I have been an Amtrak train traveler since I was 12. I made many trips to Washington DC and Maryland to visit family over the years and decades. I went on my first overnight trip on Amtrak when I was 19. I was still living in Brooklyn, New York at the time, so I left out of Penn Station. I went to visit my best friend, at the time, who had moved to Miami to attend college out there.
My second overnight trip on Amtrak was taken in my late twenties. I traveled to Atlanta for a workshop. My third overnight train ride was in 2016 when I traveled to Tampa, Florida. For all 3 overnight trips I bought coach tickets and it was okay. Not bad at all, but just okay because it isn’t ideal to have a person whom you do not know sitting and sleeping next to you. Over the years, whether I was on an overnight trip or not, the service began to deteriorate just a bit and Amtrak became notorious for arriving late to your destination. Too often the train would be hours late, so if you had to connect to another train you missed it. At Penn Station the lines were always long to buy your ticket. Meanwhile, as service begin to get sketchy, ticket prices started to rise. It is normal for prices to go up over time, but you do not expect the quality to go down in the process. I still enjoyed train travel, but Amtrak did leave much to be desired sometimes. Over the years Amtrak has been doing its best to improve train travel.
This may come as a surprise to people who only travel by plane, but Amtrak stations are always packed with travelers on a daily basis. Amtrak also takes thousands of regular commuters to work during the week from places such as Delaware into DC, and Albany into NYC. I am sure this is the case in other metropolitan cities around the nation. Train travel has always been popular and always will be, so Amtrak needed to think about the experience of every train traveler and work commuter.
I do not know what riding in the sleeper compartment was like years ago since my recent trip from New York to San Francisco was my first time, but I can say that, going forward, when traveling overnight by train I WILL NEVER RIDE COACH AGAIN!
The trains from Albany to Chicago are new and updated. The roomette sleeper compartments are lovely and quite comfortable. All of the compartments have its own toilet and sink. The roomettes are meant to fit 2 passengers but, honestly, I do not recommend it! They are perfect for ONE, and too tight for two. You will be sick of looking at the other person seated opposite from you in no time. Additionally, there is no privacy when you have to use the toilet because it is visible at all times, not in an enclosed space. It really is a nice set up, but not for two people. It is more like a private space. I did a search on You Tube before booking my cross-country trek to see what the Amtrak sleeper compartments look like. You can find just about anything on You Tube. When I saw them I decided there is no darned way someone else is going to be in that space with me. Do yourself a favor and spend the extra money for your own sleeper compartment. I don’t care how much you love your husband or significant other. Get your own sleeper compartment so that you can stretch out and be comfortable. By the way, the compartments are nicer than they look in the You Tube videos that I watched.
Passengers who purchase sleeper compartments get to board the train FIRST. YAY! This small gesture goes a long way and means a lot. All meals are also included in the price. I learned that Amtrak now gets a lo of their food from farmers who have adopted humane practices. Each morning for breakfast on the California Zephr, the wait staff served us buttermilk pancakes, scrambled eggs, grits, roasted potatoes, apple and maple chicken sausages, pork sausages, toast, fresh fruits, oatmeal, bacon, croissants, coffee, tea, orange juice, cranberry juice, and yogurt. You tell them what you want and it is brought over to your table which is covered in real white linen and real silverware. Thank goodness I abandoned the vegan way of eating earlier this year because if I didn’t, I would have starved. The buttermilk pancakes are delicious. I had them 3 mornings in a row because I could not help myself. The eggs are fresh and from cage free birds. The apple and maple chicken sausages are so good and does not taste salty. They have a fresh sweet flavor to them that I love. Breakfast on the Lake Shore Limited from Albany to Chicago is not as ambitious as when you are traveling for multiple nights but it is still great. Even vegan options are available.
Lunch on the California Zephyr offered angus beef burgers, black bean veggie burgers, and I cannot remember what else because it was much of what I do not eat. I kept ordering the black been burger for lunch. I do not eat beef, but my niece had the angus beef burgers which she enjoyed. For lunch and dinner on the Lake Shore Limited I had the chicken Caesar salad served with a side pasta salad, and sea salt caramel cheesecake for dessert.
