Cross country train trip USA -- sleeper or no?
July 27, 2012 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Cross country train trip -- sleeper or no? Terrible idea?

My spouse and I are toying around with the idea of doing the Amtrak either from Boston to San Fran or from San Fran back to Boston in August. (We would fly the other way).

A few questions: is a sleeper really necessary? It is extremely expensive, and I'll do it if the trip would suck otherwise, but I really want to know it's worth it.

Also, does it matter which way we go? I mean, will the views be better one way or the other? (I imagine not, but still).

Good experience with plugs/wifi?

Any other suggestions for the trip? Anything else I should know?

posted by caoimhe to Travel & Transportation around United States (44 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
One time while taking a train for a comparatively shorter ride, I was seated with a family that had been on the train for over 2 days. They did not have a sleeper car. They looked exhausted, they were cranky with each other, they complained about how much the food car sucked and that they wished they had gotten a sleeper car for the guaranteed dinner service, and they smelled... not so fresh. Based on that, I don't think I could go on a multi-day train ride without a sleeper car. YMMV.
posted by joan_holloway at 2:57 PM on July 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

Three nights in a row sleeping in a train seat is very much not fun... I haven't been on long amtrak trips since the 90's, but I recall that it wasn't uncommon to have open sleeper cars announced at the beginning of a trip, available at a discounted rate. I'm not sure how common that is anymore, or whether it's the sort of thing worth taking a chance on.

Also, sleepers are going to triple your ticket costs for two people. If you're determined to see the country by train, I'd pick one leg of the journey to go by train with a sleeper car (personally, I'd do chicago to san francisco*) and fly the other leg, with it being no more expensive than a sleeper car cross-country. If you discover you love train travel, you can always do cross-country in the future.

*the terrain is more interesting, and entering the west is a bit more of a grand experience than leaving it.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 3:12 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The sleeper is so awesome. There is no greater sleep than to be rocked by a train while lying down. A seat cannot match this. Plus, a sleeper is private! There is much more comforttabs room during the day. Plus, showers! And a nearby toilet! Plus, extra service and meal reservations. Unfortunately, a sleeper is EXPENSIVE. The quality of your experience, however, is massively increased.
posted by Malla at 3:14 PM on July 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

My friend and I took Amtrak from SF Bay Area to Portland. So slept overnight in economy.


1) Sleeper car people get priority for dining car. By the time all the sleeper car people have gotten in, there was usually only 10 spots left for eeeeeeeverybody else in economy. So most people made a stop in the "cafe" where overpriced microwaved food and sandwiches were available.
2) You don't have to suffer your neighbors as much: On the way to Portland, this one guy nearby just talked and talked and talked ALL THE TIME until he got off. When he did, the wife next to the poor man who sat next to Mister Talky said, "I thought he would never shut up!" Her spouse replied, "I just mentioned I was in the armed forces too and then off he went!" On the return trip, we sat near this one woman who complained and cursed the ENTIRE trip. Even at 2 AM in the morning, when most people would by trying to sleep in those economy seats. Some young adult woman also came on and mentioned out loud that she would personally dismember anybody who dared touch her Pikachu pillow. And one fellow came on that obviously had not cleaned himself nor his clothes in a long time.

You can venture out of your sleeper car: There was one car with tables set up and seats facing outward, but usually quite occupied by plenty of people.

Yes, you can go economy if you don't mind bad sleeping posture, really can't afford it, and.. neighbors.. but I will never go back to economy for an overnight+ trip.
posted by Seboshin at 3:16 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have done this several times and had a blast. (Once with sleeper car, several other times without).

-East of Chicago, you will almost certainly need to have a seatmate overnight, rather than having two seats to yourself to lie down across them. You will be sitting next to your spouse so that won't suck at much, but I found the seats to be shaped in this bizarre and really uncomfortable way. (The seat backs were flat and angled back until about the height of my shoulders, and then angled *forward* which really hurt my back and neck. Here is a photo. The angle is a lot less severe in these seat than some of the others, and it doesn't look that uncomfortable, but it really was for me.) So I would suggest taking along a lumbar support and a neck pillow for that part.

West of Chicago, overnight, there are way fewer people so you will probably be allowed to lie across two seats if you can fit. I was just this side of comfortable doing that as a 5'5", not very heavy woman. I saw plenty of much bigger people doing it too but I'm not sure how comfy they were.

-Noise was only occasionally a problem. You will definitely have people getting on at the stops in the middle of the night who are going to make the usual/reasonable amount of boarding noise by moving their bags, talking to each other as they look for their seats, etc. You will occasionally have super rude people who start blaring an action movie at 2am when everyone else is clearly sleeping. Or, who will have loud convos where they are laughing in a hysterical and drunken way, or start extemporaneously rapping. But I found that to be pretty rare. There is at least one conductor on night duty and they will ask the person to stop. They were also always good about letting me switch to a quieter car if I really couldn't take it.

