Recently Travel Guru had accrued some Amtrak points and decided that we must experience the Amtrak California Zephyr, sleeping train, travelling from San Francisco to Chicago. Truthfully I balked. Two days on the train, sitting down, no running, pilates or yoga and bad train food – it sounded like hell. As the trip approached I did everything to get out of it, even going as far as to try to move a funeral that I had to attend, forward by a week. No luck, so I was trapped. With no idea of what to expect, my expectations were low, very low!

(Here’s a link to a Google Map of the route if you’re interested!)

WRONG- The trip was GREAT. SO FUN! You must do it. This was no Orient Express but there is a certain elegance to the experience reminiscent of a bygone era. Go soon before the Republicans do away with it.

The other good news was that the trip was free and you can take advantage of our Trendy Girl Travel tips and do the same. Our resident Travel Guru is the king of point redemption and airline miles (a true gift from god, alleluia). He had signed up for a Chase Ink Bold credit card, which offers a 50,000 point sign-up bonus, more than enough for this specific trip and more. In a few days read the upcoming post on the Chase Ink Bold credit card.

(For more info. on the Ink Bold and other credit card/points deals, be sure to check out regular posts by Travel Guru!)

The cost of this trip for the cabin, including all food, from San Francisco to Chicago would have been aprox. 1,300$  for three people in a family type cabin, which is still great value.

The train pulled in, a seriously impressive beast!  We schlepped our cases up the stairs and turned the corner to our room. It was perfect. The best way to describe it is sort of like a ‘tree house’ on a train. The trains were built in the late 70’s and are currently being refurbished. We checked out a refurbished room with curved wooden sink consoles, for some annoying reason we didn’t get one of those, (angry growling sound), but it honestly didn’t matter the rooms were clean, comfy and nicely set up. An added bonus was the huge windows, this really bought the scenery inside.

Right away the room bought out nesting instincts. I started with basic re- merchandising tasks, refolding the towels and trying to make the tissue box look good on the sink (whats wrong with me), shoved the cases under seats and above in racks until I had the perfect set up. The tiny but perfect closet was just big enough for the few items that needed hanging and Travel Guru went into elaborate Internet arrangements that involved linking all the computers to his I pad– that was in turn, linked to something else? Note to self; where possible do travel with a points redemption/internet expert.

Before you set off, the Head Cabin Attendant welcomes you on an intercom in your room. Our Attendant had worked on these overnight trains for thirty years.  After general information he announced that shoes were to be worn at all times (?), adding that someone would stop by to take dinner reservations, how civilized. You do have to be in your room in order to reserve your time so be sure to find out when they are coming around!

Davis University, great western architecture throughout the trip.

We went off to explore (and find the bar), returning happy as clams reveling in the delights of train travel.

Lake Doner, near Tahoe

The views around the Lake Tahoe area were stunning, mostly ‘pinescapes’.

As usual we had bought too many cases so remember you can check stuff into the hold, ours were huge, heavy cases as we were travelling on to other destinations. At check in your bags are not weighed, nor do they charge for extra bags. Next time we are bringing tents for a night or two of camping in Aspen, (to be followed by several recovery nights at The Little Nell Hotel).

Bring a hat to wear as you are surrounded by glass. There are huge windows in the lounge, above your head and both in front and behind you, it’s a bit like travelling in a light filled aquarium.

Taking pictures whilst hanging out windows becomes a favorite pastime, hopefully with someone holding your legs.

We had a three-berth cabin with bathroom known as ‘The Bedroom’, or you can get a very small room for two with bathrooms down the hall called a ‘Roomette’. You can also book adjoining rooms. We had come prepared with scrabble, cards, computers loaded with movies and books.

The problem with that is there are so many different places to sit in the train, you loose hours running about trying all the different areas and don’t get to do as much of that stuff as you thought. Lets face it, how often do you get stuck in one spot for two days with no errands chores or even sightseeing excursions?

It really is the good life, sitting gazing out at remote parts of the countryside, having great conversations, with multiple choices of venue! Your room, the formal dining car, café, or lounge and then to top it off our bar tender made awesome Bloody Mary’s.

