Friday Feb 3, 2020
Steve (DOS) and I are currently on the California Zephyr, Amtrak’s cross-country train which travels from Chicago to Emeryville, California.
We left yesterday from Union Station in Chicago, and are currently going thru the beautiful Colorado Rockies. The total train adventure takes about 52 hours, with a few short stops on the way. When we arrive to Emeryville, we are staying one night there before heading up to the Napa Valley and Sonoma for 10 days and eventually flying home on February 16.
I’m writing this post offline as we don’t have cell service right now, and probably won’t be able to post this until we get to California. Meanwhile, DOS and I are taking dozens of photos and video too, which I’ll add to this post when I’m able to download them. For this post, I’ll break it into sections with bullet points to make it easier to follow, and offer some tips that we have discovered on this journey, should you want to take it sometime. As we have so many photos and videos, I’ll post these in a gallery at the end of this post.
Transportation from Chicago Hotel to Union Station:
We took an Uber XL (keyword XL as we had so much luggage!) from the Thompson Hotel where we had stayed for the last two nights in Chicago, to Union Station. We checked out of the hotel shortly after noon, and the Uber driver arrived within 5 minutes. The drive to Union Station in the large SUV, took around 15 minutes, and offered us views of the many skyscrapers, luxury stores, and neighborhoods of Chicago along the way.
Arrival at Chicago’s Union Station
- Our Uber Driver pulled right up to the passenger entrance door at Union Station, which was nice as we had so much luggage to take into the terminal. At first we wondered how we were going to cross the street to the station, but the passenger entrance is actually right where he dropped us off. You go indoors, and then it’s underground to the terminal after checking your bags. No worries!
- Once inside the terminal, we took the elevator to the “A” level of the concourse. (The ticketing check-in area is not well marked, and we had to ask what level the check-in was located after getting off on the wrong floor.) There is also an escalator, but with 7 pieces of luggage, the elevator was much more convenient and safer.
Tip: Do NOT take seven pieces of luggages on a trip ever! Any trip! LOL!
Check-in at Union Station:
- Fortunately checking our bags at the Amtrak counter was very quick and efficient. A huge shout out to Amtrak for making this process quite easy, and we had no waiting in line either. The check-in agent then gave us a day pass for the Metropolitan Lounge, as well as a lunch voucher for use at the food court. The Metropolitan Lounge is available to sleeper car guests only, and is conveniently located around the corner from the check-in desk, while the food court is in another part of the large terminal.
- .We checked a total of 3 large bags, with 4 smaller carry-ons (two for each of us), which we carried aboard with us.
- Note: Each bag of checked luggage must weigh 50 pounds or less. Sleeper cars passengers get two checked bags a person. You won’t see your checked bags again until you reach your destination, so the carry-on bags need to contain a couple days of clothes, toiletries, medications, and any snacks or drinks you wish to take aboard.
- We took two carry-ons, which was a bit much due to the confined space aboard in the sleeper cabin. We each had one airline approved carry-on roller board, and one knapsack.
- Why did we have so much luggage you ask? We’re still wondering that and we’re on the second day of our trip!
- After checking our luggage and before going to the Metropolitan Lounge, we walked around Union Station a bit, admiring the architecture and design of this magnificent grand terminal.
Prior to going to the Metropolitan Lounge, Steve and I took a photo of the California Zephyr route map, showing the beginning and end point of the route.
- We had checked our luggage in around 12:30pm, so we had an hour before our train started boarding for its 2pm departure. The large Metropolitan Lounge is a pre-departure waiting area that has coffee, chips, waters, and sodas, and is a comfortable and quiet place to relax before boarding the train. Alcoholic drinks are available as well for purchase.
- We had Chick-Fil-A for lunch, courtesy of the lunch voucher we received from Amtrak at check-in. There is a food court downstairs at Union Station, and DOS brought us our pre-departure lunch which we ate in the Metropolitan Lounge.
- The lounge is two levels and has several different sections similar to an airport club lounge. There is even an area for kids, but we didn’t see any kids anywhere in the lounge or even later on the train.
- At 1:30pm, the Lounge Host announced our train departure and asked everyone that everyone going on the California Zephyr to form a line at the lounge entrance. We were then escorted all the way from the lounge to the train; a good thing as there were so many trains! Nice touch again Amtrak!
