Home > train rides, Uncategorized > The @Amtrak California Zephyr: What an experience!

The @Amtrak California Zephyr: What an experience!

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The Amtrak train station in Emeryville, California.

Peaceful. Relaxing. Quiet. Scenic. Breathtaking. Comfortable. Spectacular! These are all words that come to mind when I recall my first-ever Amtrak ride on the California Zephyr recently.

I’ve done some pretty cool things in my life. But none of them quite compare with the experience I had from May 29 to June 6, 2018, when I spent six days (three days straight each way) in coach seating on the Amtrak California Zephyr Superliner from Chicago, Illinois to Emeryville, California and back. It’s one of the longest and most scenic train rides in America.

Westbound it’s the #5 train, eastbound it’s the #6 train. The service operates daily.

On May 15, 2018 I published a blog that summarized my research into riding on Amtrak. Here’s a link to that blog post: https://aroundindy.wordpress.com/2018/05/15/tips-for-long-distance-travel-on-amtrak/. You know what? The advice I gave in that blog post turned out to be pretty accurate, so it’s still good reading if there is a long-distance Amtrak trip in your future.

Here are my thoughts after spending six days and 122 hours through eight states covering more than 5,200 miles:

    1. I was impressed with how smooth and quiet the ride is. The Superliner train is definitely a cut above the regular trains on the short-distance routes. When quiet hours were in effect from 10 pm to 7 am each night, it was so quiet that it almost felt like I was floating.
    2. The train doesn’t go very fast for much of the journey. Some sections of the tracks have mandatory speed limits that the train must observe, and in the Rocky Mountains I’d guess the train was only doing 20-30 mph a lot of the time as it snaked its way through the curves, canyons, and valleys. I think overall we averaged around 50 mph.
    3. I didn’t have any trouble sleeping at all. There’s a certain point where I simply “hit the wall” and just dozed off, waking up hours later in a different state. Sleep mask? Didn’t need it.
    4. On the other hand, I consider a travel blanket and travel pillow to be MANDATORY items for a train trip, especially in coach where I was. Let me tell ya: it’s C-O-L-D on the train. But after I thought about it, I’ve decided that this is intentional. I don’t think it would be a good idea to have a bunch of hot and sweaty passengers in a confined space for three days. So I think Amtrak keeps the temperature low on purpose. I wore a t-shirt, hoodie, and jeans, and I was comfortable with my travel blanket and pillow.
    5. Westbound we left Chicago five minutes after scheduled departure at 2:05 pm on May 29 and arrived in Emeryville three days later at 4:18 pm on May 31 — just 8 minutes after the 4:10 pm ETA.
    6. Eastbound we left Emeryville at 9:10 am on June 4 and arrived in Chicago three days later at 4:14 pm on June 6 — this time 84 minutes after its 2:50 pm ETA, but still in time to catch my ride on the Hoosier State #850 train to Indianapolis at 5:45 pm.
    7. Clearly Day #2 of the 3-day trip each way is the best. Amtrak plans it that way. That’s when the Zephyr travels through the Rocky Mountains during daylight hours between Denver and Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The views are simply spectacular (see photos herein). And here’s a YouTube video I shot traveling through the Rocky Mountains: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKYOw8VWMOg
  1. I was really glad I took a 6-foot extension cord. There are two power outlets in each row of seats. I was assigned an aisle seat from Chicago to Denver westbound. Having the extension cord enabled me to keep my smartphone, laptop, and camera batteries charged without disturbing the passenger in the window seat. And although I had the window seat eastbound, I had passengers in the aisle seat from Sacramento to Salt Lake City, and then from Osceola, Iowa to Chicago. I plugged in the extension cord and shared it with those passengers, and they were very appreciative!
  2. I took raisins, peanuts, chocolate, and Little Debbie snacks in my carry-on bags. I supplemented my snacks with these microwaved items from the snack bar in the Lounge Car: Buffalo Chicken Tenders, Angus Beef Cheeseburger, Hot Dog, Jimmy Dean Sausage and Egg Biscuit, plus Lay’s potato chips and some orange juice. I only spent $36.50 on food in total over the six days (east and west bound), plus $10 in gratuities to the snack bar attendants, and $30 in gratuities to my coach car attendants. Hence, total cost for round trip on the Zephyr: $350, or about $0.06 cents per mile! 
