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Today’s post comes from Celia – a friend and reader of PWaC who shares her story of taking the same Amtrak California Zephyr train trip across country that our family just took. Since I gave a report of our trip in a sleeper car, I thought it would be interesting to read a report of her family’s experiences in a Coach car.
(SEE ALSO: My (free) $6500 family train vacation on Amtrak)
A family of 3 travels coach on the Amtrak California Zephyr
As an avid reader and real-life friend of PWAC and family, I’ve been reading the Amtrak tales avidly—especially since my family of three was in the midst of a similar trip when PWAC’s reports started up last month. We’re a smaller crew, mom and two teen boys, but it was also our second time taking a cross-country trip by Amtrak. The last time was just over 13 years ago, when the boys were both very young, which was definitely tough, but still memorable.
I’m not a big fan of airline travel for many reasons, and since we wanted to take a trip to California to visit family this summer and couldn’t find an airline fare within our constraints for both time and budget, it seemed like a good opportunity to try the Amtrak California Zephyr once again.
Like PWAC, both of my family’s train journeys started in Cincinnati. The first time, we actually took the overnight train from Cincinnati to Chicago, which lingers in my memory as long, late, uncomfortable and to be avoided at all costs in the future. Driving to Chicago was quickly dismissed, because it would involve excessive parking fees. Also, since we were headed all the way out to California, it seemed best to look for a station beyond the Chicago starting points, to save both time and money.
(SEE ALSO: Chicago Union Station Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge)
Our best bet seemed to be taking the Amtrak California Zephyr from Galesburg, IL, which trades about 5 and half hours of driving for a full day on the train, which is a winner in my book. On top of that, Galesburg offers free parking right by the station, which is under restoration right now. Right now, the station offers minimal but quaint and fairly comfortable original wood seating for about a dozen or so passengers, so it’s not the best place to wait for a long time with a large crew. There is also a railroad museum next door, however, and they host an annual Railroad Days festival each year, which we missed by a few days. Our car survived quite well, unattended, for 10 days here, including time during said festival. Overall, I think this was a good choice.
(Editor’s note: We solved this problem by driving to Toledo instead, though I don’t know why I didn’t consider driving to Galesburg, which is only a few hours further. Regardless, the times the train arrives / departs in Cincinnati are really annoying)
(SEE ALSO: Maximizing your route on the Amtrak Zone Map)
Onboard the Amtrak California Zephyr, very little seemed to have changed in the 13 years between our two trips. We rode Coach both times, and the seats are wide and roomy, with enough leg room to comfortably accommodate my over six-foot-tall older son. Seats recline, leg rests can be raised or lowered, and there are adjustable foot rests and a small, fold-down tray table on the back of the forward seat. There is also ample storage space for your two pieces of carry-on gear above and below seats and standard electric outlets along the window to keep phones and tablets and such charged through the journey. On the downside, nothing seems to have been refreshed much in the past 13 years, either. Everything has a rather well-worn look and seat padding is definitely of varying levels of comfort, though still far better than the average airline coach seat.
Can you sleep in an Amtrak California Zephyr coach seat?
Which brings me to what most people really want to know: Can you really sleep in the seats? Yes, you definitely can, but not necessarily well and it’s definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of thing. Your chances for sleep seem to increase if you are fortunate enough to get an empty seat next to you to allow more stretching and turning room, especially if you’re tall. I definitely recommend bringing along a blanket and pillow, if you can – these don’t count against your two carry-on items and can make a big difference in comfort. The coach cars were fairly chilly most of the trip, except at night, when at least one of the cars turned on the heat full blast along the windows, so that I was boiling on one side and freezing on the other. Aisle seats were more consistent temperaturewise, but they are also more brightly lit, which can be problematic for some people. Amtrak does sell a “comfort package” down in the cafe car, which includes a small blanket, an inflatable neck pillow, an eye mask and earplugs for about $8. My older son put one of these to the test and felt that it was a decent bargain, helped him a lot, and made for a unique souvenir of the journey, too.
(SEE ALSO: 4 tips to survive a red eye flight in economy)
What about food on Amtrak California Zephyr?
(Editor’s note – we didn’t run into this issue as sleeper car rooms have their food included)
Food on the train is fairly pricey. On our first journey, this was less of an issue, since we only had to deal with one adult and one child eating, but we still ate at least one meal in the cafe club car each day back then. On this trip, however, I knew better and made sure that we came armed with at least food items to take care of a meal and general snacking, which helped. We ate one meal in the dining car: One breakfast, nothing fancy, decent food but not great — $45. Yikes. That was our last meal in the dining car. The rest of the meals we used our snacks or went to the cafe, which wasn’t cheap, either, but more reasonable. Breakfasts of donut holes, juice, a bagel and cream cheese; lunches and dinners of microwaved pizzas, cheeseburgers and/or hot dogs, or a cheese and cracker platter and drinks, all seemed to run around $15-25 a meal for three adult-sized appetites. I’d highly recommend taking a small, well-stocked cooler over either the dining car or the cafe. Another point…on both the trip out and back, the cafe car food selections became increasingly limited as the trip progressed, another reason to pack your own.
And now… the elephant in the room… lateness
The biggest problem by far, however, is the lateness issue. If you absolutely have to be anywhere on a schedule, cross-country Amtrak trips are not what you need. From what I gather, the trains within California and along the East Coast are pretty reliable, schedulewise, but if you’re crossing zones, you expect to be late, and be pleasantly surprised if you aren’t. For a good chunk of our journey, the Amtrak California Zephyr was running six hours behind schedule, and four hours behind seems to be fairly common. The trip back on the Amtrak Southwest Chief was much better, but was still about 2 hours behind schedule.
So train travel is slow, unreliable, at times uncomfortable, and leaves one a bit sleep-deprived. Would we do it again? In our case, the answer is probably yes. I’d love to try a sleeper car sometime, but even without that luxury, the train – for all its shortcomings – offers a chance to see just how large and magnificent a land we live in. There are views that you simply cannot see any other way, where no roads go. And where roads do travel alongside the tracks, you can enjoy the view without having to drive it yourself. There’s just something special about going around a curve and being able to see both the front and back of the train stretching away from you in either direction, or catching that first glimpse of a snow-capped peak as you come out of a long tunnel, or being able to look up, over, and around at all sides of a steep canyon as you nibble on lunch with your family. You just can’t replicate those experiences any other way. And even though the trip way back when, when my kiddos were small, was really, really tough, there are moments from that trip that live on in our collective memory through family stories. If you can come prepared for a journey, the train will not disappoint.