Overnight trains? We love them! We’ve ridden a lot of them in Europe and Asia, but we’ve never tried an overnight train in the states. This is surprising, because they’ve saved us the cost of a hotel, the stress of airports, and they’re typically far more comfortable than flying.
Check out our video on our train trip on the California Zephyr!
When we wanted a weekend away, we decided it was time to see how US rail travel on Amtrak compares to what we’ve experienced internationally. We booked a night on Amtrak’s California Zephyr from Salt Lake City, Utah (our home base) to Emeryville, California (right outside of San Francisco). This journey would be about 730 miles.
Booking on Amtrak.com
Amtrak has a great website and booking tickets is simple. If you’ve ever booked a flight online, this process is pretty much the same. Stick in your dates, your departing city and destination, pick your seats and that’s pretty much it.
Booking through Amtrak’s website took about fifteen minutes. They also have a pretty well built mobile app you can use.
Our total cost was $338 for two one-way tickets in a Superliner Roomette. We opted not to get Amtrak’s trip insurance (reflected in the price difference between the two images above: $34). We also booked a one way flight from Oakland to get back to SLC fairly last minute. The price for the last-minute flight home was close to the cost of our one-way train tickets.
The total travel time on the train was stated at 14 hours with a scheduled departure time of 11:30 PM. We figured we would be able to sleep through the vast nothingness of Nevada and wake up before making our way through the Sierra Nevada mountains, where we’d be glued to the windows. As our train didn’t experience significant delays AFTER it picked us up (continue reading for more info on those delays), our journey took close to the estimated time.
Amtrak Rooms and Seating
Amtrak offers four different seating options on their overnight trains. Viewliner options can only be found on East Coast trains.
- Coach: Spacious seats that recline a bit more than typical airline seats. You’ll have to purchase meals on the train, or pack a picnic.
- Roomette: Meals included
- Superliner Trains (our train): 3 feet 6 inches by 6 feet 6 inches. Two seats that face each other next to a single window. The two seats fold down to make the lower bed while another bed folds down from the ceiling for the top bunk. Several shared bathrooms in each car.
- Viewliner Trains (trains to and from NYC): 3 feet 6 inches by 6 feet 8 inches. In-room toilet, two windows, and two seats that face each other. One folds down into a bed while another folds down from the ceiling to make a bunk.
- Bedroom: Meals included
- Superliner Trains: 6 feet 6 inches by 7 feet 6 inches. In-room toilet, sink, shower, and reclining chair. One window. The lower sofa converts into a bed while a 2nd bed folds down from the ceiling.
- Viewliner Trains (trains to and from NYC): 6 feet 8 inches by 7 feet one inch. Two windows. The lower sofa converts into a bed while a 2nd bed folds down from the ceiling.
- Superliner Family Bedroom: Meals included – 5 feet 2 inches by 9 feet 5 inches. Two windows on either side of the room. Two adult beds, two child beds. No in-room toilet.
- Viewliner Bedroom Suite (trains to and from NYC): Meals included – This is just two Viewliner bedrooms with an adjoining door.
Departure and Boarding
On the days running up to departure, we kept an eye on the handy Amtrak app and saw that the train was consistently late. Our departure day was no different. Twelve hours prior to our scheduled time to leave, the app showed our train was over two hours late.
We had no idea how accurate the reported times were, so we got to the Salt Lake City Amtrak station- which is essentially just a relocatable building- at midnight. At this point, the Amtrak app was saying our train was three hours late. When we arrived there were already quite a few people waiting around, and we joined them.
It was a warm July night, so sitting on a bench outside wasn’t a big deal. We can’t imagine what a three hour delay might be like in the early morning hours of January here in Salt Lake City. There’s no way everyone waiting for our train would have fit inside the tiny Amtrak “station” building.
As a side note, the Salt Lake City station is pretty dinky and the bathrooms were a bit dirty and barely lit. However, it appears that many stations in other cities are much nicer.
At about 2:30 AM people began lining up. Amtrak workers were checking tickets and providing passengers with pieces of paper showing which room/seat they’d be in.
Finally, just before 3:00 AM, the California Zephyr rolled into the station. Employees held all of the boarding passengers back while other passengers disembarked. We were reminded that it was “quiet time” on the train and we should try to get to our seats quickly and quietly. We made it on board by 3:15 AM and the train departed about 10 minutes later.
Our Superliner Roomette was 50% turned down when we got on. The bottom bed was made up, but the top bed was not pulled down. This was an easy process to do ourselves by simply pulling the top bunk down. There’s a safety net for the top bed that we originally laughed at, but it actually saved Amy from falling out in the wee hours of the morning when the train swayed hard around a turn.
Once tucked into our bunk, we looked forward to sleeping through much of the morning while the train rocked along the desolate Nevada countryside. Amtrak had something else in store as “quiet time” was apparently over at 7 AM when breakfast was to be served in the dining car, no matter what time you boarded the train.
We were in for a big surprise when the dining car hostess began making announcements through the entire train. There was no way to mute them in your room. Everyone needed to know that breakfast was being served, the dining car was now full, that you should come get your name on the waiting list, names of people whose table was now ready, the dining car was not full, the dining car was full again… These announcements happened consistently, 1-2 minutes apart, for the first several daylight hours. That was the end of our sleep.
What’s Breakfast Like?
After getting our wits about us and watching miles of sagebrush go by the window, we made our way to the dining car about 30 minutes before the end of breakfast. We knew this because they were counting it down over the PA system constantly. We were seated with a quiet girl who didn’t seem to be up for conversation, but she was pleasant enough.
