What are the best train routes out west?
February 26, 2010 10:20 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are looking for the perfect train ride—affordable, western, rugged, and beautiful. Ideas?

We really want to see the country by train together. Neither of us have ever made a train trip, and we'd love to just relax and take in the scenery together.

Some routes that sound amazing are the Rocky Mountaineer, the Amtrak Empire Builder, and the California Zephyr. These are the types of routes we're looking for.

Some of the nitty-gritty. We'd love to leave from Portland, but we're willing to travel elsewhere to depart if the price is right. That said, one-way trips are fine, as we can fly back. (We have the great benefit of two parents who work for Delta, so we can fly for close to free.)

That said, we're young and broke, and we'd like to keep our one-way price under $600 or so. (An aside, it's hard to believe how ridiculously expensive train travel is. I understand some of the reasons behind this, but wow.)

Are there any ways to save that I don't know about? Any trips I'm missing? I'd love to hear your train-traveling wisdom.
posted by jpcody to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Well, the Coast Starlight down to California from Portland is reasonably pretty, especially the portion through the Cascades during the winter. You can take that down to Emeryville and hop on the Zephyr. My partner took the Zephyr to get home a year ago and loved the scenery on the portion through the Rockies.

This trip sounds like fun, but I cannot imagine spending four or more days trying to sleep in those seats, especially if either of you is tall or broad. Sometimes you can grab floor space down in the arcade car or elsewhere, but you have to be on the ball and will probably lose out to people who are more interested in sleep than scenery. Or does $600 include a sleeper car? The food is also ridiculously expensive, think $15 per person for low quality dinner or breakfast, and you won't often have a long enough time at a stop to grab anything. Pack as much of your own as possible.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 10:35 PM on February 26, 2010

Definitely pack plenty of food. Do Amtrak trains have hot water? If so, bringing instant noodles and soups is a good idea, along with one thermos per person and plenty of tea bags.

Can you get Delta flights outside of the US? Many places outside of US have very, very reasonable prices for train travel.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:54 PM on February 26, 2010

The Empire Builder is gorgeous. It's unfortunate that you travel through Idaho in the dark both ways, but it is light between Whitefish, MT and Shelby, MT. East of Shelby, it's the great plains, which are beautiful, but less dramatic.
posted by Duffington at 10:54 PM on February 26, 2010

I've taken the California Zephyr from Denver to Sacramento and the Coast Starlight from Sacramento to Seattle. The Coast Starlight, especially the Cascades section through northern California and Oregon, is just beautiful and highly recommended—I sat in the observation deck most of that day, alternately reading my book and staring out at the evergreens. Here's a short YouTube video with some of the views from L.A. to Seattle. The trip between Denver and California, on the Zephyr, is also beautiful, but you're passing through some of the emptiest space in the country and it's pretty slow going. If you were to do one, I'd say fly down to L.A. and take the Coast Starlight back up to Portland or Seattle.

Taking a train trip is a great experience, but Derive the Hamiltonian is right that there are some major caveats. Take as much food with you as you can—everything on the train is ridiculously overpriced and not especially tasty. (Beer is really overpriced as well.) So bring plenty of sandwich makings, fruit, etc., as well as snacks like trail mix.

One of the best parts of train travel, historically speaking, has always been getting to know the other folks on board. You're all stuck on that thing for hours or days at a time, so it's totally normal to walk around the observation and dining cars and strike up conversations. I played cards with a couple of strangers while we passed over the Columbia and chatted with a grandmother from Sequim over French toast. So bring some books and portable Scrabble if you like, but also be prepared to socialize—it's something you don't see as much on airplanes.

One final point: if you take the Zephyr or another east-west train in the wintertime, there is a great chance of delays—that is, even more than is usual with Amtrak. I got stuck in Reno for a night thanks to snow on the Sierra crest, and they did a pretty messy job of coordinating the whole episode. Something to keep in mind.

Good luck!
posted by cirripede at 10:58 PM on February 26, 2010

Response by poster: @Derive The Coast Starlight might be a good choice for us to start. I'm really doubting we'll be able to score a sleeping cabin for the price we're looking for. (Well, the Empire Builder is **right** at $600 for the one-way trip.) I've heard great things about the Zephyr. The post-Colorado portion of the trip doesn't really get my heart pumping fast, but maybe the midwest is more fun to train than drive.

@Deathalicious We can indeed get Delta flights out of the US. Do you have any specific recommendations? All the Canadian options I was seeing seemed outrageously priced.

@Duffington We actually drove through Montana and Idaho on our way to Portland. It was so beautiful we're itching to go back.
posted by jpcody at 10:59 PM on February 26, 2010

Response by poster: @cirripede This sounds great; we're totally excited about meeting new people and enjoying the company of strangers.

