REVIEW: Amtrak California Zephyr - San Francisco to Chicago


If you follow my blog, it should come as no surprise that I have a pretty lengthy queue of pendings posts to make my way through at the moment. As much as I enjoy crafting posts for this site I simply haven't been able to keep up with everything I want to post while also being a good boyfriend, responsible dog owner, active on my volleyball team, and of course - travel. One thing I'll be trying going forward to help me work through some of the backlog is to stop trying to post in chronological order and instead publish posts that speak to my current mindset and interests.

Which brings us to today's post about Amtrak's California Zephyr service. While I'm a huge aviation geek, I'm also a bit of a train aficionado, and I'm always looking for opportunities to enjoy long distance trains. My review of the EuroNight Metropol overnight train from Berlin to Budapest is just one example of a time where I jumped at the opportunity to take a train instead of a plane. While I've done quite a bit of train travel outside of the US, I realized I hadn't really experience much of America's extensive rail network. It was time to fix that! I'd spent a bit of time researching Amtrak's various long distance routes, and many of them called to me. Chugging through the great northern expanse of the country on the Empire Builder, tracing a path along the southern border on the Southwest Chief. Ultimately I settled on the California Zephyr service as my first adventure on American rails because ..... well, it was the least expensive option out of the routes I was interested in riding for the dates I had picked.

Winner winner, chicken dinner.

The reason I'm particularly interested in writing about this experience right now is that the current budget proposed by President Trump could potentially eliminate all of Amtrak's long distance routes. This pains me a bit as Amtrak, while certainly not perfect, was really an experience that surprised me and left me wanting to explore my home country by rail even more. I was going to try to attempt the Empire Builder route in 2018, but if things go through as planned, that's likely to be a questionable trip. I hope this post can raise even the slightest bit of awareness about this travel option for people considering it and perhaps motivate people to either experience it while it still exists or perhaps even advocate for keeping these national treasures open to Americans and visitors alike.

So. Let's talk about Amtrak!

BOOKING A TICKET

Amtrak offers multiple types of "seating" for a trip on the California Zephyr. The basic option is an economy seat on the upper or lower deck (think airplane style seating but with more leg room and lateral space) for those who are looking for the cheapest ticket possible. Then there's a variety of "premium" seating options - a Superliner Roomette (small compartment with two recliner seats that convert to two adult beds), a Family Bedroom (larger compartment with two adult beds and two child beds), and the Superliner Bedroom (a larger room with two adult beds, a standalone seat, and a private bathroom and sink).


As you can see, the price difference between a basic seat and having a bit of privacy with a bed is pretty big. For my trip in April of 2016, I paid a total of $474 for a Superliner Roomette - the small compartment with two seats that convert into two beds. The ticketing break down below from my confirmation email hows how Amtrak bills a roomette as an additional fee on top of the base ticket fare.


The price for passage on the 52 hour journey from the coast of California to the Windy City was $166 with an additional $308 for my roomette. That might seem expensive for a train journey but you have to remember that this isn't simply the "transportation" portion of a trip. You're also covering the "hotel" portion of a trip as you're spending two full evenings on the train. Additionally, purchasing any type of "room" on Amtrak's long distance trains comes with full board, so three meals per day are provided free of charge (tips are on you though).

Viewed properly, I don't think $166 is too bad for the ride and $308 for food and lodging isn't too terrible either. Especially for the unique experience of riding Amtrak's rails through some of the most picturesque landscape the American West has to offer.

My ticket was emailed to me a few hours after I made my purchase on Amtrak.com in the form of a PDF. As long as you own an electronic device that can open and display PDF documents, you can use that to board the train. If not, you can print the PDF at home/work/the hotel business center or use one of the many automated kiosks at Amtrak's stations.


Amtrak's website is a pretty modern affair with a good amount of information for those curious about various routes and options. When I first started researching a trip, I was actually pretty shocked by the number of routes Amtrak operates across the country - quite a bit more than I had assumed. By my unscientific count, there are about 44 routes through 46 states. Wyoming and South Dakota are currently off the system and of course, Alaska and Hawaii. Each route has an information page that includes a published schedule for each stop on it's trek across the country.


For the popular long distance routes, the website also has PDF brochures that detail the entire journey with landmarks to look out for, local history, and more.


It's not the most modern or flashy of gateways, but the website gave me just about everything I needed in terms of booking ability and detailed information on the routing I was looking for.

