Happy Friday! I am so, so excited to be sharing with everyone our cross-country train ride and California trip. I plan to break this recap down into 3 sections:
The Amtrak Ride
So one thing I have been wanting to do for a little while is take Keaton on Amtrak. As a kid I rode to and from St. Louis with my grandma and loved it, so it was an experience I wanted to share with him. A former coworker of mine recently did the Cali trip twice, so I asked for her feedback and she said DO IT. I used her post for a little guidance when figuring out the best way to plan our trip.
When I started looking at possible routes to get to California, I browsed the Routes & Stations page of Amtrak to get an idea of where there trains actually run. I knew Kansas City had a few stations, but they don’t always go exactly where you want to go, so you have to sort of piece that together on a multi-stop trip if there isn’t a direct route. Luckily, the routes to California from the midwest are pretty straightforward. There is the Southwest Chief that runs Chicago to LA, or the California Zephyr that runs Chicago to San Francisco. We decided on the California Zephyr because it ran through Colorado and Keaton was more interested in the mountain scenery.
Because we chose the California Zephyr the actual train left from Omaha. We could take the Greyhound or a rental car to get up to the station, and decided on a rental. We dropped it at the airport and took a “real” taxi over to the station and forgot how expensive they were compared to Uber. And our driver went a roundabout way to charge us more. Needless to say, it’s definitely Uber or Lyft from here on out.
Our journey actually started at 11 o’clock at night. We got on and it was a little weird because we were ramped up and excited and….the whole train was asleep. There are reading lights above each chair but we didn’t really know where anything was so we sort of struggled with how to work the seats, put our feet rests up, etc. Luckily we figured it all out and after some quiet chit chat, fell asleep.
Our first day began bright and early around 6 am. I knew from Kari’s post that the viewing car filled up fast, and we were due to be in Colorado that day so I wanted to see the mountains! We brushed our teeth and headed to the viewing car which was still pretty empty. The viewing car was awesome! It’s on the second floor of the train and has floor to ceiling windows to look out. The conductors will announce specific sites during the day, and there are also small tables for drinks, to play cards, etc.
The second stop was of course…FOOD! Jk, Coffee 😉 The longer trains have two options for food: a Cafe Car and a Dining Car. The Cafe Car is the bottom level of the viewing car and has snacks, drinks, and small food items. I was pleasantly surprised that a 12 oz coffee was only $2, and they even had the black iced Starbucks bottles. Food items ranged from $4-$7, and they had sodas, juices, beer, wine, and hard alcohol as well.
We ate some of our snacks and enjoyed the scenery as the morning went on. The BEST part about the train trip was seeing all of the beautiful landscape and how it changes as you move across our country. The USA is truly blessed with its varying landscapes, and we got to see so much of it traveling this way!
Around mid-morning the car was really filling up, and after our stop in Denver we noticed a lot more people trying to find viewing car seats. There was a man and his wife who looked like they were tourists from somewhere in Asia, and they had to separate to sit down, so Keaton and I decided to give them our seats so they could enjoy the views together. People did an okay job of rotating seats, but the viewing car definitely stayed pretty full during the day.
For lunch we decided to try out the dining car, where you can get a full service hot meal. There are tables that seat 4, and because seating is limited, they group seat everyone. We ended up with a guy who was traveling from Baltimore all the way to San Francisco, and another woman who had gotten on in Omaha as well. They weren’t super chatty, but we had a nice meal. The food in the dining car was better than we had hoped, but definitely pricey. I had a southwest salad with chicken and paid $15, just for reference.
