California Zephyr: The Best Train Journey in the US

Enjoying the California Zephyr in Coach

Who wouldn’t want his own room in the sleeper car when you ride across America in the California Zephyr? Nobody. It’s one thing to see great views, but being comfortable in the train for three days is another. For one, the sleeper car would allow you to have a bed to stretch your legs out for a good night’s rest. Second, there are showers for use of sleeper car passengers. Finally, the meals are included in your fare. Yet, the ticket price for a roomette was roughly three times that of a coach seat, and then you begin to wonder whether it’s worth the surcharge.

Being quite tight in budget, it was necessary for me to choose having a coach seat. After all, the difference in price would go a very long way ($450 vs $1400 for my parents and me). Truth be told, just the thought of staying on a seat and having no shower for three days terrified me, but as I look back on my onboard experience, my worries were unnecessary. Staying in coach was more than comfortable.

Here are tips for you to enjoy your train journey.

Timing is everything.

We took the train ride towards the end of April, when spring was still starting and the kids were in school. This meant that the coach was almost empty – everyone in our car had two seats for himself! Apart from this, early spring also made the views even more scenic and varied – just take a look at the photos to see what I mean!

California Zephyr: The Best Train Journey in the US

Donner Lake

California Zephyr: The Best Train Journey in the US

Glenwood Canyon

California Zephyr: The Best Train Journey in the US

Happy skiing!

Make it a picnic.

If you’re on a budget, bring as much food as you can. Food on board is quite pricey, so we just resorted to the café car and the food we brought for our meals. Some recommend to have at least one meal at the dining car just for the experience, but we couldn’t justify the prices. Even the ticketing agent told us to bring food. You wouldn’t want to keep on buying on board, he said. It’s true! Tip: Drinks are notoriously overpriced. The only respite is the lengthy stopover in Denver, so you can get off the train and buy food from Union Station.

California Zephyr: The Best Train Journey in the US

Get a good night’s rest.

For you to truly enjoy the scenic train ride, sleep at night to have the energy to look out your window during the day. Bring a blanket or a shawl – it gets pretty cold at night. A small pillow would also help for your neck, and an eye mask if you are as sensitive to the light as me. Don’t worry about the leg room – there’s plenty! I’m barely five feet tall and I could stretch my legs without touching the seat in front of me. Use the foot and leg rests to your advantage.

California Zephyr

Coach seat in California Zephyr

Wear comfortable clothing.

Wear loose-fitting clothes that you can sleep it, but make sure that it’s still presentable. Dress in layers – it gets warm during the day, but the cold creeps in at night.Footwear is required at all times, so either wear sandals or bring a pair of slippers to let your feet breathe. Don’t forget to bring a change of clothes!

Improvise a shower.

There’s no shower in the coach car, but there are restrooms and changing rooms. There’s also a women’s lounge which was a tad cleaner than the common restrooms. Bring your personal hygiene kit on board – toothbrush and toothpaste and a facial wash were the basics for me. I also brought a pack of wet wipes to simulate a sponge bath. Since I hate that feeling of having unwashed hair, I used a cup to rinse my shampooed hair. (The sink was tiny so a cup was necessary.) Bring a plastic cup since the paper cups available leaked most of the time, plus they’re too small for the purpose. Just make sure to clean up after your “shower”.

Be ready to get sick.

There’s nothing more depressing than to get sick on board, but it happens. My mom had a headache. I got motion sick. Another lady in the car had a nosebleed. Bring your medicine – there’s no drugstore on board.

Make friends on board.

Lucky for us who had a little kid who entertained us for most of the journey. But, to be honest, most people on board were very friendly. We met a Chinese couple who were going to visit their son, a senior couple on their way back home, and a retired navy who was on his way east. Chatting with your neighbors was actually one of the highlights of the trip.

Keep yourself entertained.

You’re here simply to do one thing: stare out of the window. The scenery is spectacular!

If the views fail your expectations, look around and just watch people. Different personalities can be seen on board – hippies, drug users, Quakers, drunkards and photographers. Not that they mingled though, but such presence of diverse individuals kept the journey a teeny bit more interesting.

Forget the laptop or the tablet, unless it’s at night. This is one of the most scenic trains in the United States, don’t miss out on the views!

Hope you have a great time riding the California Zephyr! As a fellow traveler on board said, the train is the way to travel. It simply is great. Happy travels! 🙂