For the first time in our adult lives, my wife, Linda, and I recently took our first trip by train. Since neither of us had ridden a train since the "golden days" of rail travel, this was our first experience with Amtrak. After four days of Amtrak travel, we feel justified in giving our experience a qualified thumbs up.
The train we rode was the California Zephyr, which runs daily between Chicago and the San Francisco bay area. We boarded the train in Osceola, Iowa, nearly 50 miles from our home in Urbandale, a western suburb of Des Moines. Not being able to board a train in the capital of Iowa, which is also its biggest city, is a real drawback.
Besides the travel to Osceola, there's the matter of luggage. In a larger city, you can check baggage, a luxury that is unavailable in an "unstaffed" station like Osceola. That means that each passenger is limited to one piece of carry-on luggage of the same size as allowed on an airplane, plus a second piece like a small tote or backpack, something small enough to fit under a seat. Since we were traveling to a wedding, this seriously limited our wardrobe options.
We opted to use our own car to shuffle between home and the station, which is pretty much the only real option. That meant leaving our car at the station for our 10-day trip. Long-term parking in Osceola means leaving your car in a gravel parking lot of a station that is only staffed about 4 hours a day. On the plus side, it didn't cost anything. And our car was still there when we returned.
When we were kids, we traveled by coach. Now that we're of AARP age, we opted for a roomette, figuring we might sleep better in a fully reclining position while shielded from strangers and snoring neighbors. Good choice, but I would emphasize the "-ette" part of roomette. They're cozy - 3 foot-6 inches by 6 foot-6 inches cozy.
By day, we sat opposite each other in quite comfy seats, with a pull-out table offering enough space to perch a small laptop. By night, there was a drop-down bunk in addition to a lower bed created by combining the seats. Sleeping in the upper bunk is definitely not for anyone with a fear of falling, claustrophobia or who is of an extraordinary size. I managed to sleep fairly well on the top bunk, even managing to fully stretch out my 6-4 frame.
Scenery on this route is an unqualified four-star treat since daylight travel cuts through some of the most spectacular scenery in the western United States. We boarded our train after dark on a Sunday evening and had breakfast in Denver just before ascending into the Rocky Mountains. We started counting tunnels, but gave up somewhere around 31 as we climbed. Knifing through ski areas and following the glorious Colorado River for hundreds of miles, our day was capped by a grand excursion through the magnificent Ruby Canyon, a route accessible only by train.
After an overnight trip that carried us through Utah and most of Nevada, our second morning began around Reno. Much of the morning was spent traversing the Sierra Nevada mountains, which had just been blanketed by a heavy snowfall. The wintry scene that unfolded as we slipped through tunnels and snowsheds high above Donner Lake was like a moving Christmas card. Descending into California's Great Central Valley brought memories flooding back of our three-year stay in Vacaville 40 years ago.
I'd give dining on the train a C grade. It was nothing like the fine dining experience I enjoyed on the old Union Pacific streamliners of a half century ago. Instead of white china and white linens, you get plastic dishes and paper tablecloths. Instead of prepared from scratch meals, you get something more akin to your neighborhood Perkins.
Someone told me they only change the Amtrak dining car menus once a month. I don't know if that's true but we had exactly the same menu for each of our four days of train travel in October. On the plus side, the lamb shanks they offered for dinner were excellent. I had them for two of my four dinners. Breakfasts were OK, as were lunches, but there was precious little variety. There were five dinner options and, since we ate eight dinners between us, we quickly knew about everything on the menu. The food wasn't bad, just not that great. A plus: If you book a roomette, all meals are included in the cost.
Another dining plus (at least we thought so): Amtrak practices community seating. That means that, unless you have a party of four, someone else will be eating with you, probably a stranger. We had a delightful range of dining partners: at least two pairs of newlyweds (including an Australian couple that was enjoying a six-week honeymoon traveling America), a couple that attended the same high school as Linda, a husband-wife couple of Amtrak fans that were taking a 10-day rail trip from Toledo to Sacramento to Seattle and back to Toledo and an assortment of Midwest folks who were visiting their children out west. This social immersion (which Linda compared to speed dating) was an unexpected highlight of our train trip.
I could offer plenty of Amtrak tips based on our experience but there are lots of real Amtrak experts out here in cyberspace. Just go to the Google. You'll find videos, blogs ... just oodles of stuff. I would say, however, that if your destination is Emeryville, California, and you intend to rent a car, do your homework. We rented from Hertz, thinking it was at the train station. It's not. Things worked out, but we'd do it differently if we were to do it again.
The jury's still out on that.