-The biggest problem for me turned out to be sketchy guys looking for romance on Amtrak. I never had anyone bother me in the middle of the night, but the time I had a sleeper it was nice to have somewhere to go that was private and wouldn't have to deal with strangers talking to me. Traveling with your spouse, I think you won't have this problem.
posted by cairdeas at 3:17 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I once did a 2-day trip on Amtrak from New York to New Orleans (I went via Chicago rather than the Crescent train that does it direct), without a sleeper. It was OK. I'd do it again, just because it's an interesting way to travel. That said, it was exhausting, I arrived cranky, and yep, I probably stunk by the end of it. Coast to coast is more like 4 or 5 days.

I think you could do this if:

You're adventurous travelers.

You're the kind of people who can sleep on planes.

You're not fastidious about things like cleanliness, quiet*, privacy, etc.

You plan it so that you had a pit stop or two along the way. If for no other reason than a hot shower and a night's sleep.

You're OK with meals being low-key/improvisational. I ate in the dining car once on my trip, so it's definitely an option, but I also packed snacks, and ate in the snack car (for some reason I have an absurd love of Amtrak cheeseburgers).

You've traveled together before and know what your dynamic is like when things get rough. Who gets cranky, and what brings it on? Do you guys straight up lose your shit, or are you more passive aggressive? A mix? I did my 2-day trip solo, so I only had to deal with my own bad attitude. But another time I did an overnight train trip through Italy with a friend, and it did not go well because two cranky people is four times the bad.

TL; DR: If you guys are more cruise people and less backpacking through Central America people, get a berth.

*This is kind of a big deal. About half the long Amtrak trips I've taken have involved really horrific noise conditions. Once it was kids behind me watching the complete series of That's So Raven at top volume with no headphones, for literally the entire 18 hours from Chicago to New Orleans. I think I still sometimes have dreams about Raven Symone. The other was a dude who snored so loud I could hear him clear on the other side of the car, with headphones in and iPod blaring.
posted by Sara C. at 3:19 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

My parents experience on Amtrak was pretty horrible. Regular freight traffic is given priority, so the train was often delayed and almost always late to reach it's destinations and they ended up going through what would have been the scenic portion of their trip at night. They also noted that most train stations outside of big cities are not in the best parts of town, so even if it's daylight you may not have much to look at. My mom (who is maybe 5'4") thought the beds were on the small side. So maybe not such a good idea.
posted by doctor_negative at 3:23 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh forgot to mention. The train doesn't have WiFi, but I had one of the USB things to give me my own WiFi, and I had pretty solid coverage all the way across the country the last time I did this, (with the exception of the Rockies obvs.) with just a few spotty areas in the most remote parts.
posted by cairdeas at 3:23 PM on July 27, 2012

I took a three-day train trip from Portland to Louisville when I was in college. I was 21, poor, single, and good at sleeping in weird places, so naturally I didn't get a sleeper car.

The first day was fine. It's a comfortable chair, roughly like sitting in first-class on an airplane. Trains are neat, especially if you're used to traveling in an airplane.

I'm a sound sleeper, but that night I was woken up a lot by the people around me. It also became apparent that no matter how comfortable the chair was, it's still a chair designed for sitting and not for sleeping. It's better than an airplane, but no one's on an airplane for 36 hours.

By day two the novelty of the train had worn off. I stayed out of my seat as much as possible. The observation car, the dining car, the smoking car: anywhere but my seat. You had to have a reservation for the dining car, and I wasn't excited about dining alone. The observation car was the best, but you get the stink-eye if you stay there too long. I'm not a smoker, but the smoking car had the most open space in which to around. These are the things you notice when you've spent 24 hours in a comfortable chair.

I started envying the people I saw who had private little rooms to go back to. The happy families, the retired couples. They seemed well-rested and happy. The people around me seemed exactly like the people you meet in the jury pool room. They check their watches a lot, pretend to read magazines, and try not to make eye contact with anyone. When bedtime rolled around, I wasn't happy about going back to my seat. I barely slept at all, even with the three $9 Budweisers I had purchased in the snack car.

Day three I wanted the hell off that goddamn train. I made sure to pick up some sedatives for the return trip.

TL;DR get the sleeping car.
posted by sportbucket at 3:27 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, also assume you will always be very late. Do not under any circumstances do this trip if you are seeing it as a mode of transit and not an experience in and of itself. As a form of transportation, long distance Amtrak is awful. As a mode of travel, long distance Amtrak is kind of incredible. Not "Sleeper Class" on Indian Railways incredible, but pretty damn good.