Note: Fred, the bar tender on that trip, took regular breaks which he kindly announced over the loud speaker, you can’t visit the snack bar/bar during these times.

Food is tricky. We bought our own apples, jalapeños and hot sauce, also Pirate’s Booty for snacks and two green veggie juices. You will some how survive- it’s a bit like eating airline food. If worse comes to worse have the hot dog from the café with a Sierra Nevada, it doesn’t pretend to be anything except what it is and its really good!

For dinner, the wine and spirit selection is limited, bring a nice bottle with you and maybe some triple sec or cointreau for margaritas or cosmos. Still, sitting down in the formal dining car is worth doing, the waiters have been there for years and have some great train info. If you are a party of three or a two, they will make you sit next to someone else, as they have to fill every seat- so travel in fours or send out evil looks. Actually though, everyone has a story to tell so its at least makes for interesting conversation, and they won’t do it with a huge person so that knowledge is at least reassuring. Watching the sun go down over the desert with the rhythmic soothing sounds of the train going over the tracks, with friends or family is a great experience.

The beds are made up each night and morning, by your cabin attendant. Try to get extra pillows, the pillows are so flat that they offer zero support, or bring your own. There is an endless supply of bottled water, coffee and ice outside your room at a central station. Sleeping is a bit of a challenge on the double lower berth. Especially if you have a broken collarbone (long story). Also bring ear plugs, the rooms have thin walls and an eye patch for protection from the early rays.

If you wake up early on day two of the trip you will see sunrise, at around this time the scenery is stunning but all morning it’s good so don’t panic.

One bad note, last year one of the sleeping cars was hit by a truck driven by a drunk driver at a level crossing last year, sadly people were killed, however this was a freak accident about on the same risk level as a plane crash. Thought you might want to know!

On day 2, the train was very delayed due to work on the tracks, sometimes our speed was as slow as 20 mph. But the landscape was staggering. America is so beautiful.

We saw breathtaking, constantly changing landscapes and particularly liked the area around Aspen. You can end the trip here and get off in Glenwood Springs.

Organize a cab and be whisked off to a hotel or maybe even hike to a campsite, as there are so many parks near by. Lots of options.

At 9.45 am of day 2, the train stops at Grand Junction. You will want to get of and smell the clear, fresh air and sprint up and down the track. Trust me even if you have never run before after being confined on the train for almost 24 hours you will want to move your body.

There is absolute no point wandering but there is a mom and pop shop and you have 20 mins so if desperate, go in. Also a good time to go into your luggage in the hold for the stuff you thought you would never need.

When we got back onto the train the intercom mentioned that we would arrive in Denver at around 4.00. I had previously overheard that after Denver the scenery wasn’t as awe inspiring as the earlier part of the trip–and I also know that Denver has a large airport. I had really had fun so far but was starting to get itchy. It was time to hatch plans for an escape.

The thing is some people are not good at changing plans. They think once you have made plans you stick to them. Hmmm. I have changed SO many plans during the course of a trip– but be warned, you need to be cautious as to how you present this to certain people. At first you are usually confronted with retaliation, which always involves absolute and utter indignation. How could you even suggest getting off the train in Denver? Why did we even come on this trip etc?

You then subtly back off and mention that the idea of soft beds and an extra day in Chicago seemed like a good idea. Then you add that if they want to stay, you are still up for another night of the same menu, just okay wine and that fold-out bed; if that’s what they want, no problem, you were just putting it out there! Walk away and stay calm. Within one hour you will find the plans have been changed, new flights are booked and plans for a great dinner are being made. The funniest thing is they ALWAYS think it was their idea!! Haha!

We departed the train at around four, caught a late flight to Chicago and arrived at the super cool new ‘Public Hotel’ in Chicago. This Ian Schrager affordable and edgy hotel has a great Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant; we were just in time to grab a drink and a few snacks in the bar. Another successful escape plan had been executed.


All pictures are Copyright 2013 Trendy Girl Travels

(except where specifically credited to other people)