausage (4/10, but I’m not much of a sausage fan) for breakfast
  • Slow braised beef short ribs (6/10), chive mashed potatoes (7.5/10), vegetables (2/10), and a roll (10/10) for lunch
  • Baked ziti with meatballs (8.5/10), a salad (3/10), and a roll (10/10) for dinner
Lunch is served on the Amtrak Cardinal from Philly to Indianapolis. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

For me, the standouts were definitely the ziti and the rolls, which luckily came with both my lunch and my dinner. The weakest link, in my opinion, had to be any sort of vegetable — I usually love veggies, but whatever system Amtrak uses for storing and prepping meals did not do them justice.

Would I recommend the trip?

Absolutely. But you need to know what you’re getting into and if you’re okay with that.

If you’re comparing it to airfare, it can be a money saver — even more so if you can sleep sitting up and opt for a coach seat.

But it’s also a huge time commitment. We could’ve gotten from Philly to Indy in 2 hours — plus TSA check time, baggage collection time, etc., so maybe more like 4–5 hours — but we opted for something that took us almost a full day and required us to take time off work. 

It’s also twice the amount of time it takes to drive, and several hours more than taking a Greyhound to Harrisburg and connecting to Amtrak there. (As a big train girlie, I’d absolutely love it if there were more time-efficient ways to get around the U.S. by rail, but we’re just not there.)

View of Staunton, Virginia, on the Amtrak Cardinal from Philly to Indianapolis. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

All that in mind, I’d say to totally go for it if you’re sure you want the experience, because it’s a really unique one. I’ve never made the drive from Philly to Indy before, so I can’t speak to the exact route, but the views on the train were way prettier than anything I’ve ever seen along an interstate, and way more interesting than looking at clouds through a plane window.

Some smaller perks: Amtrak has generous checked baggage policies (i.e. you get two bags free per passenger if you’re traveling between stations that support it). And train travel generally takes you from one city center to another, so it’s much easier to get places of interest than it is from an airport that might be on the edges of a city.

The Amtrak Cardinal after it pulled into Indianapolis. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

A few tips and tricks for long-distance Amtrak train travel

I’m far from an expert after just one long-distance train trip, but these are some things I’d recommend based on that experience:

  • Book as early as you can.
    • This goes for almost any Amtrak travel: ticket prices generally go up the fewer there are and the closer it is to a trip. In that respect, it’s similar to flying.
  • Consider the time of year you’re traveling, and do some research on when the sun will be setting along your route.
    • We traveled in June, when the days are close to their longest — if we’d been traveling in the wintertime, the sun definitely would have set before we made it through the New River Gorge, the scenic highlight of our trip.
  • Know yourself and be prepared.
    • If you have dietary restrictions, are a picky eater, have a big appetite, or just like snacking: Pack your own snacks so you don’t have to rely on the dining car for all your food needs.
    • Bring everything you need to be comfortable, whether that’s your own pillow or some blankets (Amtrak provides those if you’re in first class, but some folks do enjoy the comforts of home).
  • Do your research and familiarize yourself with how much space you’ll have.
    • One of the most helpful things I did in prepping for my trip was watching a YouTube video of someone making a journey in a roomette and knowing that we wouldn’t have space for anything bigger than one small carry-on suitcase and maybe some backpacks. 
    • Check bags if you need to — but don’t leave anything you’ll immediately need in them!
  • Bring some entertainment.
    • It will get dark eventually, so you’ll probably want to have a book, some earbuds to listen to music or podcasts, a handheld video game console, or some cards to play with your travel companion if you have one.
  • Plan on not having internet/cell phone access at any given moment.
    • Depending on where you’re traveling through and who your phone carrier is, you might not have great luck connecting to the internet. (Amtrak Wifi can be spotty too.)
    • Don’t rely on the assumption that you’ll be able to stream things if you get bored, so be sure to download your entertainment before you depart.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...