California Training (chugga chugga)
May 8, 2019 11:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm finally getting to take a train trip that I've wanted to do for most of my life, so rail buffs - What should I bring with me for a trip on the California Zephyr for the full run from Chicago to Emeryville?

I'll be headed to Emeryville from Chicago the third week of May and want to make sure I'm prepared. I have booked a roomette for the trip and will be traveling by myself.

Previous discussions here and here suggest some of the following:

-Good book(s) - check

-Small thing to heat water - not a coffee drinker, so not a problem

-Own food - I plan on bringing some snacky things (and perhaps sneaking a bottle of Malört out of Chicago...yes, I'm one of THOSE people who actually love it)

-Blanket - how necessary is this? I'm trying to pack as light and compact as possible and would rather not have to bring one. It seems like there is climate control in the roomettes?

I would imagine it'd be good to bring toiletries, other than that I'm just imagining it's basic travel rules? Are there any wildcard things that might not make sense if you hadn't traveled on it before?

I do travel a lot, so I'm pretty well seasoned when it comes to general travel. I also travel on the North East Corridor quite frequently, so I'm also pretty well acquainted with Amtrak.
posted by aloiv2 to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I've done some long train trips but not in the US - in other countries (the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian, across India, etc).

- Bring a deck of cards, or a simple card game! It can be a really nice and low-key way to meet another traveler on the train and pass the time next to some beautiful scenery.

- Bring a sketchbook / diary to doodle, write things in.

- Earplugs, in case you need to muffle the sound of the train at night.

- Not sure if it makes sense on your ride, but when I went on the Trans-Mongolian, I bought a bunch of different candy/sweets from where I started and occasionally would share them with people I would meet along the way, as a novel ("look what I got in this town yesterday!"). This made sense because I was crossing a lot of regional and cultural borders.

- Have you already looked at seat61?
posted by suedehead at 11:29 AM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Socks. Socks, socks, socks. US trains are cold. Your feet will be cold. Socks.
posted by eschatfische at 11:30 AM on May 8, 2019

Be careful with your luggage...I'm assuming you can fit it in your room, but if not (and if it's not checked), Amtrak disclaims liability. Someone I know recently took a trip and had to put a suitcase in the communal racks. Amtrak moved it during the night, then at the destination, handed out the wrong bag. They later said that they found it and put it on a train to the owner, but a month and a half later, it seems to have disappeared completely, along with the expensive medication inside.
posted by pinochiette at 12:00 PM on May 8, 2019

I just did an overnight on the Coast Starlight.

Yes to bringing your own alcohol. I don't remember what the actual policy was but you can just keep it in your roomette. Cups are easily available at the coffee stations they'll have in every sleeper car.

There's a snack bar where you can use a microwave and get hot water. You shouldn't need your own water heater unless you need it in the middle of the night.

I didn't do this but someone suggested bringing some gaffers tape or duct tape in case something in your room is rattling you can tape it in place.

Ear plugs. I can't wear them (I don't like the feeling that I'm trapped in my head with only my pulse to keep me company) so I hardly slept at all. There are a lot of noises on a train at night.

Slippers would have been helpful. You'll spend a lot of time moving between your room and the observation and dining car. You're supposed to wear some sort of shoes on your feet.

I don't see any reason why you can't just use the blanket from your bed, or just ask the attendant if they have an extra.

Bring money for tips, both for the dining car and the attendants in your sleeping car.

They'll give you bottled water in your room but having a more sturdy bottle is nice. There should be places to refil it in the observation car and elsewhere.

Honestly most of what I needed was provided for me. The staff was very friendly and helpful.
posted by bondcliff at 12:01 PM on May 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

the roomette will have a blanket and a pillow for each bunk, the attendant will leave the ones for the extra if you ask.

an extra roll of toilet paper

meals are included with sleepers but yes, you should tip
posted by brujita at 12:04 PM on May 8, 2019

It's been a long time since I've taken a long train in the US, but after a few horribly frustraing experiences on trains elsewhere, assuming that the built-in reading lights will be broken and planning accordingly is always a safe bet.
posted by eotvos at 12:14 PM on May 8, 2019

Congrats on your trip of a lifetime! Bring whatever anti-nausea stuff works for you for motion sickness, just in case.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:33 PM on May 8, 2019

Do not rely on Amtrak to have food for the entire duration of your multi-day train trip. Definitely pack snacks in case delays cause you to be travelling for more mealtimes than they packed for. Fill up your water bottle when you're laid over waiting for a new crew or whenever you feel like the shit is hitting the fan.

I wasn't cold in the roomette when I travelled Portland-Chicago in the 00s, and I slept like a champ to the clack-clacking. They also basically tried to keep us tipsy the whole time - champagne in the juice/drinks area for breakfast mimosas, wine at meals, wine tastings with trivia games and wine prizes. Things may have changed, though - check if it's important to you. Most of the folks at meals were older (visiting grandkids, commonly) and fascinated by the younger folks (20s-30s) on the train, I felt like a celebrity.
posted by momus_window at 1:25 PM on May 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Not a thing to bring, but a tip based on when I used to have to book the sleeper train for a boss in an old job: If it’s not too late, get a cabin in the middle of the carriage, not at the end. Apparently there’s less movement & noise = better sleep.
posted by penguin pie at 1:32 PM on May 8, 2019

We did that route last summer! It's gorgeous.

We brought extra snacks, a few good books, knitting (for me), a Switch (for him), a couple of books of variety puzzles, and cash for tipping.

We didn't bring an extra blanket and didn't need it; slippers were helpful. Earplugs were also nice. We also had an extension cord for charging things (I think there was only one outlet in the roomette).