Except for That's So Raven. Pack earplugs.
posted by Sara C. at 3:28 PM on July 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

Oh, also, for scenery, I would say it doesn't matter much, but I'd do east to west. If you have never seen the Plains before they are pretty stunning for the first... hour. And you will get that in both directions. If you have never seen the Mississippi before, you will be seeing that during daylight hours in both directions as well. You will spend most of a full day going through Colorado which is the best part by far, and you also get that in both directions during daylight. Mainly what you get on East-West that you don't get on West-East is Nevada and the Sierras in California in full daylight. Donner Pass is pretty cool. Actually maybe it is still daylight when you pass that, at least, going West to East, I don't completely remember. But you can see the schedules online. Look for the one for the California Zephyr.
posted by cairdeas at 3:33 PM on July 27, 2012

Yes, it will be awful otherwise.

Have you ever taken a cross-country bus? Because I think that's really the only near-equivalent to taking a cross-country train in coach. Although on a bus you normally end up getting on and off, transferring a bunch of times, while on the train you won't. It'll start to feel like you live on the train.

I'd only do it if you were really unable to afford the sleeper and/or you wanted the dubious "experience" of learning new and different ways to sleep on train seats.

Also, it's better to do the trip in summer -- going either direction -- than during the winter. Just because of the amount of daylight you'll have. So the earlier you go, the better.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:43 PM on July 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I did Emeryville (the nearest stop to San Francisco) to Ann Arbor without a sleeper car. It was miserable. No privacy, nowhere to lie down, for 60 hours.

I got upgraded to a sleeper car once on an overnight train from Eugene Or, to Emeryville. That was a much shorter trip, but it still seemed like it could have been reasonably pleasant for the longer trip as well. Though certainly not luxurious.

You should indeed be prepared to arrive at your destination 6 hours later than schedule. That has happened to me on something like 7 out of 10 trips I've taken on Amtrak.
posted by aubilenon at 3:47 PM on July 27, 2012

Time of year wise, I would pick a time that is far enough from now that there are still berths available and you have route flexibility/cost effectiveness. It should not be sooner than Labor Day to avoid the summer vacation rush. It should also not be between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

Winter in general is not great because it gets DAMN COLD overnight. I don't know if berths are heated at night, but coach is definitely not. Daytime is fine, it's just night that gets frigid. Ask me how I know.

This puts you either sometime in Sept/Oct/early November, or next spring. If you can never get away except for summertime, wait till next year and spend the time saving for a berth.

I'm pretty sure you couldn't get a berth for August on some legs of your trip, even if you decided to spring for it.
posted by Sara C. at 3:49 PM on July 27, 2012

I've only travelled a short distance on Amtrak, but I did 4 days from Vancouver to Toronto on VIARail in Economy. And I would do it again! I thought it was a great experience, and I wouldn't have been able to afford to do it in a sleeper.

I'm the kind of person who can sleep on a bus or a plane--if you can do those things, you would probably be fine sleeping in train seats. I guess I was lucky, because the people around me on most of my trip were quite quiet at night. To combat the lack of shower, I brought along plenty of spare underwear and a sealable bag to put dirty clothes into. I washed up in the bathroom and changed into pyjamas every night, which not many people do so it feels sorta weird, but I was much more comfortable and felt much cleaner than I would've if I'd been wearing the same clothes for 4 days.

The dining car was really expensive, so I packed my own food for the trip. VIA also stops for 1-2 hours each day, so I was able to get one normal meal each day and use packed food for the rest of the time. From my short Amtrak trip, the food on there is more reasonable. For entertainment, I spent most of the trip reading, looking out the window, or hanging out in the view car for a change of location.

I guess the best way to assess how you would feel about it is to think about the longest transit time you've experienced before. Have you been on a 24+ hour bus or plane trip before? I had done both, so I felt pretty ok about signing on for 4 days on the train. Time spent on a train is much more pleasant than on either a bus or a plane; train cars aren't as cramped so you're much more able to move and walk around. There's no need to stay in your seat for the whole trip, as there would be on a bus or an intercontinental flight.

Also, how much money are you saving? I did the 4 day trip plus two other short trips and another 2 day trip all for $500 on a rail pass in off season/the dead of winter. I am confident that the fact that all of that travel was so cheap made it much more tolerable!
posted by snorkmaiden at 3:51 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

About ten years ago I did Portland to Chicago (2 days) by sleeper car, then switched to a seat from Chicago to New York (1 day). That last leg is a seat sucked. I could not have imagined doing that for three days straight. At the end of the trip I was like, "I guess that was interesting, but I'll never ride the train across country again, no way."

You need a sleeper car if you don't want to go insane. And it's not like the sleeper car experience is all that fancy--seriously, don't romanticize it. The seats/bed were old and worn. It's cramped (and I was in there by myself). The bathroom feels like an airplane bathroom, etc. Taking a shower in a tiny crappy stall on a swaying train is not exactly pleasant.

That said, I had nice hours of sitting and reading, staring out at the Great Plains in winter. Had some interesting, some awkward meals with fellow passengers.

