California Zephyr, Chicago to San Francisco
A journey on Amtrak’s famous California Zephyr train from Chicago to San Francisco is one of the best train adventures in the US. On a stunningly picturesque 2,438-mile odyssey you will get to travel on a dramatic route through America’s heartland, enjoying the flatlands of Nebraska, Denver, the canyons of the Colorado river, the Utah desert and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. Making its debut in 1949, this is one of North America’s most scenic and historic routes – so it’s no wonder travellers on this train will see more of America than most Americans.
Prices from: $516
Departing from: Union Station, Chicago
Journey length: 2 nights
California Zephyr route
The California Zephyr Superliner departs from Chicago at 2pm, arriving in San Francisco at 9am. At the main stops on the way – which include Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, Provo, Reno and Sacramento – you can get off the train to stretch your legs and have a quick look around.
California Zephyr train
This stunning silver double decker superliner train features a dining car, snack car and sleeper carriages. Its cleverly built observation car has amazing wraparound picture windows that are perfect for sightseeing.
Sleeper carriages on the California Zephyr
On this two-night journey on the California Zephyr, you could, technically sleep on the reclining coach class seats but you’ll have a terrible journey so it’s always worth the extra money to book a space in one of the sleeper carriages. You also get breakfast, lunch and dinner included in the fare so it’s a false economy to rough it. Unlike European trains, in the US you have to pay for the whole sleeper carriage, whether there are one or two of you.
As well as your included meals, each sleeping carriage features a coffee station where you can pick up a complimentary tea, coffee or fruit juice. All bedding, toilets and towels are provided for the journey and while you eat dinner each night the on-board staff will make up your bed for you. Here’s what’s on offer –
Roomettes – these compact sleeper carriages consist of two facing seats and a small table. By night, these convert into two sleeping berths. WCs are situated along the corridor, with a shower on the lower deck.
Bedrooms – these are larger than roomettes, and some have an ensuite shower and WC. During the day they have a chair and a sofa then at night they convert to upper and lower berths. You can choose from a two-person bedroom (ensuite), a family bedroom for two adults and two children (with a bathroom and WC in the corridor) or a wheelchair-accessible special bedroom with a private WC (a shower is outside the room).
Food and drink
The dining car is open to all passengers but those in the coach class will have to pay for their meals. All passengers travelling in the sleeper carriages get breakfast, lunch and dinner in their fare. However, drinks are extra. The meals are reasonably priced and guests travelling in the sleeper carriages are invited to make a reservation for lunch and dinner. You don’t have to do this but it’s worth it, to get a good seat. The views from the dining car are fantastic so it’s wise to book ahead.
The American-themed food on board is good and plentiful with big freshly cooked breakfasts and great choices for lunch and dinner. The on-board burger is particular good as well as the New York strip steak. You’ll also find a wide range of wine and beer on board as well as a good children’s menu too. You can also get food and drink throughout the day at the snack car.
There is no formal dress code on this train and most guests wear very casual clothes. The good news is that you don’t have to dress for dinner either.
This is a real bucket-list train trip for Americans and railway fans so expect to meet people from all over the States as well as fewer guests from around the world. It’s a family-friendly train so expect to multi-generational families enjoying the ride. It’s a very friendly train and passengers often get talking at lunch or dinner when they share tables together.
All meals are included in the fare for sleeper-carriage passengers. However, you will have to pay extra for alcoholic beverages.
Pros and cons
This is truly one of the last great American railroad adventures and you’ll love every bit of your journey. The generous three meals a day that are included in the price are well worth paying for. Our only gripe is that there is no complimentary Wi-Fi on the train.