We left our one big piece of luggage on the lower level luggage area (with luggage locks), and had backpacks in the roomettes with necessities/valuables.
posted by damayanti at 1:41 PM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is all fantastic, thank you all so much. Couple of reactions:

-I'm on the top level of the transition car (in the middle of the first car after the baggage car). One thing I've read from the forums is that up front the whistle can be VERY loud during the middle of the night so I'm definitely bringing foam ear plugs. While I think it'll actually be soothing to me I'm a sound designer and very concerned over noise exposure. I have fitted plugs but they aren't comfortable to sleep in.

-TRIVIA WITH WINE PRIZES‽‽‽‽ My girlfriend is green with jealousy. She's the reason I'm taking this trip actually. She's going to be working at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and when I found it was <3 miles from Emeryville it sealed the deal. I was planning on a visit anyhow.

-What's a proper tipping amount for a meal that's provided? Do they give you relative costs if it weren't part of your ticket? Also, tips for attendants? Similar to a hotel in which $5/day is relatively standard? Thanks for this advice on tipping money, that wouldn't have occurred to me. I definitely wouldn't want to be rude.
posted by aloiv2 at 2:25 PM on May 8, 2019

I took that route three years ago and it was wonderful.

If you have a roomette, meals (but not alcoholic beverages) are included. I tipped 20 percent of the menu price. I tipped the attendant $5 per person per night.

Have a good trip!
posted by The Incredible Gnome at 3:08 PM on May 8, 2019

This isn't a what-should-you-bring answer so much as a where-should-you-be: On the stretch from Reno to Sacramento, there will be docents onboard from the CA Railroad Museum. They tell the story of the construction of the rail line and point out historic sites along the way. It's actually really interesting. You can only hear them over the loudspeakers in the club car (the snack bar -- not the dining car) and the observation car, so you might want to head to one of those places once you hit Reno. (Also because that's one of the most scenic stretches of the trip, so you may as well get a seat with a great view.)

The one thing I'd advise you carry, which hasn't been mentioned yet, is a small packet of Clorox wipes or something similar. I enjoy riding Amtrak, but they don't really do a very good job of keeping the cars clean. Last time I was on the train I really wished I had something to wipe down my tray table, armrests, and windows with (and I'm nothing close to a germaphobe).
posted by mudpuppie at 4:20 PM on May 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I can't really speak to most of this, but a friend of mine did a honeymoon trip out to Reno recently and the train was really late to whopping mega super late (like 16 hours at one point, I believe). What someone else said about bringing enough of your own food, and I really hope you don't have set plans or "this is when I absolutely have to be there by" anything going on about arriving, like tickets. Don't make firm plans and count on your arrival being on a certain day.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:22 PM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I did the reverse trip a few years ago. It was an... interesting experience.

With the roomette, food is included but you have to buy your own drinks. There was a snack bar type place in the train that would also sell you booze outside of regular dining hours.

My train was stranded for 12-14 hours somewhere in the middle of the night (and then all the lights went out). The upshot was that by the last day of the trip the train had run out of food and alcohol. For our last meal, each of us got a bowl of rice with two small pieces of grilled chicken in it.

Don't plan to be anywhere immediately after your train is due at its destination. I missed my flight out of Chicago by about ten hours and wasn't compensated for the ticket or lodging at all.

I also didn't realize that you should tip the car attendant so I didn't have any cash.
posted by bendy at 4:32 PM on May 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I just took two 60 hour Amtrak rides in coach, so I’m totally ready for this question.

Many find the roomettes boring and head up to the lounge car. They have bigger windows and the cafe on the bottom level. It’s also a place where random conversations happen. If you’re not into that, you can sit in peace, but headphones might help prevent people chatting you up.

The train cars are very over air conditioned at night. If you tend to get cold at night, you might want an extra blanket in addition to what they give you in the roomette. It also dries you the heck out. I found having a decent sized water bottle I could refill from the water stations was critical.

Yes to earplugs for sleeping. When the birthday party of a dozen six year olds got on at 7AM, I used earplugs and my giant headphones.

In most cases, you won’t get stranded enough to require you to pack enough food to survive on your own. A variety of snacks is great though. The dinner in the dining car is a limited menu, but perfectly reasonable. You get seated randomly with others, and most people will want to chit chat.

Cell service will drop out when you are at your most bored. Make sure you have either downloaded your entertainment or have non internet things to occupy your time.

I don’t recall if roomettes have shower access. If not, wet wipes can freshen you up. If you get annoyed at not shampooing, a dry shampoo spray will cut the greasy hair back to tolerable levels.
posted by advicepig at 7:00 PM on May 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

It gets*really dark* after the sun goes down and it was kind of nice to have a movie downloaded on an iPad for in case you want to tuck in and quietly watch something without holding a book after dinner.
posted by wowenthusiast at 8:00 PM on May 8, 2019

I've done the Zephyr and the Starlight
Agree with most of the above, including layers. Card games. A PDF atlas for moments you won't have GPS. Someone on the Starlight had a physical one and we were all pouring over it to learn about where we were stopped. CS into Burbank we were mostly on time. CZ into Denver we were a couple of hours later. I didn't take it the final leg into CHI as I was about done with trains by then.
CZ does not have reliable (even by Amtrak standards) wifi. To answer your tipping question - the menu has the prices even though meals included as it's same menu for all passengers.
posted by TravellingCari at 12:33 PM on May 14, 2019

amtrak does have wifi
posted by brujita at 9:23 PM on May 17, 2019

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