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Greetings,
I will need to travel from San Francisco to Boston in October and thinking to take an Amtrak train. I want to take California Zephyr to Chicago, travel to Chicago by California Zephyr. Then from Chicago to Boston on whatever train goes this way.
My longest trip on train was only 15 hours and I never traveled by Amtrak before, so I have a lot of questions and will appreciate any answer.

1) What could you do on the train except looking for scenery? I am afraid it could be really boring.
2) Which part of the route has the nice scenery (so I’ll not miss it)? Are there better routes for scenery that California Zephyr? I thought to go thru Portland, OR and Glacier Park but it seems to be much longer route.
3) How hard it will be to travel 55 hours in coach? How comfortable it is compare to Greyhound bus? Coach ticket costs $145, upgrade to sleeper room cost additional $650, does it worth it?
4) How busy is California Zephyr train in October? From previous posts I understood that it is possible to upgrade to sleeper on the train, for less price than on Amtrak site. Is it true for California Zephyr? Is it usually possible to buy coach ticket for the next day, or you really need to buy them in advance?
5) I am thinking about taking a 15-day pass and get out at main cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, to have a rest, sleep in hostel and get on the train next day. Does it make sense? How does this pass work? Can I just jump on any train or I still have to call Amtrak/reserve place somehow?
6) Do they have quiet coach cars on California Zephyr?
7) Are a lot of people with babies/kids traveling in this train by coach? Can you change coach to another or sit is assigned and can not be changed?
8) How to buy Amtrak tickets cheaper  Are there any discounts, promotions? I am not a student and not an AAA member. Are the price fixed on their site?
9) Is there electricity in coaches so I can charge my laptop couple times a day? I found on Amtrak site that electric outlets are available in all upgraded rooms, but didn’t found anything about coaches.

Any other tips will be helpful!

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
cailin_baire
Sep. 4th, 2008 08:14 am (UTC)
At the end of May, I went from Los Angeles to Austin on the Amtrak; it took about 40 hours. Eh, I'll try to help.

1. I love scenery! But it can get rough out in the plains when it's just farm after farm after farm. Bring a good book or two and an iPod / cd player / walkman. I had my laptop and some dvds with me, that really helped pass the time, especially at night when the scenery goes away. Talking to whoever is sitting next to you can help too. Also, unless you're a pretty heavy sleeper, I'd suggest trying to get some shut-eye at any possible moment. Two nights and I got almost no sleep (and the 6-hour stop in San Antonio in the middle of the night didn't help much, lol).

2. I've not taken the Zephyr, but I can say that northern California, Utah and Colorado are gorgeous. Western Nebraska is pretty, but traveling through the state length-wise feels like an eternity.

3. Coach is surprisingly comfortable. The only real downside is that they don't completely turn off the lights at night, but that can easily be remedied with a sleep mask. On my trip, my neighbors were pretty quiet: most of them were asleep or in the view car for most of the trip. I was even sat next to a woman with a two-week-old baby in tow, and it really wasn't that bad.

4. Buying tickets at least two weeks in advance is cheapest, as far as I know. If I were you, I'd just get to the departure station early and ask an employee about any upgrades on your train. Who knows, they might have some last-minute spots to fill in, like on planes.

5. I have no idea how this pass you speak of works, but that sounds like fun if you're planning on taking in the city's nightlife. However, if it's just to crash for the night, I'd save the money / energy / hassle and just get to Chicago earlier.

6. Again, never taken this train, but I guess it's like any train car: it just depends on the people you're surrounded by.

7. Seats are assigned when you get there, but there are only two seats on each side of the cabin and they try to keep families together. They actually gave me the aisle seat, but since I didn't have anyone next to me for the first several hours, I ended up sitting by the window the entire time. I guess you could give them a preference.