Boarding the California Zephyr:
- We boarded the train and immediately met Tony, who would be our cheery room attendant for the whole trip. We were in train car 3131, which was one of two sleeper cars for this route. Each sleeper car held 5 sleeper cabins and 14 roomette cabins. Adjacent to our car was the Dining Car, and next to that was the Dome Observation car, while there were separate cars for Coach passengers. Most passengers who were going on the whole or majority of the trip to the west coast were in sleeper accommodations, while coach passengers seemed to take the train for only a few stops, judging by people getting on and off the train.
- As expected, our sleeper room was small but efficient, and seemed identical in size and shape to the sleeper room we get on the Auto Train (which runs from Florida to Washington DC and also carries your car.) The room has an upper and lower bunk, with the upper bunk being folded up by day, and folded down at night for the second passenger. As this was a long trip with two overnights, DOS and I each got our own cabin so we would each have our own lower bunk. The room also has a chair facing the lower bunk (couch by daytime), and has a fold-out table between the two, with two large windows.
The bedroom sleeper cars have an in-room bathroom which contains a toilet and shower in an area about the size of an airline bathroom, and conveniently sprays water all over the tiny space when you shower! There is also a small sink and vanity area in the bedroom next to the entrance door.
When we first boarded the train, our two rooms (D and E) on the upper level of the train, had the connecting wall shut between them, which is what would be the normal one bedroom cabin.
- We stored our carry on luggage right away after boarding. The bedroom cabins such as ours has a small, but efficient closet which is great for a coat, sweatshirt and a shirt or two. The cabin was quite warm when we first got on the train, and our cabin attendant Tony showed us how to adjust the temperature controller for cooler air.
- There are two 120 power outlets in the room. The outlet by the in-room sink has two outlets, and the one by the bed had a single outlet. We brought an extra 3 prong extension cord to give us a couple more power outlets for our iPads, phones, watches, and MacBook. You are not permitted to bring a power surge strip however.
Packing Tips for onboard Train Travel:
- Take less clothes rather than more aboard the train. The train is individually temperature-controlled in each room, and we thought it would still be cold aboard so we overpacked. The train is very casual, so no worries about dressing up for dinner.
- A short sleeve shirt would have been much more comfortable aboard the train instead of long sleeves; but fortunately I had packed a couple of Polo color T-shirts which I ended up wearing most of the time. I did wear a long sleeve shirt for dinner with jeans, and also when I got off the train for a brief stop (along with a coat, cap, and sometimes gloves). If anything I was more warm than cold aboard the train, even on this snow-covered route.
- Bring sample sizes of toiletries to save space; i.e. toothpaste, mouthwash, etc plus your meds and a spare pair of contacts or glasses if you wear them. There is little counter space to put any of these items, and I stored these in a small toiletry bag under the single in-room chair.
- Note: Amtrak has two categories of sleeper accommodations: Roomette and Bedroom. The roomettes are very tiny and do not have a bathroom or shower (though these are right down the hall). Roomettes can accomodate two passengers (I can’t imagine how), but would be more suitable for a single person traveling. The bedroom cabins such as we had offer much more space that roomettes (although they are still tiny), and have a bathroom and shower in them. There is also a slightly larger Family cabin and a handicap-accessible cabin, both on the lower level. The Family cabin does not have an in-room bath, though the public bath and showers are just down the hall.
- Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner are provided complimentary to all sleeper room guests (both roomette and full bedroom). While this may vary depending on passenger load, on our train the dinner times were at 5, 5:30, and 6:45pm.
- For breakfast and lunch, the times are within a two hour or so period, i.e. 6:30am – 9am for breakfast, and 12 to 2pm for lunch. We selected 6:45pm for dinner the first night, and it was not real busy then; I guess people liked eating earlier. The food was actually pretty decent; not gourmet, by certainly enough to get you thru the day, and was served by a waiter who was efficient and quick, but not nearly as cheery as our cabin attendant.
- Here is a copy of the menu which is the same for the whole trip:
- On the second day, there were only two dinner seatings, at 5:30pm and 7pm, probably as many passengers had gotten off at various stops and there were less people on the train. An attendant stops by your room in the afternoon and takes your preference for dinner meal time each day.
- We (and everyone else) were always seated at a table for four with another couple, or single person, regardless of how full the dining room was. We welcomed the company and talking to different people, we were just surprised at first that Amtrak no longer spaces people and tables out due to COVID like they had been doing on the Auto Train. You could also elect to have your meal in your cabin, but the meal time in the dining room was a great highlight to the day chatting with your fellow diners.
- Sodas, water, coffee, tea etc were complimentary at all meals, and alcohol was extra, with the exception of the first drink at dinner (beer, wine, or spirits) which was included. Additional drinks could be purchased a the dining room or in the lounge car.