I mean, I don't think this is a great way to see the country. I'd rather drive cross-country and camp out along the way. Which I think would be a lot less exhausting.
posted by bennett being thrown at 3:53 PM on July 27, 2012

I got back a cross-country (round the country, really) trip a few weeks ago, and enjoyed it immensely. A sleeper is not really necessary, unless either of you is over 300lbs or unusually tall. Or unusually misanthropic. The cross-country trains have a decent amount of leg room in the coach cars.

The sleeper is expensive, but those above who have had one (I have not) will give you a case for its being worth it. I personally wouldn't have one if I were just going the one way, but by the end of a 10k mile trip, yeah, I wanted one. So go with whatever you gauge your tolerance to be.

Wifi is not provided on the Zephyr or Southwest Chief (two of your likely routes), last I checked. There are 2 plugs at every seat and at every booth in the lounge/observation cars. Bring a laptop with dvds, an ipod with music, books, crafts, and/or board games. There's a fair amount of vibration, which makes things like drawing a challenge, but as long as you're patient with yourself, you can do anything.

The view is the same in each direction, but I'd take the train on the way out because of the sheer magic of seeing the landscape change from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Every hundred miles brings a shift in the trees and flowers, and the animals you'll see, and the styles of architecture. As long as you're willing to let two extra people sit with you when the place gets crowded, the observation car is the place to be.

Things I found it very helpful to bring:
- serious earplugs
- possibly a sleep mask, since you are otherwise likely to wake with the dawn.
- a neck pillow.
- a blanket and sweater. The temperature on the trains can drop very low overnight, usually in the wee hours.
- your own booze (or whatever tasty drinks). Staying up late in the observation car sharing around the alcohol and stories with your fellow travelers is half the fun.
- a change of clothes for each day you're on the train, plus sleepwear, plus extra underwear for when you feel unclean.
- bathroom wipes.
- face cleansing cloths, which make washing up in the morning easier.
- flip-flops or other slip-on shoes for letting your (washed) feet breathe during the day, closed-toe for night for keeping them warm and avoiding stubs while heading to the bathroom in the dark.

The dining car is overpriced and the options vary widely in inherent tastiness and how well they're prepared. Water is provided, but it's not always cold (despite the tap being labeled "ice water"). The lounge attendant will most likely give you hot water or ice for free if you ask politely, and tip. You probably want to avoid excess sodium if you can; my feet swelled like crazy from the constant sitting when I didn't watch my salt intake. I wanted to save money, so I brought most of my own food, and this worked just fine. If you're interested, I can give suggestions.
posted by notquitemaryann at 3:59 PM on July 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Did Los Angeles to Chicago and back, without a sleeper car, by myself. I brought lots of food and drinks, although I also bought some on the train. It was a four-day journey, and moist wipes + really good unscented deodorant were a godsend (although you can imagine how I felt by the end.)

During the day it was fine, but at night it was so uncomfortable to sleep that I ended up (like many others) going to the dining or observation cars and camping out across multiple seats, with my valuables tucked in safe keeping on my person. It was very cold; I'd assumed the trains would be heated reasonably well, but going through the mountains I was colder than I care to remember, and I wish I'd brought a heavy blanket. It was a fun experience in many ways, but if I do this again, I'll splurge for a sleeper.
posted by davejay at 4:05 PM on July 27, 2012

A few questions: is a sleeper really necessary? It is extremely expensive, and I'll do it if the trip would suck otherwise, but I really want to know it's worth it.

Have you ever taken a train overnight before? Have you taken any kind of long trip?

I think the longest I ever spent on a train without a sleeper car was 16 hours. I'm not saying that I wouldn't do it again, because that may well have been unavoidable under the circumstances, but I would absolutely not do that ever again if I didn't have to. It's one thing to take a red-eye plane or travel all night on a train or a bus. It's another thing to do this for 3 days straight.
posted by deanc at 4:09 PM on July 27, 2012

My only analogous experience is spending 16 hours on a bus (with comfortable seats), where I was extremely tired and needed to sleep and ate gas station food and therefore developed terrible indigestion. It was terrible, I felt disgusting and irritable, and I would have pitied anyone who was making the journey with me. I'd really recommend a sleeper car.
posted by stoneandstar at 4:15 PM on July 27, 2012

WOW! These are all incredibly helpful. I think we are more of the "backpacker in Central America" types but this is intended to be a vacation, and I'm not really going to spend so much money without it being fun and interesting. So it sounds like we'll have to do the sleeper, at least for part of the journey. Or maybe delay until it's a lot cheaper. Thanks so much -- and keep the tips coming!
posted by caoimhe at 4:15 PM on July 27, 2012

I used to take the train from Boston to St. Louis and back (through Chicago) which, with delays and transfers, always worked out to a little more than a day of travel. I never had a sleeper, and it was generally OK, though as someone pointed out above, the seats are oddly shaped and I could never quite get a comfortable position. Bring a pillow and a light blanket/shawl and you should be OK. Also bring earplugs. My first trip, the woman next to me snored like nobody's business and I was So Angry by about 4 in the morning.