8. As I mentioned above, buying them in advance is cheaper.

9. There were indeed outlets right under the window in coach.


Hope that helps, and, you know, is relevant to the Zephyr. I took the Texas Eagle, and I'm assuming that their trains aren't astoundingly different. :)

Edited at 2008-09-04 08:19 am (UTC)
ilvyanyatka
Sep. 4th, 2008 03:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you a lot!
mtuandrew
Sep. 4th, 2008 03:26 pm (UTC)
1) What Cailin said - definitely bring an mp3 player and books. All of these trains have a lounge car too, with comfortable seats and much bigger windows, and a lot of people just sit there for most of the trip and talk to others. They also sell snacks, soda pop and alcohol in the cafe below, but it's expensive.
2) I haven't taken the Zephyr either, but all of these trains have long stretches of flatlands before entering the mountains. Read your books the first day, and the second day will be prettier on the eyes.
3) If you're young and don't mind potentially sitting next to someone who snores, or someone with a baby, not a problem.
4) All Amtrak trains have experienced a huge ridership jump. Don't count on getting a sleeper aboard the train, nor should you count on it being cheap.
5) I couldn't tell you, you'd have to call Amtrak.
6) Not per se, but the lower levels might be quieter if there's seating there.
7) Ask the conductor - he or she might let you change coaches or seats if yours is loud.
8) The prices change with demand, and would be more expensive on the train. Tickets might be cheaper with a 15 day pass, I don't know.
9) It depends on the coach. Many, but not all, Superliners (the double-deckers Amtrak uses) have been upgraded to have many outlets. If the interior is blue, they're the newer ones and will probably have outlets at every seat, but the orange-brownish interiors may not. All have at least one outlet by the water cooler. You may want to buy a cheap surge protector multiple-outlet power strip, since there's only one outlet per seat pair.
mtuandrew
Sep. 4th, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC)
Oh, and as for going to Boston:

Best Option: the Lake Shore Limited goes to Albany, then you can transfer to another train that takes you to Boston
Next Best: the Capitol Limited goes to Washington, allowing you to transfer to any Regional or Acela to Boston
Third: you could also take the LSL to New York City, then a Regional or Acela to Boston
Fourth: you can take the Capitol Limited to Pittsburgh, transfer to the Pennsylvanian to New York, then take a train to Boston
Slowest: the Cardinal goes all the way from Chicago to New York, but it's very slow.
ilvyanyatka
Sep. 5th, 2008 03:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
araquan
Sep. 4th, 2008 03:26 pm (UTC)
I thought I'd comment a bit on the scenery... Things you'll see:

Sacramento
A World War II troop kitchen car
The Sierra Nevada
More of the Sierra Nevada
Donner Lake
The Truckee River
Reno
The deserts of Nevada
Winnemucca, NV at night

And that's just the first day. On day two you'll cross the Rockies in Colorado. That being said, it may be advisable to bring a book or three- once the sun goes down there's literally nothing to look at out the window.
ilvyanyatka
Sep. 5th, 2008 03:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you
louisinmichigan
Sep. 5th, 2008 12:25 am (UTC)
My Two Cents - in two parts (part 1)
I think there are already great answers provided in the current comments, so I'll just add some notes from my personal experiences. (In two parts since LJ restricts the length of a comment)
I have traveled the Emeryville-Chicago-Boston route 10 times over the last 8 years.

1) What could you do on the train except looking for scenery?
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Get involved in conversations with your fellow travelers and sometimes some of the train crew. Food & Beverage can be expensive so bring some of your own. Listen to your music player, read a book, work on some portable personal project such as a journal.

2) Which part of the route has the nice scenery (so I’ll not miss it)? Are there better routes for scenery that California Zephyr? I thought to go thru Portland, OR and Glacier Park but it seems to be much longer route.
--------------------------------------------------------------
My favorite parts of the Zephyr's Emeryville-Chicago route are (A)on the first day from Sacramento to Reno while traveling through the Sierras and (B)from Grand Junction CO - Denver CO while traveling through the Rockies. There's some nice scenery on the Portland-Chicago route also but I prefer the Zephyr.

3) How hard it will be to travel 55 hours in coach? How comfortable it is compare to Greyhound bus? Coach ticket costs $145, upgrade to sleeper room cost additional $650, does it worth it?
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I'm getting old and rickety and can't take the coach seat for two nights. When I was in my 20's and 30's it wasn't too bad. The comfort level is far superior to any long distance bus. The ability to get some private time, to lay-down for sleep, and included meals makes the sleeper room worth it to me. If quiet is important than a sleeper also ensures that.

