I finally heard the two words I’ve been waiting to hear as the California Zephyr was ready to depart Denver’s Union Station in late November. My wife and I had planned a trip to San Francisco and decided that going by train would be a more scenic, serene, and unique way to go, even if it took longer. Clocking in around 32 hours, compared to a typical 2 1/2 hour Denver to San Francisco flight, we knew it would be a long haul, but we were up for the adventure.
Our plan of riding the Zephyr one-way and flying home was quickly put into motion. We’d catch the train, which runs from Chicago to Emeryville, California, a small city between Oakland and Berkeley, and back, at roughly the halfway point of its trip. Excitedly we booked our excursion and made sure to do our homework, watching YouTube videos to get a feel for what the expedition would be like and reading accounts from other travelers.
Of course, reading and watching videos is one thing; experiencing an overnight trip in an Amtrak sleeper car for yourself is completely different. Overall, the trip was a good one. But if you plan to take this adventure on for yourself, here are a few things you should know.
What You’ll Like
You’ll be well fed
One of the benefits of paying to be in the sleeper car is that meals are included. Over the course of five meals we tried two different appetizers (Mexican soufflé with grilled street corn, coconut crusted shrimp), five lunch and dinner entrees (flat iron steak, Atlantic salmon, mixed field greens and goat cheese salad, Angus burger, loaded baked potato with vegan chili), three different breakfast dishes (three egg omelet, scrambled eggs, breakfast quesadilla), and all three available desserts (chocolate toffee mousse, Meyer lemon cake, white chocolate blueberry cobbler cheesecake). They were all delicious with one exception: the Mexican soufflé tasted neither like a soufflé or Mexican. That one misstep aside, my wife, who can be a tough food critic, was ecstatic with all the options and the quality of the food.
The scenery is breathtaking
We spent a lot of time just gazing out the south facing window of our roomette, which was a constantly rotating postcard. Out of Denver, the Zephyr follows the Colorado River and the views are breathtaking. We woke up rolling through the Sierra Nevadas, which are beautiful. We saw even more stunning views while riding through the mountains in California. Something we learned: Always have a camera ready.
The trip is a communal experience (if you want it to be)
The observation car is almost always abuzz with activity, with friendly people of all ages from a myriad of places looking for the same type of rail adventure as you, so you can pretty much strike up a conversation with anyone. A variety of conductors were also in the area, talking to passengers and answering questions. Of course, if you want to just sit and take in the scenery, you can do that too.
It’s a great way to spend time with someone you love
There’s no rush on a train, so my wife and I used our time to just hang out together. We talked, listened to music, played cards (I crushed her in Crazy 8’s and Gin Rummy, don’t let her tell you otherwise.), read, and watched movies. The Zephyr is a wonderful way to stay connected, which I noticed from others as well. I saw a number of families traveling together, and several mother/daughter and father/son pairs enjoying the ride.
What you won’t like
Time your shower
The showers are surprisingly spacious, particularly if you go to the bottom level of the sleeper cars and use the ones that aren’t a combination shower/bathroom. Space isn’t the issue; timing is. My wife took a shower with no problem. I had the misfortune of being in the middle of a shower when the train stopped, which turned the water off. Try to avoid my mistake.
Sleeping can be an adventure, depending on what bunk you’re in
We stayed in a roomette, which measures 3’6” x 6’6”. It worked fine during the day but at night, when the upper bunk is lowered, the room becomes much more cramped. There’s little headroom in the lower bed and the top bunk (according to my wife) will jostle you around at night. Good thing it comes with a net. Also, be sure to ask for extra pillows and blankets; you’ll need them.
Delays may mess up your travel plans
I knew from our research that delays were a possibility but a 3 1/2 hour delay left us frustrated not only due to its length but also because it seemed preventable. We were in the middle of nowhere in Nevada when an announcement was made that a crew shift was needed as the current crew had worked their maximum allotted hours. Why this wasn’t done at a previous stop and not miles from civilization left us baffled and forced us to shuffle our travel plans.
Sleeper car tips
The crew works hard so bring cash for tipping
Our cabin attendant, Gregory, was friendly, attentive, and willing to answer all my questions. When he didn’t have an answer, he referred me to conductor Chris who was a wealth of information. Almost every crew member we met was upbeat, positive, and helpful. Be sure to tip your cabin attendant and waiter/waitress in the dining car.
Don’t check your luggage
You have to arrive at least an hour before your departure time to check your luggage. Don’t bother. We stowed our suitcases in a rack on the first floor of our train car. This allowed us to access our bags, which had our toiletries and other items we needed and freed up space in our cabin.
You’ll need to be creative
The Amtrak sleeper cars, while clean, are old. We brought an extension cord because we knew there was only one plug in a roomette but we had to get creative in other ways. We used tissues to filter the reading lights, which were glaring. We also brought our own snacks and a box of wine so we wouldn’t have to pay for it in the cafe car. At one point the heat in our car went out for a few hours. While we weren’t freezing we did have to bundle up so be sure to bring an extra hoodie or blanket if traveling in colder months.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not riding the rails, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.