If you're getting on at South Station, you should be able to get two seats by yourself because it's the beginning of the line. I assume the other direction would be as well. I have always been able to get a plug (there are at least two next to each seat - I can't remember if there are 4), but never had wireless.

Bring food - the dining car is not always selling things, the food available is generally not awesome, and the "meals" are expensive.

Be prepared for an interesting mix of people. I have had some infuriating interactions, but also some really cool ones. I spoke with a Mennonite woman about my age for an hour or two on the train between Chicago and St. Louis (there are lots of Mennonites on that route), and hung out with a New Zealish backpacker when I was taking the train from San Diego up through Santa Barbara.

I really like taking the train. You get a different perspective than driving cross country because, while the interstates bypass rural America and back ends of little towns, trains go right through peoples' backyards. And I can only imagine how cool taking the train across the Great Plains and Rockies would be.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:16 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If it's financially an option, get a sleeper. It's the only thing that makes the experienced civilized. It's very expensive, so you have to want the experience of being on a train.
posted by Dasein at 4:33 PM on July 27, 2012

Any other suggestions for the trip?

Here's something else that is fun, or maybe just fun for freaks like me. Read a really great book set in one of those places that you will pass by or close to on the train, that you would probably never go to otherwise and will probably never see again. On my last train trip I started My Antonia a few hours before we were going to go through Nebraska, it was the middle of the night, and it was a very eerie experience for me.
posted by cairdeas at 4:37 PM on July 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

It appears I am quite the outlier on this question, which kind of surprises me.

I am a 29 year old male and have taken two long distance Amtrak trips by myself. Both trips were in regular coach. I had a blast on both experiences and never regretted the lack of a sleeper or anything else about the trips.

The first trip was from Ann Arbor MI to Tucson AZ for the purpose of visiting family. This was a 64 hour trip and, amazingly, we arrived within a half hour of the scheduled arrival time, despite our locomotive briefly breaking down between Kalamazoo and Chicago. I flew back from that trip because of time constraints, but I wished I'd had enough vacation time to take the train back. (And this comes from someone who somewhat enjoys the experience of flying on airplanes.)

The second trip was sort of a grand tour from Ann Arbor MI to Chicago IL to New Orleans LA to [somewhere I don't remember] in Florida, to Washington DC, to Toledo OH, and then from there back to Ann Arbor by an Amtrak-scheduled bus. I don't remember exactly, but this was a 5-or so day affair, with an 8 hour stopover on a pleasant afternoon and evening in New Orleans. The primary purpose of this trip was that I had enjoyed my previous train trip so much that I wanted to take another one and see more of the country from the train. The (quite) secondary purpose was to visit New Orleans. By the end of this trip, we were running about 5 hours late, although that did not bother me as I was not on any particular timetable.

I find the scenery visible from the train fascinating. Train tracks run right through the middle of towns, cities, industrial districts, and peoples' back yards. You really get to "see America" in a way you don't when traveling by freeway (or even, to an extent, by highway). I brought my laptop, cell phone, and reading material, but found myself using them well under half of the time I was awake on both the trips. Much of the time, I found that looking out the window or talking with (or listening to) the other passengers was more entertaining. I'm rather on the shy side and am not the quickest person to start talking with strangers, but most of the people on the train - especially those who were on for a long distance - just seemed very friendly and often talkative.

It seems to me that you meet a much more diverse set of people on a train than on a long distance bus or airplane. People on a long distance bus are generally there because they need to get somewhere and it is the cheapest way to do so. People on an airplane are generally middle or upper-middle class folks whose lives are in many ways a lot like mine. People on the train, however, seem to come from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds, are riding the train for a wide variety of reasons, and have a varied and interesting set of experiences and perspectives to relate.

Practicality-wise, I found the seats to be *very* comfortable. I am 6 feet tall and quite fat, and there was more than enough room to be comfortable. I had someone sitting next to me maybe half of the time overall. There is a foot rest coming down from the seat in front of you, and also a calf rest that comes up from under your seat. Between that and the seat's ability to recline, I found it quite comfortable for both sitting and sleeping. By contrast, I have quite a lot of difficulty sleeping on airplanes.

I brought quite a bit of food on both trips, to the extent that I only ate at the dining car once (to see what it was like). I ate my own food as meals and bought a few snacks from the cafe car. If you enjoy drinking alcohol, you may want to consider smuggling some of it onboard with you, as it is very expensive in the cafe/dining cars. It is against the rules to drink alcohol that you bring with you unless you are in a sleeper car, but plenty of people on both of my trips did and no-one hassled them about it. Then again, no-one got obnoxiously drunk and started causing trouble, either. If either of you are at all addicted to nicotine, you should know that the trains are all non-smoking and e-cigarettes are (theoretically) prohibited. Many stops are so short that there's not time to get off and smoke a cigarette, which caused a lot of frustration amongst the smokers on my trains.