4) How busy is California Zephyr train in October? From previous posts I understood that it is possible to upgrade to sleeper on the train, for less price than on Amtrak site. Is it true for California Zephyr? Is it usually possible to buy coach ticket for the next day, or you really need to buy them in advance?
-----------------------------------------------
Don't count on any on-train upgrades being available. AMTRAK is getting close to capacity on many days. There may be a leftover room on the day you travel but don't make that your primary plan if you really need a room. Yes, the price on-train is usually lower than advance reservation, but not every single time. For the best pricing I always book a minimum of 21 days in advance of travel and use my NARP membership to get a discount. The yearly price of the NARP membership is more than paid for by the savings you will get on just one overnight trip. NARP is found here -> http://www.narprail.org/

5) I am thinking about taking a 15-day pass and get out at main cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, to have a rest, sleep in hostel and get on the train next day. Does it make sense? How does this pass work? Can I just jump on any train or I still have to call Amtrak/reserve place somehow?
---------------------------------------------------
I will quote the information found on the AMTRAK website about the Rail Pass program:

"Your USA Rail Pass is not a ticket. When traveling on a USA Rail Pass, you must have a ticket and a reservation for each train you board. You must make reservations and pick up your ticket(s) before boarding any train. Reservations for train travel should be made as far in advance as possible; seats available for USA Rail Pass passengers are limited on each train. We do not recommend waiting until the day of departure to make your reservations since there is a greater chance that seats allocated for the USA Rail Pass may not be available on your desired train. If your plans are not flexible, non-USA Rail Pass seats may be available at an additional cost."
http://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak/selectpass
louisinmichigan
Sep. 5th, 2008 12:38 am (UTC)
My Two Cents - in two parts (part 2)
Continuation of my notes from personal experiences. (In two parts since LJ restricts the length of a comment)

6) Do they have quiet coach cars on California Zephyr?
---------------------------------------------
There are no 'quiet coach' cars on any of the long distance (overnight) trains. Some of the Superliner cars have handicap-elderly seats on the lower level and those tend to be quieter. The car attendant may allow you to sit in a lower level seat, but it's up to them and also if there are seats available. If you must have extra quiet then book a lower level seat when you make a reservation.

7) Are a lot of people with babies/kids traveling in this train by coach? Can you change coach to another or sit is assigned and can not be changed?
--------------------------------------------------------
Yes, you will travel with many babies, small children and the natural extra noise which little people make. Changing to a new seat is entirely up to the car attendant and sometimes may be permitted.

8) How to buy Amtrak tickets cheaper Are there any discounts, promotions? I am not a student and not an AAA member. Are the price fixed on their site?
-------------------------------------------------
The earlier you book the better the price. As a train fills up the reservation system automatically raises the price on the remaining seats. If you have an NARP membership and book at least 3 days in advance you will also get an extra 10% discount on the rail travel portion of the cost. There is no extra 10% discount on the extra cost of accommodations like a sleeper room.

9) Is there electricity in coaches so I can charge my laptop couple times a day? I found on Amtrak site that electric outlets are available in all upgraded rooms, but didn’t found anything about coaches.
------------------------------------------------
Over the years as coaches are refurbished some electrical outlets are added. I find that less than 1/2 of the overnight coaches have more than one ot two outlets per car. Almost all of the short distance (not overnight) coaches have an outlet by every seat. On an overnight Superliner (double deck) train your best source of an electrical outlet is in the sightseer lounge, near the central stairway.
*********************************************
One final note about the Zephyr. When traveling into Chicago you will almost certainly miss connecting with any train going east and will have to spend the night in Chicago. Usually AMTRAK provides a hotel room, cab fare, and breakfast money if this happens. This is them being nice and is not a business requirement. If you had a sleeper room on the missed connecting train you may not get one the next day since that train may be sold out. It will take a few weeks to obtain a refund once you have submitted your refund request for the unused accommodation charge. (been there, done that, not fun). I personally plan on an overnight in Chicago and book my trip for that eventuality. Sometimes I travel Emeryville-Bakersfield-Los Angeles-Chicago because that train usually is able to make the east of Chicago connections, even if the scenery is not as dramatic.
aiwritingfic
Sep. 5th, 2008 01:39 am (UTC)
Re: My Two Cents - in two parts (part 2)
Not the OP, but thank you for both these hugely informative comments.
ilvyanyatka
Sep. 5th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)
Re: My Two Cents - in two parts (part 2)
Thank you a lot!
radparker
Sep. 6th, 2008 07:02 pm (UTC)
Lots of smart people have answered most of your questions already, but I will throw in my two cents in that I think life is a lot more bearable on the train with a sleeper. You can always go hang out in the lounge or elsewhere when you want to bond, but having the private room to go hide in, when you need some quiet time, or want to nap, really helps. In coach you could end up trapped near screaming kids or something.

