Amtrak – San Francisco to Denver

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  • Anonymous


    I thought a review of my recent Amtrak journey might be of interest. I certainly learnt a lot about the viability or otherwise of using long distance trains in the USA. I was travelling with my girlfriend on holiday and we split the journey into two.

    1. San Francisco to Glenwood Springs, Colorado in Sleeper cabin.
    2. Glenwood Springs to Denver in Coach

    The total fare for both of us was US$ 780. The route is known as the California Zephyr and more details can be found here

    JOURNEY 1: San Francisco to Glenwood Springs
    There is no station in San Francisco itself. Instead all eastbound trains depart from Emeryville on the Oakland side of the bay. Amtrak offer a connecting bus service and we caught the 0750 bus from the Ferry Building. Amtrak have a proper waiting room and office there where you can check your bags through to final destination. Note you can take bags onboard provided they are not too large.

    The bus was ontime and comfortable and we arrived at Emeryville at 0820 which meant we had nearly an hour to spare as our train departed at 0910. Emeryville station is comfortable enough and we bought a cup of tea from the cafe which entailed the usual explanation to Americans on how to make a cup of tea!

    The train started at Emeryville and pulled in at around 0900. Each coach is double decker with the seating & rooms on the upper level and the lower levels used for storage and toilets. There were about 5 coach class cars, a dining car, an observation car and two sleeper cabin cars. Since this journey was an overnight journey arriving at Glenwood Springs at midday, we had booked a 2 person sleeper cabin. There are larger cabins which can sleep more people and some include their own shower and toilet.

    The first impression of the cabin is that it is small but private. It was about 7 feet long and 3-4 feet wide with two armchairs facing each other with a folding table in between. The armchairs recline but when you do so, the leg room can be cramped if you are not prepared to be intimate with each other. We evolved a mechanism with both our legs in each other’s laps.

    Both seats had their own reading lights and storage mechanisms beside the seats though each seat’s storage was different. There would be insufficient space for a suitcase but we had anticipated that by using a rucksack for myself and a large handbag for her with all we needed for a 27 hour trip. Small towels are provided in your cabin along with free bottles of water. In the corridor there is a stand with free water, juice & coffee but no tea!

    For sleeping, the two armchairs convert into a single bed and above us, there is another bed which folds down. Both beds are prepared by the conductor on request and they come with sheets and pillows. The cabin has curtains for privacy with velcro straps to secure them and your cabin door has a locking mechanism. The air conditioning mechanism took a while to figure out and had a tendency to blow on one seat more than another leading to different temperature perceptions. Fortunately we resolved that without any arguments!

    The train left about 20 minutes late for some reason and the first part of the journey took us through Sacramento before the climb up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains towards Reno. This part of the line was a major engineering feat and the line eventually reaches 6,000 feet so you can imagine that many of the views were spectacular.

    Around 1pm, we went into the dining car for lunch. All meals & non-alcoholic drinks are free for sleeper cabin passengers but coach passengers have to pay. Priority is given to sleeper car passengers but all passengers need to prebook a time with the dining car attendant. Your name is announced over the PA when your table is ready. All seating is 4 around a table so you will end up sharing a table with others if your party is less than 4 which makes the whole experience very sociable!

    Lunch was a full 3 course menu which would cost up to $40 if paying as a coach passenger. We chose to have a burger followed by an ice cream. As rail travel food goes it was very satisfactory and I chose to have a beer as well which I had to pay for. In the evening we had a full 3 course meal which in my case was Salad, followed by peppercorn Steak and finally a cheesecake for desert. Breakfast the following day was pancakes with syrup with a side of sausages. Service was excellent and very American!

    One thing we had forgotten to bring with us was a game but we passed the afternoon with a mixture of reading, admiring the views and using our phones & laptops. Power points are provided in the cabin. Phone signal throughout the journey was generally reasonable enough to allow internet access which is important since there is no wifi on board.

    Halfway through the afternoon, we went along to the observation car. This has more windows and the seats face outwards to the view though they will rotate as well There is a snack bar downstairs and commentary is provided along some parts of the route. It certainly provides a different perspective on what you are seeing on your travels.

    The attendant made up our beds whilst we were having dinner and so we were able to go to bed on our return. I chose the upper bed to begin with which required some acrobatics to get into given the confined space! Once in the bed, there is a strap that can be attached to prevent you rolling out of bed. However, I would suggest that if you are over 5′ 6″ as I am, you should sleep in the bottom bed as the strap doesn’t come up to your shoulders and it feels possible to roll out of bed if you are tall. We swapped beds at midnight as I wasn’t happy with the strap. I found both beds comfortable if a little on the hard side.

    However, the test of any bed is the quality of sleep you get and here, my girlfriend & I had dramatically different experiences. The train ride is not smooth and they do not slow down at night so there is a constant rocking motion with the occasional jerks. This disrupted my sleep and I barely got any sleep at all. My girlfriend on the other slept without any problems so clearly the whole experience depends on your own ability to sleep in strange circumstances.