To put this in perspective with my general traveling experiences and tolerances:
  • I have never stayed at a hostel when traveling, and would strongly prefer a single room were I to do so.
  • I have never "backpacked" anywhere and would be somewhat unlikely to do so.
  • I have never taken an overnight bus trip and would never do so if I could possibly avoid it, based on a couple 2-3 hour bus trips I've taken.
  • The longest I have slept in my car on a long trip is about 3 hours. It wasn't very comfortable, but I needed the sleep. I now plan my long car trips to avoid the likelihood of having to do this.
  • I was once on a 15 hour flight in coach on a 747. I had an entire row of three seats to myself (amazing luck!) My 64 hour Amtrak trip was, by comparison, much more physically comfortable, and quite a bit less boring.

Well, I think I've gone on at more than sufficient length about this. Feel free to send me a Mefi Mail message if you have any questions :).
posted by Juffo-Wup at 4:51 PM on July 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I took an overnight train from Kamloops to Vancouver 15 years ago sitting in a regular seat, and I remember that night to this day. Very intense sleep, if that makes sense.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:07 PM on July 27, 2012

. I think we are more of the "backpacker in Central America" types

There's quite a bit of difference between arriving in a new city and finding whatever cheap place there is to put your head down for the night (even if it's a couch or a cot) before heading out again and spending days on a train. Even having a flat bench-like bed to sleep on while riding on a train was preferable to a 16 hour trip in coach.

It's just one of those things where the experience of having a sleeper car is exponentially better than not. This isn't like the difference between flying first class and coach on a 4 hour plane flight.

(that said, I see no value in spending several days on a train compared to a road trip where one would typically stop along the way)
posted by deanc at 5:18 PM on July 27, 2012

Just thought of something else - I guess I have a lot to say on this topic. Sportbucket mentioned the smoking car. Not sure when his trip took place but there is no longer a smoking car on any of the Amtrak trains I have taken The trains were all smoke-free, and there are designated smoking stops where you can get out of the train and smoke on the platform. There are hours and hours in between these stops. So if you guys smoke, I would suggest you bring nicotine patches! Or buy an e-cigarette and sneak it in the bathrooms. (The conductors will smell it and bust you if you smoke a real cigarette in there.

About the showers. There are no showers for the folks who are riding in coach. But there are showers in the cars that contain sleepers. The showers are on the lower level of those cars and the door to the shower room is marked. The sleeper cars are usually on the other side of the dining car from coach. You are not supposed to go in those cars if you do not have a sleeper and you will be stopped if anyone notices you doing that. But. Just sayin'. (There is also a sleeper car for the train employees that looks exactly the same, don't go into that one. It's usually the first car on the train behind the baggage car.)

One more thing about coach. If I had not been riding coach I would never have seen a fellow get busted by the feds at gunpoint for trying to transport several duffel bags of drugs over state lines. He was a very nice dude who had just taken a picture of me and my boyfriend for us before I boarded. I still think of him and wonder if he is okay even though I have forgotten his name at this point. It was definitely a life experience. You will have more life experiences in coach, I think that is a safe bet.
posted by cairdeas at 5:19 PM on July 27, 2012

then switched to a seat from Chicago to New York (1 day). That last leg is a seat sucked. I could not have imagined doing that for three days straight.

New York to Chicago SUCKS. Period. That's the only Amtrak leg I really wished I had a sleeper for. The train is packed because you're traveling between a lot of dense cities that are relatively close together, it's terminally late, and the schedule and geography mean there's nothing to even look at out the window (westbound, anyway; might be better eastbound, though I doubt it). I'd take the train cross-country in a heartbeat, but I will never ride the Lakeshore Limited again.
posted by Sara C. at 6:31 PM on July 27, 2012

I love taking the train long distance. Watching the scenery while rocking gently back and forth is as relaxing as it gets. If you are a scenery freak like me, you will want to spend lots of time in the observation car with the floor to ceiling windows. Also, you might want to bring a packet of Windex wipes to make sure that the window at your seat is clean. There are two rows per window in coach and you will get a better view if you are in the back of those two.

I am a horrible sleeper in strange places. (I can't sleep well in my family home for the first night back.) I agree that it is a little better in the sleeper than in coach for sleeping, because there is less noise and fewer people moving around. I find the coach seats, when it is quiet, totally zonk me out, but the way the motion of the train hits the sleeper beds is different and not so soothing. I am 5'6" and can stretch out completely in the coach seat without being able to touch the seat in front of me with my feet. There is nothing so awesome as waking up with the sunrise in coach and opening the curtain to watch the morning start in the countryside while still tucked up cozily. Sadly, the sleeper doesn't have as good window views from the night time configuration (at least in the roomettes).

