We’ve travelled on Amtrak overnight trains a few times now. You can read (and view) our experiences on
Those posts focus on the view from the train. I thought it might be helpful to give an idea of what life is like onboard the train to help you decide if you might like to take a long distance train trip.
The western Amtrak train routes mostly use the double decker SuperLiner cars. A typical summer train consists of
- Two locomotives
- Baggage car
- Dorm car for the workers
- Three coach cars
- Dining car
- Lounge car
- Three sleeper cars.
Our experience is in a SuperLiner sleeping car bedroom – which has plenty of room for two along with a sink, toilet, and shower. Other options are a roomette which has two opposing seats which can be made up into bunk beds, and coach seats. I think there is also a family suite on the lower level that takes up the whole width of the train. Carla’s sister Linda got a roomette to herself (if you travel alone, you won’t have to share). She used the common bathroom and showers. The showers are bigger than the ones in the bedrooms.
I don’t imagine the coach seats, roomy and comfortable as they are (especially compared to plane seats), would be much fun for a multi-night trip. We talked with a family that bought coach seats and told us it never really gets dark and it’s hard to sleep because the seats don’t recline into beds. The privacy afforded by the rooms and roomettes – and especially the bedrooms – is not to be discounted. If you are tired of people; just retire to your room for a while for some peace and quiet and enjoy the view.
Here are a couple of images showing the layout of a sleeper car.
If you decide to get a room or roomette, request a room on the upper floor so you’ll have a better view of the world you travel through.
You will board in the middle of the car where the luggage is stored. You won’t have a lot of space in your bedroom or roomette so your large suitcase will need to be downstairs or checked into the baggage car. Use a smaller overnight bag with the clothes and toiletries you’ll use on the trip.
You can see the door to the family suite at the end of the hall. About once a day we would take our dirty clothes out of our room and stash them in a bag in our downstairs suitcase. Dennis (our California Zephyr car attendant) told us he hadn’t experienced any problems with luggage theft in his 34 years of service.
One of the nice things about a room, besides the privacy of the bathroom, is that if you open the door or curtain you can have a view out of both sides of the train. You can see that the hallway in the roomettes go down the middle so you can’t see out the opposite side of the car. Here is Carla outside our room; you can get an idea of the hallway.
Here I am on the couch in our bedroom.
I found it difficult to get a good picture of the room as a whole – so I looked on the internet to get a couple.
You are not going to sleep as well as in your own bed at home. The lower bunk is nice and wide with good leg room. The upper bunk is long enough for me (over 6 feet tall) but it is cramped. There is not as much headspace as the image suggests; you’ll have enough room to rollover but not to sit up. You kind of launch yourself from your ladder into bed. There is a big net that hooks into the ceiling to make sure you don’t roll out. Carla and I swapped bunks each night; one night we slept in the bottom bunk, but it was a bit too cozy for comfort. And the car rocks and rolls as it travels across the countryside; the cars were built back in the 1980’s (I think) and there are plenty of squeaks and rattles. Your car attendant will convert the couch into beds in the evening when you are ready and back into seats in the morning – usually when you are at breakfast.
For the most part the people on the train are happy and glad to be there. You have plenty of opportunity to visit with your fellow travelers. While the view from the room is great, the views available in the Lounge cars is spectacular. Windows run the length of the car and even partially overhead.
About half the car is made up of tables while the other half have groups of three seats facing outside.
The other place you meet new friends is in the dining car. If you are in a sleeper car you’re meals are paid for. The head of the dining car will come by a couple of hours before lunch and dinner to take a reservation. When you arrive in the car, you’ll stand in the end of the car until the attendant takes you to your table. They fill up all four seats, so if there are two of you traveling together you’ll get to share your meal with another couple of people (or two singles). As I said, people on the train are happy for the most part and swapping stories is a great way to pass the time as the scenery rolls by.
The food is quite good; but the menu is limited; so if you are on board for three days and two nights you might repeat yourself. That’s not a problem; the Amtrak steak is excellent for dinner and the hamburger is a perfect lunch; there are vegetarian options. It’s a lot of food and you don’t get a lot of exercise so prepare to diet a bit when you get off the train. I ordered breakfast and lunch from the kids menu in order to get smaller portions.
I didn’t get a good picture of the dining car; here is one I found on the internet.
Some of the stops are scheduled for 10 to 15 minutes so you get a chance to get out and stretch your legs. To make the most of the time your car attendant will announce the approach of the station and will be there to open the door and put out the foot stool if it is necessary. Don’t get too far from the train; once the horn blows and the conductor and car attendants yell “All Aboard” you’d best be on board. They will leave without you.
If you want to keep track of your travel, try using the dixielandsoftware.net You can open a map and see where your train is; click on the number of your train and you’ll see your status on each of the stops you’ve made up to that point showing whether you are early or late (usually you are late). I used it a lot on board. And I saved the results and used the time table to match up my pictures. For example I’d see that we were traveling between Glenwood Springs and Great Junction between 1:57 and 3:53 on Tuesday. Then I could pick the pictures taken between those times for the blog. (It’s helpful to change the time on your camera as you move from one time zone to another).
Tipping. We tip our attendant about $10 when we get on; and another $10 (or more) at the end. They work hard to make your trip a great experience. Tip your meal servers based on the price of the meal even though you only pay for alcohol.
Is it worth it? We LOVE it. Although the 3-day/2-night trip from Chicago to the Bay Area with a connection for another night and day back home is a bit tiring, we enjoyed every minute. I think the Empire Builder which goes direct from Portland to Chicago is perfect for us.
Is it for you? Here are some considerations. The scenery you’ll see in the American west is stunning. But you can’t stop and get out to take pictures. Be ready with your camera to get those special photos. And a fancy camera (like my Sony A7Rii) may not work well because of the reflection. What we found works best is pressing our iPhone smack up against the window to get the picture. We find ourselves looking at the scenery way more than reading or knitting or doing puzzles.
If you can be happy not being in control for 3 days, go for it. Some people just feel the need to be in charge and go where they want to go. I would think a long distance train ride could be a challenge. The train is faster than traveling by car. By my calculation we traveled 2,265 miles in about 43 hours – 2 nights; 1 full day; and parts of 2 other days. Our driving trips to Chicago take us at least 4 nights. While we get to stop when we want; we are usually much more tired at the end than we are for a train trip.
And the view; the view is what sells the trip. Unlike driving when you are staring at pavement for hours on end and dealing with semis passing you and you passing semis, you can just sit and watch the world roll by.
I hope this helps; if you have any questions, please post them in the comments and I’ll answer to the best of my ability.