BOARDING & STATION

Despite the majority of its advertising and documentation noting that the California Zephyr connects San Francisco and Chicago, the train actually begins and terminates journeys in the city of Emeryville, CA, which is literally just across the Bay Bridge from the city. Amtrak will sell you a ticket from the city of San Francisco on the route, but that means you simply start your journey on a bus route from downtown to the Emeryville station across the bridge. I found it easier to simply fly into the Oakland Airport with Southwest and then stay over night at the adjacent Hyatt House Emeryville. There's also a Four Points Sheraton across the street that often seems to be similarly priced but the Hyatt House was more convenient for me as the parking lot for the hotel literally runs parallel to the train tracks and you can simply take a pedestrian bridge outside the back door of the hotel to the station.



The train station itself was clean though relatively small. Inside there were seats available for those waiting for trains. Along one side of the building was a row of machines to assist with the purchase and printing of tickets. There was also a small bank of windows where you could speak with an agent in-person if you crave human contact or eschew machines. In one corner of the waiting area was a small shop selling a variety of snack foods, candy bars, and beverages. Even though my Superliner roomette booking came with free meals, I decided to stock up on some snacks for the trip and I'm glad I did this. Snacks are sold on board at a cafe but the options can be limited and even if you like what's there you can get bored with it pretty quickly. Also - these trains often are chugging along for two to three days. That's a lot of downtime even if you're enjoying the trip. You'll probably find yourself wanting to snack more often than you do in your normal day.


The weather was nice and crisp out and I realized I'd soon be sitting on a steel tube barreling through the American West for the next three days so I took my ticket and my newly purchased snacks to sit on one of the benches outside with a few of my other passengers.


About twenty minutes before our scheduled departure time, we finally heard the telltale signs of a big locomotive heading down the tracks toward our station. A handful of Amtrak employees started to usher people back away from the rails and started directing people into specific areas depending on their ticket type. Standard seat passengers were asked to queue up toward the "back" of the locomotive while those with bedrooms and roomettes were ushered toward the front of the train.


The sleeping car attendants were standing in the doorways of the carriages where roomettes and bedrooms were located to help direct passengers to the correct location of our accommodation for the trip. I stopped at the first door where my ticket was checked before being directed down another door to be closer to my actual roomette. At that door I met my attendant for the trip, Don, who I would describe as gruff but friendly. It was clear he'd been doing this for a very long time so he had his procedure down pat and was very interested in making sure the boarding process was efficient and timely. He welcomed me aboard and walked me to my roomette, which was on the top level down a few compartments from the staircase. Don asked me if I was familiar with Amtrak's Superliner service and I noted that this was my first time taking a long distance trip with them. He brightened up a bit upon learning this and offered to come back after boarding was complete to show me how everything worked. With that being said, he handed by bag to me (I packed only a gym bag for this trip as I had heard that space inside the roomette was VERY limited and indeed this ended up being the case) before walking back to the door to assist other passengers.


I spent the rest of our time sitting at Emeryville station exploring my roomette and familiarizing myself with the train car. During boarding Amtrak staff made continual announcements welcoming people aboard and emphasizing the routing and destination of the train. Emeryville is a station with departures for multiple Amtrak services so I'm sure they're trying to make sure no one hops on board that's really headed to San Diego or similiar.

Once we pulled out of the station (on time!), a member of the staff again made a train-wide announcement welcoming everyone on board and explained the routing, and most importantly - outlined how the dining services would be administered. I sat down in one of my seats, listened intently, and watched the Californian suburban landscape roll by.

It's adventure time!

ROOMETTE & TRAIN FACILITIES

Now I want to take a little bit of time to go over the Zephyr's roomette and the public facilities like luggage storage and bathroom.

In terms of the roomette's personal space - it's tight. Real tight. I'm talking lay down on the bed while holding your breath and tugging your jeans upward while silently asking Jesus to bless you and vocally cursing up a storm tight. If you're expecting a roomy suite, you need to look at one of the bedroom options. That being said - I found it more than sufficient for my needs because I was traveling alone. If I was traveling with my fiance, I think I'd have a slightly different feeling about the trip as navigating the space with two bodies inside would have been a complicated affair. With just one person I was fine though I did have to be mindful not to crash my legs into things or bump my head into or against items. It's better than an economy seat though, that's for sure!


