A few weeks ago, I took my three kids on an overnight train trip on the Amtrak California Zephyr from San Francisco to Denver. I had traveled this exact route as a child and again in my early 20s. I really wanted my kids to experience train travel, and I was interested to see how much had changed since my last ride on the Amtrak California Zephyr.
The Amtrak California Zephyr goes from San Francisco all the way to Chicago. Technically, the tracks start in Emeryville, CA (with Amtrak bus transfer to/from San Francisco).
After leaving Emeryville, the train hugs the California coast for a while:
The train goes through the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Northern California on its way to Nevada:
It goes just north of Arches National Park and some fantastic desert landscapes:
Finally, the train winds its way up and down the Rocky Mountains before arriving in Denver.
Arrival at Emeryville Station
Since we were staying near the San Francisco airport, we took an Uber to the station in Emeryville. It took about 45 minutes with traffic. We arrived around 8:00 a.m. for the 9:10 train.
It turns out that was early enough, because we literally had to do nothing at the station except wait to board the train. No metal detectors, no scanners, no check-in with ID.
We grabbed some breakfast from the small shop inside the station since the train would not be serving breakfast on this first morning. FYI—the shop only accepts cash.
At around 9:00, the announcer prompted everyone to go to the tracks as the train pulled in from the yard.
After a few photos in front of the train, we boarded.
Superliner Family Bedroom
I had booked a Superliner Family Bedroom for the four of us. As a kid, I had been on Amtrak once without a sleeping compartment, and I don’t recommend it.
Our sleeping car attendant was wonderful. He lifted our big suitcase up on the train, and we stored it in a luggage rack just down the hall from our room.
Our train had three sleeping cars, and there is only one family bedroom per car. It is located on the lower level of the sleeping car at the end. The bedroom takes up the entire width of the train car and has windows on each side of the train.
The room has a large sofa/bench that can sit at least three to four people. It has a tray table and closet near the window.
The other side of the room has two chairs facing each other with a tray table in the middle.
At night, the room transforms into two bunk beds, one for adults and one for kids.
The tops bunks have straps to hold you in.
We only spent one night on the train, and my kids slept well. I had trouble falling asleep because my bed was a little hard for my taste.
Outside of our room were the bathrooms and a water station.
The upstairs of our sleeping car had more rooms. The sleeping car attendant kept coffee, juices and bottled water in stock for us to take any time.
The Lounge Car
The great thing about taking a trip on a train is that you’re not confined to your seat like on an airplane. We were free to roam any time!
The Lounge Car was a family favorite. The top floor observation lounge has huge windows. This is the place to be if you really want to take in all the scenery.
On the first day, volunteers from the California State Railroad Museum were in this car. They explained the history of places we were passing as well as some information about the famous Donner party near Donner Pass.
The next day in Colorado, park rangers were on board to narrate the scenery. Kids can even get a Junior Ranger badge on board the Amtrak California Zephyr!
The lower level on the lounge car has a snack bar and tables. This was our favorite spot to play Uno and Old Maid.
The conductor stopped by to have a chat with my daughter in the lounge car:
Food on Amtrak
Meals in the dining car are included with sleeping car accommodations. So, we made our way to the dining car for five meals during our trip.
Check out the menu:
The dining car is surprisingly noisy during meals. This is because the atmosphere is completely different from an airplane. Passengers are very friendly and chatty. Each table sits four people, and the staff fills up each table with multiple groups. There were a lot of solo travelers on our trip, so we could hear people introducing themselves and explaining where they were headed.
Our first meal on the train was lunch. My boys had chicken & bacon quesadillas:
My daughter and I had hamburgers:
The food was decent. It was better than airplane food, but not as good as food in a restaurant. My kids also quickly learned that they couldn’t ask for any of the food to be altered, as it was already pre-made. A request to get a quesadilla made without chicken was quickly shot down.
My oldest was happy that Amtrak had root beer, his favorite drink. As sleeping car guests, we were allowed two drinks, an entrée and dessert.
For dinner the first night, we all had steak. It was better than I expected.
The downside to the food on the train was that at any given time, many items on the menu were “not available.” While it looks like we had a lot of choices, in reality it seemed like only half of the menu was available for any given meal.
For example, for most of the trip, no salads were available. None of the chef-created specials in the blue box on the dinner menu were ever in stock, and on the second day quesadillas were unavailable.
What Did We Really Think of the Amtrak California Zephyr?
Two of my three kids LOVED the train ride. My daughter said she wanted to live on the train. Why?
Compared to our pace from earlier in our vacation (lots of walking at Disneyland and schlepping around San Francisco), the train provided a much-needed break. We had nothing but time. Thirty-four hours, to be exact. My kids wanted some downtime, and it came at the perfect time.
They loved out little “sleepover” in our cozy cabin, and they had fun playing some games that we don’t play at home as often. I even severely limited the screen time that my oldest had so that he wouldn’t spend the entire trip on his phone. It wasn’t an issue for him.
My middle child did not like the whole experience as much as my other two. He is the most active one and had a hard time getting out his energy on the train. Also, he is somewhat of a “foodie” and he didn’t think the food on board was up to snuff.
I really enjoyed the train trip, but I was ready to get off when we did. The scenery was my favorite part. I liked it when the conductor announced we could get off the train at certain spots for fresh air and ice cream.
My least favorite thing about the train was the sour attitudes of some employees. A few of them seemed disgruntled and grumpy. On the other hand, a few were extremely upbeat.
I was a little disappointed that the kids on the train didn’t bond together like they did when I was a kid on Amtrak. I remember meeting other kids on my childhood train trips and playing with them to make the time fly by. That didn’t seem to happen on this trip. I’m blaming technology and the helicopter parent movement.
I’m not sure if I will take my kids on Amtrak again. I’d love to fly to Chicago and then take the train to Denver to visit family, but I’m afraid the scenery will pale in comparison to the route we just took.
If you are considering a trip on Amtrak, I recommend the following:
- Book a sleeping car if you are traveling overnight. While the coach seats are roomier than airplane seats, they don’t recline flat. People will be constantly walking through the coach car to go to the bathroom, and you probably won’t sleep well.
- If you want to book the family bedroom, book early! There is only one per sleeping car. I booked ours earlier this year, and I couldn’t get the exact date we wanted.
- Plan for delays. Thankfully, our train was only delayed 30 minutes going into Denver, but I’ve been on trains that were delayed 6 hours or more. To minimize your risk of delays, begin your journey at the beginning of the route (in this case, San Francisco or Chicago) instead of somewhere in the middle.
- Bring flip-flops or slip-on shoes. My kids always wanted to kick their shoes off in our room, but then would try to head to the bathroom in their socks or bare feet. Eeeewww! I ended up digging out their flip-flops to wear around the train.
- Head to the lounge car often for a change of scenery. Spending time in the lounge car (and in the dining car) was a nice change of scenery and helped pass the time.
- Use Miles and Points! I used some points from our U.S. Bank Flexperks Visas (that we got last year during an Olympic bonus). The Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard (non-affiliate link) currently has a sign-up bonus of 30,000 points. You can also transfer Starwood Preferred Guest points to Amtrak, or use points from the Barclaycard Arrival Plus to offset Amtrak tickets. Both the Starwood Preferred Guest Amex and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus cards are available through our affiliate site.
Have you done a cross-country train trip on Amtrak? Are you considering one? Hit me with any questions you have.
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Nancy is a contributing writer for Miles For Family. She enjoys traveling to the beach and is a big fan of Disney. Nancy lives near Dallas, Texas, with her husband and three kids.