The California Zephyr had been on my list for a while. It’s a 50-hour train ride across the US, from Chicago to San Francisco. I heard it’s very beautiful and scenic with views of mountains, canyons, and rivers. I didn’t bother asking any of my friends if they wanted to join me, this was a trip I felt compelled to do on my own!
Having already visited Chicago before, I decided to fly into Chicago just to take the train, and spend the weekend in San Francisco at the end of the long train ride.
Google told me that it takes an hour to take public transport from Chicago ORD airport to Chicago Union Station, to take the Amtrak train at 2pm. So to be on the safe side, I booked a flight from Dallas to Chicago ORD that would arrive at 9.30am. Over four hours to get to the train, and plenty of time to visit some stores and grab snacks and drinks for the California Zephyr!
Security at Dallas was quick and we boarded the plane on time for a 7am departure. Then… there was a problem. That’s ok – problems happen and I had plenty of time, so I fell asleep, as I often do when I get on the plane. I woke up an hour later, and there was still a problem… something to do with not being able to remove fuel from the plane… but they were working on it.
We eventually took off at 10am – a full THREE HOURS later than planned. Leaving me with about an hour to make the hour-long journey from Chicago airport to Union Station. I had thought multiple times about speaking to someone about getting a different flight as I had a train to catch, but I kept thinking they’d fix it soon and I had enough time. No one expected it would take as long as it did. Now I know for next time there’s a problem!!
So I was kind of anxious on the flight. I still slept more – there wasn’t anything I could do to make the flight faster!! And I was ready for a speedy exit as soon as the plane landed at 12.30pm. Good thing I didn’t check any luggage (this is the power of packing light!).
The train station felt like miles away as I rushed through the airport. I did briefly toy with the idea of getting a $50 cab instead of the $5 train – the cab would potentially be 10 minutes faster depending on traffic. I decided to trust Google maps that said I would arrive at the train station at 1.30pm. I hate running, but I did a lot of running that day. Including up three flights of stairs to get out of Clinton Station before walking to Union Square. Man! I still hate running!
Google lied. I actually got to the Amtrak station at 1.45pm – just in time. I was really disappointed as there were no shops around for me to buy supplies… it was a big grand empty station. They were already boarding the train so I ran to join the very end of that line. Phew!! I made it!!!!!!
I was the penultimate person to board the train. However, I was very pleasantly surprised. It was clean and spacious. The conductor guy assigned me a seat (I got the one next to me too) and I settled in quite happily.
I knew there was a dining cart on the train, so it wasn’t the end of the world that I didn’t get to do my own food shopping first. Although I really wished I had some water with me…
So I was pretty annoyed and surprised when they announced the dining cart would only be available for travelers with their own cabin! What!? So no food or water for me on the whole journey…???
Fortunately, it turned out there is a snack area under the viewing deck, where they had all kinds of microwavable treats like burgers and hot dogs. The mac and cheese turned out to be pretty good. There were also hot and cold drinks available, and some kind of water fountain to refill your own bottles. Phew.
Public restrooms on trains have always made me feel anxious. I usually avoid them like the plague, but I knew I had to face the restroom on this very long trip. Much to my surprise, the bathroom was pretty spacious and clean. This is the great thing about low expectations – you are likely to be pleasantly surprised. I had plenty of space to get changed in there too.
I got settled in pretty quickly and was ready for great views and lots of relaxation. I found the seating very comfortable and relaxing. There were other people onboard but it was pretty peaceful. It was also really easy and comfortable to get up and move around. There was no pressure to stay confined to my seat.
The viewing deck was really great. The views were sprawling and beautiful.
The train made a number of stops – only for passengers to get on or get off, and for smokers to have a very quick cigarette break. There was one longer break which gave us time to get off and go to a shop on the platform, which meant I could buy a salad and eat something fresh! It was good to have a little wander around the platform as well.
Fortunately, I’m able to sleep pretty much anywhere, so the big seats felt almost luxurious compared to an economy class plane seat. The real stars of my trip were my travel pillow and travel blanket. This is what made me feel at home on the two-day journey. I felt really relaxed and just enjoyed some alone time surrounded by beautiful nature – without having to hike mountains or carry stuff through forests.
I should add that my seat cost less than $100 – compared to $1000 for a cabin. Considering the main difference for me would have been to sleep horizontally and have some more personal space – I was totally happy to not spend the extra $900 for a cabin. I enjoyed my spacious seat, which also had a tray and plug points.
So, would I do it again? I actually would. This time, I traveled to Chicago specifically to take this train. In future, I would take it if I actually needed to be on part of this route already, e.g. if I had a few days to go from Chicago to Denver, or Denver to San Francisco. It is time consuming and not especially exciting, but it was really exciting for me to try something new and different, and check another item off my to-do list.
For more information on the California Zephyr: https://www.amtrak.com/california-zephyr-train