Spring Ride On The East Bound California Zephyr

Long distance Amtrak is fun if you are prepared

I claim a certain expertise when it comes to riding Amtrak’s long routes. In particular, the western routes have become my alternative to flying given the incredible price hikes at Southwest Airlines. If you have a flexible schedule and a few days, the Amtrak experience can be quite a bit more fun compared to flying. The real upside is the scenery.¬†As a hobbyist photographer, any of the western routes, including the Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle and Coast Starlight, offer spectacular scenery along parts of the route. Riding the train also allows for networking, making new friends and just relaxing. The key to having any fun on Amtrak is preparation and understanding both pros and cons of riding the rails.
Colorado out of the window of the California Zephyr

Suggested Comfort Accessories For Long Train Rides

This spring I once again found myself eastbound on the #6 California Zephyr. I boarded in Sacramento and rode to the routes terminus at Chicago’s Union Station. As mentioned, preparation is the key. Recommended comfort accessories are a full-sized pillow and a blanket. These are crucial to trying to be comfortable at night. The flimsy pillows provided by Amtrak are too small and soft. Also, the gauze-like covers don’t inspire confidence in cleanliness. Your pillow can also double as additional cushioning for your butt.

Pack Smart Snacks

If you ride coach on Amtrak, consider packing healthy snacks and water for the duration of your trip. Food in the diner car is expensive and the quality uneven. I have had decent breakfasts as well as dinners that I’d “Yelp” with negative stars. You can find some deals in the cafe under the observation car. Deals for me meant coffee and donut holes ($5.00) that augmented the fruit, nutbars, and protein mixes packed for the 48 hour ride. Get creative and you will eat find for the few days and save lots of money. Also, pack for digestive peace! To be more clear, a train rumbles, sways and bumps down the track. The bathrooms are small and loud. Use your imagination.

Working Your Space

The seating area in coach is relatively roomy, especially if the car attendant doesn’t seat someone near you. Tipping may cause folks to be sat elsewhere when the California Zephyr starts to fill up in Denver and as it nears Chicago. If you carry electronics such as a laptop, cell phone or camera, consider adding a small plug extension since each area only as two plugs. The small travel extension cords are handy, especially if you have to share with your neighbor. I use one by the Monster Company.

Picture Taking Tips

I take Amtrak long routes about twice a year. When it comes to the eatbound, #6 California Zephyr, I suggest sitting on the left side of the train. That is the side of the train that allows you to see Lake Spaulding and Donner Lake as the “Cal Z” crawls up the Sierra Nevadas to Truckee and then Reno. In Utah and Colorado, both sides of the train offer spectacular scenery, but in Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon, the left side of the train again offers the best scenery.

The Best Picture Taking Trick

On this trip I didn’t spend much time taking pictures or even sitting in the observation car. The problem with taking pictures in that car are reflections. Coach cars have a similar issue, but there is a trick you can employ to take better pictures! Shoot out the window with the coach curtain extended behind you. Sure, it looks dumb, but you suppress the reflections, something you can’t do in the observation car. Extending the curtain and then shooting with it blocking the light from fixtures and other windows is key to better pictures on the train.

The Best Amtrak Tip Period

Be the invisible person in your coach. Also, I suggest befriending your car attendant and the conductors. I’d suggest tipping your car attendant can yield benefits information and other tips that will make your trip more fun. Also, Conductors have god-like powers. Get caught smoking in the bathroom or out an open lower window, and you might find yourself kicked off the train at the next stop.

California Zephyr Specific Tip

On the California Zephyr, some of the breaks where you can get out and stretch your legs are discretionary. That is if the train is running late, breaks can be very short if they are allowed at all. The station at Grand Junction offers a unique pit stop in the station. “Dave’s Depot”, run by father-son team Dave and Charlie Fedler offers snacks you can’t get on the “Cal Z” as well as train souvenirs and free coffee. Ask Charlie about his 800+ carat “rocks”!

If you smoke…

Stations where you can get out and smoke have been reduced due to smokers leaving a mess. At every stop where smoking was allowed, I noted cigarette butts all over the platform. Part of this could be Amtrak’s fault for not having enough butt cans where smokers congregate and the length of breaks. Still, if you smoke, make a point to protect your breaks by properly disposing of your cigarette butts. Otherwise, there will be even fewer smoking breaks in the future.

Defend your Immune System, Bring Towelettes!

One again I forgot, (as I did in this post) to bring quality towelettes. Hygiene seems to escape many on the train. A canister of wet wipes or towelettes are a crucial part of defending your immune system while riding the train. I’d go one further, take a canister and some packages you can carry in your pocket. The looks you will get from others are because they know you are smart. Train rides are bumpy, people hold on to everything, and most do not wash their hands unless they are in the lavatory. (and you don’t want to know the statistics for people who wash their hands at home!) My suggestions is the first thing you do once settled in your seat is wipe down your area, the tray and seat function knobs.

Train versus Plane Summary

You can save some money on the train, but you are looking at 48 hours on the California Zephyr versus 7 hours on a plane. If you have the time, ride the train, just be prepared.