- Tip: Bring your own snacks with you for in-between meals. You can also bring your own alcohol, but it must be consumed in your room; not in the dining or other public areas.
- Complimentary coffee and water stations are at the front of each sleeper car.
- You must be joking! I guess I was comparing this to the Auto Train (which is only a one night journey from Florida to Washington D.C.), and there were usually a few night owls up in the lounge area after dinner. But not on the California Zephyr; everyone seemed to retreat to their cabin after dinner. Possibly due to COVID fears, or just wanting to get up early for the next day’s 7am Denver top, or the day after’s Reno stop, the train was very quiet after dinner.
- The Dome Observation Car had the lights off, and it was quite dark with no scenery to be seen at night. I bought a couple brewskis at the lounge (no one was in there) and brought them back to the room, where DOS and I each watched a movie on our iPads before going to bed early; i.e. 10pm!
- Tony, our room attendant, came by to turn our bed down for us, around 9pm, which is what time we requested. Once the bed is turned down, you really don’t have any space to walk around in the room, so try to brush your teeth before then, and watch your movie in bed!
Stops along the Way:
- The California Zephyr is not a nonstop train, but it is a direct train with several short stops, but without needing to change trains. Most of the stops are very quick to let off or board other passengers averaging 10 minutes or less, while Denver and Salt Lake City are major stops with an hour or less in duration.
- Denver occurs at 7am on the second day and is long enough to go inside the terminal there or take a short walk down the street. Salt Lake City is at 10:30pm, and averages 30 – 45 minutes, although we did not get off there as we were already in bed!
- The Denver stop was nice, but it was a frigid 5 degrees F, and with the wind felt colder than that. We walked thru the large terminal there, also called Union Station, and had a look around the streets outside before declaring it was too cold to stay outside, and there was a nice and warm terminal inside.
- Some of the very short stops (2 or 3 minutes) were for people departing or embarking only and thru passengers couldn’t get off the train as it was to short of a stop.
- .Other stops were 10 – 15 minutes or less; just enough time to get a breath of fresh air, or for some a cigarette break, as smoking was not allowed on board.
- The scenery on this trip was absolutely stunning! As we traveled during the winter month of February, we saw lots of snow along the way. Fortunately during our trip the weather was clear, which allowed for some wonderful photos and videos, although they don’t do justice to the actual beauty of the places we passed along the way.
- The most scenic areas so far have been on the second day; starting about a half hour out of Denver and continuing all day. The snow covered mountains and trees were gorgeous, and we couldn’t get enough photos of them!
- As the day progressed, we went thru several canyons, including one that straddles the border of Colorado and Utah. By this point late in the day (5pm) we were passing the painted desert, and with the sun slowly setting, it offered beautiful colors, if not any more snow.
DOS got a photo of the Utah border just in time as it was written high up on a cliff we passed.
- Tunnels, Tunnels, and more Tunnels! As we went thru the rockies we went thru I don’t know how many tunnels. Most were fairly short in length, however the Moffat Tunnel was over six miles long straight thru the mountain! The Conductor even made a couple announcements prior to have everyone seated for the duration of the tunnel (about 10 minutes), and not to go between cars at this time. Here is a Wikipedia link on the Moffat Tunnel, which like the Panama Canal construction of the early 1900’s, was an engineering marvel. Per Wikipedia, the highest elevation in the Moffat tunnel is 9239 feet, and after 5 years of construction (but many years in planning), opened in 1927 at a cost of nearly $24 million dollars, vs the budgeted price of 6.62 million dollars. (The original Panama Canal opened in 1914 for comparison).
- Dome car: We thought we would be using this most of the time, but with us each having our own room, and the Dome Car being very crowded (and still a fear of catching COVID) we spent most of the trip in our room, mesmerized by the ever changing scenery. We did go to the Dome car a bit the first day and met a few people, but in all honesty, our room offered a fantastic and private view, and we didn’t have to wear a mask in our room, unlike the Dome Car or anywhere else on the train (unless eating or drinking.)
- More scenery: It’s now our third and last day and we awoke to a beautiful 7am sunrise shortly before arriving in Reno. Reno was a short stop, but unfortunately not enough time to head in the terminal and up the stairs to get a photo of “The Biggest little city in America”, so this photo by the sign will have to do.
- The scenery turned beautiful once again as we left Reno and approached Tuckie, California in the Lake Tahoe area. We met a couple at breakfast who boarded last night in Salt Lake City (where they had taken a ski trip), and were getting off at their home stop in Truckee. Truckee was a two minute stop if that, just to let a few people on and off the train. Tuckie looked like a fun, quaint town, surrounded by snow-covered beauty, and nearby Lake Tahoe.