I always get breakfast in the dinning car, even if I bring food for other meals or get it in the snack car. I feel like the breakfast prices are not as high and it is just nice. If you are in a sleeper, you will get all of your meals included in the price (and remember, you only pay for the sleeper once per room). They give you plenty to eat. However, if you are in coach and relying on the snack car, you may find that the attendant goes on break at just the wrong time, so bring an emergency granola bar or the like. The cheese and cracker plate in the snack car is pretty good with a glass of wine.

Delays are common. Don't plan a business meeting right after you are scheduled to arrive! You can check if a particular train is late by phone. If you want to check the historical on-time performance of a train, try For me, the train is part of the vacation and once I'm on, I don't care much if we are delayed.
posted by SandiBeech at 6:43 PM on July 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to clarify:

Overnight on Amtrak is absolutely NOTHING like overnight on Greyhound. Nothing. At all. All of the people chiming in saying "imagine being on a bus ALL NIGHT AHHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!" are wrong. Because it's not like that.

The space is much less cramped. Even if you have a seatmate and can't spread out, it's still more like first class on a plane and nothing like a bus seat.

There are plenty of bathrooms, and they are un-cramped and clean-ish compared to any bus "bathroom" ever. It's expected that people are taking long journeys and will want to freshen up.

You can get up and walk around the train. Not only is it allowed, but there are actually places to go in order to get up and have a change of scenery. There are whole cars of the train designed for just hanging out.

I'm not saying it's a luxury hotel or anything, and you definitely might hate it. But it isn't nearly as bad as some people who've never actually done it are implying.
posted by Sara C. at 6:46 PM on July 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have done Vancouver to Toronto on VIA Rail all in one go ( this is roughly 90% of the distance you are looking at). 76 hours, no sleeper.

It was not the most pleasant voyage of my life, but it was a long way from the worst. The big downside in my recollection was that I had climbed a mountain the Rockies a week earlier and had the beginnings of a cold, which made significant progress when I sat in a chair for three days with no exercise and no fresh food. But that would have been no different in a sleeper.

If you are doing it to see the country at ground level, do it. And summer is the time to do it with a partner. Warm nights on a slow-moving train are as sexy as all get-out.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:40 PM on July 27, 2012

Any chance you're a student? I recall there was a 10-20% discount on Amtrak with an ISIC card.
posted by barnone at 7:53 PM on July 27, 2012

Lots of info in this FlyerTalk thread about Amtrak.
posted by barnone at 7:54 PM on July 27, 2012

I have traveled on the California Zephyr a few times, but never gotten a sleeper. I am actually in the early planning / saving stages of doing a trip next summer from Denver to Emeryville with my daughter, and I am definitely going to splurge on the sleeper.

My advice - fly to Denver, then take the train from Denver to Emeryville. The scenery is tremendous - two mountain ranges! Nevada with the flat-as-a-pancake basins and mountains that spring up in the middle of them! And one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, Ruby Canyon, a small red sandstone canyon just outside of Grand Junction, Colorado, near the Utah border. No road goes through this canyon - it's just the train tracks, and the river. Anyway it was breathtaking for me, I hope you get to see it and you like it. I never would have seen it if I hadn't taken the train.

I have also been on the Denver - Chicago leg, and the scenery was really boring to me. It just doesn't compare to the West. Same for my trip from Chicago to Austin. Just really not anything special for my particular aesthetic sense. YMMV.

The coach seats are somewhat comfortable, but hell is other people. If you take your chances in coach, you might luck out (I got to overhear some really interesting conversations, though I didn't take part in any that were that great), or you might end up with a horrific experience like what I had on the Chicago to Austin trip. There was a disabled man who was unable to get to the bathroom in time, and well, he shat his pants and we all had to smell it for hours, and hours, and hours, and hours. I would have gladly traded this experience for an obnoxious talker or snorer.

I never ate in the dining car, but I found the snack bar sufficient along with snacks I brought. But I am no gourmet and I was on a trip of 33 or so hours or less.

I brought this down throw blanket I have that packs up into a little zippered bag, and I think it was essential to being comfortable at night. I think a throw is a good size to bring.

I went a long time ago, but when I did there was a railroading club that provided a person to come on the train and speak over the loudspeaker and talk about the terrain we were going through (the Sierras in this case) for a couple of hours, a little history, and information about the trains and things like snow sheds that I had never heard of. I thought it was great. I think they still have programs like that, but I am not sure if that particular stretch is currently participating in it.

Good luck, and enjoy your trip!
posted by marble at 8:09 PM on July 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

My advice - fly to Denver, then take the train from Denver to Emeryville.

Fantastic idea.

I went a long time ago, but when I did there was a railroading club that provided a person to come on the train and speak over the loudspeaker and talk about the terrain we were going through (the Sierras in this case) for a couple of hours, a little history, and information about the trains and things like snow sheds that I had never heard of. I thought it was great. I think they still have programs like that, but I am not sure if that particular stretch is currently participating in it.

