It gave us a fantastic insight into the natural beauty of our country – and my only responsibility was to watch. I didn’t have to worry about the right direction, where to stop for food, stay alert, or even stay awake. Train travel is a gift, and given the turmoil in the airline industry and alarming gas prices, it makes more sense than ever.
That said, the prospect of spending the night in a sleeping car understandably raises a number of questions. This is what I learned when my family traveled west.
Q: What is the difference between roomettes and bedrooms?
A: This is difficult to answer, as the definitions vary between western trains (double-decker Superliners) and eastern trains (Viewliners), and in some cases even depend on when the train was manufactured. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says a “bedroom, wherever you are in the country, has a shower and toilet.” There is one exception: the accessible bedroom has no shower; the space is instead reserved for wheelchairs or mobility aids. If no one reserves the accessible bedroom, it will be open to everyone, disabled or not, a week or two before the day of departure. Magliari says roomettes on some lines have an in-room sink and toilet.
On the Zephyr we drove a room in one direction and the H bedroom in the other. In our room, two comfortable chairs faced each other between a sliding glass door on one side and a large window on the other. At night, the chairs pulled out of the wall to make a bunk bed, and a second bunk above came down from the wall.
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Q: What is the best room to book?
A: Bedroom A is the smallest on the Superliners, so try another room. Larger groups on the Superliner can book a family bedroom, which has two beds for adults and two cots for children, but no toilet, sink or shower. Roomettes on the upper level of the Zephyr seemed to be preferred for easy access to the dining and observation cars, and they seemed more airy at that height, but I also appreciated the privacy of the lower level. Narrow stairs connect the levels, there is no lift for the disabled.
Q: How do the bathrooms work?
A: Bathrooms also differ in size and placement. In our Zephyr bedroom, only a fabric curtain separated the seats from the toilet, but it was nice to have a sink. There was a sofa with bathrooms and a shower room in the hallway, which coach passengers had no access to. Those bathrooms were quite small, about the size of airplane toilets, and in the family bathroom there was a commode that could be folded down over the toilet. The Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant shower room contained a seat and shelf for items in the front room, and a small shelf and seat in the shower, with a handheld showerhead mounted on the wall.
Q: Can you lock the rooms and bedrooms?
A: Yes, but only if you’re in it. If you’re wandering the cars or going out to dinner, take your valuables with you or store them in locked luggage. There are luggage racks in the corridors of the sleeping cars where you get on and off at the stations. You will be instructed to close the curtain on your sleeping quarters and close it with Velcro when you leave to prevent people from seeing what is in your space, as the movement of the train often causes the unlocked doors to slide open.
Q: Do you need to buy a sleeper car ticket to travel at night?
A: No. You can choose to travel by bus, even on multi-night journeys. Your chair can recline, but not lie flat. Also, you don’t have access to the dining car, so you have to bring food or choose from the limited snack bar options.
Q: Is this better for introverts or extroverts?
A: It’s great for both. When you’re on the bus, you might have a chatty fellow passenger or someone who is absorbed in their phone or a book, just like on an airplane. To guarantee privacy, reserve space in the sleeping cars; you can even request meals there. Observation cars, if your train has one, and cafe cars on the east trains seem designed to encourage interaction between passengers, with seating in pods rather than rows. In the dining car, singles used to sit together to fill a four-top, but the pandemic has ended that policy unless you make the arrangements yourself. I shared a chatty meal with a stranger by asking, and had people sit with me at an observation car table.
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A: The dining car is now only for sleeping car passengers (or on some lines, business class passengers), for whom a full breakfast, lunch and three-course dinner are included in the booking. Meals are quick affairs, with tables turned to allow everyone to sit in waves and feed. (You’ll be given a set time for dinner.) If you’re saving money by taking the bus, you’ll need to bring your own food or from the minimum supply at the snack bar, with items such as tacos and pizza. Magliari says the snack bar’s most popular item is the hot dog, although Amtrak is working to make more fresh produce available. He notes that efforts to sell apples and bananas on the Midwest corridor trains have not gone well.
Q: Can you work on the train?
A: The Wi-Fi depends on the route of your train and is usually based on cell phones, which follow the highways, Magliari says. So if you go to remote areas or go through tunnels you will have blackout moments with no connectivity. For routes more oriented towards commuting, Wi-Fi should continue uninterrupted. Coach seats have a tray that pulls down from the seat in front of you to provide a laptop workspace, and in the Zephyr’s rooms and bedrooms, a small table flips out of the wall.
A: On double-decker trains, the upper areas (carriage seats and some sleeping quarters) are quieter, as they are further away from the rails. As for noise from other passengers, the Amtrak conductor declares quiet hours from about 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and the lights are dimmed at night. (The party can continue in the observation or café cars, where the lights remain on but no food or drink is sold.) I found that the rhythmic side-by-side movement of the train, combined with the sound of the engine, took care of some of the best out there, including an afternoon nap.
Q: Do trains run on time?
A: It depends on which “host railway” owns the tracks. For us on the Zephyr, Union Pacific lines, those Amtrak’s report delivered a C-plus in 2021, there was a significant delay of two to three hours in both directions. In 2021, only 37 percent of Zephyr lines ran on time. If you’re lucky, your train will run on lines owned by the more current Canadian Pacific or Canadian National, such as the City of New Orleans train, which was 83 percent on time in 2021 — the only one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains to meet the deadline. standard of the Federal Railroad Administration. State-backed trains were much better on time in the short term, such as the Hiawatha line, which runs on CP tracks and was 95 percent on time last year. All this to say, if you should arrive on time at your destination, depart a day earlier.
Potential travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines related to the pandemic before planning any travel. Information about health clearances for travel can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map with travel recommendations from: destination and the CDCs health declaration webpage for travel†