  3. Your ticket cost will vary depending upon when you make your reservations, what type of accommodations you choose (coach v. sleeper), what meals and food you choose in the Lounge Car or Dining Car (sit down dinners were $18 to $39), and any discounts for which you may be eligible (I qualified for the senior discount). For these reasons, it’s impossible to tell you exactly what it will cost you. Just visit amtrak.com to evaluate your fare choices.
  4. The hot dogs were the most popular item in the snack bar. They ran out of hot dogs both westbound and eastbound.
  5. There was plenty of room for all my gear in the coach section. I put a suitcase and two carry-on bags in the overhead rack above my seat with no problem, plus my big suitcase went into the luggage rack just inside the door of the train on the lower level of the coach car. I had full access to my big suitcase whenever I needed a change of clothing or other items.
  6. I shot GoPro video, shot still photos with a small Canon point-and-shoot, and shot high-quality photos with a Canon digital SLR camera. I had audio, video, and camera gear spread all over my lap and seat and on the floor, and there was still plenty of leg room without annoying the passengers in the adjoining seat. Coach seating is very comfortable on the California Zephyr!
  7. There were no passengers in the adjoining seat from Denver to Emeryville westbound, and from Salt Lake City to Osceola, Iowa eastbound. The extra space was very nice indeed! But certainly there is no guarantee of this.
  8. The restrooms are not roomy, but they were clean and functional throughout my trip. Coach passengers do not have access to a shower. The lounge restroom in each coach car is large enough to accommodate a suitcase when you want to get a change of clothing and clean up. The tap water in the restrooms is drinkable, which I used to fill my water bottle. But there is also cold tap water with small paper cups available in each coach car.
  9. I’m glad I took a small roll of duct tape. I broke the cover on my video lighting unit, but was able to repair it with a little bit of duct tape.
  10. I must confess that I was really nervous about safety and security prior to my trip. I didn’t want to be robbed, and I didn’t want any of my digital gear stolen. Turns out that I was needlessly worried about this. I kept an eye on my stuff, of course, but I was pleased that there were Amtrak police in the stations, plainclothes officers riding in the train, and crew members constantly moving through the aisles. I felt safe throughout the trip (although I was panhandled in the Great Hall at Chicago’s Union Station).
  11. There were delays: A Union Pacific freight train held us up for 45 minutes in Denver (freight trains have priority over Amtrak), there was a medical emergency on the eastbound Zephyr that required paramedics to evacuate the affected passenger from the train, and there was a passenger situation at one of our stops in Illinois that required police intervention. But when a train travels nearly 2,500 miles in three days and comes in just 8 minutes late, I consider that a win!
  12. Don’t get off the train unless it is your stop! A man and his little son got off the train at a stop in Iowa, and the train started rolling without them. Fortunately, the attendant in the last coach car saw them running across the platform and was able to get the engineer to stop the train. Then we got a stern warning over the P.A. to stay on the train.
  13. I took way too much stuff: clothing, snacks, camera and digital gear, toiletries and travel items, etc. I could have gotten everything I needed into one big suitcase and left the other three at home.

SUMMARY: I’m now in love with the Amtrak California Zephyr. The “romance of the rails” is real and I understand why so many people prefer this method of travel. I’d do it again in a minute because (1) the price was right, (2) the scenery in the mountains was nothing short of bucket-list spectacular, (3) there are no long TSA lines or excessive baggage fees compared to the airlines, and (4) the experience is unforgettable and enjoyable.

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  1. Rex Winn
    June 11, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    Excellent! Thanks for sharing!

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