    Unlike beds on aircraft, the sleeper cabin provides privacy that allows couples to be intimate with each other. I appreciate that such a review might not fall within the scope of business travel but the opportunity is there and I would be remiss in not reviewing it! What I will say is that some ingenuity is needed given the confined. if you have had plenty of experience with the back seat of cars, you will find this a doddle but both of us lacked such experience so some trial and error ensued. Another point to bear in mind is that whilst there is visual privacy, the doors are not soundproofed and so audio privacy is not assured! The train did seem popular with mothers travelling with young children for some reason….

    The following morning saw us travelling through the Utah desert and the rockies having passed through Salt Lake city in the night. being somewhat sleep deprived I wasn’t great company but I revived as the morning went on. We could have used the toilet to freshen up but since we were getting off at Glenwood Springs at midday we chose to wait till we checked in the hotel. Fortunately our train arrived ontime. Since we had checked our bags through, these were brought off the train to a bag check area, rather like baggage reclaim in an airport.

    All in all, the experience is a good one if you are good at sleeping in strange places. The food, service & comfort levels add up to a decent package that could make for an alternative to a hotel + flight combination. For example, if you are travelling from Denver to Chicago, you can leave Denver at 7pm and arrive in Chicago at 2pm the next day.


    Journey 2: Glenwood Springs to Denver, Coach class
    After 2 nights in Glenwood Springs we caught the train at midday for the 6 hour journey to Denver. This time, the journey was in coach class as we didn’t feel the need to pay extra for a cabin. Again we checked our suitcases through to Denver.

    One of the first differences between coach & cabins is that you are not given a reserved seat. Instead what happens is that you are given a seat number when you board based on your party size. The seating is 2×2 so since we were a couple we were given 2 seats in what was deemed a couple’s zone. I presume therefore they have other zones for single passengers and larger parties.

    On boarding the train, I was very surprised at the size of the seat. it very much reminded me of the Virgin business class seats that were around in the 90s before they brought in flat beds. Seat pitch felt like 55″ or larger, they had proper leg rests and foot rests and the recline was decent as well. Power points are provided and a large fold down table is provided as well. All in all, I felt the seats represented excellent value for money and if you are a good sleeper in different circumstances (which I am not) I now understand why some people would be prepared to travel overnight on the Amtrak trains in these seats.

    As mentioned in my first journey, meals are not free for coach passengers but this was not an issue for us given that it was a midday departure and 6pm arrival. I needed to do some work on my laptop and I managed to do that for a couple of hours without any issues. Otherwise we spent the time resting and admiring the views.

    As the train approaches Denver, the line rises until it reaches over 8,000 feet which has to be the highest I have been on a train. Coming down the other side of the Rockies is quite an adventure as the drop to the Prairies is quite precipitous. The solution is a loop rail system whereby the train makes a slow 270 degree circle around a tight bend whilst losing altitude before making a reverse 180 degree turn to join the line down to the prairies. Trust me, it feels like a train behaving like an aircraft in an ATC stack!

    At first, it felt like we would arrive in Denver an hour early as we pulled into the city’s outskirts about then. However, the station has been relocated and this means that the train has to be reversed into the station. This whole manoeuvre took over half an hour so in the end we were only a few minutes early. Denver station is being renovated at present (and should be looking good once complete) but for now, it meant there was a bit of a palaver trying to find where to pick up our bags.

    All in all, the coach class experience surprised me and I would definitely consider using it on long day trips. I personally would not use for overnight trips but some people would be quite happy with it. My girlfriend and I are contemplating a trip from San Antonio to New Orleans which currently takes about 13 hours by train but the timetable allows for this to be done in the daytime. She would prefer a cabin for the day mainly for privacy reasons but I feel that the coach seats are in some ways more comfortable for sitting though you don’t get the privacy and inclusive meals.


    Great reviews Bath_VIP.

    It seems like a great way to travel a long distance if time isn’t an issue. The idea of sitting in armchairs in a private cabin sounds like a lovely way to relax and enjoy the trip.

    Do let us know if you make the trip from San Antonio, I’d certainly enjoy reading about it.


    Great review – it’s nice to see rail travel featuring a bit more here.


    Great review Bath VIP. Interesting read as although I have travelled by rail all over Europe and Japan, never done any rail travel in the US.


    Great review. I have done some overnight rail travel in the USA and Canada. The review reminded me of a journey from Seattle to San Fransico using a booked cabin, so meals were inclusive. We were due to arrive into Emeryville after an early breakfast. During the night the train was delayed for at least six hours. As we were still on the train at lunchtime we were told we could have lunch too at no extra cost. This was not official compensation for late arrival, it is just how the system works. If you have booked a cabin and you are on the train when the restaurant is open you are entitled to the meal, simple. The delay on this trip worked in our favour as we had nothing planned the morning of our arrival. It also meant we saw some scenery from the train which would have been missed in the night had we been on time. The coach connection to the city centre waited for the late train.



    The Seattle to Los Angeles route is one that I have considered. Did you manage to sleep OK or were you like me?



    The carriages on the Seattle to Los Angeles route were the same double decker carriages you experienced on your trip from Emeryville. I had a cabin on the upper deck and was able to get some sleep, but not as good as at home. Bearing in mind for much of the night we were actually stopped due to the delay. I am a light sleeper.

    I know some people who were in the family cabin on the lower deck at the end of the carriage directly above the wheels. When the train was moving they got hardly any sleep.

    The upper deck in the middle of the carriage are the best choice to avoid the worst of the noise.

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