I recently traveled to Chicago via an Amtrak train for a business meeting with some coworkers. In the taxi heading towards Union Station for our return trip I mentioned finding a Red Cap once we arrived. My coworkers were unfamiliar with the Red Caps so I showed them the ropes. They were amazed at how great the service was and how much easier it made the return trip. I love looking like an expert! I’ve known about the Red Caps at Union Station for years, but this experience made me realize that many people don't know about these service options. I thought I would share the knowledge here with everyone.
To start with, Union Station in Chicago can be a bit confusing. There are several waiting areas depending on which train you’re taking. You can’t go straight to the track to wait like you might in Europe. One way to cut down on confusion, improve your waiting area location, and get some help with your luggage all in one fell swoop is by hiring a Red Cap porter. Red Caps are visible by their obvious Red Cap uniform and luggage carts. They are not allowed to solicit work so there are two ways of finding a Red Cap in Union Station- either by flagging one down as they zip past in their cart, or by going to the Red Cap counter which is just outside of the great hall between the two train station buildings. Either way, find one! It makes the journey so much easier!
Once you’ve hired the Red Cap they will let you know where to wait for your train. On my last trip we were able to wait in the first class area waiting room. The Red Cap will come get you just before you can board. Business class boards first, then Red Cap clients, so you get to be settled in the train long before the chaos of the general masses. The Red Cap will load you and your luggage and cart you down the track to one of the furthest cars. They will help you load your luggage onto the train, you pay them, and voila, you can sit back and wait for the train to depart. It’s technically free for the Red Cap service, but these guys work hard for their living and it’s just bad karma not to reward them for their help. You can tip them what you think the service was worth. The general guideline is $10-20 per person but that depends on the number of people in your group, the amount of luggage, etc. You pay once you’re loaded onto the train. There are currently twelve Amtrak stations that offer Red Cap services.
This kind of service is also available in many airports in the form of Skycaps. In the airport they can serve many functions, from checking in your luggage at the shorter outside baggage lines (you will need a valid boarding pass and i.d. obviously) to collecting your luggage from the conveyor belts and helping to load it into your car. Like the Red Caps these guys are earning minimum wage so they are working for tips.
I once flew to New Orleans and expected that since I landed near midnight that the airport would be empty…..wrong! It felt like a mini Mardi Gras, the place was full of people all trying to collect bags and get into town. After collecting my luggage I realized that the taxi line was over a 2 hour wait. At midnight, during the week! As I stood there with my luggage trying to calculate what time I would actually arrive at my hotel a man stopped and asked if I needed any help. I didn’t, I only had one medium suitcase, but I jokingly said that I could use some help getting a cab. He said that he could, in fact, help with that. He explained that he was a Skycap and that they had their own taxi line. I was instantly suspicious (solo female traveler knee jerk response plus too good to be true cynicism) and asked what it cost. He told me that it was based on tips and that the Skycap taxi line was only about a ten minute wait. I hired him, followed him through the crowd of people, still a bit dubious. But sure enough he took me to a spot across the hall from the excruciatingly long taxi line and it was less than five minutes before I was sitting in a cab heading into the city. This was one of the few times that what seemed to be too good to be true actually was!
If you’re traveling with a large group, have a lot of luggage, time is limited, or you just want to cut down on some of the stress of traveling, keep an eye out for a Red Cap or Skycap porter…..you’ll be glad you did!