During the afternoon we napped, read, played cards, and just enjoyed the relaxing ride. We had had two weeks of nonstop chaos prior to the trip, so it was nice to have literally NOTHING to do. We actually took advantage of a couple pre-dinner drinks from the cafe car as well, joking about how we didn’t have to drive anywhere 😉
For dinner we did the dining car again (we planned to do one of each meal in the car). They actually come around in the afternoon and take dinner reservations, so we made sure to be in our seats when they announced they were coming by. We were seated with a nice older couple from New Jersey, and had a really lovely dinner. They were in a sleeper car, which means their meals were included with the trip. After dinner, they invited us back to see their sleeper, which was really neat! We got to see the smaller sleeper car, and their larger sleeper room. Theirs even had a shower and private bathroom, and could sleep up to 3 people.
The next day we did pretty much the same routine: Viewing car, coffee, enjoying the sights. I also decided to freshen up a bit, which meant lots of dry shampoo, face wipes, and some makeup applied while the train was stopped. There are some nice larger bathrooms with full length mirrors, so you don’t have to worry about touching a nasty train toilet while you change clothes.
We decided to do seated breakfast this day, so we headed to the dining car once they announced it was open. We sat with a nice couple from the Sacramento area this time. The breakfast was probably the best meal of the trip, but still more than you’d pay at a regular restaurant. We knew it was our last big meal before we got to San Francisco around 5 though, so we wanted something more substantial than snacks for the day.
Day 2 was a little more interesting in that Keaton got his job offer somewhere in Nevada! His recruiter called and gave him the news that he could start his first travel assignment the same day I was scheduled to start. The phone call was quite comical as he had a hard time keeping service, but it was some nice pressure off his shoulders to know he was gainfully employed when we got home.
We did the pizzas in the cafe car for lunch, and just sort of hung out and relaxed there a lot of the day because there were booths with tables where we could play cards. The train slowly emptied as we got closer to San Francisco, and I got talking to the woman who ran the cafe car for our trip. Turns out, she lives in Chicago, so she rides the train 3 days out, spends the night in California, then rides the train 3 days back home. She gets a full week off after that, and has been doing it for 18 years! She said it’s a really long six days, but she was always so nice and cheerful when we came down for coffee or snacks.
Our train got into the station around 3 pm, and we had a short layover while we waited for the bus to the hotel. Turns out, while the train was punctual, the bus was NOT. It took about 45 minutes longer than we had planned to get to our hotel, but at least it was a nice, charter type of bus. And we drove across The Bay Bridge,which I actually thought was a cooler bridge than the Golden Gate.
Wow, so that was much longer than I had planned, but I wanted to share everything with you guys! That being said, here are my top 5 tips for traveling on a train long distance:
- Pack a pillow and blanket. I found travel pillows at Walgreens last minute, but they also have cheap ones on Amazon. A thin but warm fleece blanket is probably your best bet if you want to be able to pack it in your bag.
- Bring. A. Cooler. We did not do this, and were super jealous of all the people who did. We spent way too much money in the dining car, which we could have avoided if we packed more substantial items than just snacks. This one would be perfect for two days of sandwiches and drinks. The cafe car will even give you hot water for free, so you could easily bring instant oatmeal, soup cups, etc.
- Don’t worry about limiting carry on luggage. One reason we didn’t bring a cooler is we thought we’d be limited on items. Turns out, no one checks. We took our backpacks with valuables with us around the train, but you’d be fine leaving a cooler or a bag of snacks at your seat while you wander.
- WiFi isn’t guaranteed. Ours wasn’t working, and it sounds like that happens frequently. We had service maybe 75% of the time, but I would not plan to rely on having internet service.
- Bring entertainment. We had card games, regular cards, books, and Keaton brought his 3DS. There are plug ins at every seat, so you can charge as needed. We would probably download a few movies next time as well for when it gets dark outside.
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed traveling across the country via train. Next time we may do a slightly shorter trip, because 42 hours was long, but we wouldn’t exchange this experience for anything! We only paid $244 for both tickets, which was about the same price as one flight home. I highly recommend train travel as a great way to see the country, meet new people, and enjoy a more relaxing way to get from one place to another.
Hope this recap answered a lot of your questions about traveling by rail! Feel free to comment, email, or contact me on Facebook if you have more questions!
With love and train travel,