It gave us a fantastic insight into the natural beauty of our country – and my only responsibility was to watch. I didn’t have to worry about going in the right direction, where to stop to eat, staying alert, or even staying awake. Rail travel is a gift, and given the upheaval in the airline industry and the alarming price of gasoline, it makes more sense than ever.
That said, the prospect of spending the night in a sleeping car naturally raises a number of questions. Here’s what I learned when my family traveled West.
Q: What is the difference between roomettes and rooms?
A: It is difficult to answer, as definitions vary between Western trains (Double-decker Superliners) and Eastern trains (Viewliners), and in some cases even depend on when the train was manufactured. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said a “room, no matter where you are in the country, includes a shower and a toilet.” There is one exception: the accessible room does not include a shower; instead, the space is reserved for wheelchairs or mobility devices. If no one books the accessible room, it is open to anyone, disabled or not, a week or two before the day of departure. Magliari says that, on some lines, roommates have a sink and toilet in the room.
On the Zephyr, we mounted a bedroom in one direction and the H bedroom in the other. In our small room, two comfortably sized armchairs faced each other between a sliding glass door on one side and a large window on the other. At night, the chairs pulled out from the wall to form a bunk, and a second bunk above came down from the wall.
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Q: What is the best room to book?
A: On Superliners, chamber A is the smallest, so try any other chamber. Larger groups on the Superliner can book a Family Room, which has two adult beds and two children’s beds, but no toilet, sink, or shower. The upstairs rooms on the Zephyr seemed preferable for easier access to the dining and observation cars, and they felt more airy at that elevation, but I also appreciated the privacy of being on the lower level. Narrow stairs connect the levels, without a lift for people with reduced mobility.
Q: How do the bathrooms work?
A: The bathrooms, too, differ in size and location. In our Zephyr room, only a fabric curtain separated the toilet seats, but it was nice to have a sink. There was a bank of bathrooms and a shower room in the hallway, which coach passengers did not have access to. These bathrooms were quite small, about the size of an airplane toilet, and in the family bathroom there was a changing table that folded over the toilet. The Americans With Disabilities Act compliant shower room had a seat and small shelf for items in the antechamber, and a small shelf and seat in the shower, which had a hand shower attached to the wall.
Q: Can you lock the roomettes and bedrooms?
A: Yes, but only when you are there. If you are driving around in cars or going to dinner, you will need to bring your valuables with you or store them in locked luggage. There are luggage racks in the corridors of the sleeping car areas where you enter and exit the train at stations. You are asked to pull the curtain in your dorm and velcro it shut when you leave to prevent people from seeing what’s in your space, as the movement of the train often causes unlocked doors to slide open.
Q: Do I have to buy a sleeping car ticket to travel at night?
A: No. You can choose to travel by coach, even on multi-night trips. Your seat reclines but does not lie flat. You are also not allowed to access the dining car, so you will need to bring food or choose from the limited snack bar options.
Q: Is it better for introverts or extroverts?
A: It’s great for both. If you’re on a coach, you may have a chatty seatmate or someone engrossed in their phone or a book, like on an airplane. To ensure privacy, set aside space in sleeping car quarters; you can even ask to have your meals there. Observation cars, if your train has one, and cafe cars on Eastern trains seem designed to encourage interaction between passengers, with seats in pods rather than rows. In the dining car, staff used to place singles together to fill a four-top, but the pandemic has ended that policy unless you make the arrangements yourself. I shared a chatty meal with a stranger asking, and asked people to join me at an observation car table.
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A: The dining car is now reserved for sleeping car passengers (or on some lines, business class passengers), for whom a full breakfast, lunch and three-course dinner are included in the reservation. Meals are quick affairs, with tables that flip over so everyone is seated and fed in waves. (You’ll get a timed reservation slot for dinner.) If you’re saving money by going by coach, you’ll need to bring your own food or stick to the snack bar’s minimal offerings, with items like tacos and pizzas. . Magliari says the snack bar’s most popular item is the hot dog, though Amtrak is working to offer more fresh items. He notes that efforts to sell apples and bananas on Midwest Corridor trains have not worked well.
Q: Can you work on the train?
A: WiFi depends on your train route and tends to be cellular-based, which follows the highways, Magliari says. So if you’re heading to remote areas or going through tunnels, you’re going to have downtime with no connectivity. For more commuter-oriented routes, WiFi should continue uninterrupted. Coach seats have a tray table that lowers from the seat in front of you to provide a laptop workspace, and in the Zephyr’s roomettes and bedrooms, a small table folds out from the wall.
A: In double-decker trains, the upstairs spaces (car seats and some of the sleeping quarters) are quieter, as they are farther from the tracks. As for noise from other passengers, the Amtrak driver declares quiet hours from 10:00 p.m. to about 7:00 a.m., and the lights are dimmed overnight. (The party can continue in the observation or cafe cars, where the lights remain on, but no food or drink is sold.) I found that the rhythmic movement from side to side of the train , coupled with engine noise, made for some of the best sleep, including a midday nap.
Q: Do the trains run on time?
A: It depends on the “host railway” that owns the tracks. For us on the Zephyr, Union Pacific lines, which Amtrak’s 2021 bulletin gave a C-plus, were significantly delayed by two to three hours in each direction. In 2021, only 37% of Zephyr lines were running on time. If you’re lucky, your train runs on lines owned by the more expedient Canadian Pacific or Canadian National, like the New Orleans City Train, which was 83% on time in 2021 – the only of Amtrak’s long-distance trains to meet the Federal Railroad Administration standard. State-supported short-term trains were much faster, such as the Hiawatha line, which runs on CP tracks and was 95% on time last year. All this to say, if you to have to reach your destination on time, leave a day earlier.
Mailman is a writer based in Northern California. His website is erikamailman.com. Find it on Twitter and instagram: @erikamailman.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.
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