- After our final lunch aboard the California Zephyr, we had a few more short stops before arriving to our final destination of Emeryville, California.
Sleeping on the California Zephyr
- DOS and I each had our own bedroom cabin, with our own lower bunk, which made for a restful sleep, without having to climb up on the bunk bed each night, or worse climbing down the small ladder to use the in-room bathroom. The connecting door was open as well, which gave the two rooms a much bigger feel to it, like a suite.
- The train can be a bit bumpy, and is more noticeable when sleeping. Also the noise may be bothersome if you are a light sleeper. The train movement didn’t bother me for the most part, but the train’s whistle and the train noise itself was a bit noisy in the quiet of the night. I used ear plugs, which helped tremendously, and the gentle movement (some would call rattling), reminded me of a cruise ship that sometimes rocks you to sleep.
- DOS and I are both used to having a late dinner and bedtime, so it was a bit of an adjustment being in the room by 9pm or so, before our room got turned down by our attendant. Even with a bedroom cabin, once the lower bed is turned down, the room loses much of the floor space, so walking to the sink to brush your teeth becomes a challenge. I recommend washing up for the night before the bed is turned down.
- On the plus side, going westbound like we did (from Chicago to Emeryville) allows you to gain an extra hour of sleep both nights, due to the change from Central to Mountain to Pacific Time. We changed the time one hour before going to bed each night, so we did get a lot of sleep. Alternatively in the opposite direction you would lose an hour each night going eastbound.
Debarkation: Welcome to Emeryville
- When we arrived at Emeryville, debarking the train and retrieving our luggage could not have been easier! We thanked (and tipped) our cabin attendant Tony for his outstanding service, and he showed us where to retrieve our checked bags.
- Our checked bags were already waiting on us at the end of the train car, on an outdoor luggage cart. We showed the attendant our claim ticket, and we were on our way to our hotel.
- The California Zephyr arrived about 45 minutes early, and we were off the train with our checked luggage by 3:30pm. I must say Amtrak really sticks to its schedule, and arriving a bit early is always nice.
Overnight Hotel in Emeryville:
- We are now in our hotel room, the Hyatt House Hotel, which is directly next to the train station. Like the beginning of the trip, we were concerned navigating to/from the train and hotel with all of our checked and carry-on luggage, but the hotel was only a 3 minute walk or so thru the gated parking lot area.
- To access the Hyatt House from the train station in Emeryville, you do need to take the outside elevator up a level to the cross over bridge (crosses you to the other side of the tracks) and then the elevator down one level. You can see the hotel from the crossover bridge, and once on ground level you simply walk thru the parking lot to the hotel. How convenient is that!
- The Hyatt House is an all suite hotel, ranging from studios to one bedrooms and more, and our 8th floor room has a small balcony which overlooks San Francisco way in the distance across the bay.
- We now need to download our many photos and relax a bit from our train trip; it feels like we are on dry land again!
- We had an outstanding time on the Amtrak California Zephyr, and while it’s not a luxury train like in other countries, it provides a great quality experience and beautiful scenery you could only get from ground-level train travel.
- It was fun meeting different passengers from all over the country during meal times, and quite a few others were train enthusiasts enjoying the leisurely trips across the country and some even worldwide.
- Again I would stress the train is very casual and dress comfortably as it is temperature controlled, so you won’t get cold even going thru the Rockies. Don’t overpack, and bring a pair of short pants and T-shirt for your in-room comfort, although we wore jeans and a long sleeve shirt to meals.
- Evenings were quiet, so download some movies or TV shows to your iPad or similar device and bring your headphones. (There is no in-room TV or one anywhere on the train including the lounge car.)
- There is no wifi on the train, but we used our hotspots from our phone when available. Don’t depend on having a cell or hotspot connection though, as in many areas such as the Rocky Mountains there is no service at all. Even areas where you may have service temporarily, it most likely will not be enough for streaming, video conferencing etc, with the exception being when you’re near major cities such as Denver or Salt Lake City.
- Bring an extension cord with 3 prong plugin type for your devices.
- Drinks can be purchased aboard, but you may bring your own alcohol for in-room use only, which is useful after dinner as the train is so quiet. Credit cards are accepted as payment for drinks or snacks in the lounge car as well as cash.
- Meals are included with sleeper accommodations only, but gratuity is not included, and should be given each meal. Believe me they will remind you of that each time there is a meal announcement!
- You should also tip your cabin attendant at the end of the journey.
- Finally, relax and have fun! You will love the whole experience!