Roomettes are essentially small rectangular spaces with two recliner seats sitting face to face. The door into the hallway runs along one wall and the other wall is the big picture window. Leg room for both passengers (or just one if you're solo like me) is a shared space between the seats which also constitutes the only movable space within the roomette (see: more complicated for two comment earlier). During the day the seats are up and functioning in the roomette and they allow you to adjust the recline as you see fit. At night the two seats are fully reclined and meet in the middle of the room, forming a full bed. The second bed is on a drop down platform that during the day is clipped to the ceiling and completely out of the way. See diagram from Amtrak below for a better visual representation.


The two chairs are essentially identical with a few exceptions. They feature padded headrests and room to rest your arm along the window and wall.



One of the seats has a raised carpeted platform along the wall by the hallway. This serves as the "step" to get up into the top bunk when the bed has been lowered from the ceiling. I ended up finding this was a great place for me to store the complimentary tissue box as well as all the snacks I had brought with me from the train station since I was traveling solo and I never needed to drop the top bunk down from the ceiling.


For my 52 hours and some change on the rails I had purchased some cashew crunch, a bag of bbq chips, some Asian shrimp chips (I'm Japanese, what can I say?), and one Pepsi Max. I also had a small 100 calorie snack pack and Ritz cheese crackers from my flight to Oakland on Southwest that I didn't eat and saved for the trip. Note - this ended up being a little less snacking food than I needed for the trip and much, much less beverage than I wanted as well. I would note that my appetite is generally higher than most people so this might be sufficient for you. I'm not sure why I thought one soda would tide me over for 52 hours on a train but definitely bring more if you don't want to pay the slightly inflated prices in the train's cafe.

In terms of self-catering, note that you can also bring your own liquor IF you have a private accommodation on the train (so not if you're in the standard economy seats) and you refrain from self-serving in the public spaces of the train (so only in your or someone else's bedroom/roomette). Food and non-alcoholic beverages can be consumed in public spaces as long as it is not the cafe or dining car.


Back to the actual roomette ..... here's a look at the two seats converted into a bed. You may have noted above that the seats had big pillows already on them when I arrived. You can use those pillows to help make the recliner seats more comfortable during the day or, of course, at night on your bed. I found the bed a bit firm but serviceable as a sleeping surface. The pillows were pretty plush and while I usually sleep with two pillows stacked under each other I found these pillows puffy enough to use just one. The bed is pretty high up off the ground, only a few inches lower than the window. Keep this in mind when you're sleeping because if you don't close the blinds you can find yourself waking up at 3AM in Provo, UT with people milling about inches from you laying around in your underwear. The windows are tinted but it's still a very disorienting experience!


Also, be careful when sleeping as the high level of the bed means you can accidentally roll over and bump your knees/elbows into the wall and arm rests that do jut out slightly. That being said, I found this comparable to a typical business class lie-flat seat on an airplane. A bit on the firm side with sufficient linens and blankets to make the night of sleeping comfortable. This isn't a fully formed bed though, and for those that are a few inches above six feet tall you may find yourself curling your feet up a bit.


Your sleeping car attendant will make your bed at your request, though I found that whenever I left for dinner in the evening my roomette was always transitioned into sleep mode when I returned. If you want to do it on your own during the day or because you can't find your cabin attendant, it's done pretty easily by simply pressing a foot pedal under one of the seats. Simply recline the seats until they meet in the middle of the room. Lowering the top bunk simply requires reaching up to the ceiling and unlatching the locks holding the platform against the ceiling.


Moving on from the seats/beds, let's talk about the other aspects of the roomette. Between the two seats is a large table that's stored inside a console attached to the window side of the space. As you can see, one bottle of water per seat is inside the cabin, as well as a variety of reading materials detailing Amtrak and the California Zephyr service.


Amtrak's magazine is called Arrive, which was featured the amazing Lin-Manuel Miranda on my trip. There was also a safety guide, a time table for the trip, and a route guide. The last two items are available as PDFs on the Amtrak website. The route guide in particular was a good item to have around since you'd often find yourself sitting in your roomette or in the viewing car at some point during a day and suddenly see something beautiful outside and wonder to yourself "Huh, what is that?" The route guide will likely tell you exactly what it is.