Yes, they do Reno to Sacramento, and it is very cool.
posted by cairdeas at 8:44 PM on July 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would travel on trains EVERYwhere if they were just a small bit cheaper.

I got a sleeper from Washington to Chicago and thought it was well worth it. I was splitting the cost with another person, so I didn't think it was egregiously expensive, for what we were getting.

It is not just that you get priority seating for meals - they are included. Additionally the sleeper area has a free beverage station with coffee, water, and juice. The overall atmosphere is quieter because almost everyone will have their doors closed. Even when they don't, everyone seemed much quieter compared to the times I'm amtrak'd non-sleeper (but that could also be down to the numbers of individuals....)

There are plugs in the sleeper cars....I think amtrak is getting WiFi on some of its trains but I didn't have it when I went... sometimes I'd be able to get signal on my laptop when we stopped in stations, but this was about four years ago.

Coach cars don't have (or aren't supposed to have) plugs. Business class will, but not all trains will carry a business class car. My last Amtrak trip was solo and not quite overnight, but I wanted to work on my laptop, so I had to drive a few hours to get to a station that would be in line with a train that had business class.


TL; DR: Sleep car <3333
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 8:49 PM on July 27, 2012

Another thing to bring on long distance train trips: fuzzy sleep socks. I bought a pair at a stop along the way, and they improved the remainder of the trip SIGNIFICANTLY.

Reading these answers has been great. My Vancouver-Toronto trip was only this past November, but nevertheless I'm feeling nostalgic. It's definitely something I'll do again (probably in coach!)
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:32 PM on July 27, 2012

I have done long trips in Amtrak economy (Philly-Portland and Portland-Austin). I have also done long trips in sleeper cars (Sacto-Chicago and New Orleans-New York). All of it is worth it. You see landscapes and parts of the country that you would never see from the highway. Glorious landscapes and also sad ones. Long economy trips are super interesting from an anthropological level (as well as the sight seeing level) but the lack of privacy, good food, and sleep will make you bewildered cranky and delirious before too long. Long sleeper trips are really dreamy and sublime. You get all the privacy in your little bitty room to watch the crazy country go by. At night you lay in your little bunk being rocked by the train and watching the night sky jiggle. In the day you get three meals in the diner car (it's part of the sleeper price). It feels old fashioned and private and you can see all that crazy country while still being refreshed. If I had the money I would tour the whole country in a sleeper car.

TL;DR version: the experience of long distance train travel is fascinating, beautiful and worthwhile. Doing it in economy will make you crazy @ the end but it's still worth it. Doing it in sleeper car is expensive but pure fun.
posted by feets at 2:07 AM on July 28, 2012

Last time I did NYC-Oakland on Amtrak I got off in Denver and drove. Three days on a train is LONG. NYC to Denver is DULL. Nebraska is murder. :)

The Denver to California trip is pretty awesome though!

DO NOT DO THIS WITHOUT A SLEEPER CAR. Sorry to go all-caps but oh my god, there is... you can't... you will want to die.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:14 AM on July 28, 2012

I recall there was a 10-20% discount on Amtrak with an ISIC card.

Here's a list of available standard discounts. Discounts do not apply to sleeper accommodation though.
posted by grouse at 11:23 AM on July 28, 2012

I've done a couple of overnight trips on Amtrak economy (Flagstaff, AZ to Chicago and Chicago to New York, on different occasions). The Flagstaff-to-Chicago trip was really memorable. I got the train at something like 4:30 or 5am, and I remember staring out the window, half-asleep, watching the sun rise over the desert. The seats are quite comfortable, and I actually slept OK-ish on that trip - surprising because I'm a picky sleeper.

Chicago-NYC was all right. I was kinda antsy towards the end, 'cause was tired and bored. Upstate NY is pretty, but it's not like the deserts and mountains of the west.

Anyway, if you can afford it, get a sleeper car. Amtrak economy is comfortable, and its nice to be able to get up and walk around, but I wouldn't want to be stuck on it for 4 or 5 days straight.

I like Amtrak, and I'm a big fan of train travel in general, but if I take another cross-country trip, I'd rather drive, so that I can take back roads and stop wherever I'd like. Oh, and definitely do not make plans shortly after arriving at your destination - Amtrak is chronically late.
posted by breakin' the law at 3:29 PM on July 28, 2012

I ride the Pacific Surfliner every week. In hundreds of rides, I've only had one time that the power outlets didn't work. The wifi is more spotty and usually slow. Some sites are blocked (you tube?). If you have another option (phone hotspot, 3g/4g usb), then certainly use that.
posted by 26.2 at 3:50 PM on July 28, 2012

If you don't get a sleeper -- and I would -- do bring blankets or a sleeping bag. The train gets cold.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:48 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

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