I'm getting more and more convinced the Coast Starlight should be our gateway drug to train travel.
posted by jpcody at 11:21 PM on February 26, 2010

Check if food is included in sleeper costs. I took VIA from Vancouver to Toronto on a pass, with an upgrade to a sleeping bunk (cheaper than buying the bunk and one-way ticket) and when I did my upgrade, all my food was included. Sleeper cars had their own bar car and observation car. The service was great in sleeper as well - we had a porter make up our beds and our bunks, there was always hot showers....and you sleep like a baby at night. It wasn't the cheapest trip, but it was fantastic.
posted by Salmonberry at 11:27 PM on February 26, 2010

Look around for discounts too. I think the AAA code gets you 10-15% off Amtrak. That discount might have some blackout dates but it's worth a shot. Are you students? The ISIC card gets you deals too. And definitely investigate if meals are included in the sleeper ticket - I know they are on some routes at least.
posted by barnone at 11:37 PM on February 26, 2010

For example, I just priced the Coast Starlight for 2 AAA Adults in a Sleepliner (it's two chairs during the day and two beds at night) for $466. Including all meals!! I chose March 29, from SEA to LAX.
posted by barnone at 11:46 PM on February 26, 2010

Have you considered Via Rail? The route between Vancouver and Edmonton is legendary.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:08 AM on February 27, 2010

@Deathalicious We can indeed get Delta flights out of the US. Do you have any specific recommendations? All the Canadian options I was seeing seemed outrageously priced.

Well, if you can make it to Russia and have the time, there's always the Trans-Siberian, which is sort of the train ride to end all train rides.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:17 AM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, the recognized online expert on rail travel is The passenger on seat 61, although I don't know how much of an expert he is on rail travel in the States.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:22 AM on February 27, 2010

jpcody, i am so excited to see this question! I'm a big fan of the Amtrak long distance routes, and I have actually done all three of the ones mentioned here. Let me do some suggestions. All three mentioned are indeed great. If you have any suggestions or questions, please let me know! I don't know if you are planning to do a 2 or 3 day trip, but let me recommend the following.

Remember there is only one train a day, so the direction can make a difference on what you see.

#1 best trip: Westbound California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco) - this one takes you through the Rockies in the morning after Denver, winds along the Colorado river, takes you through the badlands in Utah. Amazing, amazing scenery. The Eastbound is not nearly as good because of the timing of the train. Other posters are right that the midwest portion of it isn't geographically stunning (it's pretty, though). The price means 2 nights and 2 1/2 days, end to end.

#2: eastbound Empire Builder. I took it from Seattle (which mean you wind along the bay on the way there). This one takes you through Glacier National Park in the morning. Utterly amazing, and then the rest of Montana/Dakota. Again, the midwest section on day 2 isn't stunning, but pretty. The price means 2 nights and 2 1/2 days, end to end.

#3: Coast Starlight: Both ways. This is also great, though. Goes through the Cascades, trails the California coast, etc. I would take it down to San Diego (that involves a train transfer to the Surfliner, which runs about 8 times a day), because that segment rides the beach all the way down. This is 2 days, 1 night.

Also, please note that a sleeper includes ALL food. This is all meals the whole day, and also includes as much coffee and juice as you want. On the Starlight and the Empire Builder, it also includes a free wine tasting with cheese. Also, yes - there are showers and toilets seperate from the coach passengers.

Also, if you have Continental OnePass miles, you can actually transfer them over to Amtrak Guest Rewards. Why is this important? Because you can do it on a one to one basis. a 2 zone trip, 2 day trip (West Coast to Chicago) only costs 20,000 points. A 3 zone (West Coast to the East Coast only costs 35,000 points). This includes a sleeper car for both of you with ALL meals. 20k or 35k goes way farther on Amtrak than Continental.
posted by waylaid at 6:31 AM on February 27, 2010 [11 favorites]

If VIA Rail's 4 day Vancouver-Toronto train on the Canadian is still a contender, there's currently some deals on - see: http://www2.viarail.ca/expressdeals/.

You can book a cabin with sleeping bunks and your own washroom for $331 each, which includes meals, and the train features nice lounges and dome viewing cars.

The stretch through B.C. and the Rockies is amazing, though the leg through the Prairies can be a bit dull...
posted by Vindaloo at 7:53 AM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Something to keep in mind about Amtrak is that they're basically designed after planes. The only time you get to take a breath of fresh air is going outside at station stops. As far as I'm aware, none of the windows open.

The Empire Builder is indeed beautiful. The Coast Starlight is also pretty fantastic. There's no better way to see the country.
posted by clockbound at 8:03 AM on February 27, 2010

Check a lot of possible dates if you are trying to minimize costs. Amtrak sleeper/roomette rates can vary by hundreds of dollars by moving the date by a day.
posted by smackfu at 5:19 PM on February 27, 2010

I've never done it personally, but I've heard northwestern Mexico's Copper Canyon Railway is more spectacular than anything the US has to offer.
posted by gazole at 7:05 AM on February 28, 2010

Just chiming in to say that the Coast Starlight is a fabulous trip - you won't believe how beautiful it is until you see it for yourself. Even downtown Redding looks amazing from a train window. My daughter and I made the trip from Martinez, California to Portland, Oregon in 1993 to attend my sister's wedding, and it was just stunning. You will, as Joni Mitchell famously sang, "settle down into the clickety-clack" and the rhythm of riding the rails soon insinuates itself into your very being. Also, we managed to sleep in the seats and while we weren't as comfortable as we would have been at home in our own beds, it was doable and fun.
posted by Lynsey at 10:57 PM on February 28, 2010

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