I would second the comment about not waiting to try to upgrade to a sleeper onboard. Trains are selling out a lot lately, and you are putting yourself at the mercy of a potentially unhappy attendant. If they're not sold out, but the attendant is grumpy, you do not get to buy your upgrade. I've only had that happen once, but lesson learned: If you can afford it, book the accommodation you want ahead of time.

People say those passes are pains in the ass; you still have to reserve tickets/etc. I have never done it but I suspect I never will, as it doesn't seem that easy to execute on.

Every coach car I've ever ridden in has had electrical outlets for every seat. Though I don't think others' comments to the contrary are necessarily misleading; maybe it's the luck of the draw or what routes I've taken.

I take the train a lot for work. The best time killer I've found is: The Amazon Kindle. If you like reading, and if you can get into the concept of an e-Book reader, you'll love it. The Kindle is great for traveling, because any place you get a Sprint cell phone signal, you can browse the online book store right from the device. This means if you load up 5 books on the Kindle, but find them all boring, you can be sitting on the train, pull up the store, and select and buy a different book to read. The process kicks ass. (Once in a while, especially as the trains go through wide open spaces between cities, there will be no coverage, so you can't reach the store. In that instance you still can read the books you've already downloaded.)

I also rent movies on iTunes sometimes (downloading them to the laptop at home), then watching them on the train. Bring headphones, of course.

Also, you might want to bring a headphone splitter, if you're going to bring a friend. Or if you make any friends. Maybe somebody will want to watch a movie with you.
(Anonymous)
Dec. 9th, 2008 01:30 am (UTC)
Coach vs Sleeper
A sleeping car gives you an actual bed at night which is very comfortable. It is also very expensive.

Coach seats even on short distance trains are comfortable also but not as comfortable as a sleeping car. If you are concerned about light and noise you can bring a sleep mask and ear protection. I've spent many nights in an AMTRAK coach without either and only my jacket to put over me and I have been quite comfortable. For the frugal traveler coach is the way to go.

The Lakeshore Limited offers a Boston connection at Renssealer. (There is no station at Albany). There is a layover. There will probably be a layover at Chicago. Look up the time tables on the AMTRAK website.

If you want to stop over ask about it with your regular ticket. If you want to visit several cities a rail pass can be a good idea. But if you don't want to do those things just go all the way.

Personally when I am on a long train trip I eat only one meal on the train, breakfast, if there is a real dining car. For the rest of the day I bring food for snacks. Regular meals are just too much food.

I hope I am in time and you find this helpful. Yes it can be long and boring but I never saw a train I wouldn't take.
(Anonymous)
Nov. 12th, 2009 04:10 pm (UTC)
amtrak usa rail pass
I live in Boston & have been researching the USA rail pass - Beware! Amtrak only alots a certain # of "segments" with each pass - i.e. 15 day/8 segments, 30 day/12 seg.'s & 45 day/18 segs. A segment is any train (or supplementary bus) you take, regardless of length, so if you go from Boston to NYC & get off, that counts as 1 of your segments. You also need to make individual reservations for each trip segment, and only a certain amount of seats per train are alotted for passholders, so available seats fill up early, forcing last-minute travelers to pay extra for an upgrade to a different seat class... There are even more restrictions, so read the fine print... I might recommend taking the amtrak somewhere you can find a cheap flight to complete travel: i.e. take Amtrak from L.A. to Chicago & fly the discount fare you found to Providence, RI on Southwest or whatever, then take a Greyhound bus to your ultimate destination. I've taken the Amtrak from Boston to Atlanta (23+ hrs.) and would recommend seeking add'l sleep accomodations for any Amtrak trip over 10-12 hours... the "comfort" of coach is somewhat overrated in my mind after like, 8 hours... Good Luck!!!
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