The table lifts out of the console and folds out over the leg room. There are two "wings" on each end of the table to allow it to be extended to a larger size to accommodate two passengers laptops, foods, etc. I thought it was cute that there's a built in chess/checkers board! If you don't fold down the wings the surface is a bit uneven (see below) but still workable. I generally didn't fold down the wings to provide a bit more space for movement. The choice is yours of course.


The underside of the table has a picture tutorial on how to work various items in the room like the table, seats, etc.


While everything in the room seemed well-kept for the most part, the table was one of the few things were the wear and tear of being used was starting to show. The edges had a bit of scuffing and exposed material. It wasn't anything more than cosmetic though, as the table was completely usable and serviceable. It did have a bit of old jam/jelly in a crack though. Ooops.


Where the seat on one end had the carpeted step up for the top bunk, the other chair had a small gap where you could store your bag. As you can see from the picture below, the space provided isn't very big. It's barely the length of my hand, so I was happy that I heeded online advice to pack light and small.


If you happen to bring a larger bag or need to bring more than one bag, there's a location in the car where you can store it though it's not very secure.


There's a place for garbage in the roomette directly under the carpeted step up to the top bunk. I'm not sure what the protocol is for trash removal, but it wasn't emptied the entire trip. So if that's the standard, be careful not to toss too much down there and use the bathroom trash or the trash in the hallway. Especially if the trash is fragrant.


A reading light is available over each seat. There are also outlets for you to charge any electronics that you might have. One seat has a temperature control dial, though in all honesty when I turned the dial I didn't notice any appreciable difference immediately or in the long term. I suspect mine was broken or the system itself had long since stopped functioning. The good thing was that the temperature was almost always very comfortable.


Next to the other seat was another set of controls for the room under the seat's reading light. You could control the volume of the speaker in the ceiling (turning up or down for announcements from the staff) or activate the roomette's overhead light.


Along the wall near the door was a small cabinet where towels and linens were kept. Also a small bar with two hangers on it, which worked out perfect for my trip as I simply hung my outfits for each day of the trip up and that seemed to be enough to get the majority of the wrinkles out.


Finally, there's the door. The glass is untinted, unlike the windows, so if you want privacy you'll need to make sure the curtains are pulled tight and closed up good. The curtains secure to one another using a large velcro strip, so make sure you give it a once over when closing it up as it can come undone or appear secure when it's really not and suddenly you find yourself with lookie-loos while you change for bed.

True story - I struggled a bit when I first boarded the train trying to lock and unlock my door. Once I figured it out I was a little embarrassed that it took me more than one attempt to do, but I still took a short video to help anyone that might find themselves in the same position.


Speaking of videos, here's a short one I took that does a mediocre job of showing off the roomette.


As noted above, the roomette does not come with an attached bathroom, so whenever you need to heed the call of nature, you'll need to head down the hallway to one of several bathrooms.


The hallway is rather narrow since most of the space in the sleeper cars are taken up by the cabins/roomettes themselves. The ride isn't always smooth on Amtrak, so be prepared when walking around to have your body suddenly thrust up against one wall or the other while you're walking. Many people keep their doors open during the day so if you happen to be walking around during those times, make sure you don't find yourself suddenly falling into someone's bed/chair. It happens!


As I was on the 2nd floor of the car, there was a single small airplane-style bathroom at the top of the stairs near the back of the car. I actually didn't even notice it was there until halfway through Colorado when I really needed to pee but the train was swaying too much for me get down the stairs for a minute.

The first floor of the train car had an alcove at the back with three bathrooms. They are, as mentioned, airplane-style, so if you've ever tinkled in the air you know exactly what you're getting.

The bathrooms were a bit beat up but still very clean during the trip. An airplane bathroom on some airlines (American, United, Delta, I'm looking in your direction) can get pretty ripe over the course of a flight, so I was surprised at just how diligently the staff on Amtrak seemed to be cleaning the bathrooms. Or maybe I just got lucky with good cabin mates.

There was also a small shower stall near the bathrooms. I didn't remember to snap any photos of it (sorry!) but it is small but serviceable. It is a shower on a moving train though, keep that in mind when balance on a wet surface is needed.

One note of warning - the locks on the bathroom doors and shower can be a bit confusing to people at times apparently. Twice on my 52 hours from California to Chicago, I open3d up one of the bathroom doors only to have someone scream into my face and pull the door shut again while they were sitting on the throne. So, do what you will with that information.