Missoula, Montana is the state’s second largest city and one of the most scenic metropolitan areas in the country. The University of Montana provides an academic and cultural anchor to this western Montana city. Unfortunately, Missoula lost its Amtrak service in 1979 and the only low fare airline to the city flies directly to the Southwest.
For UM students and other residents of the Missoula area, utilizing a combination of Amtrak and buses is the cheapest way to travel to other parts of the country. Here are five tips/hints for effectively traveling to/from Missoula by land:
One: If you are going westbound to Missoula, ignore Amtrak’s recommendation to connect with the train at Whitefish. On Amtrak’s schedule for the Empire Builder that runs between Chicago and Seattle/Portland, there is an indication that connecting service is available between Whitefish, MT and Missoula. Rimrock Stages, which is part of the Trailways system, provides the service. Unfortunately, Rimrock’s schedule does not work well with Amtrak’s westbound timetable.
The only bus from Whitefish leaves at 11:35 am and arrives in Missoula approximately 3 ½ hours later. That works well if you are coming from Washington State or Idaho and the train arrives at Whitefish at 7:26 am. It is not convenient if you are coming from the east and the train arrives in Whitefish at 9:16 pm. You will have to get a hotel before taking the bus home the next day.
Two: If you are coming from Missoula, you should not connect to Amtrak at Whitefish in any case. The only Rimrock bus from Missoula leaves at 8:00 am and arrives at Whitefish around 11:25 am. You will have already missed the eastbound Empire Builder train for the day. The westbound train will leave Whitefish about 10 hours later – a long wait indeed!
Three: The best way to connect with Amtrak from Missoula is through Spokane, Washington. Greyhound Lines has a convenient schedule that works well with Amtrak’s. Part of the beauty of the connecting through Spokane is that the trains arrive and depart in the early morning from both directions. Thus, if you are going to Missoula, your train will arrive in Spokane no later than 2:00 am. You can take the 5:05 am Greyhound bus and arrive in Missoula at 10:30 am. From Missoula, there is a 9:10 pm bus that arrives in Spokane at 12:35 am. The earliest train leaves Spokane at 1:15 am.
Four: Connecting in Spokane is easy since Greyhound uses the Spokane train station as its depot. Since the connections take place in the middle of the night, this is very convenient.
Five: The Empire Builder is an all-reserved train. Whether you will be experiencing Amtrak’s enhanced coach service with at-seat meal service and large pillows or the Superliner sleeping accommodations, you must make advanced reservations. By buying your tickets in advance for both Amtrak and Greyhound services, you may be able to receive discounted advance purchase fares or special fares for students and seniors.