Dinner on the California Zephyr offered braised salmon with a delicious sauce that comes with it on the side for you to pour over it. The sauce was super delicious. Angus steak is one of the choices. Also, on the menu is a veggie wrap and salad. With each entree you can have either rice pilaf, a baked potato or mashed potatoes. String beans comes with the entrees too. The food is good, but the menu is limited so if you have a lot of restrictions such as being vegan or vegetarian you will not have much to choose from. I had the salmon so many times that I do not want to see salmon again for the next 25 years. You get one glass of wine with dinner if you want. I don’t drink at all. Soda, tea and coffee are also offered at dinner and lunch. If you are riding coach the dining car is also opened to you, but you will get a bill at the end of your meal and it is expensive. Otherwise you can get your food from the café car, but that is not cheap either. All passengers can buy from the café car, but after paying so much money for a sleeper compartment, you are not about to go to the café car for anything. I always headed for the dining car. I did bring on board my own bottled water and snacks.
Each sleeper compartment has a button to call for service. If you don’t feel like eating in the dining car, you push the button and the attendant for your car will come and take your order, get the food and bring it to you. When you are done the attendant comes and takes everything away. You can do this for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I mostly ate in the dining car. It was fun and I met interesting people during each meal. The few times that I preferred to eat in my compartment in private as I enjoyed the scenery, it was nice to be able to utilize the call service feature. Coach riders have no buttons to press for service. The wait staff and car attendants work hard and do their best, so it is important to treat them with kindness and respect. Tip them whenever you can and do not treat them as if they are your personal maid or butler. Their down time is from 11:30pm to 6am, and that is not a lot of downtime. They deserve to be treated with respect.
In Chicago, there is a special lounge area that is only for passenger who purchased sleeper compartments. It is huge and has very comfortable sofas. Free coffee, tea, finger foods and wine but you have to pay for the wine. Announcements are made when it is time to board your train.
The sleeper compartments on the California Zephyr has no bathrooms. I was surprised and so were the other passengers who were also traveling by sleeper compartment for the first time. We were all led to believe that we would have private toilets all the way to our destination. How can we not have private toilets for the longest leg of the journey? Amtrak should have made this clear to us at the time we made our reservations.
The California Zephyr is an older train. It is still nice and comfy, but it can benefit from some updating. Unlike the Lakeshore Limited, the compartments in the California Zephyr had only one outlet, so I could not keep my cell phone charged while I was using my laptop to do some work. There is also no WIFI service on the California Zephyr. The only way that you can access the internet is by connecting to an unlimited hotspot on your cell phone, which you cannot keep charged because you need the outlet for your laptop. Besides myself, there were other people on the train who had work to do while traveling. Additionally, in the evening when it is too dark to see and appreciate America’s landscape, it would be nice to be able to access Netflix or Hulu to watch some movies or TV programs.
The California Zephyr has an observation car. The windows are floor to ceiling, but every time I went there all seats were taken. Many passengers will board the train and head straight for the observation car, and they seem to want to sit in there for the entire journey. My theory is that it is mostly coach passengers who are doing this. If you have a sleeper compartment the windows in them gives you a beautiful wide view of everything. You don’t need to go to the observation car for that, but if you are a coach passenger with an aisle seat you may not be too happy.
The entire train ride from Albany, New York to San Francisco took 4 days. One day on the Lake Shore Limited and 3 days on the California Zephyr. I loved every minute of it despite a few things that can be improved upon. In a nutshell, Amtrak is making great efforts to improve the customer experience. I highly recommend traveling by train for long or short distance trips. It would be great to be able to travel overnight by train all over America and write about it. When I was 17 and first dreamed of traveling across the country by train, I remember that Amtrak offered a special ticket that allowed you to get off the train in any state so that you can explore that state for a few days, and then get back on the train to continue on to your next destination. The ticket was valid for a certain period of time. I am not sure if Amtrak still offers this option, but if you have several months to explore the country it is worth looking into. America is a beautiful country that is well worth exploring.