I had a breakfast quesadilla, which was basically scrambled eggs and onions in between two fried tortillas, with some salsa verde on top. It was good, not great, but still better than most economy class airline food.
Amy had a more traditional breakfast of a veggie omelette, potatoes, and a croissant. Her meal was better than mine.
After breakfast we went back to our room. Our room attendant had put away the beds and we plopped down on the two chairs for some more window watching. There was no wifi on this train, which was fine. We were able to work offline, mess around with a new camera, and just enjoy the train ambling along. While our train did not offer wifi, there are quite a few that do.
We were able to get off the train for a few minutes in Winnemucca and Reno, Nevada. It was nice to be able to get some fresh air and stretch our legs. Amtrak passengers must be heavy smokers, because each station was announced as either “enough time to smoke” or “not enough time to smoke.”
After Reno, we grabbed some snacks to take back to our room from the well-stocked lounge car and were excited to kick back and watch as we made our way through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
We headed back to the dining car for lunch just as we were passing Donner Lake, just north of Lake Tahoe in California. Lunch was much better than breakfast. I opted for a cheeseburger and Amy had a veggie burger. Both of these meals were great, and we were seated with a nice mother-son pair who had great stories of riding Amtrak extensively around the country.
The Final Stretch
We spent the last few hours of the train ride relaxing in our room and the viewing car. The final hour and half ran along the east side of San Pablo Bay, with the sun glinting just above it. A stunning view to close out the train ride. We arrived into Emeryville at about 7:20 PM, three hours after we were scheduled.
We then made caught the (free!) Emery Go-Round Bus to the Bart station to make our way into San Francisco.
Final Thoughts on Our Amtrak Journey
It was a train and, in our opinion, trains are awesome! Trains are a completely different experience to flying or driving. We enjoy spending the time without being in a hurry to get to our destination, enjoying the scenery, eating decent food, and meeting interesting people.
Amtrak’s rail offering is different than those that we’ve had in Europe and Asia and obviously more targeted for those that just enjoy traveling by rail. We understand that Amtrak is used quite a bit for commuters on the East Coast, but that isn’t really a great option for West Coast destinations.
This was not the longest train journey we have been on in terms of distance, but it was the longest in terms of time. A flight to San Francisco or Oakland would have been about an hour and a half and if we were pressed for time, we would have opted to fly. Since time wasn’t an issue, taking the train was definitely a positive experience and we would absolutely travel on Amtrak again.
The staff onboard were extremely kind and we really enjoyed the guy working the lounge car. He was full of personality and very welcoming.
Our number one complaint is not fully the fault of Amtrak. Being delayed three hours when your scheduled departure time is 11:30 PM is not ideal. Spending the early morning hours in the Salt Lake City Amtrak station isn’t luxurious by any stretch of the word and we can’t imagine what the experience would be like in the middle of winter or if there was a storm. However, the delays are not completely the fault of Amtrak, as they share the rails with freight companies and if a coal train breaks down on the tracks, Amtrak must wait. They also travel a long distance and if there’s bad weather anywhere along the journey, they’ll get behind schedule.
Our second complaint is mostly dependent on the above delay. What is with all of the announcements?! The voice blasting through the speakers at 7 AM wouldn’t have been so bad had we been on the train and gotten to sleep around midnight. Having only had about three and a half hours of sleep before they started up was frustrating. A simple switch to turn off the PA system in sleepers would be a nice touch- perhaps a way for Amtrak to only announce very critical information for those who wish to sleep, and keep the dining and lounge car announcements out of the room?
Additionally, Amtrak needs to get the staff some personal radios or something. The PA was not only for announcements, but also used for staff to ask and answer questions between themselves that had nothing to do with the passengers.
How much was the train ticket?
We had a Superliner Roomette, from Salt Lake City, UT to Emeryville CA and paid $338 for two people. This also included meals. Occasionally Amtrak will offer a great sale, so if you’re thinking of taking the trip, keep your eyes open. They also offer a Rail Pass. These are typically cheaper than booking a straight ticket and will let you ride for a specific number of days on any train (though you will still need to make reservations for each train).
How was the food?
Breakfast was ok, arguably better than what you would find on an airplane. Lunch was much better. See the Breakfast and Lunch sections above.
Is there Wifi?
The California Zephyr does not have wifi. Other Amtrak trains do have wifi, here is a list of those trains.
How were the beds?
The beds are narrow, with the bottom bed on our train being 2’ 4” wide and the top bunk was just two feet wide. The cushion on both of them were fine. They obviously aren’t luxury mattresses, but I’ve slept in motels with worse beds. We are tall people and didn’t have any problems with the length.
Why do people take a sleeper train with Amtrak and not just fly?
We understand why you would take the train in Europe as opposed to flying, as they are efficient and can save you paying for a hotel room when you’re traveling between cities.
To answer the question of why someone would take Amtrak in the US instead of flying is exactly why we took this journey. If you’ve been on a train and enjoyed it, if you think you’d like riding a train, or when your trip is as much about the journey as the destination, Amtrak is a great option. You’ll see parts of the country you’d never have the opportunity to see otherwise.
We met several people on this train and I asked them all, “why Amtrak?” Many of them just love trains and a surprising amount of people had booked Amtrak Rail Passes for a month or longer to travel from coast to coast and back, just to see the United States.
Have you ridden Amtrak? Have more questions for us? Leave a comment below!